The Kingdom Hearts franchise is developed by various divisions of Square Enix, and published by the same studio. Now over two decades old, the series brings together action-RPG gameplay with real-time combat, in a universe that comprises both classic Disney characters and original creations. By tapping into that nostalgia that so many have for older Disney films, Kingdom Hearts has managed to ensure that it’s one of the most popular video game series of all time.
Kingdom Hearts (2002)
The one that started it all. Kingdom Hearts creates an original universe with protagonist Sora, crossing over with classic Disney properties like Donald Duck and Goofy. This unique combination made the game an instant hit, but this isn’t the only reason that Kingdom Hearts works.
Heavily influenced by Final Fantasy, the game uses a hack-and-slash combat system that results in brilliant chaos. In every level, you take two companions along for the ride, assisting you with their own unique abilities in combat. These companions are based on the level you’re in – for example, Ariel can join you in Atlantica. Some of these levels even have their own exclusive abilities. You can fly while in Neverland, or wear Halloween costumes while in Halloween town, to name two.
While moving through the worlds, you can choose to complete the story as intended. However, there are also side quests to do that give you some additional benefits. This is usually where the game incorporates some of its platformer elements.
One of the defining traits of the game is its boss battles. Kingdom Hearts features a bunch of extremely tough boss battles, and requires you to utilize various strategies and recognize their attack patterns to emerge victorious. It’s similar to something you might see in a modern Souls-like, in a way.
While the modern games certainly have more to offer, Kingdom Hearts is still plenty of fun for those who really want to experience its narrative.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004)
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories was released exclusively for the Game Boy Advance as a direct sequel to the original game. It continues the story of Kingdom Hearts as a way to lead players into Kingdom Hearts II, which would be released later that year.
While it primarily retains the action-RPG gameplay of the original game, where it differs is in its card-based combat. Here, you compete in battles on a 2D plane using a deck of cards, as opposed to real-time combat. These battles are pretty simple, with your moves determined by the type of card you play. For example, Attack cards make you attack, and Magic cards make you cast a spell.
Across the course of the game, you’ll build your deck, earning Card Points and experience to level up. Managing the balance of your deck both to the game’s meta and your own liking is crucial, or else you’ll find the game getting much more difficult as it progresses.
It’s not all combat, though. Exploration remains key in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, and the game is split into several different worlds, many of which continue to be based on Disney movies.
Kingdom Hearts II (2005)
Behind Kingdom Hearts II, there’s a certain desire to not shake up the status quo. The core gameplay remains extremely similar to the original. You’re still hack-and-slashing your way through Disney-themed worlds alongside Donald Duck, Goofy, and others. Everything is just a little bit smoother this time around. The combat is more fluid, the AI is smarter, and the worlds are more vivid than ever.
To its credit, Kingdom Hearts II does introduce a bunch of new worlds to explore. Notably, Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean and the Pride Lands from The Lion King both appear. New characters from Disney’s past show up, too, with Scrooge McDuck perhaps the best example.
There is one big new feature affecting gameplay – the Drive Gauge. This allows you to turn into a Drive Form, which makes you stronger depending on the companions in your party. It also allows you to summon a Disney character of your choice to help in combat, disappearing when the Drive Gauge is empty.
Despite the lack of huge innovation, there are many who would claim Kingdom Hearts II is the absolute pinnacle of the franchise. Some would argue it’s one of the best video games ever made. If you’re playing through the series for the first time, you certainly can’t skip it.
Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories (2007)
Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories is a remake of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the PlayStation 2. While fans liked the original game, its exclusivity to the Game Boy Advance meant it could never really fulfill its potential.
The remake kept the unique card-based combat system intact, and told the same story. This time around, Square Enix revamped the game with 3D graphics, voice acting, and a remastered soundtrack. On top of this, there are a few new cutscenes and battles that were absent from the original, meaning there’s still new content for those who played the original.
Overall, the community generally considers Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories to be the definitive way to play the game. Unless you really like the Game Boy Advance visuals, there are too many small improvements to justify choosing the original.
Kingdom Hearts Coded (2008)
Kingdom Hearts Coded is a 2008 game exclusive to Japan, released only on the NTT Docomo, a brand of mobile phones. Most of the game revolves around puzzle gameplay, with some of the series’ core action-RPG elements making it too. It’s certainly a departure from most most players expect from a Kingdom Hearts game. Its 3D backdrops combined with 2D characters make for a unique look, and to this day it remains an interesting addition to the series.
Today, it’s almost impossible to play Kingdom Hearts Coded. Its NTT Docomo exclusive release means that copies of the game are hard to come by. Even finding clear gameplay of the title online is an extremely difficult task! It was eventually remade as Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded, making it more accessible to players – but we’ll get to that soon.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (2009)
For the first time in the series’ history, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days sees players play as someone other than Sora. This time, it’s Roxas, first introduced in Kingdom Hearts II. While playing as Roxas, you’ll explore his time as a member of Organization XIII. The structure of the story sees you adventure through a variety of Disney worlds, completing missions assigned by the Organization.
Despite being released exclusively on the Nintendo DS, the game kept the real-time combat of the main games. However, it didn’t really make use of the touchscreen option. Moving to Roxas as the protagonist created room for some innovations on the combat front. For example, he wields the Keyblade, which he can dual-wield for a unique fighting style never seen before in the franchise.
Customization plays a key role in this game. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days introduces a panels system, which you can equip to determine Roxas’ items, equipment, and abilities. The game only gives you a certain amount of slots for these panels, so it’s important that you’re strategic with your choices.
Overall, the game serves as a fun departure from the main series. However, it’s definitely one for the hardcore fans to enjoy.
Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep (2010)
Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep is another scaled-down title in the series, this time on the PlayStation Portable. Despite its platform, the game brings some solid innovations to the franchise.
Immediately noticeable are the three protagonists – Terra, Aqua, and Ventus. Each of these characters have their own storyline, and you can play through them in any order. The story itself is another prequel, taking place ten years before the original Kingdom Hearts.
The game introduces the Command System. This allows you to create a Command Deck, where you select a series of abilities for use in combat. It also introduces the Dimension Link, which allows you to temporarily take the powers of others that you meet throughout the game, and use them on your Command Deck.
Just like Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, Birth By Sleep is a game probably only worth picking up for serious fans of the franchise.
Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded (2010)
Due to the difficult availability of Kingdom Hearts Coded, the decision was made to remake the game for Nintendo DS. The end result was Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded, a full 3D remake that saw many of the original mechanics changed.
Despite the stronger hardware, the lack of an analogue stick meant the combat in the game had to actually be simplified from the original. However, the leveling system from Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days was included, as well as entirely new cutscenes for the new release. It wasn’t all a step backward.
As Kingdom Hearts Coded is near-impossible to get hold of, Re:Coded is your only hope for playing the game. That said, just because you can play it doesn’t mean you should, with it feeling rather dated nowadays.
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (2012)
Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is the series’ main release on the Nintendo 3DS, taking advantage of the unique opportunities the platform has to offer.
The game primarily follows Sora and Riku, and you regularly switch between the two during gameplay. This is done by the Drop system, which forces you to switch when the in-game Drop Gauge empties. You can avoid this somewhat through the use of items called Drop-Me-Nots, but eventually, the game will force you to switch in certain moments. Each world in the game has a different plot depending on which character you’re playing as, and you need to beat them as both in order to progress.
Playing to the strengths of the 3DS, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance includes a new feature called Reality Shift. These abilities allow you to interact with the environment in a variety of creative ways, including using the touchscreen and moving the screen around. For example, you can use the touchscreen to fling an enemy away!
Ultimately, there’s not a ton more to say here. It’s a Kingdom Hearts game at heart, without any massive deviation from the formula. If you like the others, you’ll like this one.
Kingdom Hearts X (2013)
Kingdom Hearts X is a free-to-play browser-based MMO, and a prequel to the main series of games. It tells the story of the Keyblade War, with deep-cut lore references for fans of the franchise. In this game, you create your character’s appearance, customizing them with a series of outfits you can change throughout the game.
Returning from Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, the combat system is once again card-based. This made sense for a browser game, as it meant it could run on most devices. Ensuring your deck is up to scratch remains as important as ever, but this time there are microtransactions that you can buy to give yourself an advantage on the battlefield.
Of course, you’re still completing quests and missions across a series of Disney worlds, but this time it’s on a smaller scale than usual. You’ve got to unlock story missions in-game by playing through any content that you have available to you, as by default most of them are locked. Some of them can even be completed with friends, with the social aspect being a key feature of the game.
Over the years, Square Enix released various iterations of the game. There’s Kingdom Hearts Unchained X, Union X, and Union X Dark Road. However, it all stems from the initial release of Kingdom Hearts X.
Kingdom Hearts III (2019)
Despite being in development for over a decade, Kingdom Hearts III is similar to its predecessor, and it seems afraid to change too much of the core gameplay. Perhaps rightly so, if you believe they nailed it the first time around.
One thing that is immediately evident is that as a 2019 release, it looks great. The cartoonish art style has always allowed the series to age well, but Kingdom Hearts III particularly benefits from modern lighting and higher poly counts. Naturally, it feels great to play, too. It controls better, with amazing animations to complement the stronger movement. It’s everything you remember Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 being back in the early 2000s.
Attraction Flow is one of the most impressive additions to the game. The feature allows you to perform special attacks which are based on rides from the Disney Parks. For example, one is directly taken from the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters ride. It certainly makes for more unique combat!
As with Kingdom Hearts II, the third iteration features new worlds based on recent Disney movies. Given how active Disney was during the 2000s and 2010s, there’s plenty of material to draw from. Each of these worlds has its own unique gameplay quirk. For example, downhill sledding is a huge part of the Frozen world. This makes every level in the game feel completely different, which has always been a specialty of the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
On top of the standard gameplay, Kingdom Hearts III introduces a bunch of fun mini-games in each world. If it takes your fancy, you can go cooking with Remy from Ratatouille. These serve as a great way to deviate from the standard gameplay formula, giving you a break from the action for just a moment.
Overall, Kingdom Hearts III is a worthwhile entry into the series. It will never please everyone, but after fourteen years of waiting, most were satisfied with the game they received.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory (2020)
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is a rhythm game set in the Kingdom Hearts universe. It takes traditional rhythm gameplay, where you must push a button at the right times to continue playing, or else the level fails. The game features varying levels of difficulty, Beginner, Standard, and Proud, as is usual for the series. On top of this, it also offers a Basic mode, One Button, which removes all of the button complexity and makes your party members attack automatically, and Performer mode, which adds even more enemies to the levels.
The story campaign is titled World Tour, where each level is based on a previous Kingdom Hearts game from years gone by. These levels retell the story of the entire series, bringing in the relevant Disney characters as guest stars.
If the single-player isn’t for you, the Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory also offers a variety of multiplayer modes to compete in. Double Play is local co-op, where Sora and Riku attempt to get the highest score. Alternatively, versus mode allows you to go online and compete against players around the world instead.
Kingdom Hearts Missing Link (TBA)
Kingdom Hearts Missing Link was first revealed in 2022, with a closed beta being released later that year. The game was announced as a title exclusive to mobile devices, but with gameplay equivalent to the main console games.
Fans of the franchise had been looking forward to the game, which was originally slated for a 2023 release. Kingdom Hearts Missing Link is supposed to contain some crucial lore details leading into Kingdom Hearts IV. However, it seems almost certain to miss that release window, and Square Enix’s radio silence about the game has some fans extremely concerned. There are rumors to suggest the studio wasn’t entirely pleased with the results of the closed beta, which could see the wait for the game extended even further. The only gameplay we actually have of the game certainly shows plenty of promise.
Kingdom Hearts IV (TBA)
First announced in April 2022 during the series’ 20th-anniversary celebration alongside Kingdom Hearts Missing Link, Kingdom Hearts IV is set to be the fourth mainline title in the franchise. After the fourteen-year gap between the second and third titles, Square Enix isn’t making gamers wait quite as long this time around.
At the moment, we don’t know a huge amount about Kingdom Hearts IV. Protagonist Sora returns, trapped in the world of Quadratum, a realistic city inspired by Tokyo. Meanwhile, his classic companions Donald Duck and Goofy are on a mission to rescue him. From the early footage, it’s clear the game has decided to embrace a more realistic art style, using the strength of the technology available on modern hardware. It remains to be seen if this only applies to Quadratum, or if the cartoony look traditionally associated with the series will make a return elsewhere in the game.
As of right now, no release date has been given for Kingdom Hearts IV. It could be a few years yet until we finally get our hands on the game.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Square Enix.