Part 2: When Your Favorite Franchise Lets You Down

In many respects, Kingdom Hearts III gave the fans what they wanted. It was bigger, bolder, and graphically superior to its predecessors. Part one of this review talked about how the gameplay was fantastic, and how the mere scope of the game pushed the Kingdom Hearts formula to new heights.

Sadly, Kingdom Hearts III maintained one of the series’ most egregious problems: storytelling. With the enormous amount of filler games that played vital roles to overall plot, the KH series produced a story too big for its own good, and some very important characters and anticipated plot points suffered for it.

So where did Kingdom Hearts III go wrong?

WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD.

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Uneven Storytelling

Kingdom Hearts suffers from what I hate to call “Tetsuya Nomura-itis”, which was present in Final Fantasy XV as well: stuff just happens. There’s no build-up and no tension -- just one thing happening after another. Which is ironic, given the amount of expository cutscenes Kingdom Hearts III is littered with.

Even with Kingdom Hearts’ convoluted story, the one thing previous games always got right was pacing. The overall arc of every game in the series was blended into each individual Disney stage, typically with cutscenes bookending these levels to keep the story moving forward.

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New characters like Baymax are amazing, giving us new worlds and stories, but what about the central plot?

After hours of traipsing through the shiny, new Pixar fare, KH3 suddenly decides to shift its attention to the world-ending threat that’s been baring its fangs this entire time. Sure, villain “team members” like Vanitas and Vexen make little cameos in each Disney level, but there’s never any sense of building tension. It’s like watching old Saturday morning cartoons ala Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ending with a classic “I’ll get you next time,” then suddenly catapulting at breakneck speed into the third act of The Avengers: Infinity War. It doesn’t work.

Now, there are certain huge payoffs, but as I mentioned in part 1, they all come with the side characters. I cried my everloving eyes out at the reunion of Axel, Roxas, and Xion, and the reunion of Terra with Aqua and Ventus got me choked up too. However, it felt like KH3 was so busy wrapping up storylines for the myriad of characters it’s introduced over the past games that the main characters got shafted storywise. Eraqus and Xehanort, the elder statesman of the series, get a grand ending but if you skipped out on Birth By Sleep, you don’t know who these men are. It’s a fitting finale for two characters who are incredibly vital to the overall story, but it falls flat due to the fact they aren’t at all present in the other two main entries.

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Sora, Riku, and Kairi are our main protagonists. We should be experiencing their meaningful moments at the end of all of this hoopla, but honestly, nothing happens to push their stories forward. They are just there. We’ve spent the three main entries of these games with these people, and their payoff is warranted. Sora, Riku, and Kairi feel like pawns in the sprawling Kingdom Hearts narrative, rather than the heart and soul of the games. You feel nothing for them when the credits roll, and that’s bad.

What makes it worse is the problems with Sora, Riku, and Kairi themselves.

Where did my main characters go?

Playing through KH3, something was bugging me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Upon completing it, I decided to restart Kingdom Hearts II, and that’s when it hit me. Sora….wasn’t Sora.

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The protagonist of Kingdom Hearts III sure looked like our titular hero, but I didn’t feel like I was inhabiting Sora, but a sanitized caricature. Sure, Haley Joel Osment’s voice acting is a partial factor, as he needed to pitch himself a few octaves higher for the role, but I can’t say I blame him. He’s now in his thirties, voicing a character he played in his adolescence, so it’s understandable and was easy to overlook after the game got rolling.

Unfortunately, it was the way that Sora was written that feels off. One of the most charming details about his character was the fact that he’s a fairly normal kid. He’s happy-go-lucky with a taste for adventure, but also grounded and cautious. A good kid, but not a saint. Hell, in Kingdom Hearts II, he gets rather smug and cocky: he gets into a brawl with the soldiers from Mulan for cutting the lunch line, and taunts Organization XIII member Xigbar with “you gonna cry?”. He was relatable, which is why, quite frankly, you rooted for and fell in love with this little spikey-headed peanut.

Kingdom Hearts III took that character and replaced him with a squeaky clean boy scout. From that awkward dancing mini-game in Kingdom of Corona (seriously, cringe), to his bland comebacks at the Organization members, to his “wooooow” response at Elsa’s ice magic, this Sora felt hollow. For Tinkerbell’s sake, Sora, Donald has been slinging ice magic around you for the last two years! In fact...YOU cast blizzard!!! Why are you shocked at Elsa freezing a pond?

Unfortunately, Riku has absolutely been given the same treatment. In KH3, he’s presented as such a white knight that he literally has no personality. The Sora and Riku I know, who are best friends with a very poignant rivalry, are nowhere to be seen. These dynamics, which have been foundational to the entire series as a whole, have been all but erased.

This really hit me later in the game, when our heroes are in the final stage --the Keyblade Graveyard -- and a very perfect opportunity presented itself. Sora and Riku are surrounded by Heartless and Nobodies. Given this scenario, the stage is set for the duo to have a glorified, character-appropriate Legolas and Gimli moment circa Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. Imagine this exchange:

“Hey Sora,” Riku would say with his usual layer of snark, “bet I could take out more Heartless than you!”

“Bring it on!” Sora retorts.

Cue the mini-game where you have to take out more Heartless and Nobodies than Riku. End scene.

I can’t believe I’m coming up with this on my own, Square Enix. Why the hell do I know your IP characters better than you do?

I’m Not Mad, Kairi. I’m Disappointed.

Alongside Riku, Kairi has been the driving force behind Sora’s entire journey throughout the cannon of Kingdom Hearts. He finds her, loses her, and just wants to get back to her. Given her importance, it really stinks that Kairi’s been the given the character qualities of a sentient tennis ball.

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From minute one, Kairi has been the resident damsel of Kingdom Hearts. In the first game, she spent a good amount of time unconscious. In the second game, she’s kidnapped.

However, Kingdom Hearts II made the definitive point of giving her a keyblade. Sure, it looks like it was commissioned by Barbie’s signature Haus of Keyblades, but nonetheless, the stage was set. Yen Sid made a declaration that “a new kind of keyblade wielder is needed, with a new kind of power”, and Kairi is sent off to learn the ways of a keyblade wielder. Yas Queen. This girl is about to show us how it’s done.

Except...no, she is really not. I can honestly say I’ve seen gaming’s most famous damsel-in-distress Princess Peach kick more tush than Kairi. There are several scenes of Kairi at her “training sessions” in KH3, but we never actually see her train. Instead, she sits with Axel (who is also learning how to use the keyblade), making post-session conversation and generally serving as a exposition probe for him to narrate his bits of story. Kairi does nothing in KH3 but show up and (big surprise) get victimized. It’s as if the additions of female characters Xion and Aqua rendered Kairi’s ability to be a heroine a mute point.

The most disappointing part is that there was so much potential. Kairi is a “princess of heart”, which is basically a magical princess who can open the door to light, blah blah, I’ll spare you the details. This made her a crucial piece of the narrative in the first game, and she shares this title with famed Disney princesses like Cinderella and Snow White. However, she’s the only Princess to receive a keyblade. Narratively, this could have opened up a myriad of possibilities -- her status as a Princess of Heart could have afforded her some unique powers that none of the other characters would have. I imagined an ending where the chips are down, all of our heroes of light are defeated, and just as it looks like all is lost, Kairi unleashes some unknown ability and delivers the final blow to the main villain, Xehanort. How amazing would that be?

Instead, she just sort of dies... or whatever the hell Xehanort does to her that causes her to disappear. I think she gets turned in a keyblade? The game ends with Sora getting her back 100% offscreen, and then she’s just back on the freakin’ Islands. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I actually wish Kairi never left the Islands. It’s not like she fed much to the story in leaving. After so much build up, she does nothing.

The singular argument that could be made for her usefulness is the portion of the game when your entire final party (Donald, Goofy, Axel, Roxas, Ventus, Aqua, Riku, and Mickey) are scattered to previously visited Disney worlds and in need of rescue. The final piece of that journey is Kairi just showing up and giving Sora some bland “I got your back” line, and flying him back to the battlefield after everyone is assembled. But maddenly, why she is there is not explained. Is this from her training? Or her innate abilities as a Princess of Light? She’s just there. Give me something, Square Enix!

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If you had told me that I would talk about the Gummi ship sequences more positively than Kairi in my review, I would have laughed at you.

What makes this lack-of-umph puzzling is that Disney has been course-correcting its female characters to an almost insatiable degree for the last 10 years. One of the biggest selling points of Ralph Breaks The Internet was the modernization of the Disney Princess roster, simultaneously poking fun at their outdated tropes and using them as springboard to showcase them as confident, independent women. Moana and Frozen presented some of their most forward thinking protagonists in years. Having Kairi redefined and rising like a phoenix out of passive martyrdom falls completely in line with that cultural shift, and it just feels like a missed opportunity that they did nothing with her character.

Um, Didn’t This Franchise Have Final Fantasy Characters?

The prodigal sons and daughters of Final Fantasy may not have played as large a role in Kingdom Hearts as the Disney characters, but they did serve their purpose in the story. This is why their complete absence from KH3 (save one brief reference to Cloud) is so jarring.

Tetsuya Nomura addressed this by saying the main cast members could stand on their own now, as they are established in their own right and they have their own chapters to close. However, I can’t help but feel like this was another cause of misplaced potential. The game wasn’t that long -- there was definitely time to go back to Radiant Garden to see what the heck is going on with Leon, Yuffie, and the gang, ESPECIALLY considering all of the cutscenes that take place in that very location with the former members of Organization XIII.

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Anyone else miss the wonderfully weird version of Cloud here? Or any other main Final Fantasy character?

Plus, just like Disney, new franchises have been added to the Final Fantasy vault since the last game. How the heck are Noctis of FFXV and Lightning of XIII not in this game? Maybe Eraqus and Xehanort discuss a moment in their youth when they faced the mighty Garland - Final Fantasy’s first villain. The possibilities and pieces are there. It’s a shame they didn’t put them together.

No Newbs Allowed

Of course, the overall storyline of KH has always been a mess, but each individual game presented a full beginning, middle, and end. Even if you weren’t sure how a particular title like Re:Coded or Chain Of Memories fit into the overall timeline, you would end each game knowing you got, for the most part, the complete experience of that overall game in and of itself.

KH3 isn’t friendly to new fans. If this is your first game, you won’t be coming back to the series. KH3 requires that you do your homework, dammit.

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Flashy graphics, new worlds, and trophies are great, but they can't make up for failings in story.

And they literally put homework in the game. There’s a big fat glossary of the previous games’ storylines. While it’s helpful, and could serve as a nice refresher, most people aren’t up for reading a full-blown textbook before starting a new game.

Closing Thoughts

Here’s the truth. Personally, this hurts. It feels like I am airing a best friend’s dirty laundry out on the internet. I positively love Kingdom Hearts, warts and all, and the fact that I didn’t love Kingdom Hearts III broke my heart. Even with the enjoyable gameplay, the myriad of storytelling missteps soured the overall experience. It’s a hard pill to swallow when your favorite video game lets you down.

However, the beauty of playing Kingdom Hearts III in the modern age is that the game’s final chapter isn’t necessary closed just because I’ve reached the end credits. In classic fashion, the game ends with a stinger scene opening the door to the next suite of the Kingdom Hearts story, and surprisingly, it was a turn I didn’t see coming. Additionally, being a Nomura joint, there’s the possibility of some FFXV-esque DLC in the works that could clean up some of the story misfires.

Kingdom Hearts III was definitely not my favorite in the series (KH2 still owns my heart), but in the end, it still gave me a big, broad, and even charming adventure, and perhaps this “endgame” entry will be another stepping stone to something bigger. Only time will tell, but until the next 13-years-in-the-making game, Kingdom Hearts III will remain a flawed, but still fun game.