What started as a simple Disney and Final Fantasy crossover 17 years ago is now a labyrinthine juggernaut. Sam Brooks reviews the one, the only, Kingdom Hearts 3.
At Kotaku, Tim Rogers called Kingdom Hearts 3 an unreviewable game. Brian David Gilbert tried to apply the hero’s journey to the series and instead twisted a simple 12-point loop into holes, loops and unnameable shapes. It took me seven thousand words just to summarize and explain the plot of the series up until this point.
If you were going to play Kingdom Hearts 3, you would have pre-ordered it by now and be many hours into it. If you’re not going to play Kingdom Hearts, then you’re probably not going to start here. If you’re on the fence, I don’t know what to say to you. Your mind is literally incomprehensible to me.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is one of the most viscerally satisfying experiences I’ve had playing a video game. Nothing has justified my purchase of a 70 inch television more than this, and no game since Spider-Man has felt more like a labour of love, effort, attention to detail and a lot of time. The gameplay takes all the small improvements and deviations that the portable games in the series have introduced and ties them into the core hack-and-slash action that made the original game compulsively addictive. I don’t think, in the year of our lord 2019, I’ll have a better 60 hours playing a video game than I had playing this one.
That’s the closest thing I can give to a qualitative review of this experience.
What follows is a response from me, a human being who has spent literally hundreds of hours with this series over the past 17 years; I’ve grown up with this series. It is my Star Wars, it is my Lord of the Rings, it is to me what Disney is to other people.
That is to say, it is very, incongruously, important to me.
I played the first Kingdom Hearts game when I was 12.
I played it with my best friend at the time. I’d been out and gay for a while, he’d known he was gay for a while and was navigating the doors of his closet at that time. I was a huge fan of Final Fantasy and he was a huge fan of Disney; he didn’t own a video game console and I wasn’t allowed to watch Disney films until I was 18. There is a several thousand word long piece in how this affected me as a teenager for good and bad, and several 50 minute therapy sessions in the same, but trust me when I say that having Kingdom Hearts as your first introduction to Disney is an experience that I can’t recommend to anybody.
From the first CG-heavy, Utada-club-remixed, opening cutscene, we were in its thrall. Kingdom Hearts, at its most pure, gives you the same kind of joy that little children get when they play with their favourite action figures – it’s a beautiful sandbox where the sand is someone else’s imagination. The entire basis of the Kingdom Hearts series is escapism, though. It’s a crossover between two franchises that cash in hard on fantasy; the game even starts off with the protagonists wanting to get away from the idyllic tropical islands where they’ve grown up. For two gay kids, there was nothing better.
I got to fight Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, he got to fight with Peter from Peter Pan, and we both got to unravel Maleficent’s diabolical plan to collect the Six Princesses of Heart. For one three-day weekend, we rented the game, because video stores were a thing back in 2002, and we marathoned it, barely sleeping.
This was before the series was fully ludicrous, back when it was merely Saturday-afternoon-anime levels of odd, so the plot was understandable. Sora was just saving the multiverse with his good friends, Donald and Goofy, and trying to hang out with Riku and Kairi. Sora, just like, just wanted to hang out with his friends.
But we were hooked, and we chased that first rush as far as the highway could take us.
Kingdom Hearts 3, on paper, is the closer to the Kingdom Hearts trilogy, where Sora, Donald and Goofy travel across many Disney worlds to save the world from the Heartless. It originated as a crossover between the makers of Final Fantasy and the properties of Disney, with a few original characters peppered throughout.
Kingdom Hearts 3, in reality, is the closer to the Kingdom Hearts anthology, which involves a wide range of characters, clones, time travels, digital worlds, prequels set a hundred years before the first game, and absolutely no metaphors whatsoever. When people talk about the fight between light and dark, they are being stunningly literal about it. There are almost no Final Fantasy characters in the series any more, and the Disney characters outside of Donald, Goofy and Mickey are carefully irrelevant to the plot and canon overall.
The simplicity of Kingdom Hearts in concept is only matched by how complicated it has become in the 17 years. This contradiction is rife through every aspect of series.
These games are exquisitely produced pieces of media with some of the most adorably earnest writing ever put on screen. There is no doubt that everybody involved is doing the best job possible, and every excruciatingly rendered plea against the power of darkness is intended to be exactly that earnest and exactly that silly. They are simultaneously the most emotionally enveloping media experiences I’ve ever had while also some of the silliest and most ludicrous stories I’ve ever known.
The closest parallel I can draw to Kingdom Hearts 3 is that much-debated third entry in another popular series: Mass Effect 3.
Both are undoubtedly, in terms of gameplay, the most well-rounded and fun of their respective franchises. Both start off at a sprint, then lose steam a little bit. Both resolve their story arcs, while gently reminding the fans that there is still more story to be told.
There’s no way that Kingdom Hearts 3 will make fans as furious as Mass Effect 3 did. That’s because they’re aiming at different things. The fun with Mass Effect was creating a character and shaping the entire universe around you. The fun with Kingdom Hearts is playing around in the universe that’s been given to you.
In Mass Effect you built a relationship with your Shepard, in Kingdom Hearts you build a relationship with Kingdom Hearts.
I played Kingdom Hearts 2 when I was 16. Crucially, this is not the second Kingdom Hearts game, but the second numbered title. To recap: Kingdom Hearts 3 is the third numbered title but the 13th or 15th title, depending on your pedantry when it comes to counting Kingdom Hearts games.
By this time, my then best friend and I had been in the kind of dramatic, tumultuous on-again-off-again relationship that teenagers tend to obsess about and then forget the moment they turn 18. I genuinely can’t remember if we were on-again or off-again during that period. I remember the general plot machinations of any given Kingdom Hearts game better than I remember the movements of my own life which is, once more, ripe for a few 50 minute therapy sessions.
A few messages were sent over MSN, because this game came out before iPhones were invented, and it was agreed that we would rent it over a weekend (splitting the $12 fee between us) and play it together. We were older, and arguably stupider than we were when we were 12. I was still a hardcore Final Fantasy fan who had yet to see a single Disney film, and he had grown out of being a gay boy in the closet who was an unashamed Disney fan into being an unashamed gay boy who was a closeted Disney fan.
One weekend, in 2006, we captured that initial rush for the second time.
This is a list of some things that happen in Kingdom Hearts 3:
- The ‘Let It Go’ sequence from Frozen plays in its entirety, nearly identical to the film, except with Sora, Donald and Goofy interjecting ‘Is that Elsa?’
- Jiminy Cricket, who has been the documenter of the entire series, literally gives the entire cast smartphones and says, “If you need to catch up with the plot, look at those!”
- Sora scans a QR code with his Gummiphone to so he can play a promo game for a silent film festival.
- Woody and Buzz, from Toy Story, inadvertently teach the big bad guy about the power of darkness.
- Mickey screams ‘Ultima!’ at somebody. This is the closest this game gets to incorporating Final Fantasy.
- Scrooge hires Ratatouille, from the film Ratatouille, to run his restaurant and you help Ratatouille make new dishes. You can do this from anywhere in the known universe.
- You explore the world of Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean, in a naval-based mini-game that is at least as deep as the one in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and twice as fun.
- The guy who voices many of the bad guys also voices Dale, as in the Chipmunk.
- Axel mentions that he can’t die because of his popularity, a meta-reference to the fact that his death in the second game was retconned immediately, and changed the entire rules of the canon as a result.
- A collaboration between Utada Hikaru, Skrillex and Poobear opens the game.
- Rutger Hauer, aka the villain in Blade Runner, voices the main bad guy, replacing Leonard Nimoy (RIP) aka Spock from Star Trek. This is in a game that also features the voice talents of Mark Hamill aka Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. I have no doubt that Testuya Nomura, director of this game and sci-fi fanboy absolutely relishes these franchises having some kind of crossover.
- There is some genuinely hilarious semi-product placement for Disneyland in terms of ‘attraction’ moves that Sora can do in battle that truly need to be seen to be believed.
The beauty of Kingdom Hearts is that all these things can be poked fun at in the same breath that one is deeply, deeply enjoying them.
We holed up for 48 hours. We had maybe 50 vodka cruisers between us, we did not sleep, we did shower, we did briefly use the bathroom. When Roxas sacrificed himself and his summer vacation so Sora could wake up from his year-long slumber, we cried. When Sora met his friend Riku again after losing him in the Realm of Darkness, we cried. When we fought side-by-side beside characters from Final Fantasy VII and VIII, we cried. When the game ended, and the orchestral version of Utada Hikaru’s ‘Sanctuary’ played, yes, we cried. Even more, we sobbed.
Crucially, we did it all together. There was that cocoon of safety around us, and that escapist fantasy. Once more, we were two gay boys locked away from the world in our own mishmash of fantasy worlds – a little bit Final Fantasy, a little bit Disney, and a lot of whatever original character nonsense started with the second game and remained part of the series’ DNA forevermore. It was a series that in our world only we understood, and only we could make sense of. For those 48 hours, we were safe and we were in charge.
It remains not just one of my most significant video game experiences but one of my core memories of my life, and of this relationship. For 48 hours, any of the many, many problems and disconnections we’d had through our relationship was forgotten. We got lost in the universe of Kingdom Hearts. We were Sora trying to get his friends back, and making new friends along the way. Even as the plot got increasingly convoluted, with its Nobodies and Heartlesses and Replicas, we stayed fully invested with the experience and fully together.
In some way, and you’ll have go with me here like millions of fans around the world have gone with Kingdom Hearts, our relationship became strangely entwined with this series. Whenever we had a bad moment, and there were probably more of these than there were good moments, we tracked back to that 48 hour period when, hyped up on vodka cruisers and sugar free V (because of the calories), we took Sora from waking up in a coccoon to finally closing Kingdom Hearts (which is a real thing in the game series Kingdom Hearts) and things finally made sense again.
When you’re in the fantasy, it doesn’t need to make sense to anybody else.
There’s room for a lot of qualitative critique of Kingdom Hearts, which I assume will flood in from both diehard fans and cynics after the game’s release last week.
On the plus side, it’s the only game since the first to truly incorporate the Disney worlds in a way that moves the narrative forward while successfully building upon the lore of each individual world. It’s also the first game since the second one to not just add new quirks into the core battle system, but to take the quirks previously introduced and layer them to create a battle system where every random encounter feels meaningfully different and engaged.
On the negative side, the worlds lose steam towards the very end of the game, and by the end of the 30 hour narrative it becomes clear that it’s going to tie things up very, very quickly because it’s the only way you can do it. It’s been 17 years. Shit needs to end. There are also so, so many mini-games that it can be easy to get lost in time; the game is both too much of a good thing and not nearly enough of a truly great thing.
But Kingdom Hearts is not about quality. It’s just about being in it.
In the 13 years since Kingdom Hearts 2, that sometimes best friend and sometimes boyfriend passed away. It’s a turn that would be worthy of Kingdom Hearts itself, except in the world of Kingdom Hearts nobody is ever truly gone. They become a Heartless, or a Replica, or a Nobody. There’s some form of time travel. Everybody always returns to the world, and everybody can be redeemed.
We never played another Kingdom Hearts together after the second one, and many stupidly titled ones came out between then and now – 358/2 Days, Birth by Sleep, re:coded – but these were portable games. However essential they might be to the overall narrative, they never felt like events. These were portable experiences; you played them in quick bursts on the bus or in bed, not in front of a big TV for an entire weekend.
Occasionally, when we were briefly on-again, we would check in with the plot and watch cutscene compilations on YouTube. For a few minutes, here and there, we were in that same world, but with the ironic detachment that comes with a bit of age. We laughed at prequels with their hilarious bleak plots, we rolled our eyes at the inclusion of time travel and straight-up balked at the proliferation of ‘x’ names.
Kingdom Hearts 3 was officially announced for development in June 2013. I remember sending him an excited email, which never got a reply.
He passed away a year after that – there was going to be no third rush. When Kingdom Hearts 3 came, as it finally did, 13 years after Kingdom Hearts 2, I would be playing it without my friend.
There’s something that feels inherently dated about Kingdom Hearts 3, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The games industry has changed so fundamentally since 2002, when the idea of a cinematic, highly-constructed narrative experience with limited agency was the norm. We live in an age of Fortnite, when online connectivity and sociality is key. We live in an age of Red Dead Redemption 2, which is so attached to realism that you might as well buy a horse and raise it yourself. Most importantly, we live in an age when earnestness is ripe for comedy and irony is king.
Kingdom Hearts 3 has none of these things. For all the improvements made to both the graphics and gameplay, it feels like a game that could’ve come out ten years ago. The cutscenes are highly directed, the worlds, while being more exploratory than any game since the first, are still strictly linear, and most importantly, the Gummi Ship remains as stubbornly unfun as it has always been.
Square-Enix can do that because Kingdom Hearts 3 trades so much on an old audience investment. I’d be surprised if Kingdom Hearts 3 was a runaway hit, because of the series’ fairly justified reputation for being an incomprehensible series of twists and turns. But if nothing else, it should sell millions because if you’re in for a penny of nonsense, you’re in for a pound of absolute bonkers.
And also? Some of us could do worse than going back to 2006.
When I beat Kingdom Hearts 3 it felt like the end of an era. It was the end of a gaming series that I’ve had in my life for nearly two-thirds of it (although it ends with a fairly genius sequel hook that, while still resolving this particular arc, definitely promises future games). I’ve put more hours into this series than I put into my high school studies, and more than I’ve put into any one single piece of writing. If we’re only talking time, this game has a noticeable slice of my life’s pie.
But we’re not just talking time. Throughout my 60 hours with this game, and I know I’ll be going back to more, I kept on wondering that it might be better or more satisfying with my friend next to me. Just like fun means more with someone to share it with, nonsense means more when there’s somebody else there who isn’t understanding it with you. There’s a definite loneliness to playing alone a game that is begging moment-to-moment for some reaction from you, and Kingdom Hearts is nothing if not begging for a reaction. This goes double in the hollow pre-release period when nobody else has actually played it yet.
He’ll never know how it ended, and honestly? That doesn’t matter. The plot of Kingdom Hearts was never the point, it was the world. To use a cliche that the game itself doesn’t use word for word but comes damn near close to, it was about the friends we made along the way.
Kingdom Hearts was about discovering a world together. Kingdom Hearts II was about getting lost in that world together. And in Kingdom Hearts 3, it was about saying goodbye to that world.
To twist the cliche, it was about the friend I lost along the way.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is available from today for PS4 and Xbox One.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.