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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Unlock some fun with ‘Kingdom Hearts’

Published: October 22, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Back in 2002, Square, now Square Enix, decided to make a game combining two franchises that should never have been blended together. They mixed the famous “Final Fantasy” series with Disney to create the “Kingdom Hearts” series, which is currently five games strong with three titles in development. The most recent title “Birth By Sleep,” which made its way onto American store shelves this past September, has proven not only to be a fun game, but also a great way to alleviate the stress of midterms. To this day, I am surprised that it has become one of my favorite series.

In the universe of “Kingdom Hearts” the worlds of the Disney movies, such as the ocean from “The Little Mermaid” and Never Never Land from “Peter Pan,” are all independent and cut off by the vast emptiness of space. In the main games you play as Sora, a young boy, who, with his best friends Riku and Kairi, is building a boat with plans to go on an adventure and leave his small island town. The game starts off simply enough, setting up a rivalry between Riku and Sora about who will share a special fruit with Kairi, a fruit that is said to tie any two people’s destinies together forever.

Things start to get interesting as monsters attack Sora’s world. While Sora puts up a good fight with the help of a mysterious “keyblade” that appears before him, eventually his world is destroyed. At the same time, in another world called “Disney Castle,” Donald Duck and Goofy receive orders from their King, who sounds like Mickey Mouse but is never revealed in the first game, to find a boy with a “key” and to follow him. Sora, Donald and Goofy manage to find one another, forming their own three musketeers, and decide to search for Sora’s friends and the King.

The story covers a lot of ground, including many redemptions and new discoveries. While “Kingdom Hearts” could have been a solid stand-alone game, it has spawned a full series of games. This could not have been done without such a thoroughly developed universe in the first game.

Let’s start with the characters: Square Enix has done a great job of balancing Disney, “Final Fantasy” (FF) and original characters. While most of the games take place in Disney worlds and with Disney characters, the FF characters such as Leon (FF VIII), Aerith (FFVII) and Cloud (FFVII) serve as more long-lasting companions rather than world-specific ones.

Every playable protagonist in all of the games is an original character created for the series. The designs of Sora, Riku and a handful of others are similar to “Final Fantasy” designs but able to blend in well with the Disney-based worlds.

When it comes to antagonists, there are both old and new characters. In the first game the villains are primarily Disney foes, but are being organized by a mysterious man called Ansem. Most grunts (basic foes) are creatures called Heartless, created from the hearts of people corrupted by darkness. New foes such as Nobodies make appearances in later games and add new depth to the mythology of the game. Additionally, Xemnas (notice Ansem with an X), the leader of the Nobodies, is terrifyingly powerful and hints that there is a deep story to the origins of Ansem.

Ansem, the dark mastermind of the first game, gets his origin covered in “Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep.” All I will say about it now is that it is a great game, a sad tragedy set 10 years before KH1 and sets the stage for the rest of the series.

Another thing that really sets these games apart is the worlds. When you set foot into Agrabah (“Aladdin”) not only does it feel like you are in the world of the movie, including the music, but you wind up integrally helping the relationships between the characters. Some worlds such as Halloween Town (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”) and Pride Rock (“The Lion King”) have Sora and company transform their appearances to better match their surroundings. Without any humans in “The Lion King,” it makes sense that Sora becomes a lion.

“Kingdom Hearts” is a story about relationships. Sora, Kairi and Riku’s friendship becomes a driving force throughout the main series. In “Birth By Sleep” the three protagonists are also driven by their relationships to each other. Another key theme is the conflict between light and dark. “Kingdom Hearts” manages to strike the rare stance in a game regarding the inherent duality between light and dark. It manages to claim that light cannot exist without dark (something I firmly believe myself) as well as to argue the strength of walking a twilight path straddling both light and dark. With six protagonists that you can get very attached to, the “Kingdom Hearts” franchise manages to keep rolling without sacrificing the connection to the characters.

Some people might say to play the games in chronological order, despite the fact that they have been released out of order, but I recommend playing them in the order they were released. Start with “Kingdom Hearts” (PS2), then “KH: Chain of Memories” (GBA or PS2), which is a solid game that bridges the gap until “KH2” (PS2). After that, I recommend playing “KH: 358/2 days” (DS), even though I am aware that the title seems out there, and finish with “KH: Birth By Sleep.” The stories might not be in perfect order, but this way you get the most out of the story.