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.

***

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!

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“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” Review

Warning: There will be some spoilers in this review and lots of ranting.

Oh boy.  I have feelings about this movie.

But first, allow me to backtrack.  Thirteen years ago, one of my friends put her DVD of Curse of the Black Pearl in my hands and told me that I needed to watch it.  So, over the course of Memorial Day weekend, I did.  It was love at first sight.  Everything about the movie felt perfect: the characters, the story, the jokes, the action, and the music.

(Okay, and I had a crush on Orlando Bloom, but that’s faded away and I still enjoy the movie and Will Turner’s character.)

Curse of the Black Pearl also helped to ignite my interest in screenwriting.  If you like learning about the filmmaking process, definitely check out the screenwriters’ commentary for the movie.  They talk about the different drafts they went through and the choices they made that eventually made the movie a success.  They show how every scene and character has some importance to the story.  Even the soldiers, Murtagh and Mulroy, push the plot along by revealing that Captain Jack knows about the Black Pearl.  They’re comic relief, but if they didn’t have their comedic encounter with Jack, they wouldn’t be able to mention his interest in Barbossa’s ship and Will wouldn’t have come up with the plan to team up with him.

Unfortunately, the fifth Pirates film does not have much in the way of such character moments.

The plot goes like this: Will and Elizabeth’s son, Henry, wants to save Will from the curse of the Flying Dutchman.  He’s studied all kinds of sea legends and learns about the Trident of Poseidon, which supposedly breaks all curses.  So he goes to find Captain Jack Sparrow for help.

Meanwhile, Jack’s lost his touch.  His crew abandons him, the Black Pearl’s still trapped in one of Blackbeard’s bottles, and he has no treasure.  So he trades his magic compass for one last bottle of rum.  Unbeknownst to him, “betraying” the compass unleashes his biggest fear: a ghost pirate hunter named Captain Salazar.  Salazar starts murdering pirate ships right and left to find and kill Jack, who outsmarted and killed him once before.

Finally, there’s the third member of the trio: Carina Smyth.  She’s an intelligent young astronomer searching for the Trident based on clues that her father left behind in a mysterious journal.

So, I got hyped for this movie as soon as I heard that Orlando Bloom planned to come back as Will Turner.  He’s my favorite character.  I took it to be a good sign that Disney learned from its past mistakes with On Stranger Tides.  Captain Jack Sparrow should never be the main character of any story.  He’s only funny when he’s got pure, heroic straight men to play against.

Alas, Dead Men Tell No Tales is two hours and nine minutes of wasted potential at every turn.  Henry and Carina are nice characters, but we rarely get to see them truly interact with Captain Jack Sparrow.  The story just moves from big action/comedy scene to the next with nothing substantial to hold it together.  Remember how Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man’s Chest had little scenes that would reveal more about the characters and how they related to each other?  Like Jack telling Will about his father’s past life as a pirate, or Jack and Elizabeth teasing each other about his secret desire to do something heroic and her secret desire to break all the rules and become a pirate?

Nothing like that ever happens in Dead Men Tell No Tales.  The most we get is Jack teasing Henry about his crush on Carina.  It drove me nuts because Henry Turner has a lot of history to his character.  He’s the grandson of Bootstrap Bill, Jack’s old friend.  He’s the son of Will and Elizabeth Turner.  He’s on a quest to break the curse that binds Will to the Flying Dutchman, and Jack’s the one who cursed him in the first place.  Surely Jack would have some interest in Henry’s goal?  Surely they’d talk about it at SOME point, right?

NOPE.

Jack’s got no investment in the adventure at all.  It’s been like this since At World’s End.  In the first film, he wanted his ship back and nothing would stop him from reclaiming it.  In the sequel, he desperately wanted to get out of the deal with Davy Jones and escape the Kraken.  But then, with each passing film, he’s become less and less interested in the events of the story.  The crew had to drag him out of Davy Jones’ Locker and to the meeting of the Brethren Court.  He got shanghaied onto Blackbeard’s ship in On Stranger Tides.  And he gets pushed into this adventure too, and just lets things happen as they will.  His rivalry with Salazar appears to be one-sided and he doesn’t show interest in finding the Trident.  He “wants” the Trident because Henry tells him that it’s what he needs to save himself, not because he personally wants it.

If Jack doesn’t care about what’s happening, why should we care?

(Gif taken from GIPHY)

Then there’s the Trident itself.  One could easily replace that Trident with just about anything else and the story wouldn’t change.  In comparison, the chest full of Aztec gold felt integral to the story of Curse of the Black Pearl.  It was always present in some way, either through the medallion that Elizabeth stole from Will, or the chest itself in two important, plot-changing scenes.  We didn’t get to see the Dead Man’s Chest until the end of that movie.  But there was some great build-up to it with the drawing of the key, Tia Dalma’s tale, and Davy Jones himself.  It’s his heart inside the chest, and he’s the big villain of the story, so it always feels important.

The fifth movie opens with Henry saying, “Hey Dad, I found a legend that might break your curse,” and that’s it.  We don’t get a sense of why the Trident exists or why it’s hidden or why it can break curses.  We’re just supposed to accept that it does.  It might not be that big of a deal, but to me, that made it so much less interesting as a result.

Javier Bardem is a talented actor, but his character is just a combination of Captain Barbossa, Davy Jones, and Cutler Beckett: an undead pirate hunter who hates Jack Sparrow and can’t step on land.  The movie tries to establish him as a fearsome enemy from Jack’s past, but it doesn’t feel genuine the way it did with the other three villains. See, they got introduced to the story when we still didn’t know very much about Captain Jack Sparrow.  And we did know that Jack had some kind of run-in with the East India Trading Company because of his pirate brand, so that didn’t come out of nowhere.

But by the time Movie 5 came around, with no hint that Jack ever had a significant encounter with a big-time Spanish pirate hunter, I didn’t feel the rivalry between them. It also didn’t help that they didn’t have much screen time together, and when they did, it was for big action scenes.  There’s none of the verbal sparring that Jack had with Barbossa, Beckett, or even Norrington.

That being said, Carina is a fun character. She’s an intelligent young astronomer who has no patience for the antics of the pirates around her. Normally, she would have been a wonderful addition to the franchise. There’s a genuinely funny scene where she and Jack are both about to be executed. Carina uses the opportunity for her last words to launch into a speech about how stupid people are for thinking she’s a witch just because she’s smart. Jack can’t stand listening to it and it turns into an argument between the two of them trying to get the executioners to kill one of them first just to shut the other one up.

I won’t spoil Carina’s real backstory or how it relates to the rest of the franchise.  I’ll just say that the secret behind her past was surprisingly sweet.  When another character put the pieces together, I could feel myself getting invested in the movie again. That’s why I came: I like the characters and I want to know more about them. But of course it didn’t last long.

Finally, I feel sorry for anyone who went to see this movie just for Keira Knightley.  At least I got to watch a nice introduction where a young Henry confronts Will about breaking his curse.  Elizabeth didn’t get any lines at all.  The Pirate King is only there to kiss Will at the end of the movie in a gorgeous dress.  What did she think about her son running away from home to find Captain Jack Sparrow? What did she think about the nature of Will’s curse suddenly changing for no apparent reason? Did she still have any responsibilities as the Pirate King? Who knows?

At the end of the day, Dead Men Tell No Tales feels like a weak retread of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There’s a young man and a young woman who become the new heroes in a preexisting franchise, and they are aided on their quest by an extremely popular character from the previous franchise. There’s references to other important characters from the series and so on and so forth.

Unlike Jack/Henry/Carina, Finn and Rey had an incredibly sweet friendship that was given time to develop. The plot brings them together, but they stay together because they care about each other.  Henry and Carina also like each other, but they and Jack stay together because of their individual reasons for wanting the Trident.  They stay together out of necessity.  They never felt like a team to me.

Remember how in Curse of the Black Pearl, Commodore Norrington orders his men to sink his ship so that Jack and Will can’t steal it, because “I’d rather see her at the bottom of the ocean than in the hands of a pirate?”  I think I understand how he felt now.  On the one hand, I love the Pirates franchise, so I should want to see more Pirates films.  But if this is what the franchise has become, maybe I’d rather Disney just let it go.