My friends are my power!
Wow, Kingdom Hearts is turning 15 later on this year. I honestly hadn’t let that sink in until just now. Time really flies, huh? Over the years, Tetsuya Nomura’s ongoing story about a happy-go-lucky boy wielding a key-shaped weapon has both baffled and entertained many of us with its deep and enthralling story, addictive gameplay, and weird-yet-wonderful combination of elements from both the Disney and Final Fantasy universes, and – whether you love it or hate it (one guess which side I’m on!) – there’s no denying that the Kingdom Hearts series had made a definite impact in the gaming world since its initial release. With the release of Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue hitting us later on this month, and the possibility of even more Kingdom Hearts goodness coming our way later on in the year, fans of the series definitely have something to look forward to, but I feel it important to look back on how far the series has come as well. So today, we’re going to do just that – allow me to present to you my own personal Top 5 favorite Kingdom Hearts games thus far!
Potential Spoiler Warning – I’ll try to be relatively ambiguous and spoiler-free, but I’m still going to assume that those reading this have either played these games, or don’t care about spoilers. Most of these games have been out for quite some time, after all.
5. Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep Final Mix
Originally released on the PlayStation Portable, Birth by Sleep quickly cemented itself as an incredibly important chapter within the Kingdom Hearts timeline. Serving as a prequel set 10 years before the original Kingdom Hearts, Birth by Sleep follows the events of Keyblade apprentices Terra, Ventus, and Aqua as they travel throughout various worlds while battling the Unversed and looking for their master, Xehanort (who’s totally not a bad guy). Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep is an enhanced version of the original BbS that was released as a part of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix, and featured a graphical update as well as some additional content new to this version.
Birth by Sleep ended up answering, at least in part, a lot of questions that many of us had about the series back then. We learned that Ventus ended up playing an incredibly important role in Sora’s life – a role that impacted every Kingdom Hearts game before BbS without the players even knowing it. We were also introduced Master Xehanort, the source of both Ansem, Seeker of Darkness, and Xemnas, which, while incredibly confusing at first, ends up fitting nicely in line with the rest of the game’s history.
Birth by Sleep also covered, in part, the history of the Keyblade. For most of us, myself included, the Keyblade was considered to be something special – something that only a few people (such as Sora) were able to use. BbS showed us that – while that may technically be true now – there used to be quite a large number of Keyblade Wielders… you know, until the whole Keyblade War thing happened.
It’s also worth mentioning that Birth by Sleep tweaked the combat mechanics a little bit. Abandoning the MP bar used in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, skills and magic were instead given cooldown times which definitely helped heavy magic-users (such as myself) avoid being completely unable to use magic while in battle. Additionally, character movement was tweaked a bit in order to allow greater maneuverability during combat. The combat changes made in BbS stuck around for the most part in future titles, and I’m really hoping that they won’t be going anywhere any time soon.
4. Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ
No, I didn’t make a mistake – Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ is number four on my list. Woah, hey now, put the pitchforks and torches down, there’s no need to get upset! This is just my opinion, remember? Let me explain.
Let’s just get all of this out of the way first, I’m obviously very aware that this is going to be an unpopular opinion. Too many new Medals come out too quickly, Medal pulls are generally awful, we never get enough Jewels, and, though Free-to-Play, this game definitely caters to those who throw money at it (which I may or may not do on occasion). It’s not perfect, I get it. Despite that, however, I find myself enjoying this game a lot.
Normally I quite dislike mobile games, and had never truly “gotten into” one – until Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ, that is. I’ve played KHUX since the first day it came out, happily run a party, and have (to my knowledge) avoided missing even a single day of play. While SquareEnix definitely adheres to the freemium model, I never really got what the big deal was. It’s easy to pick up and play, relatively social, and does a pretty good job of activating the reward center in my brain due to how its set up. If you hate it that much, then just don’t play it. It’s easy. There’s also the fact that the game has been running so many 0 AP campaigns recently that you can essentially play as long as you’d like which is great, because I hate it when games force me to either stop playing or pay to keep playing. Okay, so KHUX is the first mobile game that I’ve ever truly liked. Big deal. Is that the reason why it made it onto the list? Is that the reason… why it dare beat out Birth by Sleep Final Mix!? Actually, no, it isn’t.
What really fascinates me most with KHUX is how it sets up its story. As I mentioned when talking about Birth by Sleep, Kingdom Hearts had us all thinking that wielding a Keyblade was something that only a handful of people could do and, while BbS touched upon the Keyblade War, KHUX is the first time that we actually get to see a large number of Keyblade Wielders at once. In a sense, the characters that we play as are “average” Wielders. Sure we have power, but we’re not on par with most of the other characters that we’ve played as. In reality, we’re not much more than grunts doing jobs that have been assigned to us without actually knowing why. It is this normalization of the Keyblade Wielder that I find entertaining, and the primary reason why it has made it onto this list at all. Between KHUX’s story slowly revealing more about what really went on before the Keyblade War, and the upcoming release of Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover, the movie included within 2.8 detailing many of the events that happened during KHUX from a new set of perspectives, KHUX just keeps getting better and better in my opinion.
3. Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix
As with Birth by Sleep Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix was released on Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix. It is an enhanced version of Kingdom Hearts II, originally released on the PlayStation 2, and features audio and visual enhancements, as well as additional content including new Keyblades, bosses, and story elements.
I remember when Kingdom Hearts II first came out, all the way back in 2006. I remember excitedly chatting with my totally cool nerd friends about it in high school (I was a sophomore!), I remember thinking about all of the cool things that could possibly be in it, and, above all else, I remember being so incredibly confused upon first starting it. Who was this weird guy that I was playing as? Where is Sora? Axel? Nobodies? What is going on? It was honestly one of my most confusing gaming moments in my life. Fortunately, things only got better from there – much better.
Kingdom Hearts II took everything that Kingdom Hearts did and made it better. The combat was more detailed and engaging, there were more worlds to visit, and the story – man did I love that story. While the first Kingdom Hearts did a great job of setting up the premise for the entire series, Kingdom Hearts II packed a lot of oomph not present within its predecessor. You slowly found out that everything that you were doing in the first game wasn’t quite as you had assumed it to be – and I think that’s really what won me over with KHII’s story.
The first Kingdom Hearts was very straightforward. You were a happy kid, traveling through Disney worlds with Goofy and Donald, beating up the bad guys and saving the universe. Anything bad that happened always ended up fixing itself because, you know, the good guys always win. It was all very black-and-white, but was done so on purpose. Kingdom Hearts II did a fantastic job of messing that up (in a good way). It created grey areas (something that the series continues to do), making certain issues that previously seemed very clear-cut a bit more ambiguous. Morality began to come into play with the addition of Nobodies, asking of its players what really constitutes a person in the first place. People began to question their purpose. As far as I can remember, Kingdom Hearts II was also one of the first games to ever really impact me emotionally (I mainly stuck Nintendo games and platformers back then) – and for that I’ll always be thankful.