Kingdom Hearts has plenty of stunning and memorable Disney worlds for players to explore, and these settings are one of the main reasons why Square Enix’s quirky action role-playing franchise is so beloved. From exploring deep jungles with Tarzan and scaring children in Halloween Town, to solving elaborate platforming puzzles in Wonderland and competing in tournaments with Hercules, Disney’s DNA is present throughout the series.
Of course, there are some Disney worlds that are better than others, and we ranked the 10 best in the Kingdom Hearts franchise based on level design, art direction, and just how well the worlds play into the series’ overarching story.
This world, based on Beauty and the Beast, is one of the first you visit in Kingdom Hearts 2. It’s basically Beast’s massive castle, filled with dungeons to explore, all of the beloved characters from the classic animated film, and the famous ballroom authentically recreated. The story of Beast trying to win Belle’s heart smoothly integrates Kingdom Hearts protagonists Sora, Donald, and Goofy, and their fight against the Heartless and Nobodies.
This Tarzan-themed world contains plenty of lush green forests and bamboo trees, hippos to jump on, vines to swing from, and massive tree branches on which you can slide. Tarzan’s crumbling treehouse is also present along with good old Saber, who’s constantly up to no good. The world theme is one of Kingdom Hearts’ best and Tarzan himself proves to be quite the powerful ally for Sora.
Pride Lands features Sora, Donald, and Goofy transformed into cute animals and help Simba claim his rightful throne as the king of the jungle from Scar. It’s one of the larger worlds in Kingdom Hearts 2, taking the player from meadows and towering waterfalls, to the grim elephant graveyard occupied by those pesky hyenas. Plus, the boss battle between Scar is a tense and emotionally powerful affair.
While Square Enix’s first attempt at creating a world based on Neverland and the Peter Pan movie in Kingdom Hearts 1 was a failure (it’s arguably the worst setting in that game), the studio did a much better job the second time around in Birth by Sleep. Instead of just being stuck on Hook’s ship, players can actually explore Neverland itself, which is brimming with visually stunning rivers, lakes, and waterfalls.
Wonderland is just as whimsical and bizarre in Kingdom Hearts 1 as it is in the animated film. Though Alice plays a minor role in the story, Sora’s adventure in Wonderland sets a fantastic precedent for the rest of the first game. Sora, Donald, and Goofy encounter the useless talking doorknob, shrink themselves down to ant size by drinking mysterious fluids, and try to free Alice in a corrupt court case that forces her to go up against the obnoxious Queen of Hearts. And this all in just the opening hour. Let’s also not forget the Cheshire Cat’s ridiculous, but enjoyable, riddles you’ve to solve in order to progress.
This world based on Disney’s Hercule film is featured in every single Kingdom Hearts game except Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance. While Kingdom Hearts 2 does introduce the Underworld, allowing you to explore Hades’ creepy lair and compete in tournaments in the Underdome, it doesn’t quite beat your first visit to the Coliseum in Kingdom Hearts 1. Even though the world in the first game is just the Coliseum, letting you only compete in battles for prizes, the tournaments in Kingdom Hearts 1 are the most challenging and rewarding in the series. At one point, you even have the chance to go up against Sephiroth himself in a one-on-one battle.
The only way to access this Tron digital world is through a computer at Hollow Bastion, and it’s the most breathtaking setting in the entire series, with striking blue, black, and red color palettes decorating desolate artificial structures. Sora, Donald, and Goofy are all decked out in cool uniforms similar to what Tron wears in the 1982 science fiction classic, and the world theme is an atmospheric and catchy synth-like tune.
This is the only world that’s completely optional in Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. In order to access 100 Acre Wood, the player has to collect torn pages from Christopher Robin’s old novel hidden throughout several different worlds. Sora’s adventures with Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Tigger, and the rest of the gang in 100 Acre Wood are just a bunch of minigames. But, the story of Pooh’s struggles to be loved by his close friends, and Tigger’s desire to leave 100 Acre Wood and explore the world is a touching and somber tale. It also provides a much-needed break from Sora’s journey, as he takes the time to learn more about himself and the Disney worlds and characters he’s ultimately trying to save.
The main reason why The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of the most recognizable and best stop-motion animated films is its Burton-like aesthetic and dark tone. Halloween Town is truly a frightening and ghastly place filled with all sorts of ghouls and dead animals. Square Enix successfully carried over all of the movie’s best qualities in Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. You get to explore the main town, Oogie Boogie’s massive lair, the famous Spiral Hill, and interact with the creepy mayor, Zero, Jack Skellington, and those annoying children. Square Enix even included Christmas Town the second time around in Kingdom Hearts 2, dragging poor old Santa Claus into Sora and Jack’s mess.
Timeless River pays a truly fantastic homage to one of Walt Disney’s first animated features, Steamboat Willie. This entire world sports a monochromatic aesthetic, muted audio, and the same classic 1920s animation and character design that kickstarted the Disney empire. It is Kingdom Hearts at its very best, showcasing just how wholly unique and wonderful it can be to play around with some of the best Disney properties. The way Timeless River is introduced and integrates modern day Pete, Mickey, and Minnie with their 1920s counterparts is also both clever and captivating.
Alex Gilyadov is a freelance writer who loves Breaking Bad and dislikes The Sopranos. He’s written for GamesBeat, Polygon, Playboy and Rock Paper Shotgun, among others. Tweet him @RParampampam.