Ansem, Aqua, Axel, Donald Duck, Goofy, Kairi, keyblade, King Mickey, Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts 3, Lea, Namine, opinion, Organization XIII, review, Riku, Roxas, Sora, Terra, Vanitas, Ven, Ventus, Xehanort, Xemnas, Xion
Well, it finally came. Seven years since their last entry in the main storyline of the franchise (“Dream Drop Distance”) and a staggering fourteen years since “Kingdom Hearts 2”, having skipped an entire console generation, Square Enix finally came out with “Kingdom Hearts 3”. To be honest, I really wanted to skip it. I was tired of how convoluted the plot had become and even more tired of being endlessly strung along on stories that seemed to resolve nothing and go nowhere. Nevertheless, when Square Enix desperately tried to court fresh blood for fans for their series by re-releasing remastered titles on the PS3 and PS4, I found myself eventually taking the bait. After binge playing through those, I took up KH3 and played it as well. It took me a bit longer than most to get through it due to school and life, but all things considered this is the fastest after a release I have ever beaten most games.
Square Enix has not done as good as it liked in those past fourteen years. It’s had some successes and some bombs, and has gotten a reputation for exceedingly long development times that nevertheless end up with games that feel only partially complete. With that in mind, there was quite a bit to worry about in this entry. Would Square Enix still have the “magic” or would it suffer as many of its other half-baked games had?
For my own take, I’m going to break down sections, but I’m also going to focus a lot of time on my reaction to the story. That was, after all, one of the main selling points of the franchise and this one ended up closing a huge story arc that had been building ever since “Kingdom Hearts 2”, so I feel it’s only fair when considering the merits of this game as a whole.
(WARNING: Spoilers will follow.)
The gameplay of the Kingdom Hearts franchise has never been completely consistent. Whether due to limitations of the platforms or experimentation, every new game has been a little different than before. Some entries were pretty good, such as the PS2 and PSP entries. Other ones, such as the card combat system in “Chain of Memories”, were more ambiguous. And then there’s ones such as in “368/2 Days” we don’t speak of. I personally feel the series peaked in “Birth by Sleep” or “Dream Drop Distance”; incorporating the element systems to give you a limited list of custom-picked abilities that were easy to bring up and use on command.
The gameplay in this one didn’t go with that, instead returning to its roots from the original Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2. As a result, you either have to constantly customize your quick controls or get ready to stop moving to make ability, item, or spell selections a lot.
What it did end up taking from “Dream Drop Distance” was the whole idea of Flowmotion, which I can only see as Square Enix’s attempts to cater more to gamers of non-RPG genres. It’s no longer as good as it was for attacking as it was in that game, which, to me, leaves things a little awkward. You constantly have to “dash into walls” to get it started. Even in areas where you can chain it, it seems harder to use than in DDD because it also incorporates all of the special action moves you could do in “Birth by Sleep” such as air dashing, double jumping, and gliding. At times, it gets hard to use. I remember frequently getting frustrated trying to glide only to end up double-jumping, and whereas DDD allowed you to chain jumps against walls to get over any obstacle, in this one you can only do it once before you’re stuck. It’s not too terribly clunky, but it’s worse than DDD none the less.
Abilities in the standard set, being things Sora can learn and equip with AP, are largely gone. Now, instead, the game constantly bombards you with opportunities to do special attacks. You can trigger them yourself by simply continuously attacking with a Keyblade or with magic, which will eventually load a special type of super command for a wide scale powerful attack, or you can attack certain enemies at certain points to earn “Theme Park Attacks” which are wide-scale, powerful moves that utilize a type of Disneyland ride such as the Pirate Ship, Mad Tea Cups, or Splash Run.
In almost every situation, Donald and Goofy, as usual, are NPCs along with you to act as support. Occasionally, they let you do team attacks with them as well that wreck spectacular havoc. In most Disney worlds, you also get a fourth (and occasionally fifth) ally along for the ride with the same capability. If that wasn’t enough, the shotlocks and formchanges from “Birth by Sleep” are in this game as well and vary based on equipped Keyblade.
So while you may not have the ability to equip major attacks like Faith, Salvation, or Mega Flare, you’re constantly given wide-reaching attacks that can hurt everyone on the screen at a time in more than one capacity; most of which are either unavoidable or make you temporarily invincible. And when I say constantly I mean it. It’s not uncommon to have multiple ones stacked, or to be frustrated because they have to be processed in queued order so you are wanting to activate a formchange but are stuck with an amusement park ride before it.
As for enemies, their scripts and capabilities are pretty much identical to those of basic enemies in other games. You’ve encountered their ilk before and not much has changed. There are a few enemies that have moves that break through your defenses, but that’s nothing new. A handful of enemies, such as the Water Cores, can guard against your physical attacks too, but you can deal with them with magic. About the only enemies that can really give you trouble are the mech ones in the Toy Box world if they all gang up on you, but in that case the game provides you an out by allowing you to commandeer one of their mechs and then use it to beat up the others.
There’s a variety of bosses and many of them can break through your offense and defense, but nothing too overwhelming. In KH2.5, you had to be extremely deliberate about your actions with the harder bosses. You had to wait for them to make a certain move or mistake, seize your chance to block and counter, and then wait for the opportunity to arise again. In KH3, that’s out the window. Pretty much every enemy and boss can be beaten by relentlessly beating away at them. A couple have some tricks to catch you off guard if you’re too sloppy, but nothing major, and none of them are as overwhelming as the special bosses of KH2.5. Not even this game’s own special boss.
What that means is that, first and foremost, this game is a major scale back in difficulty compared to the previous titles. The Kingdom Hearts franchise has always been, in part, about “enjoying the ride”–experiencing what it’s like to simply cruise through these worlds and interact with these characters. To push that more in this entry, it appears as if that was their intention with reducing the difficulty and giving you no end of ways to trounce your opponents.
That’s the basic gameplay, but there’s lots more than that. The rail shooter aspect of Gummi Ships has gone by the wayside. Now it’s purely open-world. You get to explore in pseudo-three dimensions, looking for combat missions to complete, hidden crystals, secret treasures, and asteroid belts to pulverize for precious lodes. There are three zones in all, with the last incorporating an “Assault on the Death Star” element to it by flying into and through a giant ship. It’s not a perfect system, as often it’s very difficult to get your Gummi Ship to move up or down in three dimensions without a lot of leading space, but it’s nowhere near, say, “Superman 64” level frustrating. And the markpoint ability helps keep you from getting lost.
Not every world is lain out the same way either. Two worlds in particular utilize “condensed” versions of open world exploration: the Caribbean and San Fransokyo. The latter of the two is a very small cityscape and isn’t all that elaborate, seeming to be the one world that was distinctly hastily put together. The Pirates world, on the other hand, allows you to command your own pirate ship that can level up just like you can, and allows ship-to-ship naval combat to boot with special attacks just for your boat. (Being a Final Fantasy fan of the old school type, naming the ship the “Leviathan” is icing on the cake.)
Square Enix is rather infamous for minigames nowadays and, while this game doesn’t go as elaborate as other entries, it has quite a few. One of the more notable ones is a cooking minigame designed to get you special food rewards that you can eat as part of a meal to give you bonuses. Another is a large amount of “portable” games scattered around similar to old Game and Watch entries that feature Sora and Mickey in hours worth of minigame fun. There’s also a minigame that allows you to engage in mech combat, an ice slider challenge, and the “Flantastic Seven” challenges. As in earlier Kingdom Hearts entries, you are required to get a high score on many of these in order to unlock special equipment. While some of them can be rather frustrating, none of them are overwhelmingly so or require a fixed strategy followed to the letter (such as the Underdrome special challenges in KH2), so they’re quite doable.
Almost a little too doable, in fact. Completing these challenges will eventually net you the game’s ultimate weapon, the Ultima Weapon, which contains a nigh-unbeatable shotlock and formchange that renders even the game’s optional boss defeatable with minimal effort. The era of Sephiroths and Lingering Wills is long gone in this game. As a result, this game is far more appealing to the brand new gamer, but those who expect at least some real challenge may walk away disappointed.
In addition, the gameplay isn’t quite as tight as it was in earlier games. There’s a lot of three dimensionality in this game, but Sora moves just a bit too fast in between control pushes to stand on the edges of cliffs. That’s a problem when trying to seek secret emblems to photograph for prizes or get items that are on the edge, as one wrong step will send you falling down for a long climb back up. Sora tends to get stuck from time to time in areas where he can’t stand, and recapturing targets is rather difficult: leaving Sora wasting a combo hitting nothing but air and getting further and further from the battle.
Overall, however, I’ll rate it as good. None of the downsides are negatives that will keep the game from being enjoyable, at least until you level up enough, and in general it’s a very fun romp. The primary fun part of a game should be the gameplay, beyond the story, graphics, music, or anything else, and this one manages to deliver pretty consistent Kingdom Hearts standards.
Oh boy…the graphics.
Kingdom Hearts made a name for itself on the PS2 and pretty much limited itself to sixth generation standards for the entire franchise until KH2.8, when it started to utilize the Unreal Engine. Now it explodes on the screen gorgeously. Everything is so colorful, fluid, expressive, and detailed. The water shimmers, the fire gleams, the frost casts a mist, the oceans lap…it’s wondrous to behold.
Until this point in the series, cutscenes and gameplay were often done in different formats; with higher graphics being saved for cutscenes and less resolution going into boss battles. Not here. The two are virtually indistinguishable in most scenes. It’s fantastic. The worlds of Disney are brought into such stunning light there are times you’d almost swear you were in the movies.
It’s not flawless, however. At this point, the KH franchise has moved almost entirely to the 3D entries of Disney, and those translate well on the Unreal Engine. By comparison, the few characters who are still around who are traditionally 2D suffer a bit. The same engine erases what little crudeness they had to them that, ironically, made them resemble more their 2D counterparts. As a result, they look more rounded and “rubbery”. While the 100 Acre Wood level managed to compensate for that by applying borders to make the characters look more like they were from a book, the same didn’t extend to the rest of the game.
That’s a minor complaint, however. It’s a real treat just to enjoy how beautiful this game is. In previous games, the worlds of Disney films were largely “rectangular rooms” that were painted and given objects to make them appear almost like performance stages of Disney films. Now they’re brought to life more than ever.
To me, the music was a tiny bit hit-and-miss. However, the misses weren’t too terrible, and the hits were all out of the park.
Most of the game, in particular the Disney worlds, has mediocre music at best. Good enough to get the job done but not iconic enough to stay in your head as other infamous tracks from the series. However, there are a few entries that stick out noticeably. The composer wisely decided to incorporate the more famous pieces from the respective movies into the game themes, so you hear lots of vibes of “You Got a Friend in Me” in Toy Box and lots of tones from “Let It Go” in Arendelle. Furthermore, what few tracks make a return appearance, such as the theme from Olympus Colosseum, have gotten a nice update to sound more majestic than ever.
Yet where the soundtrack really shines is in the final area. In that part of the game, there are a number of battles and interactions between various characters, and to perfectly supplement that the music not only brings out old character and battle themes, not only updates them into newer and more epic versions, but actually blends them together, such as the fusion with Roxas and Xion’s theme for their return and the fusion of final boss themes for the three-way battle with Ansem, Xemnas, and Young Xehanort. In addition to epic moments, it’s walks down memory lane. It’s fantastic.
If the whole soundtrack could be that epic this would be unequivocally one of the best soundtracks of the eighth generation. As it is, I’ll just have to put it down for having a lot of nice hits.
I can’t discuss this game without gushing on the worlds. Until now, like I said earlier, worlds were mostly a handful of “rooms” painted to look like Disney movies. In this one, they’re fully fleshed out. While DDD tried to make them bigger and better, this game goes all out on it.
The biggest way to describe how much has changed is comparing the world of “Olympus” to “Olympus Colosseum”. In KH2.5, they made Olympus Colosseum wide enough to encompass a standard sized level in the Underworld, but the fact of the matter was in most games Olympus Colosseum was just that…Olympus Colosseum. One of the laziest worlds in the franchise was “Birth by Sleep”‘s Olympus Colosseum, which was no more than adding a single Thebes square “room” for regular enemies.
In Kingdom Hearts 3, Olympus is three separate, fleshed out stages in one. Thebes is as big as some of the worlds in other games and has a huge and diverse landscape in three dimensions to explore, complete with full sized temples, gardens, and hilltops. But that’s only one part of the world. There’s also Mount Olympus itself, a continuous stage that, like a real mountain, you keep climbing to ascend to the top and can always see where you’ve been and how far you have to do. It’s not just background design now…it is the stage. And when you get to the top, then you get to roam around the Realm of the Gods itself, again in a 3D environment, including finding secret paths to hidden areas.
On top of all of that, there’s a rather landmark innovation in this world…NPCs! Yes, technically even the original game had NPCs in Traverse Town, but this is something else. Most worlds of Kingdom Hearts are dead zones. The environment is beautiful but, aside from enemies and four to eight main characters, the worlds are empty and void of life. At last, the game adds enough NPCs to flesh it out and give even more definition to these worlds they’ve created.
Now the world of Olympus feels like just that…an actual world.
That’s just one of the nine worlds available. In all fairness, most of them are still void of life like other entries. Some of them are also a bit unbalanced. As I mentioned earlier, Olympus and the Caribbean may be wide and expansive, but San Fransokyo is essentially one giant map with a day and night mode. Still, between the detail, the amount of exploration to be done, and the size and scope of everything, this game has a fun element to it just from how much the worlds have been upgraded. If there’s anything this game deserves an outstanding on, that’s it. It’s a trend I really hope continues in the future.
I’m going to go a bit in depth in this one.
Pretty much ever since Kingdom Hearts 2 came out, the past fourteen years has been setting up one cliffhanger after another in their respective games. “368/2 Days” got by as a stand-alone story and folks assumed that was the tragic end of Xion, but “Birth by Sleep” set up the fate of Terra, Ventus, and Aqua, and “Dream Drop Distance” (and, to a lesser degree, “Re:Coded”) set up the idea, in spite of the upbeat ending to KH2 in which Roxas and Naminé seemed happy and content to become part of Sora and Kairi respectively, that the objective now was to reconstitute them both as independent individuals. And, of course, the games also set up who the original Master Xehanort was and paved the way toward the inevitable Second Keyblade War between the seven Keyblade Light Wielders and his thirteen copies (although don’t think too hard about how or even if they ever really arrived at those numbers…).
In short, this game had a lot to wrap up. How did it do?
In my opinion, a mixed bag. I feel, at the end, it as 80-90% successful. But that last 10-20%…
The Disney worlds have always been pretty clearly nothing more than RPG padding; analogous to any towns or countries you have to progress through in an RPG to reach your final objective. In a sense, they’re both better and worse than ones in a normal RPG. Worse in the fact that, since they all have in common being condensed versions of Disney movies, they stand out as almost totally self-contained entities that are easily interchangeable. What you do to help Rapunzel in the Kingdom of Corona, for example, has absolutely nothing to do with saving Boo in Monstropolis. On the other hand, it’s better because each world is a nostalgic trip through memory lane of some Disney/Pixar classic goodness. At this point, the only non-3D movie left in the lineup was Hercules, so the 3D nature flushed very well in the worlds you visited. And the fact that the game was able to virtually recreate shot-for-shot key scenes from both “Tangled” and “Frozen” is testament to how far technology has come.
That being said…the padding element of the Disney worlds is, sadly, more evident than ever. While the worlds and time spent in them is now large enough to where you can get engrossed in an individual world, the fact of the matter is Square Enix has been setting up the grand finale for years and none of these worlds do much to get the player closer to it. Instead, we get more of the same: guys in black cloaks showing up to taunt you and Sora, like Charlie Brown with a football, doing his standard gig of trying to rush them while they simply step back into a doorway of darkness and disappear. At this point, it’s almost painful to watch.
At the end of “Dream Drop Distance”, what needed to be done was Sora had to go rescue Aqua and Ventus so they could join them for the final battle, and then go fight it, and Sora also made it a goal of his to restore Roxas and Naminé. Yet rather than find a way to space that out throughout the game, they leaned back on the idea of the ‘Power of Waking’, which at this point seems to have whatever power is necessary to get through a given situation (including time travel and resurrection), and used that as a plot device to prevent the main storyline from progressing. Once you’ve cleared the last world, Sora simply gains it automatically and, at that point, the plot not only progresses but goes straight from there to conclusion.
Until then, what we have to rely on for plot progression are the side protagonists, and that’s even worse. Riku and Mickey pretty much spin their wheels going nowhere in the Dark World. Kairi does pretty much what she does in every game when she’s not being a damsel to save–sits around and talks about Sora. This time it’s worse because Axel/Lea, one of the more colorful original characters of the series as well as arguably the most proactive, is sidelined with her.
Who is the most active on the side of “Team Sora”? Shockingly enough, Zexion/Ienzo. Originally the member of Organization XIII who was so unimportant that you didn’t even have to fight him to beat him in the original GBA “Chain of Memories”, he’s suddenly the guy who makes stuff happen. And not only him, but most of the older Organization XIII guys. Probably the biggest surprise of all is one of the most fan-hated members of Organization XIII, Even/Vexen, ends up being one of the “nicest” and making not only personal sacrifices but risks to life and limb to try and help out the protagonists.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this. It’s a bit of an odd turn and subverting expectations, but it’s welcome enough. I will say it makes me grimace a bit. These are folks who betrayed and thought they murdered their master and were cool with the destruction of countless lives and worlds, but suddenly they’re supposed to be “good” because they found out Xemnas planned to turn them into Xehanort copies the whole time? What about their original motivation to backstab Ansem and gain power through genocide? The fact they were willing to do that isn’t negated by the fact they were tricked. Isä, Lea, and Ienzo all have excuses. Isä and Lea had no interest in universal domination but wanted their friend back, and Ienzo, as we saw in “Birth by Sleep” and as he himself spells out, was still a kid who didn’t have the fortitude to stand up to the others. But what about the others?
Aside from that, there’s something else in the Radiant Garden that seems to be missing. Hmm… What, or rather who, could it be…?
Long time series fans recognized right off the bat that Square Enix gave the axe to the Final Fantasy cameos, aside from a toy display in Toy Box and various items related to Gummi Ships. At first I didn’t think much of this, but after completing the game…yeah, it’s a problem. It would have been one thing if all of the characters were like Cloud, Auron, or Zack, who showed up just to be a brief side character and then disappeared again. At this point, however, Squall, Aerith, Yuffie, and Cid have done more for restoring and defending the Radiant Garden than the former members of Organization XIII even if they haven’t shown up since Kingdom Hearts 2. Square Enix has seemed to try and distance itself from the aspect of KH that ties into the FF universe since then, but that doesn’t change the fact it’s already part of the foundation of the series. You can’t just “ignore it hoping people will forget about it”.
The stories in the worlds themselves aren’t entirely done well, either. Olympus is pretty good, allowing Sora and company to help out with the climax of “Hercules”. Toy Box, Monstropolis, and San Fransokyo set up their respective stories outside of the plots from their movies, so those work out pretty well too. But the Kingdom of Corona, Arendelle, and the Caribbean are so intent on replaying, both in style and substance, the stories for “Tangled”, “Frozen”, and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” respectively that there’s really not much room for any new characters like Sora, Donald, and Goofy. They managed to at least make Sora relevant to the plot in the Caribbean by replacing “Bootstrap” Bill Turner’s role with his at a key point in the climax, but for the Kingdom of Corona and Arendelle it felt as if George Lucas had gone into the plots of “Tangled” and “Frozen” and digitally added Sora and company in the background as they have little to do with their plots other than to fight enemies who themselves were inserted. Ironically, this is summed up perfectly by Square Enix doing the iconic “Let It Go” scene: an unnecessary retread of territory Disney fans are aware of that slips new characters into scenes that don’t effect how things play out.
There is one good thing about this setup, however. Square Enix’s constant rereleases and combo packs of the KH games have made it clear they’re trying to woo new gamers who have a lot of ground to make up. However, what they were really betting on drawing in new gamers, and which was successful in at least one case, was the same thing as the first: nostalgia. They want to “sell” these Disney worlds and bring in audiences to experience Disney movies. The more elaborate individual worlds and even the fact that the game more or less plops you right into the thick of things for the very first stage in Olympus testifies to that. The front load focusing on the Disney aspect does give the game a bit more of a lighthearted feel and, more importantly, a “simple” one as opposed to how convoluted the lore became in the past two entries.
However, the big part that older fans wanted to see was the climax; the point in which all of the plot threads come together to be resolved. And what ends up happening? They get blitzed through like a series of dominoes.
One of the big shocks in the trailers for the game was Anti-Aqua, making people wonder if Aqua had really succumbed to evil or, worse yet, had actually been taken over by Xehanort the same as Terra. What was this going to mean for the rest of the game? Or for her? Aqua had gotten considerable focus at this point. She ended up having the most predominant role in “Birth by Sleep” and the entire “KH3 demo game” in KH2.8 focused on her in the last few days leading up to the climax of the original KH, so she had become a fairly noteworthy character in her own right.
So what happens with Anti-Aqua? Nothing. It’s an excuse for a boss battle similar to one in KH2.8 against Mirror Aqua. It seems to only be there to give a bit more tension than simply “Sora and Riku pick up Aqua from the Dark World”, which is all that would have happened otherwise.
After that, it’s straight to waking up Ventus, then straight to the final battle and after a long (and largely irrelevant) detour which does nothing but set up more lore for Kingdom Hearts 4 the rest of Organization XIII falls one after the other while plot points keeping Roxas and Xion from returning are instantly resolved in seconds by more Wizard of Oz logic (especially in the latter case) and Terra comes back pretty much so the game can say Terra came back. After that, we shoot right to the final battle with Xehanort and one final plot device to ensure only a mostly-happy ending instead of a completely happy one that leaves an opening for the next game.
What do I think of all this rushing? I’m torn between hating it and a voice in my head saying: “be thankful“.
On the negative side, Square Enix may have ultimately never intended anything else for most of the cast than to pad Sora’s numbers so it wouldn’t just be 1 against 13, and it sure seems that way as not one of them defeats any of the thirteen on their own but needs Sora’s help for all of them. However, they deserved more than that. At this point, a lot of the characters are as beloved, if not more so, than Sora. Many of them have had to go through a lot worse than him. They “earned” their resolution. They earned their decisive battle. Ventus has earned his final defeat of Vanitas. Roxas and Xion have earned their triumph over Xemnas. Aqua has earned the right to take out Xigbar for good. And frankly? Terra’s earned a rematch against Master Xehanort. Heck, I even wanted to see Naminé lend a hand against her former oppressors beyond “calling someone else for help”. They’re just window dressing. Many of them don’t even get a crucial moment that helps out.
Sora, on his part, earned the right to make Young Xehanort eat his words for calling all of his concern for the well being of his friends and others weaknesses and foolishness…and he didn’t even get to do that.
Yet on the other hand? This is honestly a much better ending than I expected. All three of the Nobodies, Roxas, Naminé, and even Xion, which should have been impossible, end up being their own persons at the end. Sure, it was perhaps a bit convenient that Organization XIII somehow knew to presumably pull her out of the time period where she still existed to recreate her in the modern world when all record of her existence, even physical evidence, was supposed to disappear after “368/2 Days” but, hey, I got misty when she, Lea, and Roxas were reunited. I thought they’d have to kill Terra to win. And even if the developers seemed to nearly forget about the Lingering Will only to forget about him again after he showed up, Terra still came back at the end of it. Aqua got rescued and Ventus woke up, and we get a nice little scene of all of them on the beach (including Hayner, Olette, and Pence…fulfilling Roxas’ dream from way back in KH2). Heck, even Isa returned. Frankly, I’ve been complaining for several games now about all the meandering and plot complications I have to go through only to end up with a subpar ending where a sacrifice has to be made. And, yeah, while that happened here too, overall a lot of the “bad” was undone by it, and without having to wade through a whole lot of nonsense that I claimed to hate. So really, I have no reason to complain that much.
But that being said, there’s one other downside to the final “rush”, and that’s that it renders all of the ending a bunch of noise to anyone who is just joining the series or hasn’t kept up on all the games, and that’s counter-productive to this game’s own theme of trying to make it appeal to newer audiences. Case in point: I have a friend who stopped playing at “Kingdom Hearts 2” although she looked up the plot for “368/2 Days”, so she knew all about Roxas, Namine, and Xion. Aqua, Ventus, and Terra, on the other hand, were a mystery to her. So she was able to really enjoy the reuniting of Roxas and Xion, but saving Aqua, waking Ventus, and Terra’s redemption? Just noise. Because the characters are just blown through without much to contribute, the only way you can appreciate them is if you already played their game.
What that means is this doesn’t really feel like a game that wraps up these people’s respective stories but more of a “bonus chapter” that gives them a touch of closure then shoves them out of the way.
Again, I only partially liked it…but not for the reason you’re thinking.
Believe it or not, I’m not all that upset about what happened to Sora. I was expecting that. My real surprise was that the ending wasn’t even worse than that. This is Square Enix. Square Enix is infamous for not having satisfying resolutions even in stand-alone games, let alone ones they want to string along to the next entry in the series. Ever since “Kingdom Hearts 2” every resolution in a game has been unsatisfying; designed to get the player to move on to the next game searching for a grand finale. In the original “Kingdom Hearts”, Sora ended up stranded on an unknown world with Donald and Goofy and Riku had vanished. At the end of “Chain of Memories”, Sora was stuck sleeping for one year and Riku’s future was still in doubt. Things did seem to be at a nice “stopping point” for a new story arc at the end of “Kingdom Hearts 2”, but it ended up only being used to extend the Xehanort plotline. “368/2 Days” led into KH2, while all other games since were leading into “Kingdom Hearts 3”. Of course they were going to prep for KH4.
Besides, as I said, many of the characters had suffered more than Sora and deserved their happy ending, and they got it. That really dilutes the sad parts.
The question is how are they going to move on from here? They left themselves far more leeway in this one than any others and this is a chance for the series to break the mold and branch out in a way that’s logical rather than inserting plot complexity. In my opinion, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way would be to pick up with Sora in the video game world he ended up in. As for the right way? I’ll get to that in a minute.
What I am truly upset about is how things were wrapped up with two of the other characters. First on that list…Xehanort.
On one level, I did feel his “end” was appropriate and realistic. Based on what we know about his character, his total sociopathic nature, amoral demeanor and world view, and his mindset that everything in the world is a series of cause and effect reactions that can be controlled and accounted for, probably the most dignified and appropriate way he could go out would indeed be to simply admit defeat. He thought he had planned for absolutely every outcome and he still lost. And seeing as he’s not the type of character to throw a tantrum or fly into a rage given his demeanor, nor would he think there’d be much to be gained by sulking or being petulant, it made sense that he would quietly hand Sora the χ-blade.
That, however, is where my satisfaction with the ending is over.
One of the big things this game tried to do was pull the same deal the “DISSIDIA” series did and tried to make all of the villains sympathetic or misunderstood in a last ditch effort to make them more than one-dimensional. They even went so far as for Ansem and Xemnas to say to the very protagonists they pooh-poohed as pathetic and meaningless since day one that “we really knew you were stronger than us the whole time and we respect you”. That doesn’t really work with Xehanort, in my opinion.
We never really see a side of Xehanort that really reflected the idea of the “misunderstood villain”. On the contrary, he’s gradually become the one force of true evil in the series. Even with the chess cutscenes, there’s never any sense that Xehanort ever saw Eraqus as anything more than an obstacle to overcome. There are times he seemed to respect him, yes, but see him as a friend? No. And that should be rather obvious because Xehanort literally stabbed him in the back to get him out of his way the moment he became a nuisance to him.
They try to sell Xehanort on the idea that he thought it was his responsibility to recreate the world and guide it, but the series has made it abundantly clear Xehanort cares absolutely nothing about the world or its denizens. If he cared so much about world order, why did he go about destroying so many worlds? If he cared about the well being of people, why did he never regard anyone else as anything but chaff, spawn for Heartless, or tools to manipulate and use? Xehanort’s own writings showed he didn’t care about the world. All he cared about was furthering his own knowledge…seeing what would happen after he destroyed all worlds. To want to cause the apocalypse just to learn what comes after it? Is there anything more selfish and insane than that?
Xehanort, over the years, has incorporated the worst aspects of Darth Sidious, Lord Voldemort, and Agent Smith. The one that stands out above all is his sociopathy. In everything Xehanort does, from greatest to smallest, he makes it clear all other people are not individuals to him. They’re either irrelevant, problems on paper to solve, or tools to use. At the end of the day, only him, his own knowledge, and his own plans matter. Does this sound like someone who could be sold as truly having everyone’s “best interests” at heart, even grossly misguided?
Even the writers didn’t seem to believe it. Xehanort never asks for Eraqus’ forgiveness. He seems to still treat his actions as simply having beaten Eraqus in another chess game, only to see Eraqus still had another hidden move. Xehanort never apologizes for anything he did to Terra, Ventus, and Aqua, let alone everything he put everyone else through. In short, he never seems to see anything that he did was “wrong”; only that he wasn’t good enough to succeed in spite of everything he tried.
And that brings me to the one issue with the series overall that still lingers at the end of this game, which is an issue I pointed out with anime and manga earlier: characters as ideals. The KH series still hasn’t seemed to decided whether or not its concepts of “Light” and “Darkness” are synonymous with “Good” and “Evil”. Early in the series, they seemed to equate light and darkness with creation and destruction–one is generally associated with good and the other with evil, but they themselves are immoral and can be used by both. Yet on the other hand, all of the evil characters consistently rely on darkness, and all of the good characters consistently rely on light. What few times a character tries to invert that trend usually end up bad and, in “Birth by Sleep”, any notion that someone who was morally good could use darkness was blown away when it was revealed Xehanort was tricking Terra into using darkness just so he could control and manipulate him.
Pretty much the only character who has been able to show the light/dark duality of morality in the series has been Riku, but one character does not a trend set. While it seems the newer content with the “true” Keyblade Masters might show individuals using light for evil ends, the fact remains its only the pure evil characters in KH that fully embrace the idea of darkness. The one totally irredeemable villain in KH3 was Vanitas, and he clearly stated that he was “darkness”. As a result, you can’t really say that Xehanort was ever pursuing good or even things from an amoral perspective. He was devoted to darkness, and so he was devoted to evil. The fact that he created Vanitas implies he’s an even greater evil than him.
The second character is synonymous of a greater problem in this entire game that I’ve already touched on, which is that adding more characters simply meant less for individual characters to do or impact the plot. Yet there is one who has gotten consistently bad since her first appearance all the way in the original game: Kairi.
At this point, Kairi is, in my opinion, a fail character in the tradition of great anime/manga female “protagonists” who ultimately were there to make the hero look good when he jumped in to save her. And in this game, it starts coming out clearly to the point of degeneration.
There are two ways in a narrative to endear a character to the audience. One is the make the character themselves endearing. (This likely explains why Lea is still in the series. As the most entertaining out of Organization XIII by far, he’s carved himself a niche into the plot.) The other is to make the character important to someone else who is endearing. This is how Kairi managed to introduce herself in the first two games. And at the end of KH2, the idea that she was setting out to take a more active role made her a bit more appealing and had hope for her character.
However, there are two kinds of ways to be “active”: reactive and proactive. Reactive is when a character responds to a situation, whereas proactive is when a character takes the initiative. In all fairness, there is very little proactivity in Kingdom Hearts. Sora is constantly reactive. He is told what to do by Yen Sid and he does it. However, he has key moments where he is proactive. In his case, it’s usually of the reckless kind and often gets him in trouble, but it is him going beyond what he’s told.
Kairi, on the other hand, spends part of her time being reactive and part of her time living up to her “Princess of Light” title in the worst way: being a damsel. Kairi cares so much about Sora and his well being that she constantly sits on tree log and stares at oceans or writes letters she never even sends and waits for him. That is the textbook definition of a “damsel” or a fairy princess who endlessly waits for “her prince to come”. It’s ironic that Disney lived up to that ideal not through their modern princesses but by collaborating with Square Enix.
Now, she did try to do more in this entry. However, the one contribution she ended up successfully making was a largely passive one and part of her nature. She didn’t require a Keyblade, training, or anything other than to “exist” in order to help Sora in The Final World. Furthermore, if you have a sequence in a game that you can entirely cut out, which in this case is Sora and company’s temporary deaths before they came back for “round two”, and it doesn’t change the ultimate plot in any way…that’s a clear sign it was inserted in there by force. You could remove that whole sequence and still have the game play out the same way.
Kairi’s real “contribution” was the only thing she ever contributes to any game: being a plot device to get Sora to do something. The problem with that is that it’s starting to fail. The amount of time Sora and Kairi have spent interacting on screen in the entire series put together amounts to an hour at most. We constantly see scenes of Sora or Kairi longing for the other one, but we don’t see why they are longing for each other. What exactly is in their relationship other than “they look cute together”? Why is Sora this devoted to her and why is Kairi (supposedly) so devoted to him?
Kairi’s status as a plot device is cemented by the ending. Note that we never actually see how Sora rescues Kairi. Why? That part wasn’t important. All that mattered was Sora got into the setting for the next game. If that doesn’t make a character a plot device, I don’t know what does. And on top of all of that, Kairi is back to sitting on a beach waiting for him.
As a game, I rate Kingdom Hearts 3 an A. As a plot, particularly one that wraps up the so-called Xehanort Arc, I rate it a B-.
The good news is there’s a lot of opportunities to fix these issues if Square Enix will wisely focus on character development and progression and not on tidbit teasers for their next game. A “Kingdom Hearts 3.5” will undoubtedly come in the future, but more than that is the fact that, based on Square Enix nowadays, a lot of DLC content is likely on the horizon.
Furthermore, the next “intermediate” entry has a lot of good stuff to work with. Roxas and Xion are real humans now, and while Xion understandably would enjoy living just a normal life free of a need to fight endlessly to survive, Roxas might see how much Sora did in order to give him a life of his own when he shouldn’t have ever existed to begin with and be intent on repaying him. Terra, Ventus, and Aqua all owe Sora everything as well and they might be more than intent on making sure an incident such as happened with Xehanort never happens again.
Last and most of all, Kairi, as indicated until now, might continue with her trend of not wanting to just wait for Sora to come home and go after him. Better yet, go after him without the blessing of Yen Sid, King Mickey, or even Riku. Basically “going AWOL” like Ventus did in “Birth by Sleep” (maybe she can find a way to snatch a suit of armor from Aqua?). Try following that up with a Kairi stand-alone game where she’s forced to grapple with the idea if she can truly be anything more than an “encouraging smile” to Sora and if she truly deserves to even wield a Keyblade, or if her role as “Princess of Light” relegates her to always simply being “someone for others to die protecting”? That could be great. That would actually be a crisis of character and an opportunity to grow.
About the only way Square Enix could mess this up is if they ignored all this and went with more teasers to the original Keyblade War. (Really, guys…this doesn’t have to be complicated.)
So, all in all, this game gave a more than satisfactory conclusion for a lot of things and has the opportunity to mend a lot of others if Square Enix is smart about it. But even discounting the plot, if this is the kind of gameplay we have to look forward to from now on, I think the series is in good shape…er, so long as Disney keeps making movies to be turned into worlds.