Well the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts 3 finally has a release date: April 2017. It also sounds like we’ll be getting an appetizer in the form of Kingdom Hearts 2.8, because God knows we haven’t dragged this series out long enough.
Kingdom Hearts was born in 2002 out of the concept of putting the more popular Final Fantasy and Disney characters in the same game and having them interact. It was certainly bizarre, as while Disney movies have plenty of dark themes, Final Fantasy often dealt with things like mercenaries and deicide. But market research has shown that more and more adults are holding onto nostalgia (the movies and games they grew up with) with iron-clawed fists, and both franchises are beloved by children and adults alike, so in a sense, it’s not completely out of left field.
I enjoyed the first game for its concept and relative simplicity (friend kidnapped, go on an adventure to save seven princesses and multiple worlds from evil and destruction), but as much as I have enjoyed the following games, I am both amused and bemused by the convoluted progression of the story. Initially, the basic villains were the Heartless – so named for their lack of and desire to eat hearts – but now we also have Nobodies (the hollow shells of people who have lost their hearts to the Heartless), the Unversed/Unbirth (fledgling emotions that feed on negativity to grow), and the Dream Eaters (who can be good companion monsters a la Pokemon or monsters that fight you).
As best as I can follow the story, one man named Xehanort wants ultimate power via the deus-ex-machina, never-quite-explained-entity known as Kingdom Hearts, which contains either great light, great darkness, or some combination of both. Xehanort researches it, hurts a lot of people in pursuit of it, and forms an Organization of Nobodies led by his Nobody Xemnas to make copies of himself…to live forever? Gain dominion over the hearts and mind of men? It’s kind of complicated.
His Nobody’s name is an anagram for “Ansem,” another character who is not in fact Xehanort but his one-time mentor Ansem the Wise…who his Heartless pretended to be in the first game, but we didn’t learn was actually a different character in the second major installment…
Sora, the protagonist of most games, is a kid from a world known as Destiny Islands (subtle, right?). In the first game, his not-quite-girlfriend goes missing, and his other friend chooses the path of darkness because…he really wants to see the outside world, and it’s easy and he can save the girl… or something. This friend, named Riku, gets more character retroactively from more recent games.
Set adrift when his home world is destroyed, Sora teams up with Donald Duck and Goofy, who work for King Mickey Mouse, to save the worlds by sealing their keyholes – with which the Heartless can infiltrate the worlds en masse – with a sword born of light and heart power or whatever called the Keyblade. Initially, it looks like a group of classic Disney villains is running the show, but it is actually Xehanort’s Heartless, who calls himself Ansem but isn’t really, trying to fuel Kingdom Hearts and get it to do….something.
It’s kind of silly when you really try to think about it. Major emphasis on the word “try”.
The first game is by far the easiest to follow of the bunch, and for a decade-old game, it doesn’t look half bad today. But it did clearly have some budget cuts going on when it came to rendering; at times, Sora is fully animated in cutscenes,
but at other times, he just stands there with that blank, vacuous, dead-eyed expression that he wears during general gameplay.
At best, this makes him look like Willy Wonka reprimanding a spoiled child.
But, you know, about to walk the plank straight into a crocodile’s mouth….so yeah. That’s the face of emotional investment right there.
The Final Fantasy characters (composed of those from 7, 8, and 10) are sprinkled in here and there, partnering up in unlikely alliances and not completely fitting in with their game counterparts or even the overall story that they’re in. They contribute nothing outside of making compulsive cameos and justifying the underlying premise of the game: Square Enix meets Disney.
But I didn’t know who they were when I started playing anyway, so that didn’t really bother me.
Death seems non-existent, as virtually everyone who has been “killed off” usually finds some way or another to come back. It’d be interesting if the Underworld on Hercules’s world served that purpose for all worlds across time, space, and hearts, or otherwise explain why some characters “die” and other don’t. But no. That might actually be interesting. Instead, let’s go back to focusing on weirdly dressed pre-teens angsting about the meaning of love and friendship.
A hop, skip, and a jump later…
Kingdom Hearts 3 is rumored to have a playable Star Wars world coming up, but I have a sneaking suspicion that any interesting philosophical implications (how the game’s mentions of light and darkness relate to the light and dark side of the Force) will be glanced over in favor of TIE Fighter battles, angtsy teens, and pew pew pew!, but who knows? Maybe Square Enix will surprise us.
I certainly hope so.
I look forward to playing the newest games and finally finishing this (pretty much unnecessary) franchise, because despite what I have said, the gameplay is fun and the story definitely has its moments. The worlds are colorful and entertaining to play through, and the music is great. I also like several of the original characters. Some of the angst does actually work when the game keeps focus on the greater drama, rather than its more abstract concepts.
I do genuinely enjoy this franchise, though it hasn’t made it easy for me. I would recommend Dream Drop Distance the most for its fluid gameplay and fun worlds, but I warn newcomers that story is all but impenetrable at this point. If you start at 1 and keep to the main titles, you’ll probably be fine, but that might already be more time and money than you’re willing to spend, and I understand that. Kingdom Hearts is rated E for “everyone”, but it’s not for everyone, if you catch my meaning.
Again, the first game is good for those who want a simple, coherent story, pretty fun from beginning to end.
The trailers for 3 look good so far, but I won’t get my hopes up too high because that’s to be expected. They want to sell this as the epic conclusion that we’ve all waited so long for.
But before I go, here are a few suggestions I have for the makers of Kingdom Hearts:
- Reenacted Disney Scenes as Cutscenes
Imagine watching the stampede scene from The Lion King, with no music and very little dialogue. Imagine just about any iconic scene from any iconic Disney movie, and picture it with less dialogue, little to no music, weird facial expressions, and awkward, stilted movement.
Can you at least interact with the characters or affect the scene during?…No? Then why am I watching it? I’d rather go watch the movie it came from.
2. Could someone please react to Sora, Donald, or Goofy? Please?!
What in the holy halibut is going on in these characters’ heads? As much as it’s cool to visit and play around in the world of Tron, or Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean, why don’t any of the realistic human characters comment on the weird, disproportionate anime kid, or better yet, the walking, talking cartoon duck man that can cast magic?! Does Captain Jack Sparrow just think that he’s really high or something? Why doesn’t he have any questions about this?
Come to think of it, almost every character on every world that Sora and crew ever visit takes the meeting in stride, like Sora is just an average citizen that they would come across in their own world. What is the point of that?
Let’s say that one day, you woke up in Aladdin’s Agrabah. People would comment on your strange clothes and expressions, if nothing else, right? You wouldn’t just instantly become BFFs, no questions asked, with Princess Jasmine or Jafar. Just dropping out of thin air would be suspicious, and you’d expect that the knowledge of other worlds might cause some characters to undergo an existential crisis of some sort.
That would be perfectly in-sync with Final Fantasy tones!
Having it go virtually unnoticed is lazy, it far exceeds suspension of disbelief, and it takes a cool, interesting, and immersive layer out of the story by having people just shrug off Sora, Donald, and Goofy’s existence, especially when the characters in a particular world look drastically different. At least some worlds fix the problem by having Donald alter their appearances to match the surroundings. If you’re not going to do that for every world, at least do something like Terry Pratchett did with his Discworld Death character. People could still see the Grim Reaper, but they didn’t want to believe the sight before their own eyes, so it was much easier to just see a generic looking man who acted strangely, who you could never quite remember after he had left the room.
The whole “friends forever” tone doesn’t make much sense if Sora doesn’t have to work to make or keep any friends, now does it?
I’d really like to see these persisting elements dealt with in the last few installments. I can cope with every other ridiculous thing that comes up.
And finally, Square Enix likes to console-hop when distributing its various games (PS2, PS Portable, 3DS, etc), which is obnoxious and greedy. They should not piss off their fan base by making them buy a different console every time a new game comes out.
We are not, in fact, made of money.
*All credit due to Square Enix and Disney.