The Voice Actors of the Kingdom Hearts Series

Voicing in the Kingdom Hearts series

The voices behind the characters

East vs West- My Brief Stance

I’m not entirely sure why, considering a massive part of my gaming collection is pre-voicing , but in recent games – and particularly RPGs – voice acting has become one of the first things I look at. I have absolutely no issue in going onto YouTube and looking up a game’s end credits before it hits my English shores in order to approve or disapprove of the cast before I even play the game, even if I end up spoilt as to some of the characters that may or may not appear within it.

I should probably start right now by stating that I do not believe in the supremacy of Japanese dubs, despite my position as an avid RPG fan. This does make me a bit of a standalone voice in the crowd sometimes, but there are several occasions where I have no problem in saying that I prefer the English dubbing to the Japanese. In some respects Kingdom Hearts has become one of those series where this statement applies, and that sentiment was echoed a few years back by the series’ own creator Tetsuya Nomura, when he stated that people more often associate the English voices than the Japanese.

Casting Choices

Haley Joel Osment

The voice of Sora

The casting directors for Kingdom Hearts have followed a rather interesting pattern in choosing voices for the characters stretching back to the first game. Following in Disney’s footsteps of casting an adventurous mixture of “Disney voices” (as Disney seems to have a massive supply of contract voices), with a collection of mainstream “celebrity voices” (usually big names in movies), Kingdom Hearts’ casting director, Ned Lott, ventured out of the usual field by bringing in a veritable smorgasbord of voices from unusual areas for a video game. Lott brought together the established Disney voice talent for a majority of the characters (particularly the Disney characters) with many “regular” actors who had not really been involved in voice acting before, such as David Boreanaz (Squall) and Steve Burton (Cloud). Lott even managed (the shock of it) to secure Academy Award nominated actor Haley Joel Osment (this game started a trend of him voicing characters in several Disney movies). In the cast list for the first Kingdom Hearts game, you would actually find very little reliance on “professional” voice actors outside of the Disney talent pool, with the majority of original and Final Fantasy characters being voiced by screen actors, or even singers (ie. Mandy Moore as Aerith).

This odd mix of voices is something that unexpectedly worked a lot better than people would have thought possible. I’ve played games in the past that have tried using “regular” actors rather than established voice actors, and they generally don’t turn out as effective as they could have (a notable example for me was Buffy: Chaos Bleeds, although the usually mild and meek Amber Benson’s performance as the vampire version of Tara, really stole the show in Willow’s levels). However, Kingdom Hearts pulled it off to a degree that was as surprising as it was charming. The next voice director of the Kingdom Hearts series, Bob Buchholz (who has filled this role in every release of the series since the second game), has continued this trend across his work with Square Enix; not just the Kingdom Hearts games, but for other titles (The Compilation of Final Fantasy VII and Dissidia -Final Fantasy-).

A Double-Edged Keyblade?

The problem is that this method of casting has been a bit of a double-edged sword. Firstly it can be really difficult to keep regular actors on-board for several different reasons. So far, we have unfortunately bore witness to repeated voice changes from one game to the next, which is something we haven’t seen with Square Enix’s other franchises (my main basis for comparison being Final Fantasy X & X-2, where all actors from the first game returned for the second, but the more recent Compilation of Final Fantasy VII can also be looked at for an example of this). Several of the “celebrity” voices used in the first Kingdom Hearts were replaced in the second, and in turn this saw an increase in professional voice actors taking over: Billy Zane was replaced by Richard Epcar as “Ansem, Seeker of Darkness”, David Boreanaz was replaced by Doug Erholtz as Leon/Squall, and Christy Carlson Romano was replaced by Mae Whitman as Yuffie (the odd exception was Mandy Moore‘s replacement by Hollywood actress Mena Suvari as Aerith in one of the most fan-controversial moments of the series’ history). As an aside, I should probably say at this moment that I actually kind of liked Suvari as Aerith and didn’t think she deserved anywhere near the amount of hate she got from the fans. She at least tried to fit the voice work to the appearance of the character. She also displayed a better attempt to act compared to Moore’s rather bland “I’m just reading off a script” approach (I did like Mandy Moore, but replaying the game recently really made me realize she wasn’t all that great).

I place a lot of the blame on Bob Buchholz, ever since seeing the extended making-of in the US Collector’s Edition of Final Fantasy VII Advent Children. To anyone who owns that, if you haven’t watched it, do it now-it’s been extended with interviews with some of the English cast and crew and shows filming inside the studio of actors while they were delivering their lines. There are many times you see them performing the line so much better than what appeared for the final film, and it made me realize that the actors deserve a little less hate.

Changing of the guard-frequent voice replacements

Hayden Panettiere-the original Kairi

The constant replacement of character voices has continued throughout the series- Lance Bass‘s battle cries as Sephiroth in the first game led to him being succeeded by George Newbern; after being newly recruited in Kingdom Hearts II to play as Naminé, Brittany Snow have been replaced by Meaghan Jette Martin, who had recently (as of Re:Chain of Memories) played a role in Disney’s Camp Rock. Another alumni of Camp Rock, Alyson Stoner, surprisingly replaced Hayden Panettiere as the voice of Kairi in Re:Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days (where she also voiced Xion, a role she reprised for a cameo line in Birth by Sleep). Hayden returned only for one incredibly short line in Birth by Sleep. Again, bringing in actors known primarily for live action doesn’t always work, and in these two girls’ cases, Stoner did what I saw as a very good emulation of Kairi’s voice, whilst Jette Martin’s Naminé was incredibly flat (which is a shame, because I really liked her in ABC Family’s short lived TV-adaptation of 10 Things I Hate About You).

I just mentioned that Hayden, the original Kairi, didn’t return for two games. This is not an exclusive occurence, as DiZ/Ansem the Wise, despite having only had two actors, has not been voiced by the same one in any successive game. In Kingdom Hearts II and 358/2 Days, he was voiced by legend Christopher Lee, whilst in Re:Chain of Memories and Birth by Sleep, DiZ/Ansem was voiced by Corey Burton (who also imitates Christopher Lee’s voice as Count Dooku in the Star Wars universe).

Bob Buchholz takes this same hack-and-slash approach outside of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Aerith had two different voices in the Kingdom Hearts universe, where her second voice also appeared in Final Fantasy VII Advent Children, which, by the way, was recorded alongside Kingdom Hearts II. However, in Crisis Core -Final Fantasy VII-, she was replaced by TV actress Andrea Bowen (trivia: Andrea’s sister voiced Fuu in Kingdom Hearts II). Yuffie’s voicework followed the same pattern as DiZ/Ansem, with no two consecutive appearances voiced by the same woman. This is all very odd considering that Kingdom Hears II and Advent Children were apparently recorded together.

Let’s move on to the opposite end of the spectrum, where I present to you, Kathryn Beaumont. Not many people may recognize that name, so here’s a quick bit of history. In 1951, a 13-year-old English-born actress was chosen by Disney to voice Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Two years later, she voiced Wendy in Disney’s Peter Pan. This year, in what I thought was an incredible gesture, she voiced Kairi’s grandmother in Birth by Sleep. Now, why would she belong in the opposite end of the spectrum? Back in 2002, at age 64, Kathryn Beaumont reprised both her roles as Alice and Wendy in Kingdom Hearts I, a massive fifty years after originally voicing those characters. I find that a most amazing affair, and I love hearing her voice in the games as she really has that mid-twentieth century “classic acting” voice- so smooth and with that slight husk they used to have. It’s the style of voice I’m really happy that Jennifer Hale managed to emulate in her dual role as Princesses of Heart Cinderella and Aurora in Birth by Sleep.

Introduction of the Professional Voice Actors

Quinton Flynn

The name's Quinton Flynn, got it memorized?

As the series has gone on, Disney and Square Enix have become less afraid of using established voice actors to take on the roles in the growng cast of the games. The biggest influx was in Kingdom Hearts II, including one of my favourite voice artists Tara Strong reprising her Final Fantasy X/X-2 role of Rikku. Tara was introduced to the franchise alongside Yuna (still played by Hedy Burress, more known for her live action roles than her voice over ones) and Paine (Gwendoline Yeo, who has managed to have a nicely balanced acting career across different types of media).

However, the crown for the most famous voice actor role in the Kingdom Hearts series would undoubtedly go to the extremely talented Quinton Flynn, who’s portrayal of Axel (and Lea) from Kingdom Hearts II onwards is one of the most immediately memorable in the franchise. As more games have been released, more recognizable names from the voice acting realm have been introduced, such as Kirk Thornton and Robin Atkin Downes (Saïx and Luxord). Plus, several of the Twilight Town crew was voiced by a mixture of Disney talent and more freelance voice actors (most recently one of my other favourite female voice actors, Jennifer Hale, joined the cast of Birth by Sleep, where she admittedly reprised a Disney role, so she was credited as “Disney Voice Talent”, but still).

Though the Kingdom Hearts games are making good progress in taking on more voice actors, I still feel more effort could be made to bring in more. I’m sure a role could be made to be filled by Troy Baker (voice of Snow from FFXIII)- that would certainly make my world a happier place.

Do Actors Make Good Voice Actors?

Mark Hamill, voice of Eraqus

After that massive onslaught of text dealing with my one bad point of getting actors with little-to-no experience in voice acting, I finally get to my second bad point. They are simply not suited to voice acting. Voice acting in the west, at this point in time, is not treated as importantly as in other places, particularly in Japan, despite my belief that voice acting is actually much harder. Screen and stage actors get to act with their entire bodies, whereas a voice actor has to portray everything about the character solely with their voice. They almost at times have to overact in order to get the right emotion across, which is something that regular actors occasionally struggle with.

Please note: spoiler about Birth by Sleep in the next paragraph
Some actors have accomplished this extremely well, a fantastic example being Haley Joel Osment as Sora, who I feel has excelled in the role ever since the first game (and his darker turn as Vanitas in Birth by Sleep was amazing, if it wasn’t for the fact I already knew that was Haley Joel Osment, I never would have guessed it), as has David Gallagher as Riku. Other actors didn’t fare quite so well: David Boreanaz, as much as I love him as an actor (hell I won’t deny I had a massive crush on him back when he was Angel in Buffy), and as nicely suited as his voice was to Leon in Kingdom Hearts, just didn’t come across as a whole package- he struggled a bit in maintaining the right levels of emotion as the character.

This dropped standard from regular actors was most highlighted (in my opinion) in the series’ most recent outing, where Jesse McCartney’s Ventus (Roxas in Kingdom Hearts II and 358/2 Days) easily outshines the other two main characters. Terra and Aqua’s voices, Jason Dohring and Willa Holland, most known for playing bitty parts in Veronica Mars and The OC respectively, were occasionally swallowed up in the game. This isn’t so much a statement on their acting ability, more that they just weren’t suited to voice acting. You could spot moments where Dohring swung between being spot-on as Terra to having several uncomfortable voicing moments, whereas Holland was merely “okay” throughout the entire game. Yet, I will happily say that she sounds much better in-game than she did in trailers and previews, and she did get better (or maybe I just got more used to her) as Birth by Sleep progressed. They simply don’t shine when surrounded by the extraordinary Mark Hamill (once again flexing his amazing voice-over muscles, though for the first time in the Kingdom Hearts franchise as new character Master Eraqus) and the legend that is Leonard Nimoy (in what is billed as his last role, as Master Xehanort).

What Next?

Miley Cyrus as Rinoa?

Could it happen?

What does this mean for the future of voicing in the Kingdom Hearts series? The next planned game for English voicing, Re:coded, features only returning characters and so we will get to see how many actors reprise their roles, and how many are changed. As for the future of the series…new characters to be voiced by America Ferrera and Ethan Peck? Maybe a surprise turn-in for Patrick Stewart? Hey, lets introduce Final Fantasy VIII’s Rinoa to the series and get her voiced by Miley Cyrus just to round off the cast. But most of all, I hope they continue their trend to use established voice actors, as they really help to give the games a more professional finish.

Who are your Favourite Voice Actors?

So what do you think? Who have been your most and least favourite voice roles in Kingdom Hearts? What do you feel about the constant swapping and changing of voices? Who could you see Bob Buchholz casting in the next game? And most importantly, how good do you feel the voice acting is in the Kingdom Hearts franchise? And if you would like to broadcast something about KH, find out how you can become the next guest!

“Voicing in the Kingdom Hearts series” was written by Kupo Mog, our resident Community forum administrator. Each Monday, we publish a Guest Blog from a member of the KH & Gaming Community.

How good do you feel the voice acting has been in Kingdom Hearts?

  • Amazing (51%, 184 Votes)
  • Good (41%, 146 Votes)
  • Okay (8%, 27 Votes)
  • Not so good (0%, 1 Votes)
  • Terrible (0%, 1 Votes)

Total Voters: 360

Loading ... Loading ...