Nostalgia and “Kingdom Hearts”: how childhood wonder can blind criticism

There are certain video games whose fandoms are largely defined by having first played them as children. “Final Fantasy VII” is perhaps the ur-example of this phenomenon: a game played by millions of kids and young adults upon its initial release who grew up into hardcore fans promoting its innate superiority. What ends up happening in situations like this is that you have a base of very nostalgic fans who perhaps overinflate the quality of the title in question, a large population of people who never played the game and may very well never play it because they perceive the preaching to be purely nostalgia-driven and virtually no one in-between.

I see a problem with this.

In my continuing quest to play video games that have very nostalgic, active fandoms ­— which I have absolutely zero nostalgia for — I’ve finally taken the plunge off the deep end into the apparent well of insanity and unintentional hilarity that is “Kingdom Hearts.”

Square Enix’s byzantine saga of action-adventure-RPG-platformers (with Star Fox-esque space rail shooter segments, rhythm game sections and minigame compilation elements) overarching story tells a tale of Disney cartoon characters and glorified DeviantArt Naruto OCs engaged in an epic, eons-long conflict of Tolkienesque proportions that takes place across multiple universes, alternate dimensions, dream worlds and the Matrix. It’s a series that acts as something of a “holy grail” of these sorts of games. You either grew up playing it and are now automatically part of the fandom that surrounds it or you didn’t and look at the series like it’s something made by an extraterrestrial species attempting to replicate a human cultural artifact.

So after playing the first game to completion, from the perspective of someone who has no emotional connection to this series: how is it? How does “Kingdom Hearts” stack up to the competition? Is it life-changing? Perhaps dreadful? On the sliding scale of crossover quality, is it closer to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” or “Crash Bandicoot Retold”?

The gamefeel (where “gamefeel” is defined as how it feels to navigate a character in space and it’s an essential element of gameplay but one that, for whatever reason, has no word to describe the phenomenon, hence my hastily-conjured terminology) is very reminiscent to other post-”Ocarina of Time” action-adventure titles that were as ubiquitous in the early 2000s as “Battle Royale” games are in the current moment. Controlling Sora feels very similar to the “Sonic Adventure” titles in particular: a little sloppy, a little janky, a bit too prone to awkward jumps and frenetic motion but  perfectly serviceable.

Most of the game is spent in combat, and most combat encounters consist of enemies spawning in mobs while the player mashes the X button to dispose of them. It’s flashy and satisfying, but ultimately not much more complex than what you’d find in a “Legend of Zelda” title, but Zelda games have a lot of other things going on outside of the combat (exploration, puzzle-solving, etc.), so the simplicity of fighting in Zelda is excusable because it’s not the core element of the gameplay. The same can’t be said of “Kingdom Hearts,” where combat is the star of the show, with its various forays into other genres (the aforementioned Star Fox segments and so forth) coming as unwelcome interludes because they feel unfinished and underbaked.

The combat system is a bit of an odd bird in its own right too. To preface this, I want to differentiate between action-RPGs and action games with RPG elements. An action-RPG is a video game where, as you progress and gain in-game experience, the strength of your attacks and your character’s stats increase, but you have the same pool of available moves as you did at the beginning of the game sans the use of different weapons and so forth (think “Elder Scrolls,” “Dark Souls,” etc.). An action game with RPG elements will instead have you expending the in-game experience to unlock new moves to utilize in-game; this genre includes most action titles like “Devil May Cry” and “Bayonetta” and so on.

“Kingdom Hearts” is both of these at the same time, but with a catch. As you level up in the game, Sora’s attacks will become more powerful, and he’ll increase his defense stat and all that jazz — but he’ll also unlock the ability to use new attack abilities and moves in-game. However, actually using these new moves has a bit of a caveat: rather than just pressing a button or combination of buttons to execute the move (as you would in most action titles), the execution is context-sensitive. For instance, you can use this “combo” on this enemy by pressing the triangle button when the button prompt appears on-screen. This whole thing makes the progress of combat maneuverability a bit of a farce. You can look at video footage of “Kingdom Hearts” combat in the early portion of the game, and then in the late portion of the game, and think to yourself, “Wow, it looks like the combat really evolves as you play!” Since there are so many more spectacular moves and animations on display towards the endgame but in reality, you’re just doing the same x-button-mashing routine with an occasional, glorified triangle quick time event as you were when you started. It just looks cooler now.

To give credit where credit is due, though, “Kingdom Hearts” excels in its audiovisual presentation. All of the character animations are on-point (especially with the Disney representation), and Yoko Shimomura’s score is quite good. Whether or not “Kingdom Hearts” is worth playing is going to be largely dependent on said Disney representation, and what it means to you. The plot largely consists of taking part in truncated versions of Disney movies, with Sora and the gang just present for some reason, and also, shadow monsters are always acting as henchmen for the villains (including one dreadful foray in, of course, a water level). The core characters are all endearing enough, though, and none of the “anime nonsense” that apparently comes to the fore in the later entries is present yet.

But this ultimately brings me full-circle: my final conclusion is that “Kingdom Hearts” (at least the first one, anyway; we’ll see how this progresses with future entries) wasn’t made for adults. All of the combat mechanics, RPG elements and the like are very, very simplistic, and it’s obvious to me that this was a game designed for children. But then, on the other hand, so are most Nintendo titles, and those strike a very solid balance between kid-friendliness and enjoyability by adults more often than not, so it’s a little hard to justify Kingdom Hearts in that regard. I guess if “Ocarina of Time” is a Pixar movie, then “Kingdom Hearts” is a Dreamworks production, at least as far as gameplay is concerned. Mercifully, there aren’t any dance sequences set to pop songs — though there is a very infectious pop song that plays during the ending.

Dylan James is guest writer graduate student studying physical therapy. He can be reached at Dylan.James@alvernia.edu

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