Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Square hasn't been at the top of it's game lately. Ever since the merge with enix, arguably since the beginning of this console generation, they haven't been producing the grade A quality games RPG fans have come to expect. Final Fantasy X was great, but games like Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, Final Fantasy Tactics: Advanced, Final Fantasy XI and even Final Fantasy X-2 have had even the biggest Final Fantasy fans shaking their heads. However, there is one square-made title this generation that was loved by millions and gives us hope for the future of square. Perhaps the best part is the fact that it's not Final Fantasy. Always good to see that Square doesn't need to always milk the Final Fantasy series to put together a good game with good sales.
Kingdom Hearts takes many famous characters from previous Final Fantasy games, many famous characters from disney, and a few new characters to create one hyped as hell advertising blitzkrieg. When the game finally came out it proved itself worthy of the hype. It all starts out on Destiny Island where we meet the main character, Sora. He and his friends, Riku and Kairi have become bored with their homeland and get to work building a raft to leave. However, before they can leave, the island is stormed by the 'heartless', the faceless generic thugs that most of your fighting in kingdom hearts will be against. The Keyblade, the one weapon out there that can lock away the heartless, chooses Sora as it's wielder, lucky you. =p Sora then leaves the island, as Kairi's heart has been claimed by the Heartless and Riku has disappeared through a portal there's not much left for him.
Somewhere far away, King Mickey has disappeared, leaving a note explaining something about he having to save the day from stars going out. So, Donald and Goofy set off to find him. The three meet in Traverse Town along with a few others i'm sure you've seen before, join up, and the game really takes off from there. So there you have the basic outline of the story, and the best synopsis I can give without worrying about spoiling it. It's not quite epic, but it's cute and manages to keep one interested. From there you progress through the game, visiting several beautiful levels designed after disney movies, blowing away heartless and a new boss every level with your mighty keyblade, meeting familiar faces, and some not so familiar ones, all with great voice acting, and having a blast.
And of course, you'll be having a blast because of the gameplay. Kingdom Hearts is an Action RPG, meaning you can expect to have your reflexes put to the test, something you won't experience playing most other Squaresoft games. Yes, you can fully expect your X-button to be thoroughly mashed during a Kingdom Hearts session, but that doesn't make it any less awesome to play. On top of mashing the X-Button, which makes you attack with your Keyblade as you may have guessed, there are also a assortment of spells that you've come to know and love through other RPG's. You'll be casting good old Fire, Ice, Lightening, Cure and several other helpful spells many times if you plan on beating Kingdom Hearts. And you'll have to do it skillfully as well, with so many bosses having the ability to strip you of a large percentage of your HP in a single move. =p
The RPG elements play a large part in the game as well. On Destiny Island, Sora is at level 1, with weak equipment and not alot of Ability Points. However, you'll have to change that quickly if you wish to get anywhere in Kingdom Hearts. With every battle won, you'll gain some Experience. After you gain enough Experience, you will go up a level. With that level comes a boost in stats and, with some level ups, Ability Points. Furthermore, winning battles will also net you Gil, the currency used in the world of Kingdom Hearts. You'll use Gil to buy the supplies you'll need to complete your journey. Among these supplies will be, you guessed it, better equipment. So by the end of the game you should be quite the powerhouse. Up near level 60, 70, and you'll probably want to get up to 100 if you have any dreams of conquering Sephiroth.
That's right, the infamous Final Fantasy VII villain is not only in Kingdom Hearts, he's an optional boss. Probably the hardest in the game as well. It'll take every ounce of your skills to so much as put a dent in him. Beating him is probably one of the bigger accomplishments in gaming. On the subject of cameos, as I said before, many Final Fantasy characters have a small role. It turns out they're one of the games biggest draws. It's simply...cool...to see characters like Cloud, Sephiroth, Aeris, Tidus, Wakka, Selphie, Yuffie, Squall, and other Final Fantasy characters we've all come to know so well make apperances. And of course, the apperance of several disney characters just adds to the party. Who would have thought such an odd combination of characters could work so well? However, this major plus produces a minor negative. I would like nothing more than the cast of Final Fantasy's 4, 5, and 6 to make apperances in Kingdom Hearts. Seeing Kefka again would give me chills. Nothing short of chills. However, because of a issue with who made the artwork of the characters of some sort, they can't make said apperances. Minor, but a letdown is a letdown.
So, I suppose that's all I can say on Kingdom Hearts. Far from square's best game, or even one of it's elite thanks to the hack 'n slash combat, fairly weak story, and a few missing cameos. However, the fastpaced gameplay, RPG elements, and the cameos that are there, it's still one of the better games out there. Kingdom Hearts is already pretty much the Final Fantasy VII of this generation for squaresoft. I'm not totally sure of the exact sales, but it sold around 4 million in it's first year and has reached 2.3 million in america. In fact, it could have reached and surpassed Final Fantasy VII sales had Sony not gotten in trouble with immersion. There's a sequel due out fairly soon that looks even better, so there's potential for a good series here. Until then, have fun trying to take down Sephiroth. =p