You know what sucks? Liking Kingdom Hearts. It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s a game that is built on the stupidest of premises, and yet, for some unfathomable reason it has a huge following and is brilliant on multiple levels. I rarely meet two people who like the Kingdom Hearts series for the same reasons and everyone seems to hold a different game as the best. To top that all off, each game is radically different and while it seems that the command deck system first seen in Birth By Sleep is here to stay, each game after that has always tweaked something that kept the game fresh. But before I get into that, here is every reason I can think of, as to why the Kingdom Hearts series should be failing (don’t worry, this article will contain no spoilers for 3D).
The first reason that Kingdom Hearts should suck is that its main selling point is stupid. How could possibly mixing together Disney movies and Final Fantasy be an approved idea? Who would do that? Even 12-year-old me, who was much more cynical than the me of today, basically said:
“That is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. Why would anyone approve that?”
– 12-year-old Erik.
I would think that even if Kingdom Hearts was to be released today for the first time , most of us would just scratch our heads and look at Square Enix asking how they’re going to pull that off. Of course after playing the game, you realize that the premise is just the tip of the iceberg of problems. Since each Disney world has its own style, along with the game’s own original designs, the game has no consistent art style. This is most noticeable in the live-action worlds based on films like Pirates of the Caribbean or Tron, since those worlds feature very realistic looking characters while they’re standing next to cartoons like a scene straight out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Additionally, we get horribly bastardized versions of the Disney stories that often just shoehorn Sora and the gang, or the main villains, into the plot. It sometimes feels like you’re reading the description of the plot from Wikipedia with how many scenes are just so mishandled. Also characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy are main characters, involved in a plot about the light and darkness and the nature of human beings and it’s really hard to take anything seriously when Mickey Mouse is kicking the ass of darkness.
The Final Fantasy characters get it the worst, since they might as well be original characters. Occasionally they maybe make a passing reference to the game they are from but otherwise are just there to be exposition fairies and provide an interesting boss fight or companion when none is available. This is most evident in the Cloud-Sephiroth plotline which seems to be completely different from what it’s suppose to be.
Speaking of story-telling, I have played Kingdom Hearts II enough times, skipping all the not important cutscenes, to realize one thing: the actual plot is really, really short. Most of the games involve the main character, whether they be Sora, Riku, Roxas, Aqua, Terra, or Ven, either looking for someone or something. Each world they go to is basically filler as they get one step closer to finding it. Along the way, some cutscenes might add some information, but it isn’t until the end of the game when stuff from the beginning of the game is answered. While it is pretty cool that you can go to any world in any order without having to worry about messing up the continuity of the story, this leaves the flaw of no Disney world affecting the plot of the story in a significant. Any major event that happens, happens in an original world like Traverse Town or Radiant Garden and major villains rarely visit these other worlds. When part of your plot is that everything about other worlds and stuff has to be a secret, you know that any fun cross-overs aren’t going to happen, which could include an epic team up of all the Disney heroes. This has also led to another flaw there the Kingdom Hearts team have proven themselves to be the masters at rehashing. While it has been getting better, Chain of Memories and Re:Coded are basically supposed to recap what happened in Kingdom Hearts and even the first three Kingdom Hearts games feature the exact same story for the world based on The Little Mermaid.
On a similar note, its pretty evident that before Birth By Sleep, the game’s creator Tetsuya Nomura and the other writers had no idea where this was franchise going to go, yet still kept making nods to future games. Everything was just a bunch of stuff that happened, and just as some games tried to fill in plot holes, more would take their place. You really notice it when you look at how the secret movie in Kingdom Hearts II, giving us a sneak peek at Birth By Sleep, changed between the secret movie in the Japanese release of Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix +, and the final game. To summarize, the two secret movies are basically connected, with the one in Final Mix+ taking place immediately after the one in the original. In the original , three knight-looking characters all gather picking up Sora’s keyblade, Mickey’s keyblade, and Riku’s keyblade. Back when I was a uber nerd, I tried making guesses as to what role each knight would play (since they obviously weren’t the original wielders) based on which keyblade they grabbed. While stretches could be made, Terra grabbing Sora’s and Ven grabbing Riku’s doesn’t make much sense, since they were suppose to analogues of Riku and Sora respectively. Turns out though, doesn’t matter as the second secret movie just makes them disappear. Also, in both secret movies, the knights had capes, but in the final game they were removed. I get that it was for technical limitations, it kinda just goes to show you that they were probably still in the drafting stages for the game when they decided to tease us about it. There’s also the fact that Terra’s keyblade didn’t have a keychain, leaving lots of people to think that it wasn’t a keyblade but that didn’t turn out to be true either.
The pacing of each game is also pretty stupid. Like many RPGs, it falls into the trap of “cutscene, story, cutscene, story” with little happening inbetween, but Kingdom Hearts seems to do it worse. Many of the battles get repetitive and the environments are often really flat and uninteresting in everything but looks. There are rarely NPCs around, shops are a little worthless as items quickly become out powered by magic and random finds. The game also doesn’t have a lot of strategy in the non-boss battles, since the AI can take care of itself pretty well. The main problem is that while the levels are well laid out, you’re basically told just told to go here and go there, making for a pretty linear RPG. I often run into the problem of getting to places too quickly, never stopping to grind and twice now have I encountered final bosses of ridiculous strength that I should have 5 or 10 levels higher to fight.
Finally, Kingdom Hearts has been jumping around consoles to the point where it is hard for anyone money conscious to actually know the whole story, and so far each one has proven to be at least somewhat relevant. Three games are on the PS2, one of them being a remake of the one the GBA. Two have been on the DS, one on the PSP and one on the 3DS. And good luck understanding Kingdom Hearts II without having first played Chain of Memories, which at KHII’s release was only on the Game Boy Advance. Oh, and the newest game, Dream Drop Distance, most of it won’t make a lick of sense unless you played every game in the series, including the mostly irrelevant Re:Coded. One time characters have yet to proven themselves to be one time, and the whole thing is basically a mess.
And yet, I still play the games. Almost everyone I know has played every game in the series (even those who don’t have a PSP which includes myself) and it continues to have a huge following. Why? What is so good about this game franchise when the main story is about 2 hours long in each game, for a while it didn’t know where it was going, is scattered over a bunch of game consoles belonging to two different companies, and finally just having a dumb premise?
Well, let me start off on a personal note. The whole thing is a love letter to Star Wars. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, there is an organization of knights who protect the worlds from darkness. A trusted old friend, who also has their same powers, slowly corrupts a youth who is mad about not being promoted to master by telling that he is both deserving of the title that his master is just scared of him. He also tells him that the power of darkness, a dark side you might say, could give him all the power he needs.
Also in the series are villains with yellow eyes, a guy who has two red lightsabers and shoot lightning from his hand, a fallen warrior trapped in suit of armor, a small master who has flips and spins in all his moves, and spaceships. If you said Star Wars, then you’re correct. It seems Nomura liked the prequels, or at least their plot but even before that there were hints at Star Wars references, then overt neon signs saying that “This is Star Wars” before the out right usage of many of its plot points and themes. And since I am a huge Star Wars fan, I love every single minute of it.
But for real, I know that a lot of people are drawn into the series because what little story the games do offer, is really serious, kind of dark, and full of fascinating characters. Each character, is pretty well written and both interesting to know more and speculate about. While the Disney characters remain pretty one-dimensional and Sora only has happy and happy-mad as his emotional range, other characters like Riku and Roxas show a bit more depth that make their stories all the more epic or all the more tragic. The villains too are equal parts mysterious, menacing, and bastards. Xemnas for instance, speaks like he’s sad or condescending and plays lots of head games with just about every character. It’s hard not to be a little freaked out when one of his lines in battle is “can you spare a heart”, in one of the creepiest monotone ways imaginable, where he is shocking Sora to death unless Riku can save him. Then there is Master Xehanort, the person behind everything. In his premiere game, you know he’s evil, but when he starts talking he also starts making a lot of sense. Why can’t light and darkness be in balance? Master Xehanort even returns to his homeworld because he thought his dying apprentice, Ven, would like the sight better, which doesn’t really sound like a bad guy, but then you find out why Ven is dying.
But mainly, I think people are attracted to the Kingdom Hearts story because it so darn optimistic. This is important because the games can actually hit some pretty dark points at times, such as in Chain of Memories when Sora left Donal and Goofy because his desire to rescue Namine turned from loyalty to a friend to fanatical obsession. Or how about the ending to the original game. Sure, the ultimate Heartless who wished to devour all worlds was defeated, bur you’re redeemed friend is trapped in the realm of darkness, and you just left you’re rescued friend to go find him. Sora, Riku, and Kairi basically remained in separate worlds while happy music plays us off and I think it would have been one of the most unsatisfactory endings ever if the series had ended there . And don’t even get me started on 358/2 Days.
I got to say, I’m not too sure how many games nowadays can have that kind of ending, where even when things look darkest the game picks you right back up and says “everything is going be all right.” Either you leave sad because the main character died, cheated because the ending was so short and offers no real resolution, or the tone never really shifted enough to make it noticeable. I think the best we ever get is an ending that shifts the mood just for that one time, but overall is pretty one way or the other the rest of the time. Kingdom Hearts though has that special talent to kill off almost every single good character, tell us that the bad guy will be back even more powerful, and still end on a high note. Kind of like…
The series also remains relevant because it is not afraid to reinvent itself, despite being successful. Whereas the next Call of Duty or even the next The Legend of Zelda will do things to refine older mechanics, to fix what problems there were, Kingdom Hearts seems to try something new every time, almost as if every game between KHII and KHIII is an experiment to find out what works just right. I mean, we’ve gone from a some pretty standard action RPG elements, to real-time card battles, panel systems, to command decks, and even small features like leveling up commands, tweaking different features mid-game for more or less rewards, and in Dream Drop Distance both Dream Eaters and Flowmotion change the way the game is approached.
Side note: As a game designer, I don’t think people really appreciate how genius many of these mechanics are. Especially in the case of Chain of Memories. A lot of times, people will tell me its the worst in the series, because not much story gets covered and the card battling system was too different from the original or any other game out there. Take it from me, it’s one of the best, and not just because of the card system. It’s the only one that makes Sora actually mad-mad and not happy mad, it integrates the cards into how each world is constructed, so you have some control and thus actually does have some strategy, and the its the only game to not have mindless button mashing cause that stuff gets you killed. If you have a GBA, and haven’t played Chain of Memories, I suggest you do. The PS2 remake is also good, but I think the camera and the 3D environment make it too hard to enjoy the card battling aspects.
And lastly, while this may just be another personal preference, the boss battles. Combining the story and the gameplay together makes it so that the Kingdom Hearts series has some of the most memorable boss battles around (it helps that the music is also some of the best out of any game franchise). While many of the minor bosses are pretty meh, it doesn’t stop all of them to being pretty unique, testing you in different facets of the game in a new way each time. Bonus bosses like Sephiroth or any of the many in Birth By Sleep, have been turned into art forms by dedicated players on YouTube and nothing feels more like success like beating Sephiroth in KHII for the first time, even if he’s smug about it. The final bosses always end with a bang with special props going to Xemnas and Vanitas, who have some rather cool quick time events that makes any final clash, definitely feel final (even if it isn’t).
So wait, let’s recap. Kingdom Hearts should suck because: the premise is dumb, the story started off as a mess and it’s just now getting its stuff straight, the stories are also all really short when you cut out the almost unnecessary Disney filler, the design of the world’s are mostly uninteresting, the game lacks any real strategy, you’re definitely getting the theme park version for each Disney movie, and while all the game have important plot elements, they are scatted on different consoles meaning to get the whole story, right now, you’d have to own a PS2, PSP, and 3DS to play them all. Okay, that doesn’t sound so bad, but if you wanted to play them at their initial release you would need to add a GBA and DS into the mix. It’s a running joke amongst my friends that as long as a console has Kingdom Hearts on it, it will sell, but why? So far my reasons are basically interesting story, despite being short, and excellent and refreshing gameplay and Star Wars, which is more like a half-reason. So that’s like 2 1/2 against 8 reasons why Kingdom Hearts should be in the toilet by now, are those 2 1/2 reasons really that good?
Yes. Every reasons why I said Kingdom Hearts should be failing is “in theory”. On paper, those rules would apply, but in reality, Kingdom Hearts shows us a bit of a truer look at what video games are all about because when you break it down, games are really just about story and gameplay combined in a way to create fun. Even games we think of as not being known for their story, still have one and in fact, it was revolutionary at the time for the original Donkey Kong to feature an actual story of Jumpman saving his girlfriend, as opposed to games where “the world is in danger and you got to save it”. It doesn’t take a long or complicated story to get people invested into the plot of a video game, and Kingdom Hearts basically proves it by giving you a lot at the beginning and the end, but only little bites in between to keep you motivated. The gameplay keeps the game so addictive in the meantime and is a proof of concept that a solid gameplay experience can trump almost any flaw.
Furthermore, no one can tell me that the story isn’t mature. This is kind of weird sentiment about a game where anime characters run around with Disney characters, but these games take themselves deadly seriously. Look for the Christian symbolism, listen to the dialogue between characters, almost every character but Sora deals with internal conflicts regarding morality, human nature, and power struggles. And the most brilliant part is, you can ignore all those and still have an entertaining game. Not just story, because the game is made up of some of the most fun mechanics around, being highly action oriented with a lot of depth so each style can be somewhat personalized.
Well, that’s what I think about the Kingdom Hearts series. It was kind of hard to write this without spoiling the fantastic Dream Drop Distance, but as time goes on I’ll just assume more and more people beat it so I can write start writing some spoilerific analyses of it. In the meantime, I hope everyone continues to play this fantastic series and I’ll see you at Kingdom Hearts III