When I was a preteen my summers were spent at my grandmother’s house. My great-grandma was retired and so I could spend the day with her while school was out of session while my mother went to work. My hours were wiled away in the basement watching television, drawing pictures, playing or designing video games – whatever I could find to fill the boredom of two to three months of having no obligations. One of the channels I got really into during this time was Tech TV (later G4), a station which on any given day might be showing robot fights, talk shows about computers, or my personal favorite: video game shows. It was here that I first saw advertisements and reviews for a little game called Kingdom Hearts, and boy did that game perplex me. It looked kinda like Final Fantasy (which I knew almost nothing about save for my experiences with the NES games and Tactics Advance) but there were also characters from Disney? Why were they trying to make Donald and Goofy seem cool? Despite feeling that the tone was way off I came away with the impression that these games were apparently good.
So one day on a shopping trip with my other grandmother, I saw Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories in the game case at Wal-Mart. I asked if we could buy it and that afternoon I took my first dive into what would become one of my favorite series as a teenager. I didn’t really grow up as a Disney kid and those characters didn’t mean much to me outside of some exceptions like Jack Skellington, but what I was drawn in by were the original characters and the overarching story about Castle Oblivion. Who was the mysterious Organization? What were their wicked plans for Sora? I was particularly drawn to the character of Riku, in whom I saw a kindred spirit due to his struggle with an inner darkness that I felt matched my own spiritual journey at the time. And despite the fact that I would later learn from other friends that Chain of Memories was apparently “bad,” it became my introduction to a series that I would revisit again and again throughout high school and early college.
This year after a massive Kingdom Hearts hiatus, I decided to finally pick up the final game in what Squeenix calls the “Dark Seeker saga,” Kingdom Hearts III. This is the ending of the story as we know it so far. It’s a game that I experienced for the most part alongside my child, with the little one focusing on the mob battles and exploration while I fought bosses and watched the cutscenes. It’s a game that – both because of its position in the series and because of the way I played it – allowed me to reflect on my relationship with Kingdom Hearts broadly and how I felt about not just the game I was playing but the narrative it was concluding. Having now seen the end of Sora’s journey, it’s time to say my final farewell to the world of Kingdom Hearts.
*major spoilers for Kingdom Hearts III for the rest of this post*
The Kingdom Hearts series infamously has a significant amount of spin-offs that all contribute to the broad narrative of the series. This last game may be “number three” but in reality it was the wrap-up of a storyline that spanned across eight or so previous titles. However, it is also a video game and therefore a product that Square Enix and Disney wanted to have a broad market appeal. What that means practically from a story perspective is that Kingdom Hearts III has to assume that you have not, in fact, played the eight or so other games that preceded it and tell its story accordingly. A significant portion of the game – like probably 20 or so of the 30 hours I spent with it – is just reintroducing elements from the previous games which are going to factor into the finale. Snce the final confrontation of Kingdom Hearts III involves Xehanort’s 13 darknesses versus the 7 guardians of light, that means making sure you know who all the darknesses and lights actually are.
Now let’s think about this from both angles. Let’s assume you’re someone who has never played Kingdom Hearts and picked up the third one as your first experience. What would it be like for each world you visit to feature a unique yet visually similar villain, each of whom obviously has some kind of established history with the heroes that you don’t recognize? When the game cuts away from Sora to Riku and he starts namedropping other heroes like Ventus or Aqua, how much do you care about the fate of these characters? What significance do they have to you? Now let’s flip the script and assume that you are me, someone who has played every non-PC non-mobile Kingdom Hearts title and recognizes all of the major players and their relationships. When Vanitas shows up and reminds us that Ventus is inside Sora’s heart, I’ve been there done that. When Riku and Mickey fight to free Aqua and worry about Terra’s whereabouts, I’m already familiar with their motivations and concerns. Instead of spending twenty hours confused, I’m spending twenty hours asking the game to get a move on already because at this point there’s still been nothing new for me to experience.
Either way you lose. Kingdom Hearts III is too ridiculous and inscrutable for newcomers but too worried about rehashing old details for veterans. There’s a joke in the broader gaming community about how unnecessarily complicated the story of Kingdom Hearts is. I’m not sure complicated is the right word. There are lots of proper nouns but most of the named characters in the series are shallow. Knowing the specifics surrounding their previous actions rarely makes that much of a difference in the broader narrative of Xehanort’s evil plan. You don’t need to know that Larxene was a cruel and manipulative member of a traitorous sect of the Organization who used the Nobody Namine to pit Sora and Repliku against one another in an effort to undo Sora’s memories and use him as a weapon against Xemnas. Because Larxene is just a placeholder – a butt in one of 13 seats around Xehanort’s throne room that could be filled with any person with any background and still not matter. Saying that Kingdom Hearts has complicated lore implies that there is a significance to that lore, that any of the specifics matter and that knowing every detail will somehow lead you to a complete understanding of a nuanced and subtle narrative. In reality the lore is a magician’s trick, a sleight of hand to keep you looking at the wrong place so you don’t see the mundanity behind the magic.
At some point along the way, Kingdom Hearts lost track of who and what it is about. There is no stronger example than the fact that Xehanort – a mustache-twirling cartoon villain whose motivation has never been more than “DARKNESS lmao” – has a weird redemption arc shoved into the final cutscenes after your grand showdown is finally completed. Meanwhile Kairi, a character who has actually been in this series since the first game, is fridged for the nineteenth time as a motivating factor for Sora and then cries for him when he “dies” (????) in a fucking post-credits scene. And Sora, our protagonist, does not go through any new experience or reach any new realization that he hasn’t before. His character arc is once again about discovering the power of friendship and about clinging to hope and light in the face of deepest darkness.
And that is not the only way in which Kingdom Hearts III or the series as a whole is repetitive. All of the issues with the storytelling could perhaps be forgiven – or at least more easily ignored – if the mechanics of Kingdom Hearts III meaningfully expanded on what this series brings to the table. It would be unfair for me to say that the game does nothing new from a gameplay standpoint. It brings together elements from other games that previously had not met together and incorporates them into a single experience. Some of those mechanics are expanded beyond their original scope – form changes for example now are not limited to four or five transformations but a dozen or so, with a unique fighting style related to each Keyblade in your arsenal. But while these improvements refine the KH experience, they are not groundbreaking. You’ve done each of them before, even if this is the first time they are all together. But the failure of Kingdom Hearts III to meaningfully stand out from the gameplay of other games in the series means that you’re ultimately going to be better off playing a previous Kingdom Hearts title that has a more focused narrative and a stronger ending.
What’s frustrating to me about all this is that there are definitely moments where you can see the potential of Kingdom Hearts shining through. The premise of this series isn’t inherently broken. I think back to the Rock Titan battle, scrambling up sheer cliff faces and batting away boulders before blasting the monster to bits from a magical rollercoaster. Or there’s the contained story arc within San Fransokyo, which skillfully tells a new story in the Disney world that also contributes to the overall plot of the game. While what happens after the Xehanort battle is deeply disappointing, the setting of the battle’s first phase – an abandoned city that Xehanort’s magic warps and twists to his will – creates a compelling arena for a confrontation full of flying, swimming, warping, and wall-running as the conflict sends the combatants all over the city. There are genuinely good moments here but they are moments surrounded on all sides by repetitive, vapid, and unnecessary nuisances that fail to cater to either of this game’s potential audiences.
What I wonder now after my experience with KH3 is if perhaps all of Kingdom Hearts has been this way and I simply never realized it. How many of the worlds in the first game simply rehash the story of a Disney movie with barely any meaningful elements tying together those individual stories with the broader text? If I revisited Kingdom Hearts II, would I be engaged throughout the game, or would I be suffering through an endless stream of filler while praying that the Battle of a Thousand Heartless is still as good as I remembered? Could I pick up Chain of Memories and find the magic in Riku’s journey to rid himself of darkness, or would that be soured now that I know his struggle ultimately fizzles out and becomes barely more than one backstory in a sea of shallow backstories introducing the final battle? Perhaps someday I’ll revisit those experiences but I think there may be value too in just letting those memories stay where they are. Instead of further souring my attitude towards Kingdom Hearts, I can let my teenage self continue to preserve the special moments with the original games in the series. That would I think be the most “Kingdom Hearts” thing to do.