Which is the king of Kingdom Hearts? Which one should newbies start off with?
I can’t believe that we’re here. Kingdom Hearts 3 is literally only two weeks away. I’ve spent the last month or so replaying all the Kingdom Hearts titles, thanks to the convenient Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue collections on the PS4.
It’s not too late for you to catch up on everything Kingdom Hearts, with over 9 titles included in those collections (albeit the fact that some of them are actually just glorified movie-length cutscenes).
To celebrate the upcoming release of Kingdom Hearts 3, I’ll be ranking all the titles in the franchise by taking two main criteria into account: story (how much it contributes to the overall franchise plot) and gameplay. After playing nothing but exclusively Kingdom Hearts games for several consecutive weeks, here are the fruits of my labour.
9. Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded
Look up online fan forums and other websites, and you’ll probably discover one ultimate truth; Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded resides on the bottom of every list or ranking of the franchise. Why? It added almost nothing to the series’ lore and overall plot while offering an unnecessary retread of the very first Kingdom Hearts game.
In Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded, players assume the role of a digitized version of protagonist Sora, as he scours the digitized version of the worlds from the first game to fix the ‘bugs’ corrupting Jiminy’s journal. I wasted 3 hours of my life watching the recreated HD cutscenes of this game for many 10 minutes of important content, with the rest of the runtime filled with the worst filler imaginable.
This all makes perfect sense when you find out that the original Kingdom Hearts: Coded was a mobile game spinoff, which was later updated and remade for the Nintendo DS. It featured stripped-down combat from Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, squeezing in the Command Deck mechanic to fit the limitations of the hardware.
Even if you skip Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded, you won’t be missing out on anything important. Due to the story’s ‘digital’ or ‘digitized’ nature, the events of the game basically retcons itself by the end, thus leaving everything that happened essentially meaningless in the larger scheme of the overall plot.
8. Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover
Just like Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded, Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover is a one-hour cinematic movie focusing on characters never mentioned or heard before in the history of the entire franchise. That’s because it is set in the distant past, even before the events of Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep and the legendary Keyblade War. Consider it the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic of the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
The only saving graces of Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover is that it is fairly short in length and is beautifully rendered in Unreal Engine 4, which makes for some of the best graphics the franchise has never been capable of. The reason why this title ranks so low is that the movie doesn’t make much sense yet since it’s supposedly going to be one of the major plot points explored in Kingdom Hearts 3.
I never did play the original mobile game Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ (later rebranded to Kingdom Hearts Union χ) but it seems to have utilized gameplay similar to the card game mechanics of Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories with a few differences.
It’s probably not worth it to play the game now that Kingdom Hearts 3 is so close to officially launching, so I recommend just watching Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover in order to avoid from being totally lost when someone mentions the No Name Keyblade or the mysterious Black Box previously owned by the Master of Masters. Don’t ask. You’ll find out soon enough in Kingdom Hearts 3 (hopefully).
7. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
You must have noticed a certain trend by now. The bottom three Kingdom Hearts titles in this list are all those that Square Enix didn’t even bother to make playable in the collections on the PS4. You could probably already gleam the hidden meaning behind the company’s decision to instead turn these 3 titles into cinematic movies (read: They’re not significant enough story-wise.)
However, I would have to say that Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is the exception, as it surprisingly tells a story I (and many fans) deem to be extremely vital to the franchise. In fact, knowing the story is pretty much required to understand why Roxas, Axel, and Xion are integral. The heartwarming (and heartbreaking) tale of their relationship forms the backbone (reasons) for the actions of both Roxas and Axel in subsequent games.
While Xion will never be mentioned again (due to story reasons), she occasionally reappears in future games with no explanations. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is key to understanding who Xion is, and why she’s connected to Sora’s heart.
Although the Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days cinematic movie is a bit too bloated and could have benefitted from tighter editing (it’s over 3 hours long), it’s essential and shouldn’t be skipped. Trust me, the story is actually good in this one, if you can slog through all the filler, that is.
6. Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage
This title is technically the most recent playable title in the franchise. The game is mostly set directly after the events of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, with the exception of a few scenes acting as a prologue of sorts to the upcoming Kingdom Hearts 3.
Story-wise, Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage is extremely important, as it not only explains what Aqua has been up to all this time in the Realm of Darkness, it also teases her future role in the franchise. We also find out what Sora, Riku, and the others will be doing at the very beginning of Kingdom Hearts 3.
In terms of gameplay, this game gives us a preview of what to expect in Kingdom Hearts 3. The command deck from previous games are gone, replaced with a more streamlined version of Kingdom Hearts 2‘s flashy combat. It also marks the first time that we’re seeing actual Kingdom Hearts gameplay powered by Unreal Engine, which makes for impressive particle effects and visuals.
Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage is a must-play for everyone planning to play Kingdom Hearts 3, as it practically acts as a direct prologue of sorts. The in-game graphics are also the best they’re ever been. Unfortunately, it is ridiculously short, seeing as I completed the entire game in just under 3 hours, and that’s me taking my time.
5. Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories
After the simple premise of the original Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories is where the franchise’s story started gaining its infamous reputation of being overly convoluted and complicated.
Replaying this game was a pain at first since I had to get used to the divisive card deck mechanics all over again. However, the gameplay really kicks in once you’ve mastered how to build a decent deck and take advantage of the 0 cards. Gameplay aside, the story in Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories is notable for being the first game in the franchise to introduce ongoing antagonists, Organization XIII.
Just like Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories is basically essential in understanding a lot of concepts in Kingdom Hearts 2 and beyond. The gameplay is actually fun, but the worlds in this game are identical to those in the original Kingdom Hearts, which means there are no new or unique worlds for you to explore.
4. Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix
Most lists or rankings would place the original Kingdom Hearts higher, and most likely in the top three. There’s a usually a few reasons for that, and that’s because this was the game that started it all, introducing us to the crazy concept of the entire franchise (Disney + Final Fantasy), as well as still maintaining a relatively simple and straightforward story compared to future entries.
Another aspect bogging the original Kingdom Hearts is its gameplay, which has not aged well after 17 years. The combat feels sluggish and clunky compared to other later entries, resulting in frustrating and cheap deaths at times, especially when adding in the awful camera into the equation.
Without the original Kingdom Hearts, there won’t even be a franchise to write about, so I think that’s already telling enough of how unskippable the first game is. This is the game you should play before any of the others. Despite its flaws and age, this classic still manages to stand the test of time.
3. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD
While Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage might be the most recent title in the franchise, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance was the last full-fledged title. What I mean by that is the game lasts as long as the core titles (around 20 hours in length).
Story-wise, this game is the worst of all the Kingdom Hearts titles. Well, maybe not as bad as Kingdom Heart Re: Coded but still one of the most atrocious. It involves time travel and a younger version of the main antagonist Xehanort, and the worst plot trope of all: that it was all dreams (sort of). I began the game feeling very excited to play as both Sora and Riku in their respective Mark of Mastery exams to become true Keyblade Masters, but no, Square Enix had to include timey-wimey (and dream) elements to what should have been a simple but interesting storyline.
While a great story was what saved titles like Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days and Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, the opposite holds true for Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance. To me, its core gameplay might be the best, with the franchise’s signature combat at its smoothest when the excellent command deck mechanic from Birth by Sleep is paired with a new parkour-like FlowMotion mechanic.
However, I didn’t really like the annoying Drop system and the Pokemon-like Dream Eaters. The former is where the player is given a time limit of sorts, which forces you to swap between Sira and Riku even in the middle of boss battles. It’s also frustrating how the player’s abilities are now tied to these Dream Eaters.
Last but not least, it also introduces a lot of new worlds, including the Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Three Musketeers, and more. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance may not look important at first glimpse, but the ending is actually quite important, especially leading into the events of the upcoming Kingdom Hearts 3.
2. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Final Mix
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is not only the best spinoff title in the franchise, but it is also one of the best titles, period. It works as both a prequel and standalone, in which you don’t need prior knowledge to actually understand this game (though the game still features a lot of subtle references for those who do). Plus, it introduced my favourite combat system of any title in the franchise: the command deck mechanic.
This game is essential to the Kingdom Hearts saga for introducing not one but three Keyblade wielders; Ventus, Terra, and Aqua, all of which play a huge role in the overall plot. Birth by Sleep also introduced the actual big bad of the entire franchise, Master Xehanort (who was voiced by the late Leonard Nimoy).
The worlds were great, featuring some Disney classics like Snow White, Cinderella, and… Lilo and Stitch. Well, nothing’s perfect. One caveat I had with Birth by Sleep is that it still felt like a handheld game, despite being ported to the PS4 and PS4.
1. Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix
Number one shouldn’t be a surprise at all, especially for long-time fans of the franchise. After all these years, Kingdom Hearts 2 remains the prime example of what this JRPG franchise is capable of in terms of story, gameplay, and sheer scale.
Kingdom Hearts 2 improves on almost everything from the original. This game still features some of my favourite worlds which change more than just the setting. For example, visiting the Lion King’s Pride Lands turns Sora and the gang into animals, which also changes their movements in combat. Another stage is based on Steamboat Willy where everything is in black and white, exuding the classic animated charm similar to that of 2017’s Cuphead.
The combat is faster-paced and less floaty. The setpieces are flashier and bigger. There are more Limit Breaks and new Drive Forms where Sora can freaking dual-wield Keyblades. New Reaction Commands (QTE) in every battle spices up the combat. Everything is made to be more epic. No Kingdom Hearts fan will ever forget the Battle of the 1000 Heartless.
Kingdom Hearts 2‘s reverse-Metal Gear Solid 2 first act, where players assume the role of Roxas, was brilliant. Although Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories is required to fully understand the game’s prologue, it wasn’t a must. Even as a kid, I understood Roxas’ pain despite knowing almost nothing about his backstory (I haven’t played Chain of Memories at that point in time).
That’s the biggest reason why I like the storyline of Kingdom Hearts: no matter how complex or convoluted it gets, I can count on the emotional payoffs and ‘heart’ of the plot (for lack of a better word, no pun intended).
In my opinion, Kingdom Hearts 2 is not only the best Kingdom Hearts game but also one of the best action-RPGs/JRPGs of all time. It was the game that solidified my love for the franchise, and rightly so. I just hope that Kingdom Hearts 3 will be able to expand and improve on everything Kingdom Hearts 2 did right, and leave behind everything that it (and every other Kingdom Hearts game) did wrong.
There you have it, folks, all 9 entries of the Kingdom Hearts franchise ranked. Do you agree with this ranking? Which Kingdom Hearts games are your favourites? Let us know in the comments below.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is slated to release for the PS4 and Xbox One on 29 January 2019.