There are times when it’s hard to believe the Kingdom Hearts franchise even exists. In an age of copyright strikes, brand protection, and corporate concepts that often clash with creativity, how were we so lucky to get a game that allowed us to explore the wonderful worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy?
Kingdom Hearts‘ greatness comes down to a variety of factors, but discussion about the game really do seem to always circle back to those worlds. Each new area of the Kingdom Hearts franchise takes you on an almost impossible journey through some of the most imaginative environments ever conceived by the finest artists and creators in entertainment. It’s sometimes worth playing these games just to see where you’ll go next.
While every Kingdom Hearts fan has their personal favorite world, it’s hard to deny the greatness of these stunning settings that I’ll always think of whenever the simple idea of this franchise brings a smile to my face.
10. Kingdom of Corona (Kingdom Hearts 3)
Incredibly unfortunate name aside, this tribute to the movie Tangled is so well-designed that it arguably enhances the appeal of the so-so film that it’s based on.
While the bouncy music is certainly the star of these areas, there’s an undeniable pleasure to be found in the way that this world combines classic fantasy tropes with a kind of fantastical innocence that just makes you smile. In many ways, it represents the best of the very idea of combining Final Fantasy role-playing and Disney design.
9. Olympus Coliseum (Kingdom Hearts)
Olympus Coliseum is certainly beautifully designed and benefits from its association with the eternally underrated Hercules film, but this is one of those cases of a Kingdom Hearts world that is sometimes best remembered for what it let you do rather than how it looked.
By focusing largely on combat, Olympus Coliseum offered a welcome break to those who felt the first Kingdom Hearts’ chaotic blend of concepts sometimes pulled you in gameplay directions you didn’t want to go. This level brilliantly realizes its thematic potential by putting you in an arena and forcing you to face off against some of the game’s most devious and memorable combat challenges yet.
8. Toy Box (Kingdom Hearts 3)
Toy Story’s long-awaited Kingdom Hearts debut didn’t disappoint as Kingdom Hearts 3’s Toy Box world recreated the most iconic locations of the films while tapping into the very spirit of Pixar’s premiere franchise.
Granted, some of the gameplay ideas in this one don’t quite work, but between the incredible visual style that recreates the look of the latest Toy Story films and those childhood favorite locations, you really do feel like a kid playing with their best toys when you wander through this incredible creation.
7. The Grid (Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance)
Tron’s blend of gaming and tech made led to its infamously lukewarm reception in 1982, but the years have been kind to one of Disney’s most ambitious “failures.” As it turns out, Tron also works incredibly well as a Kingdom Hearts world.
Like the movies themselves, The Grid’s neon-infused setting (which is technically based on Tron Legacy) may not be for everyone. Still, for the Kingdom Hearts player looking for something a little different, The Grid offers an exciting detour from the more colorful, bright, and fantastical worlds typically seen in these games. As is always the case with Tron, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the music is wonderful.
6. The World That Never Was (Kingdom Hearts 2)
The World That Never Was is the home to countless Heartless and Nobodies. Its dark industrial vibes certainly help it stand out from a considerable pack, but in true Kingdom Hearts fashion, even this world’s coldest corners benefit from undeniable style.
The World That Never Was is like a combination of Las Vegas and the vision of Hell seen at the end of Hellraiser 2. It’s a labyrinth of sin that tells a wonderful story and offers unique visual splendors heightened by the tension of existing in such a hostile world.
5. Traverse Town (Kingdom Hearts)
It feels strange to list one of Kingdom Hearts’ earliest worlds among the game’s best given the fantastic adventures this franchise would take us on, but the splendor of Traverse Town has certainly survived throughout the years.
Essentially a hub for the various people whose worlds have been lost to darkness, Traverse Town features bits of personality from those various environments but ties it all together with a Victorian design style that almost perfectly binds its most ambitious concepts. It works incredibly well from both a mechanical and thematic standpoint.
4. Hollow Bastion/Radiant Gardens (Kingdom Hearts)
While Disney-inspired worlds understandably get most of the love in Kingdom Hearts games, you can’t underestimate the ways that Final Fantasy’s style and lore contribute to the overall design of this franchise. If you’re looking for proof of that concept, look no further than Hollow Bastion/Radiant Gardens.
Essentially the place where Final Fantasy and Disney meet, Hollow Bastion/Radiant Gardens feel like areas that would certainly work in a Final Fantasy game or a Disney film, but would likely never feel quite as perfect as they do in the context of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Areas like this make you truly appreciate the visual splendor of the Final Fantasy series and well many of its worlds measure against some of Disney’s best work.
3. Symphony of Sorcery (Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance)
As a world based on Fantasia, it should probably come as no surprise that Symphony of Sorcery offers some of the most fantastic sights and sounds in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. What may surprise you are the subtle ways that this world pays tribute to many of the clever concepts that made Fantasia a revolutionary animated film.
There’s very little dialog in this world, which means that most of the action is dictated by sound and music. While clearly a way to showcase this world’s excellent score, the ways that sound is used to so perfectly accentuate the storytelling and action sequences invokes key elements of Fantasia in ways that go beyond simple tribute.
2. Timeless River (Kingdom Hearts 2)
As all high school photographers must eventually learn, not everything is made more “artistic” simply by converting it to black and white. That said, the monochrome Timeless River is truly one of Kingdom Hearts’ most stunning destinations.
Timeless River obviously pays tribute to Steamboat Willie, but it’s really an elaborate nod to some of Disney’s earliest projects and a time in the company’s history that isn’t as talked about as it perhaps should be. It’s honestly the most glowing and elaborate homage to a specific time period that we’ve seen since the release of those iconic shorts.
1. Halloween Town (Kingdom Hearts)
Perhaps my bias is showing, but there seems to be a consensus among many Kingdom Hearts fans that the scope of the franchise’s ambition really came into focus the first time they laid eyes on Halloween Town.
Halloween Town embraced its source material in a way that no other Kingdom Hearts world quite did up until that point in the series. Its visuals perfectly played off Nightmare Before Christmas’ legendary style and gifted our heroes with fresh looks that would have made them the coolest kids in Hot Topic. This was the kind of world you never wanted to leave. It set a standard that some may argue has never quite been topped.