Now on its 20th birthday, the Kingdom Hearts (KH) series has quite the legacy. It boasts an intimidating amount of instalments, all of which work to shape the games’ overarching narrative. As we all anxiously wait for KH 4, I thought now would be a great time to reflect on the series. Listed below are what I believe to be the best Kingdom Hearts games ever released. These are games I recommend for everyone, even weathered KH veterans like myself. If you haven’t played one of instalments in a while, I think it’s about time you pick them up again. Can’t beat a bit of nostalgia!
7 – Kingdom Hearts Union Cross (Union X)
This one is a bit of a controversial entry. Granted it is at the bottom of my list, but I still believe that it’s one of the best Kingdom Hearts games – and I’ll explain why. Gameplay-wise, Union X is incredibly simple. Its combat is the series’ only example of a strict turn-based RPG. To fight, the player does nothing more than tap and swipe on a series of medals styled after popular Disney and KH characters. But it is in its simplicity that it finds its strength.
The easy-going combat perfectly matches the game’s colourful and playful aesthetic. For me, Union X was the ultimate way to unwind after a long day of work or college. Just hearing its cheerful soundtrack as you watch your character pull off flashy special moves is honestly quite relaxing. The game’s narrative is pretty easy-going too, and a formula KH fans are all too aware of. Your custom protagonist is tasked with exploring different Disney worlds. In doing this, they end up helping some of our favourite cartoon characters reach their cheesy, but wholesome, happily-ever-afters.
Union X definitely doesn’t provide the most engaging combat or narrative. However, it does what it does very well, and for that reason I think it deserves a place on this list. Also, the character creation feature helped me fulfil my life-long dream of becoming a keyblade wielder by making an avatar that looked like me. I can’t lie, I quite enjoyed that.
6 – Kingdom Hearts: A Fragmentary Passage
KH Fragmentary Passage has a lot of problems. Its short length doesn’t allow it to create a truly engaging narrative. It doesn’t really offer anything unique in terms of gameplay. Its boss battles are severely lacking in variety. That being said however, it does one thing better than almost any other KH game: atmosphere building.
The tone and themes of Fragmentary Passage are consistent and powerful. You play as Aqua, a character who has been stuck in “The World of Darkness” (the KH version of limbo) for many years. Aqua’s fading hope and willpower is echoed in every inch of the game’s design. You are immersed in several levels of dark, dishevelled terrain, whose already grim atmosphere is amplified by the game’s soundtrack of low, slow piano keys. Even though it’s a short game, it is easy to appreciate and invest yourself in the plight of its protagonist.
The gloomy atmosphere provided in Fragmentary Passage is honestly a breath of fresh air in what is a consistently cheery and upbeat franchise. For that reason alone I think it deserves a place on this list. But when you combine this with the game’s solid gameplay and well-designed environments, I think it’s clear that this is one of the best Kingdom Hearts games out there.
5 – Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories
This game stands out to me for two reasons: a great story, and innovative gameplay. First and foremost, its premise is very interesting. Protagonist Sora and company venture into the ominous Castle Oblivion while searching for their lost friends. However, they soon learn that exploring this castle comes at a cost. As they ascend its seemingly infinite floors, they slowly start to lose their memories. On top of this, they find themselves playing right into the hands of a new cast of antagonists; ominous figures in black cloaks. The game has genuine stakes involved, and it’s quite easy to sink many hours into it as you search for Sora’s missing friends and try to unravel the mysteries of Castle Oblivion.
Similar to this game’s story, its gameplay is also unique and engaging. Its combat is a fusion of the KH series’ classic hack’n’slash style and a new card-playing system. You and the enemies you face battle by playing and combining different attack cards, which takes place all while you have to manoeuvre your character’s movement onscreen. The game requires you to maintain a certain level of dexterity, all while you engage your opponents in a battle of wits. It adds a new level of strategy to KH games that is a welcome addition.
I should also mention that Chain of Memories also unlocks a secret second campaign once you finish it. The new storyline sees you playing as Sora’s buddy Riku for the first time, and mixes up the combat system enough to breathe new life into the gameplay. If that doesn’t qualify it as one of the best Kingdom Hearts games, I don’t know what will.
4 – Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep (BBS)
BBS‘s core dynamic is what makes it one of the best Kingdom Hearts games. In it, you take turns playing through its campaign as three different keyblade wielders. Each run sees you going through the same Disney worlds and each story merges as the game comes to a final conclusion. However, playing as the different keyblade wielders gives you alternate perspectives on the game’s narrative. Only by finishing it as all three protagonists do you start to get the full picture of what’s going on.
Combat-wise, the game is also pretty great. There are a bunch of different features that really add more depth to battling, and reward those willing to take the time to grind a bit. BBS has a range of different action commands for your main characters to employ. These can be obtained through shops, or through narrative progression. These allow you to equip your keyblade wielders however you want in order to match your ideal playstyle.
The game also offered two other means of mixing-up combat: “Style Changes” and “Destiny Links”. Style Changes allow your characters to change fighting styles mid-combat to unleash a flurry of fancy, powerful combos. Destiny Links on the other hand allow you draw on the power of the friends you have made on your journey to temporarily enhance your strength. Both of these features, coupled with the action commands and each playable characters’ unique fighting styles, make for very entertaining gameplay that more than justifies this game’s ranking.
3 – Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance (DDD)
There’s an old saying regarding video game franchises: “You either die a masterpiece, or live long enough to become a Pokémon clone.” KH lived long enough, as a result we got KH DDD.
I must say though, this game is actually really cute and fun. It once more draws on the KH style of hack-and-slash combat, borrowing the action command system found in BBS. However, in these games you can also create these adorable little creatures called Dream Eaters to fight alongside you, which are a fantastic addition. They take on more cheery forms of the Nightmare enemies you face, and can be created by fusing various items that you collect on your journey. They come with adorable designs and striking, saturated colours that fit right in with the optimistic KH aesthetic.
Dream Eaters do a lot more than just look pretty however. They can genuinely lend a huge hand in combat, and each of this game’s two playable characters can also “Link” with them to unleash special abilities. Riku’s Links see him temporarily absorbing the power of his Dream Eaters to enable Style Changes very similar to those found in BBS. Sora on the other hand Links by performing combo attacks with his Dream Eaters, throwing them around or riding on top them to deal massive damage to any enemies too slow to get out of the way.
This game also introduces a new flashy traversal system called “Flowmotion”. It’s basically Disney’s own version of par core, and it makes traversing long distances and absolute breeze. This game is simple, fun and colourful, and what any of the best KH games should strive to replicate. If you’re a fan of the series and haven’t played this yet, then you’re really missing out.
2 – Kingdom Hearts 2
KH 2 is genuinely in a league of its own, and will forever be one of my top 5 favourite games of all time. It’s not just one of the best Kingdom Hearts games; it’s probably one of best games ever made. There are so many things that this game does well. But one thing is does exceptionally well is the combat.
At the start of this game, the gameplay seems kind of underwhelming. You play as a somewhat clunky new character named Roxas, who runs and swings his keyblade so slowly that sometimes you’d swear the game is playing on 0.5 speed. But as you progress through the game, things quickly start to get intense. About 10 hours in, you’ll find yourself executing combos so insane that you kind of start to feel bad for whatever enemy is foolish enough to get in your way.
KH 2 allows protagonist Sora to dual wield keyblades for the first time ever, so all the flash and bang of the previous games’ combat is essentially doubled. To do this, Sora can enter a series of different “Drive” forms, each of which have their own unique abilities attached to them and have different fighting styles. The basic keyblade wielding is awesome, don’t get me wrong. There is an insane list of passive abilities Sora can equip that make even casual combat really in-depth and strategic. However, the amount of detail and passion the developers poured into each of Sora’s Drive forms is nothing short of breathtaking. KH 2’s dual wielding mechanics are unbelievably well-executed, and genuinely offer one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences I have ever seen.
1 – Kingdom Hearts 1
I’m not one of the guys who says that the original of any product is always the best. Often times that a sequel to something is genuinely better than the original. However, that is not the case with the KH series.
As I hope I have highlighted throughout this list, each KH game has a unique appeal and something that it does better than any other game in the franchise. I actually believe a lot of the KH games do many things better than KH 1. But what KH 1 lacks in terms of combat system depth and gameplay fluidity, it makes up for in its purity and optimism.
Whether you’re strolling around sandy beaches listening to the beautiful theme of Destiny Islands, or fighting your way through the armies of heartless while ascending the foreboding castle of Hallow Bastion, you will find yourself truly immersed in the atmosphere of this game. It wraps itself up in a simple, tried and tested narrative of good versus evil, all while excellently weaving the Disney worlds and their characters into the plot. This is a charming and innocent game about hope, life, and friendship that is sure to warm the heart of even the cruelest criminals.
Sure, KH 1 doesn’t have the flashy combat of KH 2, or the adorableness of KH DDD. But what it does offer is a beautiful gaming experience. Not in terms of incredible visuals or audio design mind you, but rather emotional impact. It is an adorable journey of a young boy leaving home and exploring the world(s) around him, and it excellently captures the basic human experiences of companionship and love. No matter what your mood, KH 1 will never fail to make you smile.