It’s been a fun, crazy ride. After 18 years of getting to know the characters and exploring the worlds, the Dark Seeker Saga came to a close with Kingdom Hearts III and its DLC episode, Re: Mind. I love this series and it’s been a part of my life so long that it was weird to have it come to an end. Really satisfying, considering how many years it was built up. And I’m excited for more Kingdom Hearts in my future (basically Dream Drop Distance 2.0, baby!), but for many of these characters, Kingdom Hearts III Re: Mind is probably the last time we’ll be seeing them in action and actively involved in the story.
So what better time than now to look back on the Dark Seeker Saga as a whole? Reflect on all the good and the bad. I’m ranking each one from worst to best, and their placement is primarily based on nostalgia, the story, worlds, and most importantly, the characters. And for my own sanity, we’re not including the mobile games, because they’re trainwrecks. Let’s go!
Spoiler warning: I won’t go crazy into spoilers here, but it’s hard not to talk about some of these entries without delving into some details. If you’ve played all these games or don’t care about spoilers, read on!
8. Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded
Re: Coded is the worst game in the franchise. It’s even worse than the money-grubbing mobile games, which is funny since it originated as one. There’s a lot not to like about this entry, but maybe the most disappointing thing of all is the story. For some background, Re: Coded serves as a direct sequel to Kingdom Hearts II, and segues into Dream Drop Distance. Mickey sends a letter in a bottle to Sora, Kairi, and Riku in the post-credits scene of Kingdom Hearts II. At the time, of course, fans speculated over what the contents of this letter could be, but it was a given that Sora and his friends were likely being called upon for another adventure. Fine, right? Wrong.
The whole point of Re: Coded is to explain the contents of the letter through, by far, the most convoluted storytelling on the planet. It’s awful. We didn’t need a full-length game to explain what the letter said. Here, I can give you the basic gist in a single sentence: There are people connected to Sora who were hurt in the past and he needs to save them because he’s the only one who can. There! Easy. Combine that with Dream Drop Distance, a game that also explores the connections Sora has (while simultaneously setting up Kingdom Hearts III) and does it a million times better, and Re: Coded is rendered completely useless.
In a series that is usually pretty purposeful with its storytelling in each installment, Re: Coded is a giant misstep. Also, screw the platforming and random difficulty spikes in this game. I don’t know how I managed to get through it. Luckily, I agree with the decision to turn this atrocity into a 2-hour movie. At least then you can watch the last few cutscenes if you feel inclined and then quickly forget the rest of it exists.
7. Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep
That got a little long, whoops. Turns out Re: Coded really ticked me off. But from here on out, the games get objectively better. With that said though, some of you may be surprised to see Birth by Sleep rank this low. And I am, too, because I wanted to like this game a lot. I remember watching the secret ending for Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix — you know, the one with those three unnamed warriors fighting an old bald wrinkly guy and getting WRECKED. The music was incredible and epic, the action fast-paced and frenetic, all while dropping a crazy bombshell (who is this boy who looks just like Roxas?!). The Internet exploded with fan theories, and I remember being extremely excited to see the stories of these three mysterious people unfold. Unfortunately, Birth by Sleep doesn’t do a good job telling these tales.
Sure, the main trio of Terra, Aqua, and Ven are likable overall (although I wish Terra and Aqua’s voice acting was stronger, but luckily Jesse McCartney’s work as Ven is solid). It’s fun getting new Disney worlds to explore. But when you’re really just there for the destination — and you know it doesn’t end well based on the secret ending — getting through the journey is a bit of a slog. Honestly? Aqua should have been the main character. The main story campaigns simply aren’t different enough to justify three-character routes. Terra and Ven’s stories, while they end tragically, are also addressed in Aqua’s route and since her story ties everything together you don’t miss that much.
On top of all that, Aqua’s side story in A Fragmentary Passage is actually quite well-done, setting up her arc and importance in Kingdom Hearts III while showing how much impact her friends had on her without having to play as them to get the point across. It’s a shame that Birth by Sleep missed the mark, because the combat and gameplay is a blast, creating new commands through attacks and magic combinations are super fun, and that board game is pretty addictive
even though I want to strangle something every time Ven beats me by a hair!
6. Kingdom Hearts
Ah, the game that started it all. Cheesy as hell and by far the most Disney-centric, the first game really leaned into its status as a “Disney and Final Fantasy crossover.” On one hand, I have to give it props for its success — it obviously did something right and launched an entire franchise that’s hugely popular with gamers and non-gamers alike. But Kingdom Hearts wasn’t my entry point in the series (we’ll get to that later), so I don’t have the same level of love or appreciation that more fans who started with it probably do. Still, though, it’s not terrible. The platforming is admittedly clunky, but collecting the Dalmation puppies is super fun, and watching Goofy’s HP bar go across the screen is amusing.
Looking back on it now, something I find interesting about Kingdom Hearts is its tone — the story felt so quintessentially Disney, with familiar tropes and cliches peppered throughout. Kairi’s status as a princess, resulting in the Disney classic damsel-in-distress? Check. The Disney villains band together to achieve their own goals and use Riku as a pawn? Check. Sora is the chosen one, and has to venture to new, unknown worlds to save his friends? Check. The amazing, awe-inspiring power of friendship? Check.
Many of these things persist throughout the series, but out of all of them, Kingdom Hearts maybe feels the most strange foreign now because of how “Disney” it was. But it also adds to the charm of it, too. The series may have significantly evolved over the years, but Kingdom Hearts started it all. I’ve only played this game once, and that’s something I’d like to fix someday. Maybe I’d rank it higher if I played it again. But for now, this is where it’s at.
5. Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories
Objectively, Chain of Memories is not the best game. Not by a long shot. First released on the Gameboy Advance, the system’s limitations results in a game that feels so jarringly different. The maps resemble something akin to side-scrolling, and the tactical playing card battle system is a huge departure from the more action-packed system. The Disney worlds are all recycled from the first game, and not for the better. Donald and Goofy don’t even fight alongside Sora. It’s so different, and yet this game has a very special place in my heart.
Chain of Memories was my entry point in the series. I inherited a box of Gameboy games from my brother, and over one summer I made it my goal to play all of them. I spent a few hours max on most of them, either because they were too difficult, I got lost and couldn’t figure out where to go next, or I lost interest. When I started Chain of Memories, I vividly remember being extremely confused. Why are Disney characters here? I recognize those Final Fantasy characters, why are they here? All this talk of memories is making my head spin, and why is Sora wearing a hideous red jumpsuit? But I kept going, or trying to. Right around Agrabah, I was ready to give up. I didn’t have a great feel for the combat system so I was dying a lot. I was going to turn it off, but I went back to the title screen and noticed that there was this other character I could play as. So I thought, okay, I’ll try this. And if this isn’t better, I’m moving on. Boy, am I glad I stuck around.
Riku’s story campaign was the thing that got me hooked on Chain of Memories, and by extension, the franchise as a whole. I was immediately drawn into his story, and the conflict he was going through was personal and character-driven. From that point on, I was obsessed. I pretty much blitzed through his story (or as fast as you can when Riku Replica’s involved), and it inspired me to give Sora’s story another chance, too. Namine became a standout favorite character alongside Riku, and as they say, the rest is history.
Looking back, I can’t deny that if Riku’s story wasn’t already unlocked from my brother’s previous playthroughs, I likely never would have given the game a second thought after quitting Sora’s campaign and missed out on a wonderful game series. So, while Chain of Memories is far from perfect, and probably not the best entry point in the series in terms of narrative cohesion, I still played the hell out of it and have a lot of fond memories associated with it.
4. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
This is where this list got really difficult to settle on. These last few games are some of my absolute favorites, so it was hard sorting them. 358/2 Days has a wonderful, character-driven story that revolves around Roxas’ time in the Organization and the friendships he forges with Axel and Xion. The three of them are absolutely delightful together. They spend their days eating ice cream, and while that sounds silly on the surface, the conversations they have in these scenes range from being fun and lighthearted to existential and dark. It’s great stuff.
The Tetris-esque leveling system was incredibly fun and addicting, and unlocking characters in multiplayer mode was something that I didn’t know I needed until I made it my goal to acquire every playable character. I sunk so many hours into Days. It’s part of why Roxas is one of my top favorite characters now, the ending is my top favorite moment in the series (although it may have been dethroned by another moment that I’ll get to), and it’s one of the two games in the series that made me cry.
Sadly though, part of the reason 358/2 Days isn’t ranked one spot higher is that it wasn’t remade. It was originally released on the Nintendo DS (an impressive feat considering the system limitations), and unfortunately, that’s the only way to play the game anymore. Subsequent remixes adapted Days into a 2-hour movie comprised of important cutscenes, like Re: Coded. Which is fine, but you miss a lot of the emotional core of the game without being able to play it. I really wish Square Enix would revisit the game and remake it for newer systems because I would buy it in a heartbeat.
3. Kingdom Hearts III
I didn’t realize how ironic it was to rank Kingdom Hearts III as number three on my list until after I wrote up this section. I wish it was clever, but ultimately it’s number three because it makes the most sense. After several years of waiting, Kingdom Hearts III finally came out last year. For me? It was absolutely worth the wait. The graphics are incredibly beautiful, the gameplay is fun and exploration is encouraged through collectibles and sprawling Disney worlds (almost all of which are new and take advantage of more current Disney IPs). After several games setting up the story and conflict, Kingdom Hearts III largely succeeds and delivers on those expectations.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Sora. He is absolutely wonderful in this game. I always liked Sora, but he never really had much going on. He was largely defined by his optimism and kindness, but that was about it. Kingdom Hearts III gives him a solid arc, and I loved what they did with his character and personality. He finally felt like a fleshed-out character with believable flaws and doubts. The only downside is that it took this many games to get there. But I digress.
I mentioned earlier that 358/2 Days is one of two games in the series to make me cry. Kingdom Hearts III is the other one — specifically, Roxas, Xion, and Axel’s reunion. The moment I heard Xion’s Theme and they started crying got me, and the next thing I knew, I was crying right along with them. With touching reunions left and right and character arcs resolved, if the series decided to end with Kingdom Hearts III I would have been okay with it. But with the bright graphics and overall great Disney worlds, it would be a shame to end it here so I’m glad there’s more down the road.
The game’s ending is admittedly a bit rushed though, something that I’m glad the DLC episode Re: Mind took the time to address. It expanded on the last several hours, added new boss battles, as well as a whole new area to explore, all of which are great and welcome additions. But the crowning achievement of Re: Mind was the clash between the Guardians of Light and the Seekers of Darkness. It’s a new scenario where you get to play as everyone in a team battle, and it’s absolutely incredible. The music is fantastic, everyone has a moment to shine and work together. It’s so good that it’s my new favorite moment in the series. It’s so well done. Sure, it’s a shame it wasn’t in the base game, but the fact that the DLC added way more than I was expecting, both story and gameplay-wise, made it worthwhile.
2. Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance
This one surprised me. I was expecting Kingdom Hearts III to rank above Dream Drop Distance for sure. But looking back? I adore this game. I loved how it set up the story and conflict for Kingdom Hearts III (time travel and all, I was along for the ride 100%). The gameplay is fun, the Disney worlds are new and each one features unique areas for Sora and Riku to explore, and the Dream Eater mechanic was amusing. Especially once I assembled a team of nothing but Ryu Dragons for Riku. Horribly unbalanced? Yes. But is it hilarious to watch my adorable, dog-like dragons prance around me before taking flight and murdering everything in sight? Yes.
But more than anything? I love this game because it’s clearly Riku’s story. Technically he shares the spotlight with Sora, but the game goes above and beyond to develop Riku’s character. His personality gets to shine more as he explores Disney worlds, and seeing his sarcasm on full display is extremely fun. Honestly, I could ramble on about his hilarious interactions with the Disney and The World Ends With You Characters, but more importantly, Dream Drop Distance resolves Riku’s series-long arc fighting the darkness and his past demons. He learns to completely accept his darkness and make it his light. He uses his newfound power to save Sora and ultimately earns the title of Keyblade Master. His story is fully realized, and it’s so well done.
Sora may be the main character in the series, but he played second fiddle to Riku in Dream Drop Distance, and it’s something I wasn’t expecting at all. I remember thinking, oh Sora will definitely be a Keyblade Master by the end, no doubt! And I’m happy I was wrong about that. Dream Drop Distance defied my expectations, and each time I replay it I’m reminded of just what a good game it is.
1. Kingdom Hearts II
Twelve years ago, I played Kingdom Hearts II for the first time. After beating the first Kingdom Hearts, I immediately took out the disc and inserted Kingdom Hearts II. I’ve talked about my initial thoughts on the prologue in my first run before, and the more time has gone by, the more I love it. It ties in the preceding game, Chain of Memories, fantastically. Remember how Sora was put to sleep at the end of the previous game? Well, it’s been a year, and some stuff has happened, but he’s about to wake up! Narrative wise, it throws you a complete curveball, but the tutorials and lightheartedness of the prologue (at least at the start, boy does it get pretty intense later), eases you into the new gameplay mechanics. Introducing a new character and making them likable and sympathetic in the span of a few hours is no easy task, and yet Kingdom Hearts II does it with ease in Roxas.
I bring up the prologue again because I think it’s part of why Kingdom Hearts II excels, and why Kingdom Hearts II has held strong as my top choice, despite Kingdom Hearts III and Dream Drop Distance being contenders. The storytelling in this game is really great — it knows when to spend time on other characters and themes, and how to tie it back into the main story and get you invested. Roxas seemingly has no connection to Sora at the start of the prologue, why should anyone care? His dreams are a clue, but Axel shows up shortly after in an attempt to bring him back to the Organization, the very same one that Sora fought against and the reason he’s asleep. It establishes the villain and conflict through an outside perspective, something the game didn’t have to do. It could have just been Yen Sid explaining it to Sora, Donald, and Goofy like he does after the prologue. But having the first hand experience through Roxas’ eyes? It’s so much more meaningful.
There’s something about Kingdom Hearts II that just really clicks with me. The selection of Disney worlds is nice and varied (even if the execution of some of these options is lacking, and don’t even get me started on Little Mermaid, yikes). The game also has the unique distinction of requiring players to visit the Disney worlds twice at different junctures in the story. It’s a smart way to carefully pace the story while expanding on the conflict with Organization XIII without forcing it and potentially rushing it. The combat system is dramatically reformed from the first game — it’s quick and simplistic, but difficult battles and enemies make it exciting. There aren’t a lot of strategies involved in most of the fights, but there is something so incredibly fun about obliterating all of my enemies in a combat system that’s fast, fun, and responsive.
The game also has its fair share of narrative drama and stakes, pushing the main story forward while integrating the Disney and Final Fantasy characters into the action. Specifically, the 1,000 Heartless battle at Hollow Bastion and everything leading up to it is the first thing that comes to my mind. The Organization shows up in Hollow Bastion, which is already a bad situation. Then, hordes of Heartless start swarming Hollow Bastion, and the Final Fantasy characters band together to fend them off. Goofy is injured and out of the fight for a while — did I think he was actually dead? No. But was I concerned for him? Absolutely. I was completely sold.
The whole game does that really well. From the 1000 Heartless Battle to Sora and Riku’s final battle with Xemnas, the stakes feel real. For all of these reasons, Kingdom Hearts II is the game I’ve revisited the most in the series. When Kingdom Hearts III’s release date was announced, I didn’t have enough time to play through all of the games again like I wanted, but I made a point of playing Kingdom Hearts II, not so much for the recap but because I wanted to experience it again. It’s my number one favorite Kingdom Hearts game in the Dark Seeker Saga, and it’s also among my top favorite video games of all time.
I’m excited to see where the Kingdom Hearts series goes from here. Whether it surpasses the Dark Seeker Saga or not, these games will always be special. This series greatly shaped my passion for JRPGs at a time when my exposure to video games with overarching narratives and recurring characters was extremely limited. It had a big impact on me in a way that no other franchise really has, so I doubt my love for these games will ever subside or go away.
Thank you for reading!