Well, here we are: 2017 is upon us, and that means we’re running up on the release of two new Kingdom Hearts compilations: this week’s Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, which gathers together Dream Drop Distance, a new movie, and a new prologue to the upcoming Kingdom Hearts III; and March’s Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMix, an egregiously named compilation-of-compilations that looks like a bad math problem but is actually a bunch of Kingdom Hearts games, ports, and interactive videos stuffed onto one freaky PS4 disc. The Kingdom Hearts series is a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me it represents the finest, purest distillation of the American Dream that your hard-earned greenbacks can purchase: thwacking away at shadows with an enormous key while treasured Disney characters run around in frantic circles nearby. That’s what it’s all about, folks. The hokey pokey ain’t got shit.
So, given the circumstances, it seems we’re due for a quick review of the various and sundry worlds with which Kingdom Hearts has presented us in years past. A list, if you will. Because the sheer number of games and side-games and ports of ports of ports has spun so wildly out of control, and so that I can keep my sanity from completely unraveling, I’m going to limit this analysis to worlds from Kingdom Hearts 1 and Kingdom Hearts 2, the only binary-numbered installments presently in existence. There will be no Dream Drop Distance in this list. There will be no Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, and I sincerely hope that’s the last time I ever type that title or otherwise think about it. Further, I’m only going to talk about the worlds that distinguished themselves for whatever reason—I’m handing out superlatives and pointedly ignoring everything else. In other words, I’m in control of this list, and you’re not. With that understood, let’s get started.
As your effective home base and the first place you land after escaping your strangely deserted island-home paradise (where are all the adults and…anyone else?), Traverse Town needs to be good. Fortunately, it is. It’s got goodness in spades. To be clear, it doesn’t have many spades, like the cards—that’s Wonderland’s thing—but Wonderland belongs in the Ugly list if anywhere, and I’d prefer not to talk about it at all. A big part of what makes Traverse Town work so well is its warm, homey vibe, especially in its monster-free shopping district. Once you’ve acquired the glide ability, navigating Traverse Town is like swimming through maple syrup next to a roaring fire on a frigid December evening, in the best possible way. If I could program music to emanate from my body while I walked—a personal theme song—I’d use Traverse Town’s. Even better, it’s chock full of candle puzzles, bell towers, back alleys, weird hotels, trap doors, opportunities to grind, and Geppetto the Woodcarver, and it’s even been said that Merlin himself lives in its sewers like a big bearded rat. In short, few videogame hub areas are as welcoming and appealing as Traverse Town. Sora’s one lucky brat.
Oh, hell yes. Halloweentown in its Kingdom Hearts 1 iteration is dripping with VIBE and MOOD and ATMOSPHERE. It’s coating my clothes. You know you’re in for a treat when Sora, Donald and Goofy show up in full costume, with Sora resembling nothing so much as a rejected member of Panic” alt=”” /> at the Disco and Donald gone full-on Mean Mummy. This is one of the worlds that most successfully captures the spirit of its origin movie: it’s dark, but in a playful way; the music is just the right mix of jaunty and haunting (jaunting?); and the original characters are all well-employed, with Oogie Boogie and his costumed minions making for especially effective/obnoxious adversaries. Better yet, the world’s various areas are many in number and interconnected in interesting ways (trick gravestones, magic elevators, rickety platforms to the sky), lending everything a sprawling feel that’s largely missing from Kingdom Hearts 2. Oh, and Halloweentown’s signature keyblade is gothic is fuck and accented with a jack-o-lantern.
Agrabah’s another world that distinguishes itself for how large and secret-y it is. There’s all kinds of shit to explore here: you’ve got Agrabah itself, replete with markets and pavilions and bouncy canvas kiosk covers (not to mention Aladdin’s tastefully appointed bachelor crash-pad); the CAVE OF WONDERS (“COW”) (seek thee out the DIAMOND IN THE RIMAND IN THE ROUGH); the random but still enjoyable catacombs criss-crossing underneath the COW; and even a totally incongruous scissor-monster boss named Kurt Zisa (?) hidden away in the deep desert approximately one magic carpet trip away. There’s something very satisfying about being taken off the leash somewhere like the COW; it seemed super-cool in the movie, and—wouldn’t you know—it actually is super cool, especially once you make your way to the lamp chamber and find out it’s full of pale, praying mushrooms. Those little red-hatted fungi know something, bro. As a Kingdom Hearts first-timer, it’s usually around your arrival in Agrabah that you’re like, “Wait…this game is awesome.”
Then again, it’s not all good. Which brings me to Atlantis. Atlantis is trash, for so many reasons. It was admirably bold of Square Enix to dive headfirst into The Little Mermaid’s oceans and make this world a full-blown swimfest, but they forgot one cardinal, inviolable rule of videogames, and it’s a law of nature that hasn’t been violated since long before the big bang: swimming levels suck. There’s something about the physicality of swimming—maybe the floaty, anti-gravity-ness of it—that doesn’t translate well to a controller, and Kingdom Hearts didn’t exactly find any new solutions to that problem. Locking onto enemies is helpful and keeps things generally tolerable, but jetting around the ocean floor as Merman Sora remains more of a chore than a pleasure. That’s especially true during Ursula’s boss fight, which is truly staggering in its difficulty. There’s a good reason why Ariel wanted legs and not the other way around—you didn’t see Prince Eric hunting down a big honkin’ flipper. Controllers have been hurled against walls for far less, that’s all I’m saying.
So, yeah, Atlantis, at least as it appears in Kingdom Hearts 1, is no good. But wait—Atlantis shows up for an encore performance in the sequel! Surely the developers fixed the issues that plagued the world in the original, right? Well, no. In fact, they went scorched earth and scrapped any semblance of a playable world, opting instead to conscript Sora and his unsuspecting Disney buddies into a Real Time Event-style series of undersea-themed, Disney-off-brand musical numbers that go so far beyond cringeworthy that you really can’t have anyone else in the room while you’re “playing” them. You don’t get over that kind of embarrassment.
Twilight Town is Kingdom Hearts 2’s starting zone, and I’m actually not sure I want to call it “bad.” When the game was released, Twilight Town got a lot of backlash for being a sleepy, prolonged introduction chapter, wherein it introduced a new character, Roxas, a quasi-amnesiac afflicted with all manner of classically existential JRPG tropes concerning the meaning of his existence, his “true” nature, etc., etc., ad infinitum. This intro portion followed Roxas as he went about a week of his life, skateboarding around town with his buddies, performing odd jobs and chores for cash, and riding the train to nearby districts to do a little exploring. I actually think this sequence is pretty cool in its slow-burn reveal that not all in Twilight Town is quite as it seems—Roxas realizes that there’s definite weirdness infecting his neighborhood and that it’s all somehow connected to a mysterious mansion in the woods just outside the town walls. I like that kind of thing so, sure, I’m all in.
The problem is Twilight Town itself. It’s way too big, and there’s way too little going on. Nobody seems to live there except Roxas, his homies, a rival gang of children, and some assorted grinning shopkeepers. Where is everybody? There are so many buildings! Hardware limitations were a real thing in the PS2 era, I get that, but why not compress this place down a little so that it’s not quite as conspicuously empty? If you can convince yourself to buy into the idea that the emptiness is part of the mood or that it represents Roxas’s compromised soul or something, I think you’re lying to yourself, but maybe it’ll help you accept Twilight Town.
Good god, what happened inside this whale? Did someone force-feed it ten million lava lamps and then a lit stick of dynamite? I’ve never been inside of a whale, but I just can’t suspend my disbelief far enough to believe it looks anything like this. I’m so disgusted by Monstro’s gastrointestinal tract that I can say without reservation that it is the worst Kingdom Hearts level in any of the games in the series I’ve played. Except for the mouth area where Geppetto is hanging out in a boat, the whole level is a series of nearly identical rooms covered in deco-freakout wallpaper and filled with annoying enemies that like to try and get the drop on you from above. Fuck this place.
Ah, the Pride Lands. This is what happens when you take the questionable level design of Twilight Town (humongous, deserted) and double down on it. While it’s pretty cool to scamper around as lion-cub Sora—and undeniably hilarious to have Goofy-as-turtle spinning around behind him—this place is SO big, for no other apparent reason than to give Sora room to scamper. But why does he even need that much room? He’s a lion cub, not a Nascar. Sora’s default speed in the Pride Lands appears to be somewhere in the vicinity of three hundred miles an hour, and again, that’s fun, but…what? Most of this world is eaten up by massive, army brown, wide-open plainscapes dotted with a few trees here and there to try and break up the monotony. It doesn’t really work, and it ain’t pretty to look at neither. At least there’s a jungle area with some vivid green plant life and waterfalls to shake things up a little. Hakuna Matata, I guess.
Man, what a weird idea for a world to include in this series. In case you haven’t seen the movie, let me blow your mind: Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed with video cameras in real life and starred human actors. In other words, it is definitively not a cartoon and thus should have been easily crossed off the list for inclusion in a Kingdom Hearts game. BUT—Pirates of the Caribbean made a ton of money, and companies love making money, so look, there’s Pirates of the Caribbean back on the list and showing up in Kingdom Hearts 2 as a playable world. And guess what? It looks really damn strange. And it’s not so much that the developers couldn’t capture the nuances of realistic, human actors on the PS2 hardware—Johnny Depp and his pirate crew actually look remarkably good—it’s more that Sora, Donald, and Goofy look absolutely ridiculous by comparison. They’re cartoons, with all of the bizarre proportions and bright colors being a cartoon entails, but everything around them is hyperrealistic. It’s like Sora’s trio has wandered into a nautical village in Skyrim—you almost expect some rogue cutthroat to graphically decapitate Donald when Sora’s back is turned. This juxtaposition worked in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but not so much here.
Honorable Mention: Hundred Acre Wood
The Hundred Acre Wood maybe shouldn’t count as a full level since it doesn’t entail any keyblade-swinging or fighting of any kind, but it’s so damn charming that I’m awarding it some individual recognition. “Best To Take Home To Mom,” or something. There are few things in this cruel world quite as warm and cuddly as hanging out with Pooh Bear and his friends for some good clean shenanigans, and it’s downright refreshing to take a break from all the heartless-bludgeoning for a little recreational gardening. When the whole story wraps up on a star-lit evening next to Pooh’s hilltop oak tree and Sora has to say his final goodbyes, you’ll feel a fat tear drip down from your eye. And you know what will happen where that tear falls to the ground? A flower will grow.
When he’s not chained to his desk during the workdays, Lewis Beard is a writer, gamer, and musician living in Atlanta, Georgia. You can check out his thoughts on a wide range of random, possibly compelling topics at run4itmarty.com, and you can bask in the filthy goodness of his music on Bandcamp.