The Casual Fan’s Guide to Navigating Kingdom Hearts (Part 2)

Okay, we have now arrived at the point where many casual fans stopped: post-Kingdom Hearts 2.  This part’s specifically meant for people who skipped all of the “side games” released in-between Kingdom Hearts 2 and Kingdom Hearts 3.  But newcomers will want to read it too, if only to prepare themselves.

Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days

Available On: Nintendo DS; about two hours worth of cutscenes can be viewed on Kingdom Hearts 1.5, but the game itself isn’t playable on the PS3 or the PS4

Status: A midquel that takes place in-between Chain of Memories and KH2

Do I Need to Play It?

Honestly, it’s hard to say right now, but I’ll go with “no, you don’t.” This game takes place from Roxas’ point of view, instead of Sora’s, and everything you really need to know about his character gets explained in Kingdom Hearts 2. This was meant to provide some backstory for him.

However, the game also introduced a new character, Xion, who has a big influence on Roxas, and she may or may not have some influence on the plot of Kingdom Hearts 3.  That’s about as much as I can say about her without spoiling anything.  As of right now, I’m thinking it’ll be as important to understanding the plot of KH3 as Chain of Memories was to understanding KH2– you may be confused about a few things, but you can easily read up on what you missed.

Is it worth playing?  If you have a Nintendo DS or backwards compatible 3DS and you’d like to check it out, by all means, do so!  If you’re trying to decide whether to watch the cutscenes on the PS3/PS4 or play the game, I’d like to present a third option:

READ THE MANGA.

The manga surpasses both versions of the game.  One of the complaints about the original game is that it drags- there are a lot of levels that just consist of Roxas fighting a variety of Heartless in Disney worlds, having ice cream with his friends after work, and that’s it.  Every so often, something plot relevant happens, and it isn’t until the third act when things start to pick up.  The problem with 1.5 is that it’s not really a movie, even though the fans refer to it as “the Days movie.”  It’s two hours of cutscenes that start and stop, start and stop.

The manga has much better pacing.  It covers all of the essential parts of the story while also adding scenes that flesh out the characters who work for Organization XIII.  The Disney characters get more chances to interact with the main characters too, which is always good in my book.  It’s the most entertaining way to catch up on at least one of the side games.  Not to mention, it’s cheaper if your library owns a copy and you can read it for free.  Do yourself a favor and read the book instead of watching “the movie.”

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

Available On: PlayStation Portable, PS3, and PS4

Status: A prequel that takes place ten years before the first Kingdom Hearts game

Do I Need to Play It?

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Also, YES.

This game introduces several new characters who are almost guaranteed to be important to the plot of Kingdom Hearts 3.  It explains Xehanort’s backstory and gives some insight into the Keyblade War.  Considering that the official summary of Kingdom Hearts 3 mentions both Xehanort and the Keyblade War, I’d say that makes it pretty important.

Again, if you have the option, go with the PS3/PS4 version.  It’s got a whole extra level you can play after you’ve beaten the game, but it’s not crucial to the plot.  Unfortunately, there’s no manga adaptation to read.  There are novels, and Yen Press plans to translate them, but no release date has been announced yet.

Kingdom Hearts: Re:Coded

Available On: Nintendo DS, with cutscenes available to watch on Kingdom Hearts 2.5 Remix

Status: A follow-up to Kingdom Hearts 2 that takes place inside Jiminy Cricket’s journal

Do I Need to Play It?

Nope.  There is ONE very important scene that you can only watch if you unlock the Secret Ending- or watch it on the PS3/PS4 remix.  The important points are addressed again in Dream Drop Distance.  But Coded has a passionate fanbase and it’s supposed to be a really fun game, even though the plot doesn’t make much sense.  I haven’t finished it, but I should give it another chance sometime.

That said, I watched the 2.5 “movie” and I do not recommend it, at least not all at once.  Unfortunately, Coded hasn’t gotten the manga treatment that Days did, and Shiro Amano has said that he’s ending his series with KH2, so it probably never will.

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance

Available On: Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation 4 as part of Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Remix

Status: A follow-up to Kingdom Hearts 2 that takes place immediately after Coded and acts as a prequel to Kingdom Hearts 3

Do I Need to Play It?

As I said, it acts as a prequel to Kingdom Hearts 3, so, yes.  Definitely play it.  The story gets really weird towards the end, but it’s a lot of fun to play.  If you have the ability to choose, go with the PlayStation 4 version so that you can play all of the games on one system.

Kingdom Hearts: Union Cross

Available On: iOS and Android devices, aka smartphones

Status: The prequel to EVERYTHING; it takes place centuries, if not eons, before the actual series starts.  It’s set before the Keyblade War and you get to create your own character.

Do I Need to Play It?

Yes and no.  Union Cross is weird.  Originally, it was meant to be the only non-canon game in the series, but now it’s not.  There’s something called the Book of Prophecies that plays a role in this game, and Maleficent mentions it in a new scene added to Re:Coded.  A mini-film was produced to explain the story of the Foretellers as part of the Kingdom Hearts 2.8 collection.

At the same time, it’s still a phone game where the protagonist is just an avatar that you create.  His/her actions presumably won’t have much direct impact on the actual story.  I’m hoping that the story-relevant content introduced in Union Cross will get explained again in Kingdom Hearts 3, since Sora and his friends do not get involved in this adventure.  It’s not like Dream Drop Distance where they’re the main characters.

That said, it’s a lot of fun to play and it’s a free app, so if you have a smartphone, I wholeheartedly recommend it!  If nothing else, it’s a fun way to pass the time while waiting for Kingdom Hearts 3.

Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue

No, I did not make that title up.

Available On: PlayStation 4

Status: A collection including a remake of Dream Drop Distance, a movie about the Foretellers from Union Cross, and A Fragmentary Passage, which is a short game about Aqua’s time in the Realm of Darkness before Kingdom Hearts 3

Do I Need to Play It?

I’m leaning towards “no.”  It does lay out everyone’s missions at the start of Kingdom Hearts 3, but I get the feeling it’ll be like Chain of Memories where you’ll be able to figure things out soon enough in KH3.

Now, if you don’t own a Nintendo 3DS and/or you never played Dream Drop Distance, then I would definitely recommend getting the PS4 version for the extra content.  Otherwise, skip it.  Aqua’s story is a lot of fun, and it does lead directly into Kingdom Hearts 3 by showing what Sora, Riku, and Kairi have set out to do.  But A Fragmentary Passage is only a few hours long.  Back Cover, the movie about the Foretellers, doesn’t reveal anything substantial at all.  We just find out that they’re fighting, and their friendship’s falling apart, and the Master of Masters is up to something sneaky with a black suitcase, but we never find out what’s in that suitcase.  It’s just not worth $60, especially if you’re on a tight budget.

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Okay, there you have it!  Are you even more confused now than you were before?  Welcome to the Kingdom Hearts Fandom.

If you have any questions, complaints, or whatnot, please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to respond!

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The Casual Fan’s Guide to Navigating Kingdom Hearts (Part 1)

So, a while ago, I basically ranted about my own fandom acting superior towards “casual” fans of the series and snickering over how lost they’ll feel once they finally play Kingdom Hearts 3.  But, looking at the size of the series and how many different games have been released on different consoles, that kind of begs the question…what’s the simplest way for casual fans and newcomers to catch up with the diehards, if they so choose?

And now that Square-Enix has announced A TOY STORY WORLD for Kingdom Hearts 3- and they got PIXAR involved in the story for that level- you almost certainly DO want to catch up!

Thanks to the recent release of almost every Kingdom Hearts game in one collection for the PlayStation 4, it’s become much easier to become acquainted with all of the games in the series.  But, still, there are eight games, one three-hour mini game, and one movie that make up the story so far.  That’s pretty overwhelming.

So I’ve created a break-down of the series with suggestions about how best to either enter or continue with it, for the newbies and casuals.  What’s the scoop with each entry, which ones do you need to play to understand Kingdom Hearts 3, and which ones can you ignore, if you so choose?  If anyone has better suggestions, by all means, leave a comment!  We must help our friends!  That’s what Kingdom Hearts is all about!

Disclaimer: As you will see, after each game’s title, I include the question, “Do I need to play it?”  This is obviously based on my own opinion.  However, it’s not about how much I personally enjoyed playing the game.  It has nothing to do with the actual quality of the game and everything to do with the plot, characters, etc., and whether or not it’s likely that they will contribute to Kingdom Hearts 3.

My goal with this guide is to present non-fans and casual fans with the cheapest, quickest methods of getting caught up with the series. That includes telling them what they can and can’t afford to skip.  If you disagree with my assessments, again, feel free to leave a comment saying why.

Let’s start with the series in general…

The Collections

Square-Enix has re-released most of the games in the series under several collections.  The first one, entitled Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix, contains the original game, a follow-up called Re:Chain of Memories, and the cutscenes from 358/2 Days.  The second collection, Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix, contains Kingdom Hearts 2, Birth by Sleep, and the cutscenes from Re:Coded.

These two collections have since been re-released for the PlayStation 4 as one disc.  That collection is known as Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 Remix.  If you have a PlayStation 4, this is the best way to acquire the series.

Finally, a third collection was released for the PlayStation 4 that contains KH: Dream Drop Distance, a movie, and a glorified demo for Kingdom Hearts 3.  I’ll talk about that entry in more detail in Part 2 of this guide.

And now for an analysis of the actual games in the series…

Kingdom Hearts

Available On: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4; also available to read as a novel and a two-volume manga omnibus

Status: The one that started it all!

Do I Need to Play It?  Well…yes.  If you want to try out the Kingdom Hearts video games, of course you ought to play the first installment.

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I love this game and I recommend giving it a try.  It has a simple, emotional story with lovable characters, it’s fun to play, and it incorporates the Disney and Final Fantasy characters into the plot very well.  The manga is a decent adaptation, but the two volumes that cover this game’s story are also the weakest in the series.  If you’re interested, you can read more of my thoughts on the manga here.

The novel’s pretty good.  If you’re not much of a gamer, that’s a fine way to check out the story and decide for yourself if the rest of the series is worth your time.

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories

Available On: GameBoy Advanced, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4; also available in manga and novel form

Status: A follow-up game that takes place immediately after the first one ended, but it’s not considered the true sequel

Do I Need to Play It?

No, not really.  I certainly recommend it because it’s one of my personal favorites and I think it’s one of the best-written games in the series.  But I didn’t sit down to play it until a couple of years after finishing Kingdom Hearts 2.  Other fans will insist that it’s impossible to understand what’s going on in KH2 if you don’t play CoM, but honestly, it’s nothing a quick visit to Wikipedia wouldn’t fix.  This game also has a novel and manga adaptation and the manga is a big improvement over the first two volumes.

Speaking of the adaptations, it’s worth mentioning that CoM has two big plot twists.  Curiously, the novel doesn’t spoil Twist #1, while heavily implying and practically spoiling Twist #2.  The manga outright spoils Twist #1 about halfway through the story, while keeping Twist #2 hidden.  So make of that what you will.

Again, I do recommend this game because I love the story and the characters and the creepy castle. The theme of memories becomes very important to the series from that point onward.  But if you’re not intrigued and you’re itching to get to Kingdom Hearts 2, at least check out the novel or the manga to learn the essentials.  You won’t have missed out on too much.

Kingdom Hearts 2

Available On: PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4; also available as a four-volume manga and novels

Status: The official sequel to the first game, taking place a year after the events of Chain of Memories

Do I Need to Play It?

Of course!  Now, if you want my advice and you have the means to choose between different game platforms, go with the PS3 or PS4 version.  The original game, made for the PlayStation 2, is fine and fun to play.  But the HD Remix has at least nine additional cutscenes that enhance the story, extra boss battles, an entire new area to explore, and some fun new side quests.

See, years ago, Square-Enix decided to release new versions of Kingdom Hearts, KH2, and Birth by Sleep, called “Final Mixes.”  They’re like director’s cuts of the original games that were only released in Japan.  When Square put together the collections for the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4, they used the Final Mix versions of each title, so we’re finally getting all of that beautiful extra content overseas.

(Before the PS2 owners start panicking, I promise you that you do not need to buy two copies of the same game.  The Final Mixes are like the Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy- they’ve got better content, but they’re not mandatory viewing to understand the sequels.)

Also, the manga adaptation is superb.  If you cannot play the Final Mix version of KH2, the manga will more than make up for what you’re missing in the story department.  Yen Press has announced that translations for the novels are also coming soon.

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Whew!  There you have it: the first three games in the series, just before the Great Console Spread began.  These are the easiest ones to start with because they’re all available for the PS2, PS3, or PS4.  So no matter which of these PlayStations you own, you only need one to experience all three games.  Not to mention, they’re all available in the form of manga and novel adaptations.

Next time, I’ll give you the scoop on the infamous “side games.”  Which ones should you play and what’s the best way to experience and enjoy them?  Find out in Part 2!

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of 358 Games Over Too Many Consoles

So, I like Kingdom Hearts.

I shall pause for my friends reading this blog, to give them enough time to roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, we KNOW.”

I have played and beaten almost every game in the series, except Coded and Unchained Chi.  But I do plan to play Unchained when it comes to American phones and I have watched the three hours of Coded cutscenes in the 2.5 Remix.  (Please don’t ever make me do that again, Square-Enix.)  Speaking of which, I also own every game, including the remixes and the original GameBoy Advance version of Chain of Memories.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve played the first game, I have favorite lines, characters, and ships, I’ve read some really good fanfiction, I adore the manga adaptation, and I’ve obsessively checked Kingdom Hearts websites and blogs for any new information about Kingdom Hearts 3.  I can tell Ventus apart from Roxas, Ansem apart from Xehanort, and understand why there’s a fourteenth member of Organization XIII who looks like Kairi.  I know all about Sora and Riku’s Mark of Mastery test and what a Mark of Mastery test is supposed to be.

The point I’m trying to make is that I love these games and feel confident that I know just as much about them as any other passionate fan.  So, with all of that in mind, I have a question to ask the fanbase:

Could we please tone down the negative attitude towards gamers who have only played Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2?

I understand why we all feel frustrated, because if you’ve played Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance, you know that they contain extremely important information that leads to the plot of Kingdom Hearts 3, and that it’ll be next to impossible for anyone to understand KH3 if they haven’t at least played those two games.  So when we hear or see people saying, “Yeah, I haven’t played any of those spinoffs, but I’ll be okay!” of course we want to roll our eyes and give them our most derisive, Vanitas-style laugh.

“Who the heck’s Vanitas?” say the casual fans.

“Exactly,” we answer.

But here’s the thing about Kingdom Hearts: it’s a video game.  I’ve heard fans compare the situation to starting the Harry Potter series with Book 7, but HP isn’t a good comparison to make.  Anyone can go to the library and check out all seven Harry Potter books for free, or the first four seasons of Game of Thrones.  You do not need different kinds of DVD players to watch each season of a show.  Any DVD or Blu Ray player will do.  Nor do you need a separate eReader for each installment in the Harry Potter series.  Heck, you don’t even need any special equipment for Harry; you can just get the paperback book and you’re all set!

In comparison, video games are much less accessible.  You can only play games that correspond with the systems that you own.  While some are backwards compatible with older games, many others are not.  Gaming is a very expensive hobby to maintain even when you’re not dealing with a series as involved as Kingdom Hearts expects you to be.  When the “side games” first came out, we didn’t know that they would eventually be re-released on the Playstation 3 and Playstation 4. We had to get a PS2, a PSP, a Nintendo DS, and a Nintendo 3DS just to keep up with everything. That’s hundred and hundreds of dollars, compared to being able to check out all seven Harry Potter books from your nearest library for free.

Then there’s also the fact that a lot of popular video game franchises do not require the level of commitment that Kingdom Hearts requires.  Each Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy game has a new story and a new set of characters.  A gamer could start anywhere in either series and still follow along with it.  Even story-heavy games like Ace Attorney are pretty easy to follow.  You could play Trials and Tribulations, the last game in the original trilogy, and easily grasp who every character is and how they relate to each other.  You would get spoiled on a few things from the first game, but it’s not the end of the world.

So, can we really, truly blame casual Kingdom Hearts fans for not keeping up with the series?  Why would anyone think they need to play every single game in the series to understand what’s happening if that hasn’t been necessary for them before?  If anything, I have to tip my Sorcerer Mickey hat to casual fans because they’re not addicted to this series like I am, and good for them.  I love Kingdom Hearts so much, but I don’t expect other people to share my level of passion.  (My level of passion is very unhealthy anyways.)  They shouldn’t have to do that just to enjoy playing a game.  Yet this series has become anything but “simple and clean.”

Instead of mocking the casual fans, maybe we could imitate Sora and offer some help to them, if they want it.  See if people know about the HD Remix collections for the PS3 that include most of the side games.  For 358/2 Days, there’s also the excellent manga series that would be a very cheap way for people to get caught up on that game.

Of course, at the end of the day there will still be casual fans who just don’t want to be bothered with “the side games.”  That’s okay.  They have the right to feel that way.  If I hadn’t stayed caught up for all these years, I’d feel overwhelmed too.  Besides, we don’t know for certain that Kingdom Hearts 3 will be extremely confusing to anyone who hasn’t played the game since KH2.  It’s very, very likely.  I don’t know how Square-Enix could make it comprehensible to newcomers with everything they’ve added so far.  But until we actually play Kingdom Hearts 3, we can’t say for sure what it’s going to be like.  Hopefully, it’s a game that every fan can enjoy to some degree.  If not, maybe it will at least be good enough to persuade some people to go back and play Birth by Sleep or Dream Drop Distance.

For now, let’s just have fun getting excited together over the development of Kingdom Hearts 3, by watching the latest trailer for the three hundred and fifty-eighth time: