'Kingdom Hearts II' Turns 10
While the world still eagerly awaits the next numbered Kingdom Hearts entry, Kingdom Hearts II is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Kingdom Hearts II continued the tale of Sora, Donald, and Goofy while incorporating a plethora of Disney franchises, as almost every world Sora and the gang visits was inspired by the Disney library (along with Final Fantasy characters peppered throughout the universe). From The Lion King to Mulan to Pirates of the Caribbean, Square Enix leaves few Disney stones unturned when finding ways to infuse some Disney magic into the game’s epic adventure. Adapting such vaulted films is no easy task, and not every world of Kingdom Hearts can capture the essence as well as the series’ best. Read on for EW’s ranking of Kingdom Hearts II‘s worlds from the least Disney of them all to the worlds imbued with the spirit of the Mouse.
13. Hollow Bastion/The World That Never Was/Twilight Town
A trio of major locations from Kingdom Hearts II must, by default, be last on this list, for the near-absence of Disney inherent in the worlds themselves. Hollow Bastion (or the Radiant Garden as it is later known), while now a locale for the Disney villains to commune, is mostly a home for the Final Fantasy characters to live out their days. The World That Never Was is perhaps the game’s most original creation, which also makes it the least Disneyfied of them all. Twilight Town is a relatively pleasant location, but is hardly remembered for how it injects Aladdin or The Little Mermaid into an original area.
Atlantica served as a traditional level in the original Kingdom Hearts, but the sequel sought to transform the undersea kingdom into a unique destination with little success. Players complete the level by singing original songs in the world of Ariel and Ursula, rather than by battling enemies. While that might make Atlantica one of the most uniquely Disney levels in the series as few others tap into the company’s musical inclinations, its cheesy songs and lack of any real engaging gameplay fall short.
11. The Hundred Acre Wood
Pooh Bear’s home has always been a bit of a sidestep in the Kingdom Hearts universe, more a pleasant diversion than a full-on level to overcome. Because of that, Square Enix has done an admirable job of capturing the pleasant, light nature of Pooh’s world, where the biggest conflicts revolve around Eeyore’s tail and jars of honey. But the game’s approach to the idyllic forest remains largely unchanged from one round to the next, a collection of minigames with relatively few challenges. The Hundred Acre World isn’t an Atlantica-style catastrophe in Kingdom Hearts II, it just doesn’t feel as fresh as the nascent days of Sora’s journey.
Another world first introduced in Kingdom Hearts, Agrabah also suffers from a familiarity complex. Explore the Cave of Wonders again. Fight Jafar again. Sure, both of those moments offer new elements, but the gold-filled Treasure Room locales of the Cave don’t quite make the same impact and Jafar is a relatively easy foe this time around. The music and setting still evokes the original Aladdin film to a smart degree, but there’s less wonder in what is definitely not a whole new world.
9. Yen Sid's Tower
Yen Sid’s Tower is technically part of Twilight Town when first introduced, but the area became such a default location for exposition in subsequent spin-offs that it’s tough not to consider the tower its own mini-locale. It is important as the home to Kingdom Hearts’ mythology 101, delivering plenty of intel and explanation as to just what is happening as the game’s expands.
8. Port Royal
One of the strangest worlds included in any Kingdom Hearts, Port Royal is the rare attempt to translate a live-action Disney property into a game full of cartoon staples. Because of that, Port Royal stands out but does not stand the test of time. (Though, really, Virtual Jack Sparrow was as creepy in 2006 as he is in 2016.) The port is a rather valiant effort to switch up the Kingdom Hearts world formula, but the overtly dark tone and adherence to a real-world aesthetic makes for a particularly average level, one that can’t capture the swashbuckling fun of the original Pirates of the Caribbean.
7. Land of Dragons
Mulan finally made its proper debut in Kingdom Hearts II with a solid effort at an early-game level that helps ease players into the game’s new and old experiences. The Land of Dragons introduces Mulan’s quest to join the army disguised as a man, but the plot is complicated by the presence of the Heartless. While the level is a relatively flat one, it’s a smart setup that hints at the large-scale Heartless battles to come and a nice, easy introduction to the game’s new Drive Forms and combat tweaks.
6. Space Paranoids
Tron is easily translated into a video game, and Kingdom Hearts did an impressive job with the series even before Tron: Legacy debuted. Space Paranoids picks up steam and ingenuity toward its second half and the neon bright lights of Tron make this a fascinating level to explore as it channels its source material while making it work in a different form.
5. Olympus Coliseum
What once really only housed a series of tournament-style battles became a fully fledged level in Kingdom Hearts II as Hades’ Underworld was introduced. While it was not the direction players may have expected, KHII‘s exploration of Hercules via Hades’ domain proved to be a smart one, setting it apart from the sunny topside locale of the Coliseum while still leaving plenty to explored in a subsequent return to the film. While the Underworld may essentially be one long stretch of dangerous caverns, the chance to be amongst the heroes and villains of Hercules remains a joy even in this new form.
4. Beast's Castle
As a Disney fan, having the chance to explore the innards of Beast’s Castle is just plain cool. Battling in the ballroom where Beast and Belle dance is surreal and no less thrilling as an opportunity to engage with Disney history in a new and uniquely Kingdom Hearts way. The level does force players, particularly those in need of a few extra levels of power, to re-explore already discovered corners of the castle and fight Heartless over and over, but the grind is well worth the chance to explore a bit of Disney iconography… and unleash mayhem all the while.
3. Halloween Town
Another highlight of the original Kingdom Hearts, Halloween Town returns in Kingdom Hearts II with a completely new area that taps into the magic of the film — Christmas Town. The cheery visuals of Christmas blended with the macabre familiarities of Halloween Town deliver on one of the toughest challenges the Kingdom Hearts team faced in making what’s old feel fresh again. A third visit to the home of Jack Skellington is probably not necessary, but that’s largely thanks to how thoroughly the developers mined the film for every fright and festivity.
2. Pride Land
Even if it was only the second numbered entry, Kingdom Hearts II was still too long a wait to finally explore The Lion King. Luckily, the Pride Land delivers not just in its character transformation (as Sora, Donald, and Goofy) can be seen above, but also in its chance to fight Scar and the level’s awesome, original final boss. Pride Land is perhaps too short a stay at Pride Rock — if Atlantica can get a singalong, why can’t “Hakuna Matata” come to Kingdom Hearts III? — but it is a memorable first step into the beloved series.
1. Disney Castle/Timeless River
Disney Castle and Timeless River bring Disney wizardry to Kingdom Hearts II. The true magic of Kingdom Hearts comes in its message of friendship and the ties that bind through time, and the Disney Castle/Timeless River dichotomy exemplifies Disney’s allure across its generations. One is a celebration of the House of Mouse’s most iconic characters, now appearing as benevolent rulers or denizens of this magnificent castle. Timeless River harkens back to the studio’s roots, the days of a more wiley Mickey, of steamboats and hilarious slide whistle sound effects. Even at its darkest moments, Kingdom Hearts wants players to remember the light in its characters, in the world, and in themselves. Disney Castle and Timeless River are a reminder of the light Disney has brought not just to the game but to so many lives. Kingdom Hearts is its best when the original ideas come together with Disney influences and create something at once full of nostalgia and memorable in its own right — exactly what Disney Castle and Timeless River accomplish.