The Kingdom Hearts franchise celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this year. To celebrate, Square Enix has just recently launched Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, a compilation that brings new adventures and Dream Drop Distance to PS4. This means that all mainline Kingdom Hearts games are playable on an HD console (PS4 remasters of the other six titles are coming in March). Now that Dream Drop Distance has been given its proper HD makeover, it’s time to take an in-depth look at each title and decide which is the best of the best.
We will only be looking at the seven main entries in the franchise. X: Back Cover, which was never a game to begin with, will not be included. While 0.2 Birth By Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage is playable content, it is not a full game. Finally, this is our opinion; be sure to let us know which game is your favorite in the comments below!
Re:Coded is the literal manifestation of Déjà vu. The game takes place shortly after the events of Kingdom Hearts II. After Jiminy Cricket discovers a mysterious message in his journal from the first game, King Mickey launches a full-blown investigation by digitizing it. Finding large amounts of corruption, Mickey creates a digital Sora to wonder many of the worlds from the first game and clean it out.
Re: Coded has two major problems. First, the majority of its content, world and stories is copy and pasted from the first Kingdom Hearts, whose contents had already been re-explored in Chain of Memories. There’s not a lot new here and what is new isn’t always fun. There’s an interesting revelation at the end, but there’s so much repetitive content to swim through that getting to the end is mostly a chore. Secondly, the game was built on the severely limited DS hardware. Gameplay feels stripped down and graphics severely limited. Chain of Memories on the GBA worked because Square Enix created a gameplay system that worked best for that platform. The attempt to replicate the PS2/PSP experience doesn’t work in Re: Coded.
Re: Coded is mostly unneeded filler. This is probably one of the reasons it was turned into a cinematic movie in Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix.
358/2 Days follows the story of Roxas, Axel, and newcomer Xion during Sora’s year of sleep between Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II. The game delved deep into Roxas’ personality and his story as he comes to grips with who and what he is. It also gave us a more in-depth look into how Organization XIII operated.
358/2 Days misses out on the bottom spot mostly because of Roxas, Xion, and Axel. The drama between the three friends carried the game forward, and the ending one of the more tragic moments in the franchise. This was also the first title to introduce four-player co-op, which was a fun addition.
The rest of the game? Well, it’s not all that great. Mission design was largely repetitive with Roxas routinely sent on mundane missions in only a handful of worlds ripped from previous titles. These missions range from following a target, slaying many Heartless, and defeating a specific Heartless. The game isn’t helped by the fact that it is on the very limited Nintendo DS hardware. The controls, which try to replicate Kingdom Hearts II, feel wonky on the handheld’s limited buttons. This was a game that either needed to be on a more robust platform or be designed in a way that worked with the DS hardware.
358/2 Days, much like Re:Coded, was turned into a cinematic movie in Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, which was the right call.
An interquel between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, Chain of Memories brought Sora, Donald, and Goofy to the mysterious Castle Oblivion by “The Organization,” a group of black robe wearing individuals. Sora enters the castle under the pretense of uncovering memories buried deep in his heart. Meanwhile, in the bowels of the castle, Riku strives to redeem himself by confronting the darkness.
Originally released on the Gameboy Advance, Chain of Memories employed a unique card-based battle system with a 2.5D perspective. It was a formula that surprisingly worked, even though the story was mostly a retread of the original game. The transition to 3D, unfortunately, didn’t do the game many favors.
While the 3D remake featured cutscenes, voice acting, and visuals on par with the original Kingdom Hearts, Re: Chain of Memories lost a lot of what made it special. The 2.5D perspective in battle lent itself better to the card-based battle system than 3D did. In 2D, the pacing of the battles felt better, and it was easier to position Sora all while working with a deck of cards. 3D tried to make the battles as fast as they were in Kingdom Hearts, and that didn’t fit the gameplay.
Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories probably would have been best served as a cinematic movie in its 3D form. While the GBA version played well, the 3D remake just doesn’t nail down the experience.
The game that started it all. Kingdom Hearts follows Sora, a young child who was torn away from his home after darkness attacked it. Chosen by the Keyblade, a weapon capable of defeating the Heartless, Sora teams up with Donald and Goofy to search for his friends, Riku and Kairi, and find a way to beat the darkness.
It’s impossible to deny the impact the original game. At the time, the idea of Disney and Final Fantasy crossing-over to create a whole new franchise seem far-fetched. Today, Kingdom Hearts is one of Square Enix’s biggest franchises. The game was an action-RPG with players only controlling Sora, but having two AI controlled party members. These were regularly Donald and Goofy but could be swapped out for guest characters in specific worlds. Sora could equip different Keyblades, be customized with different abilities, and cast magic. A simple story at first, the plot has been further expanded since the humble beginning.
Kingdom Hearts’ major problem is that it hasn’t aged well. Even when taking into account the updated Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix version, the game still has issues. Combat feels slow, platforming feels awkwardly shoved in, and the camera controls are still pretty bad. Kingdom Hearts also features the most dreaded level in Kingdom Hearts history; Atlantica. Just mentioning that name is enough to remind many of the awkward swimming controls and rough Ursula boss fights.
Kingdom Hearts is still a good game, but its age is showing.
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is the latest entry in the franchise. Sora and Riku are sent on their Mark of Mastery exam to become Keyblade Masters. Instructed by Yen Side, the duo must travel across seven sleeping worlds in search of keyholes that will bring the worlds back to the Realm of Light. However, things begin to go awry when figures in the Organization’s Black Coats start turning up. Sora and Riku must work to uncover their sinister plot, and complete their exam.
Dream Drop Distance has finally joined the rest of the games on home console thanks to Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue. This HD remaster not only preserves what worked in the 3DS original but also delivers on the presentation front. Flowmotion, which allows Sora and Riku to perform some sick looking platforming, has never been smoother thanks to the game running at 60 frames-per-second. The extra functionality of the Dualshock 4 means that the camera, Reality Shifts, and Dream Eater Linking aren’t tied to the touchscreen or shoulder buttons.
Dream Drop Distance is fun, but far from perfect. Tying abilities to different Dream Eaters makes getting abilities a chore. You can’t just have a party you like, but have to continuously go and swap out different Dream Eaters if you want the best abilities in the game. Dream Drop Distance was also the point where the plot somehow became even more convoluted thanks to the introduction of time travel.
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is one of the best Kingdom Hearts games you can play. Though the story does get muddled at times, the payoff at the end is pretty good.
Kingdom Hearts II takes place a year after the events of Chain of Memories. With his memories restored, Sora awakens to discover that not all is right with the world. A new breed of enemies called Nobodies have emerged and are led by Organization XIII. Their goals a mystery, Sora must work with his friends to put down this new threat before they complete their objective and capture Kingdom Hearts.
Kingdom Hearts II is everything you could want in a sequel. Updated gameplay that builds upon what made the original so successful and fixes its failings? Check. Improved graphics engine capable of rendering bigger worlds? Check. A story that takes elements from its predecessor to tell a new story all while building the overall story? Check. Kingdom Hearts II, to this day, is still a complete blast to play.
However, Kingdom Hearts II is not number one. Why? Well, despite being an excellent game, Kingdom Hearts II is held back by a few nagging issues. The most infamous issue being the overlong tutorial that can drag on for hours, and doesn’t make much sense unless you’ve played 358/2 Days. Atlantica, which was a train wreck in Kingdom Hearts, was stripped down to be a QTE mini-game with some terrible songs. While avoidable, completionists will have to brave this World to get all the trophies.
Still, these minor details can’t hold Kingdom Hearts II back. It is an excellent game in its own right and deserves to be held in high regard.
Taking place ten years before the events of Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep sets the story into motion. Aqua, Terra and Ventus are Keyblade wielders studying under Master Eraqus. After a Mark of Mastery test goes awry, each of the friends leaves the comforts at home after Master Xehanort goes missing. All three will be tested, and the events will have drastic effects on all their lives.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep edges out Kingdom Hearts II for a couple of reasons. First, the gameplay was dramatically overhauled. Command Decks forces players to choose between melee abilities, magic and items, which made the game far more strategic. There was a greater emphasis placed on successful dodging and blocking, discouraging players from behaving rashly and rushing into the fray.
Secondly, the story was fantastic. All three characters were well fleshed out and their relationships detailed. Watching each struggle with their personal demons, and the tragic ending that bookends each character’s campaign, makes for some of the best storytelling and writing the franchise has seen yet. Aqua, in particular, has grown to be quite a popular character. So popular, in fact, that she was given her own side-game in Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue. Birth By Sleep also gave us the ultimate antagonist, Master Xehanort. Calculating and cruel, Xehanort is the best antagonist yet to enter the franchise, and we can’t wait to see him return for Kingdom Hearts III. Unfortunately, due to Leonard Nimoy’s tragic passing, we’re not sure who will take over the role.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep does have its drawbacks. Even with its port from PSP to console, there are times you can tell the game was designed for a handheld. Some textures look particularly low-res and it’s clear that the HD remaster could have used some more love and attention.
Still, for having a genuinely compelling story, some of the best characters in the franchise, three campaigns and the best gameplay mechanics the series has seen so far, we feel safe naming Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep the best Kingdom Hearts game so far.
Do you agree? Which Kingdom Hearts game is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below. Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 Remix hits PS4 this March.