Spoilers for Kingdom Hearts 3
If you told me as a kid that there was going to be a crossover of Final Fantasy and Disney characters stuffed into a game, I’d be pretty thrilled. I know that because that’s exactly how I felt as a kid.
If you told me that it would eventually culminate in a barrage of Heartless, Nobodies, Unversed, an ever-increasing roster of original characters and Sora’s heart turning into an AirBnB, I’d laugh in your face.
Nevertheless, the idea of Kingdom Hearts at least corresponded to the well-publicized theme song “Simple and Clean.” Creatures called the Heartless are invading worlds based on Disney films and it’s up to the player to close the keyholes with their magical Keyblade.
It was a fun romp, an action RPG that was an interesting experiment. But now, that vision of the franchise has largely been eclipsed by the door to darkness that the followups managed to open.
It’s very clear that Kingdom Hearts was originally going to be one installment, since Chernabog was originally the source of all Heartless. Obviously, this plot element was dropped, but this is also why his boss battle remains in the game. For the most part, Kingdom Hearts wraps up pretty smoothly. Ansem is defeated, Mickey and Sora close Kingdom Hearts, Kairi is separated from Sora, and it ends with Sora, Donald, and Goofy looking for King Mickey and Riku. A thread for the next game, but not much else.
The problems with the narrative happened almost immediately, with the subsequent games attempting to find a suitable villain for both the story and gameplay.
Chain of Memories was slightly confusing, at least from what I can remember from my teenage years. That said, it wasn’t overwhelming in its approach. The premise of Sora losing his memories makes this thematically appropriate.
I can’t say the same for Kingdom Hearts 2. The moment when the headaches start is when Mickey reveals the existence of Xehanort, that the “Ansem” the player beats wasn’t actually Ansem.
There’s a hidden problem with discussing the narrative of Kingdom Hearts. Most fans will acknowledge that the plot gets messy and difficult to follow, with the need to either play all the games in order or to watch hours of YouTube videos worth of cutscenes. The plot possesses the complexity of a political thriller, which is ultimately at odds with its comparatively simple theming of darkness, hearts, and friendship.
What seems to be missing from discussing the plot of Kingdom Hearts is the fact that many of these retcons are not only confusing, they actively undercut or completely nullify previous parts of the story. The series says to you “Nope, didn’t count!” Ansem? Nope, it’s really Xehanort. Sora wins over the will of the Keyblade through his epiphany about friendship? Nope, it’s because he has Ventus’s heart inside him. Roxas’s understanding that he has to become part of Sora, part of something bigger? That moment when he glumly states, “Guess my summer vacation is over.” Well, they got a vessel for him so he’s back.
Bring back Xion, bring back the researchers who became Organization XIII. Maybe Maleficient will show up to look vaguely menacing before fading into the background and Pete crosses his arms. You won’t see them again.
There’s no finality at all, no sense of conclusion. No one can ever stay dead or submerged in darkness, or otherwise removed from the action. Death is a revolving door. Remember the Birth by Sleep characters? Bring them back too.
By the time we get to Kingdom Hearts 3, A-plots, B-plots, and Z-plots fight for narrative dominance. Your best bet is just to not try remembering anything, and the narrative handles it the same way. Sora stumbles about like a stoner coming down a high, crashing into a world and asking “Wait, why am I here?”
There isn’t a clear goal like in Kingdom Hearts 1 or 2 that serves as the narrative throughline. Olympus is where Sora goes to find his strength, but that plot thread is quickly forgotten. One minute he wants to bring back Roxas, another minute he’s looking for a black box. The group stumbles through Disney universes like cosmic photobombers, fitting given that Sora has a Gummiphone. When Sora finally uses his Keyblade, it feels like a sudden jolt. Wait, that was a thing still? I think he only did that once throughout the entire game, twice if you count him picking up Aqua’s Keyblade.
Riku has gone from a rival to a full-blown self-insert for Tetsuya Nomura, now conspicuously looking more like Noctis from Final Fantasy XV. FFXV salt is further emphasized in Toy Box, where we’re treated to Verum Rex, the version of Final Fantasy XV that Nomura desperately wanted to make. Riku spends most of the game off doing his own thing with Mickey, being all dark and edgy in whatever PG way he can.
The very core concept of Kingdom Hearts gets even murkier. It enters the narrative way late, and by that time you’ve heard a whole bunch of self-indulgent dialogue full of hearts, Nobodies, and darkness. What do those things even mean anymore? Why are we in the Disney worlds? The plot doesn’t really mention why they matter in this context. The narrative of the series has outgrown the game’s overarching structure.
Self-indulgence extends to much of the character dialogue. Overlong diatribes about hearts come forth, so do scenes between characters that really don’t seem to advance the plot or do anything for character depth. Much of the decision-making revolves around fanservice and milking existing iconography. Roxas eating ice cream with Xion and Axel carries less weight as it gets trotted out yet again.
It also becomes painfully clear how the games treat their female characters. Kairi mostly exists to be captured or sidelined. Kairi is such a token character that every female character outside of Larxene is copied straight from her. Aqua, Xion, Namine — they serve the exact same role and share the same personality.
But let’s just say for a moment that you’re not concerned with whatever Xemnas or the three different versions of a single character are babbling about. Maybe you’re just here for that Keyblade-swinging action.
In a perhaps unconventional way of being ludonarratively harmonious, the gameplay is just as overstuffed and confusing as the narrative itself. You have: Attacks, magic, items, summons, formchange, Attraction Flows, team attacks, shotlock, and flowmotion.
All of these are from previous entries, crammed together in a kitchen-sink fashion. It doesn’t feel like these mechanics really mesh well with each other or create interesting play experiences.
The player has little in terms of direct control over Attraction Flows and team attacks, and you won’t use shotlock unless you’re using Airstep to hop around. Your brain can’t process all that information in moment-to-moment gameplay so you’ll default to just mashing the attack button and getting the reaction command when it pops up. After it ends, you’ll see the spots where you could’ve used Flowmotion and remark, “Huh, I guess I could have done that.” But you’ll never really get around to doing it, why would you when just mashing attack works just as well?
This turns most battles into waiting until Attraction Flow or formchange happens, and it feels like the player is only tangentially responsible for winning that fight. It’s hard to ascertain exactly what you did wrong, if anything.
Making upgrades? Leveling? Does any of it really matter? Does the Little Chef Bistro do anything for you outside of Ratatouille references? You’ll probably go through most of the game before realizing that you’ve gotten AP that you can use to equip new abilities. Do you even need them that much?
Exploration is non-existent. The whole level design of Kingdom Hearts consists of paths that funnel you to the next open arena to fight. There are no interesting side areas or treasures that you can find, you can snapshot Lucky Emblems, but why would you? There’s probably some form of reward at the end of it, just like there is for literally all of these things, but it doesn’t feel intrinsically rewarding.
There’s gonna be gimmicks, loads and loads of gimmicks. By the time you get invested in them, the world’s main quest is complete.
The conclusion to this is about as nonsensical as it can get, a return to Scala Ad Caelum where Xehanort and Eraqus’s chess game comes to a close. This framing device of a chess game further diminishes the narrative agency of the other characters, they are pawns to be moved and placed.
For some reason, Xehanort gets redeemed and it’s revealed that he had good intentions. None of this makes sense and I feel like Xehanort’s actions have rendered him irredeemable, saved only because of authorial bias.
But it’s all worth it to see Isa throwing a Frisbee on the beach, I guess.
This is not the end of Kingdom Hearts as a franchise. Sure, Sora is revealed to be “dead” but it’s clear that this will amount to nothing more than a minor inconvenience.
I can’t help but wonder if Square-Enix will trim the fat from the narrative and gameplay, aiming for a tighter gameplay experience and accessible narrative. But I admit to being cynical about that.
It puts me in a position where I really don’t think I could recommend Kingdom Hearts as a franchise to anyone. I don’t think a newcomer is going to like “either watch all these cutscenes on YouTube or buy the complete package and play all of them.” Not only that but by this time it’s going to be hard to invest in the characters because there’s no real stakes or tension.
Was it worth playing Kingdom Hearts 3 for me? I guess in a way it was what I needed to let go of it as a franchise, but it didn’t feel good at the end. This is one of the rare moments where I think a hard reboot would best move that they could make, but I’m certain that’s not happening. Judging by the presence of the villains from Union Cross, it feels like it’ll just keep wandering aimlessly for the next few years. I feel like a door has closed on the series for me and it’s going to take more than a Keyblade to get that open again.