Before I get into the crux of this article, I should establish its goals. This article is for Kingdom Hearts fans (and would-be fans) hoping to learn more about the ten primary KH games and where each one excels. Each entry has been given an overall ranking based on its gameplay mechanics, storyline, and quality in general. The list goes from #10 to #1.
Additionally, rather than delving into the merits of every single release and re-release, I’ll be discussing the games as they appear in Kingdom Hearts: All-In-One Package, the most recent bundle containing all the major titles in the series.
Oh, and one more thing. Before we begin, I have one primary recommendation for newcomers to the series: play the three main entries in order, then go back and play the secondary games if you’d like more context (or want another adventure in this beautifully absurd universe). It’s truly the only way to experience the series in all its wondrous glory.
Kingdom Hearts Games Ranked
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, let’s jump right into the games, starting with #10.
10. Kingdom Hearts Re:coded
Re:coded is the worst of the cinematic collections, which will invariably fill out the bottom of this list. The cinematics of Kingdom Hearts can be one of the most significant barriers to enjoying the series, and watching a string of them for plot information isn’t my idea of fun.
Essentially, the plot of Re:coded concerns the contents of the diary kept by Jiminy Cricket, which has mysteriously disappeared and been replaced by a cryptic message. This prompts King Mickey to create a “Data-Sora” within the journal, whose task it is to debug the journal’s contents, restore Jiminy’s entries, and uncover the truth behind the message.
This plot is the most egregious where the other titles in the series are concerned. That’s because the story serves absolutely no purpose within the larger Kingdom Hearts narrative.
9. Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover
It was admittedly a tough choice between putting this or the next entry in the second-worst slot. Overall, χ Back Cover isn’t the absurd slog that you might expect from an hour-long cinematic based on a browser game. To be sure, there are some fun moments to be had, especially when the Master of Masters is hamming it up about his ingenious schemes.
That said, the backstory presented here predates the events of the main entries by far too long. The only reason to engage with Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover would be due to a deep interest in the world’s lore. Otherwise, with neither gameplay nor compelling characters who wind up mattering later, there’s no reason to check this out.
8. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
There’s a fundamental problem with 358/2 Days. While the story portrayed in this entry bears great importance for understanding Roxas’ character, that understanding is conveyed in a profoundly bizarre way.
Stripped of the gameplay of the DS version, 358/2 Days is essentially a series of rote descriptions of Roxas doing his job for Organization XIII. All you get are depictions of members of the Organization plotting and scheming, and absolutely endless cut-scenes of Roxas, Axel, and Xion eating ice cream on the clock tower.
By the time things actually start happening within the story, you’ll be long since checked out. Unless you’ve always had a burning desire to watch three people in long black coats eat popsicles, avoid this thing like the plague.
7. Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories
Now we come to Re:Chain of Memories, the worst of the playable entries in the collection, in no small part because it shares the “pointless story” aspect exhibited by others among the secondary titles. Granted, Chain of Memories serves as an introduction to Organization XIII and Naminé, both being important to the overall story of Kingdom Hearts. That said, other titles (namely, Kingdom Hearts II) introduce these story elements just fine, and they do so during events of some consequence, something Chain of Memories fails to do.
On the gameplay front, the card-based system introduced in the Gameboy version of Chain of Memories is ported to a new graphics engine and perspective, with mixed results. While there are some fun tactics to develop and different deck layouts to experiment with, the controls feel woefully awkward mid-combat. While you’ll eventually get used to it, Chain of Memories doesn’t live up to the flow and pacing of combat in later entries, and the card system doesn’t add enough depth to offset that shortcoming.
6. Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage
Finally, we come to the games I legitimately enjoyed. Story-wise, A Fragmentary Passage is particular in its focus, and its importance to any given player will depend on one’s interest in Birth by Sleep, the main game. A Fragmentary Passage focuses on one of the protagonists of that game — Aqua — and details her exploits in the Realm of Darkness before the events of Kingdom Hearts III.
In terms of gameplay, this is probably the most polished and refined of the secondary games, its system being very similar to that of III with somewhat fewer bells and whistles. It’s fast-paced and frenetic while maintaining a logical framework of attacks and maneuvers. As its title implies, A Fragmentary Passage is a considerably lighter entry than its playable peers, restricting its lasting entertainment value. Still, an action-packed story with a narrow focus stands solidly among the better Kingdom Hearts Games.
5. Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD
There are two major reasons to play Dream Drop Distance HD. One would be a desire to see Sora and Riku undertake the test to become Keyblade Masters, providing context for some of the story beats in Kingdom Hearts III. The other would be a desire to run around as Sora and Riku with an assortment of Spirit Dream Eaters (regular Dream Eaters being the game’s new enemies), adorable colorful monsters who fight at your command.
Dream Drop Distance’s core combat system involves an array of mechanics. Notable among them is the ability to magically slingshot special barrels at your foes, which causes a big explosion known as Flowmotion. This allows you to flip and bounce off the environment and perform aerial attacks, and of course, special attacks involving your Spirits. Play this game if the thought of bouncing madly and crushing your enemies atop an adorable nightmare cat is exciting to you.
4. Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep Final Mix
It’s worth noting that Birth by Sleep Final Mix introduces one of the weirdest decisions by the director and writers of the series. For whatever reason, they decide to include a character who looks identical to Roxas, is voiced in both Japanese and English by the same people who voiced Roxas, yet is an entirely distinct character from Roxas. It’s one of those headache-inducing story decisions for which the series is infamous. That said, the story itself actually opens at a brisk pace, establishing some subtle drama and character motivations for the protagonists, Aqua, Terra, and Ventus.
Given that there are three protagonists, you progress through each character’s story in full before moving onto the next, with mechanics and story beats tying the other two into the experience. Combat ramps up in complexity reasonably quickly, which is nice compared to the sluggish start found in other games in the series.
Overall, Birth by Sleep’s gameplay is energetic, varied, flashy, and fun. It’s my favorite of the secondary titles, and it’s one of the first titles in the series that I would genuinely enjoy revisiting.
3. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix
It took a lot of thinking settling on the placement of #2 and #3 on this list. Between the games I had in mind, I couldn’t decide which one would claim supremacy. In the end, I had to ask myself, “after finishing this article, which of them would I prefer to play?”
Sadly, the game that started it all couldn’t be the answer to that question. The small personal reasons that pushed it over the edge into third place primarily have to do with the worlds visited throughout the game. The majority of the Disney settings in the first game simply don’t hold the kind of nostalgia for me to be excited to explore them.
That said, there are more fundamental reasons that the first game struggles to hold up. While I commend the game for being on the simpler side compared to its increasingly convoluted younger siblings, so many scenes are rendered awkward and stilted by hackneyed writing, uneven performances, and strange editing. One sad example rests in one of the locations I do have some nostalgia for, Agrabah. Scenes involving the characters from this world are baffling parodies of their movie counterparts. It made me want to go back and watch Aladdin, but mostly just to remind myself why I have fond feelings for Genie as a character.
Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming of Kingdom Hearts is its combat system, being the very first in the series and all that. It is incredibly barebones compared to its successors, resulting in far too many early combat encounters that feel repetitive, unengaging, and easy.
There are fun moments to be had with the game’s combat nonetheless, and I appreciated the challenge afforded by Olympus Coliseum and the Trickmaster boss fight. Overall, Kingdom Hearts is still a beautiful game with considerably more heart (ha) than the vast majority of titles in the series, Not to mention, it deserves no small credit for taking an insane concept like combining Disney with Final Fantasy and actually pulling it off.
2. Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix
Second among the main entries, and second on this list, is Kingdom Hearts II. As I mentioned, it was difficult deciding between the first two games. When I asked myself which game I’d prefer to revisit, I was still finding virtues and vices on both sides of the argument. In the end, and very fittingly for the series, I had to follow my heart. I imagined returning to the Land of Dragons (which I guess we can’t just call Imperial China) and Beast’s Castle, to the Pride Lands and Port Royal, and I knew that second place belonged to Kingdom Hearts II.
That said, II is not without its problems, particularly where the story is concerned. Besides my much-belabored issue about overly-complicated plot points, there are problems with character motivation and related drama. One issue with the introduction is the sudden passivity of Roxas by its end. Upon learning that his purpose is to disappear to allow Sora to reawaken, and after a brief period of disbelief and anger, Roxas seems inexplicably at peace with the situation, leaving the audience with little to no explanation for this turnaround.
In terms of gameplay, II is a strict improvement on I — it’s faster, more dynamic, and more satisfying. Square also cranked the dial in terms of spectacle, an upward trend which would continue for the series’ combat. Form Changes and the introduction of a second keyblade were among the big stepping stones in establishing the flashy, over-the-top fighting which the developers have become so adept at delivering.
1. Kingdom Hearts III
Finally, we come to the king of Kingdom Hearts. The latest entry in the series, from the very start, had an uncanny ability to put all emphasis on my favorite parts of these adventures. The first world visited in the game, that of Disney’s Hercules, expands hugely on the lone Coliseum found in the first Kingdom Hearts. This gives you the chance to explore Thebes in chaos and scale Mount Olympus with all of the current-gen spectacle Square Enix could muster.
When it comes to Kingdom Hearts III’s story, it’s fair to say that it contains the best and worst the series has to offer. My eyes almost rolled out of my head during the Gummiphone Facetime with tech support. Even still, one of my favorite aspects of Kingdom Hearts is the continual bantering, bonding, and bickering done by the big three: Sora, Donald, and Goofy. III goes all-in on these scenes, and they’re delightful enough that I’m willing to tolerate my share of talk about Heartless and Nobodies and Unversed and Dream Eaters and whatnot.
It also doesn’t hurt III’s entertainment value that combat is a ridiculous, dizzying romp. I didn’t know how much I needed to pilot Sora, Donald, and Goofy through a magical version of Grizzly River Rapids as we plow through scores of Heartless until I played this game. Combine that with Team-Up attacks and Keyblade switching and different Forms, and you’ve got a robust source of distilled mayhem.
Kingdom Hearts III, of course, benefits significantly from its status as the most recent game. It’s able to build off of the foundations established by its predecessors and assume the inherent importance of being this long-awaited landmark title. Still, when all the talk of Xehanorts and Xemnasses and Ansems had worn me down, and I carried on the work for this article with a heavy heart, Kingdom Hearts III reinvigorated my excitement and joy for the series in a way I can’t help but admire.