With the release of Kingdom Hearts III just around the corner, I’ve been re-playing a lot of the previous games in the series. Throughout my playthroughs, I realized that not all Kingdom Hearts games are created equal. There are over 15 games in the Disney/ Final Fantasy crossover series and they range in quality, availability on consoles, and relevance to the overall story of Kingdom Hearts, with some, even being completely superfluous experiences.
It can be pretty difficult to tell which games in the series are worth your time and which ones you should skip. Lucky for you all I’ve spent the last 17 years of my life playing through every single Kingdom Hearts game and I compiled a list of the ones I think are worth playing. I know this list is bound to make some people angry so I want to say that I have genuinely enjoyed every Kingdom Hearts game, these are just the ones I consider to be the best the series has to offer.
Kingdom Hearts I and Kingdom Hearts II (PlayStation 2)
I know these are an obvious choice, but Kingdom Hearts I and Kingdom Hearts II really are the definitive Kingdom Hearts experience and are just as amazing now as they were when they originally came out. In both games the story is unique and charming, the combat is fast paced, fun and complex while still being easy to pick up and it is a master class in world building. I still don’t know how they managed to meld the universes of Disney and Final Fantasy so seamlessly, while also introducing so many iconic original elements such as the Keyblade and The Heartless.
It would be really easy to rely on fan-favorite Disney and Final Fantasy characters but Kingdom Hearts give the focus to an entirely new cast of characters, with the Disney and Final Fantasy characters taking more of a supportive role. The main protagonist Sora is a wonderful character, and I found myself really invested in Kairi and Riku’s stories as well. I never found myself thinking “I wish that I could play as Mickey Mouse right now” and that is very impressive.
Kingdom Hearts II kept the momentum going by refining the best elements from the first game and adding new characters, worlds, and gameplay mechanics. These games kicked off a franchise that people are still excited about 17 years later and that is amazing.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain Of Memories (GameBoy Advance)
Kingdom Hearts: Chain Of Memories is one of the most confusing entries in the series so far (and with an entry titled 358/2 Days that’s saying a lot). It was half a sequel to the original Kingdom Hearts and half a spin-off game. Instead of being on the PlayStation 2 like people expected it was on the Gameboy Advance and it featured a completely different combat system than the original game involving cards.
A lot of people, myself included wrote this off as a something you didn’t really need to play. It wasn’t until years later when I finally picked this game up and realized just how great it really is. The continued adventures of Sora, Donald and Goofy are just as charming as they were the first time around and the while the new combat system can be jarring at first it is engaging and has a surprising amount of depth! Chain Of Memories also adds some much-needed context to later entries in the series, and some of those plot threads are bound to show up in Kingdom Hearts III. If you skipped this game the first time around you should give it another look, you won’t regret it.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep (PlayStation Portable – PSP)
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is by far the best handheld Kingdom Hearts experience. The visuals are sharp, the music is some of the best the series has ever produced and it features an overhauled combat system that perfectly utilized the PSP’s hardware and made pulling off combos and casting magic faster and more intuitive.
However, it’s the characters and story of Birth By Sleep that are the highlight of this game. You play as three new characters Aqua, Terra, and Ventus, three friends who are trying to become Keyblade Masters and save the world from a new group of bad guys called The Unserved. Each character has a fantastic individual arc that melds together to form the greater narrative. Moving the focus to three main characters as opposed to one is difficult to pull off, but thankfully the developers executed it beautifully. Every character is given enough screen time and development so that no one feels underutilized.
The story is a prequel, taking place 10 years before the original game and It does a wonderful job of adding lore to the universe. We get more insight into how Keyblades work and how their masters are chosen. We also get to see why the characters in the original game are so important. There are definitely some “Fan Service” moments that make you roll your eyes but they never distract you too much from the overall game.
It looks like these characters are going to be important in Kingdom Hearts III and It’s easier than ever to play this game thanks to the Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX on the PlayStation 4 which includes Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (remaster of Kingdom Hearts I,) Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories (remaster of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories,) Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (HD remastered cinematics,) Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix (remaster of Kingdom Hearts II,) Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Final Mix (remaster of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep,) and Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded (HD remastered cinematics)
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance (Nintendo 3DS)
Kingdoms Hearts had several entries on the DS family of systems but none of them really found their footing. There was Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days whose plot was almost as confusing as its title and Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded, a port of a Japanese phone game that was boring and clunky. So when Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance was announced I was expecting another mediocre handheld title to hold me over until Kingdom Hearts III eventually came out, but I was surprised to find that Dream Drop Distance is actually a great time.
It was a real return to form for the series, bringing the focus back on Sora. The story follows as Sora and Riku are taking their “Mark Of Mastery” exam to prove themselves as Keyblade Masters. Early in the test they get separated and pulled into separate alternate realities (it’s Kingdom Hearts just go with it) and the main gameplay mechanic revolves around alternating between Sora and Riku to get through the worlds. As you’re playing, a gauge gradually goes down over time and when the gauge completely empties, control will switch to the other character.
This was a really fun mechanic and it made the occasionally monotonous task of getting through the worlds way more interesting and tense. This was also the first time the main story had really progressed since Kingdom Hearts II and while it’s not Kingdom Hearts III by any stretch it’s still pretty satisfying. Luckily, you can pick up Dream Drop Distance’s port on Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue which includes Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD, Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover (movie,) Kingdom Hearts: 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, a game that takes place after the events of Dream Drop Distance the follows Aqua, one of the main protagonist in Birth by Sleep.
These are what I consider to be the best and most essential Kingdom Hearts games in the series but everyone enjoys different things and I believe that’s there is enjoyment to be had with all of them. More than anything I’m just happy and impressed that even though there have been some bumps along the way this series that I have loved since I was a kid is still going strong today and I can’t wait to see it go even further In the future.
If you are looking to jump into these games be sure to pick up Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue which between the two include all the games listed above. Do you have a favorite Kingdom Hearts game? Let us know in the comments below.