Kingdom Hearts is something of a unicorn in the video game industry. A crossover between two very unlikely franchises — Disney and Final Fantasy — Kingdom Hearts was a huge success. Despite how much of a risk it was to bank on such a unique premise, it drew in fans from both sides of the spectrum; from Final Fantasy and RPG fans looking to immerse themselves in a new series, to newcomers simply wanting to visit Disney worlds from their favorite animated films. I can’t think of another series even close to it, and it’s near and dear to my heart.
When I first played Chain of Memories, though, I wasn’t there to explore the worlds. After all, the Disney worlds in this GBA midquel are not the best way to experience them. Not only are they all repeats of the worlds in Kingdom Hearts, but the level design is pretty simplistic and doesn’t encourage a ton of exploration. It wasn’t until I started playing through the mainline games proper that I began to appreciate the inclusion of both the Disney and original worlds.
What Makes a World Great in the Kingdom Hearts Series
For me, what makes a world in the Kingdom Hearts games great ties back to three key components:
- Story and characters
- World design and exploration
- Aesthetic and music
While these criteria were useful for me while I was compiling this list of absolute favorites, it’s not set and stone. At the end of the day, many of my choices boil down to the worlds I enjoy visiting the most. Over the years, there has been a handful that I especially enjoy visiting. Whether it’s for the story or characters, level design, music, or exploration, I’m along for the ride.
So without further ado, here are my favorite worlds in the Kingdom Hearts series!
San Fransokyo (Kingdom Hearts III)
One of the most metropolitan worlds in the series, San Fransokyo’s world design is a cross between Tokyo and San Fransisco, the setting of Big Hero 6. Whereas the city is neat in the movie, but not shown off very much outside of a few establishing shots, Kingdom Hearts III makes San Fransokyo feel alive. It’s not as sprawling as some of the other worlds in Kingdom Hearts III, it makes up for it with its verticality with the skyscrapers that you can run up and explore.
I also appreciate the way the main story ties into the world. Seemingly taking place after the events of the Big Hero 6 movie, the story explores Organization XIII resurrecting the body of Baymax that was left behind in the alternate dimension of the film, making it literally a husk that they could use to further their own ends. That’s really cool! There are also visual cues to Sora’s connection with Roxas while he sits on the balloon eating ice cream, and it’s great.
Traverse Town (Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance)
While I prefer the slower, more melancholic exploration music in Kingdom Hearts, Traverse Town is effectively a new world in Dream Drop Distance with the added districts to explore, new gameplay mechanics that significantly improve exploration, and the practically seamless integration of The World Ends With You characters. The graffiti that decorates the walls, bright and colorful architecture are all great touches.
Kingdom of Corona (Kingdom Hearts III)
Tangled is among one of my favorite Disney films, so its inclusion in Kingdom Hearts III was a joy. As one of the new Seven Princesses of Heart, Kingdom Hearts had the perfect story justification for bringing in new Disney-themed worlds, as opposed to the worlds we had previously where they didn’t make sense at all (Alice is a Princess of Heart? Okay, game!). The result is a world that is incredibly colorful and vibrant. It feels like Tangled jumped out of the screen and into my video game, a huge benefit of the graphical upgrades being much closer in line to Disney’s 3D animated films.
Sora is a much stronger character in this game as well, so his interactions with the Disney characters are fantastic and genuine. Kingdom Hearts III also recreates more scenes from the Disney films directly (sometimes to its detriment), but I thought that the scenes that were recreated in the Kingdom of Corona were very well done and contributed to a great Disney world.
Hollow Bastion (Kingdom Hearts)
I didn’t realize this until I went back and replayed Kingdom Hearts (finally!) but all of the worlds tend to be very claustrophobic and small. Is that because the camera is so close behind Sora, or are they truly small worlds? It’s probably a little bit of both.
As a result, Hollow Bastion actually isn’t the best in terms of exploration. The puzzles can be convoluted at times, and the overly long elevator rides can be annoying at times. But where Hollow Bastion may lack in exploration, the aesthetic, music, and story and character moments in this world are vital and earn it a ton of points for me. I love how much of the castle is flooded and swarming with Heartless, and the fantastic music reinforces this sense of foreboding and danger.
The story of Kingdom Hearts notably takes a more mature and interesting direction, with Riku fully turning on Sora and forcing Donald and Goofy to betray him. It may be short-lived, but it’s an excellent moment that sets the stage for a great team-up with Sora and the Beast. This decrepit castle is the place of operations for Maleficient, and it’s revealed through Kairi’s flashbacks that it used to be a kingdom of life and prosperity before it fell, and it’s an interesting bit of worldbuilding.
While later games like Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep expand on the Hollow Bastion by including Radiant Garden and feature one of my favorite moments in the entire series, Radiant Garden’s slower rendition of the Hollow Bastion theme isn’t as good, sadly. As a result, Hollow Bastion remains my favorite iteration of this world.
Olympus (Kingdom Hearts III)
Olympus is a HUGE improvement to its previous iterations in the Kingdom Hearts series. In Kingdom Hearts, Olympus Coliseum was comprised of two small areas. There was no room for exploration; the focus was on it being an arena for epic battles. While that was cool on paper, it wasn’t the best in execution.
Kingdom Hearts II expanded the coliseum further, adding an Underworld region to explore, and while it was an improvement, I can’t say it’s one of my favorite worlds in Kingdom Hearts II to explore. At the end of the day, the Underworld mostly functions as yet ANOTHER coliseum, but you know, in the Underworld. How different!
In Kingdom Hearts III, Olympus is the first Disney world you explore, and I definitely think it was meant to be a showcase of what fans could look forward to regarding the world designs moving forward. Remember how Olympus Coliseum was literally two small areas that barely has anything to do with Hercules or his story? Now, Olympus is a sprawling and expansive world, with several areas to explore that make it feel far more alive than it ever has before.
Something Kingdom Hearts III does really well is tying in the Disney worlds to the characters and their experiences, and that’s true in Olympus. After losing most of his power in Dream Drop Distance, Sora returns to Olympus so he can ask Hercules for support. It’s a way to justify the visit to this world while aligning Sora’s experiences with the Disney characters around him. It’s great. Olympus recycles key components of its counterparts but expands on it to be the best showing of Olympus in the Kingdom Hearts series yet.
Twilight Town (Kingdom Hearts II)
Technically, Kingdom Hearts III‘s version of Twilight Town is better, with more NPC’s that walk the streets and a new restaurant where Sora can cook with Remy in what’s maybe my favorite minigame in the entire game. While it’s objectively better in terms of design, aesthetic, and exploration, the version I think back to fondly is its portrayal in Kingdom Hearts II.
The prologue takes place in Twilight Town where you play as Roxas, a teenage boy who just wants to go to the beach with his friends before summer vacation ends. He seems to have some kind of connection to Sora, but it’s unclear how. As each day progresses, strange things begin happening to Roxas and the town around him. At one point, everyone freezes. In another, clones of Vivi appear. Strange mysteries are everywhere and watching the mysteries be unveiled and the truth revealed throughout the week is truly excellent and compelling.
Kingdom Hearts II also has an area you can’t get to in the sequel and is exclusive to Roxas’ prologue. It reinforces the very simple but relatable goals of the Twilight Town gang to spend their final days of summer vacation at the beach and just be HAPPY. After Sora wakes up, there are a few moments where Roxas’ emotions come through, and it’s beautiful. You spend a lot of time in Twilight Town between the prologue and subsequent visits to the world, but it never gets boring.
A large part of why Twilight Town is one of my favorite worlds is the music. 358/2 Days also reinforces this through the friendship between Roxas, Axel, and Xion, and the amount of time they spend in Twilight Town. If there’s a world I wish I could visit in real life, it’s this one.
The Caribbean (Kingdom Hearts III)
Much like Olympus, The Caribbean has the benefit of being a major improvement to its predecessor in Kingdom Hearts II. I adore Kingdom Hearts II, but not necessarily for the Disney worlds. I don’t hate them by any means, and I think the selections are good and improvements to the first game. But I also think there are some missed opportunities and Port Royal is definitely one of them. The graphical differences between Sora’s exaggerated hair, hands, and feet in contrast with the dark color palette and attempted realism of Captain Jack, Elizabeth, and Will are distracting, and they don’t mesh well together.
But with the Unreal Engine 4 that Kingdom Hearts III is built on, there’s no longer that gap. Sora can actually blend in! Actually, giving him a pirate outfit was maybe one of the best decisions they made and reinforces the smooth integration of Sora and his friends in the Pirates world. With new islands to explore, a ship you can sail across the open waters, The Caribbean is fantastic and a great improvement. It’s arguably the best Disney world in Kingdom Hearts III.
The World That Never Was (Kingdom Hearts II)
The World That Never Was is the final world in Kingdom Hearts II, but it’s not the first time we see it. It appears in the secret ending for Kingdom Hearts and in Roxas’ flashbacks in Kingdom Hearts II. The build-up for the final showdown at Organization XIII’s headquarters is so well-done, and the design aesthetic of this world is excellent. Dripping with a modern atmosphere and gothic architecture with bold neon lights, this world is by far one of the most visually unique in the series.
Another positive is the variety of areas to explore and there’s a sense of verticality as you make your way to the top while fighting off the remaining Organization members. The music is also perfect, a dark and foreboding melody. I’ll admit I have a bias for a couple of different reasons. Not only does Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix add in a very difficult, but emotionally impactful battle, but Riku (finally!) joins your party. The very first time I played this game, I spent HOURS running around with Riku on my team and leveling up way more than I needed to, and pouring nearly all of my AP items into Sora and Riku.
As an aside, I also love this world’s return in 358/2 Days where it serves as the backdrop for the final boss fight between Roxas and Riku. A fight we’ve only seen flashes of before, we got to truly experience it in this game. The amazing “Another Side, Another Story -Deep Dive-” music punctuates this epic boss fight, and it’s remained one of my top favorite moments in the entire series.
Fantasia – Riku’s Side (Dream Drop Distance)
In Dream Drop Distance, you switch (or “drop”) back and forth between Sora and Riku. While they both visit the same worlds like in Chain of Memories, the areas are very different between the two so it’s never repetitive and it effectively feels like a separate, new world. They also visit the worlds at different points in the story, so sometimes the actions Sora makes in his world impact Riku, and vice versa. None of it is ever major, but it’s a small detail I appreciate and it takes advantage of the dropping mechanic between Sora and Riku.
Fantasia is one of the new Disney worlds introduced to Dream Drop Distance, and by far, Riku’s side of this world is my favorite in the entire Kingdom Hearts series. I adore this world so, so much. Both sides of Fantasia play classical music that’s fitting for the characters. Sora’s side gets the upbeat “Symphony No. 6 Pastoral Op. 68” while Riku gets “The Nutcracker Suite Op. 71” which is easily one of my favorite pieces of classical music of all time.
I remember seeing The Nutcracker live in high school and being absolutely blown away by the music and dancing, so exploring the world with this music in the background was incredible. Not only is the music persistent throughout the world, but every time you strike an enemy with your Keyblade it emits a musical sound effect (like drums) that reinforces the musical nature and aesthetic of the world.
Once again my bias is showing, but I also love each explorable area on Riku’s side. It includes a floral forest area, an autumn forest with giant trees, and a snowy tundra. I wish they were bigger, but I love the music and aesthetic so much that I don’t mind it. I also recall the Nightmare Ryu Dragons being introduced in this world and being overwhelmed by their speed and flight before resolving to get one (or two) myself for my team.
This world may not have the most exciting story or character moments, but I adore the world design and exploration, and aesthetic and music that it makes it one of the worlds I look forward to revisiting the most. Fantasia is a wonderfully charming and creative Disney world that took full advantage of the experimental nature of the film and adapted it into a fun and delightful world in the Kingdom Hearts series.
Thank you for reading! What are your favorite Kingdom Hearts worlds? Let us know in the comments!