Kingdom Hearts 3 Works Emotionally, Even With Its Story Disappointments
The finale of the Kingdom Hearts Xehanort Saga suffered from poor pacing, but mostly succeeded on an emotional level by the end.
When I first started up Kingdom Hearts 3, I immediately put my controller down. As an orchestral version of “Don’t Think Twice” by Hikaru Utada played over a recap of the series, I felt as if I was undergoing a ritual that I didn’t realize I had been practicing for before. I found myself at the title screen, with the familiar image of Sora at the shore, sea salt ice cream in-mouth, and despite all of the fears of story spoilers, the one thing I was looking forward to in a pure, unspoiled state was this game’s rendition of “Dearly Beloved.”
Composer Yoko Shimomura’s new arrangement surprised me by starting in a different key—not so much sorrow, but rather more optimism and triumph. The music swelled into the more familiar melody and as different instrumental parts jumped in, I felt captivated in a way that I did not expect. I joke to others that it sounds like a crying person furiously bashing on a piano, but it isn’t too far-fetched—it was the most rousing and musically complex version of the song thus far. Without even hitting “New Game,” I was already in.
See, Kingdom Hearts has always been more than the story and the gameplay—having experienced these games all the way back to the first game’s release, the series has stuck with me for all of its emotional beats, prominently enhanced by the music. As someone who thinks critically about video games (and other media) in terms of stories, character development, writing, and arcs, Kingdom Hearts 3 fell short to me in many ways—even so, there were times where I felt oblivious to its flaws whenever it struck a chord of high emotion.
That being said: expect full spoilers for Kingdom Hearts 3 moving forward.
Critiquing the story and discussing it with fans is a complicated affair, as each person likely came into Kingdom Hearts 3 with different framing. With the series spread out on so many platforms in the course of over a decade, players have had differing experiences with the series and may pick and choose what characters and plot elements they’re invested in and tracking going into what is essentially a finale. The common through-line in the online discourse, however, is that the pacing of this third mainline installment was quite odd.
DualShockers‘ very own Logan Moore pointed this out as we gave our early impressions of the game in an episode of Drop In/Drop Out—at various points during the beginning of the story, our goofball protagonist Sora is utterly confused on what to do and where to go, despite years of story build-up to this moment. More so than even the previous numbered Kingdom Hearts titles, the trio of Sora, Donald, and Goofy jump from one Disney world to the next totally aimlessly, all with differing levels of quality.
The Disney worlds having importance in the first game turned out to be a clever red herring for the real villain of Ansem, while Kingdom Hearts 2 expertly weaved in the Organization XIII members and their machinations with the Disney stories in worlds like Beast’s Castle. In KH3, our black-coated baddies seem to be there out of obligation, feeding tiny plot breadcrumbs and stalling the story until the next dumping of cutscenes in between Disney worlds. To the surprise of many, the rescue of these other seven warriors of light, what was anticipated to be the most essential mission of this story, was relegated to the final act, after treading water in the Disney worlds.
Strangely enough, the endgame played emotional tricks on me, and while I couldn’t speak for every fan, I mostly forgave all of my aforementioned criticisms after playing it.
Look at any fanbase for a piece of fiction with complicated lore and you’ll find a clear divide between two factions: the first is those who are looking for tidy plot resolution and answers to their questions—usually the answers that they predicted and were expecting in the final product. The second would be those who are in it for the characters—maybe for Lost, these fans are more invested in the fate of Hurley instead of confirming theories of why Walt is special. Just look at the latest season finale of True Detective, which had an ending that shot down fan theories with a large focus on the protagonists’ arcs, to the ire of a number of viewers.
Count me in the latter portion of the Kingdom Hearts fanbase.
I am oddly attached to the 2009 Nintendo DS game 358/2 Days (that’s “Three-Five-Eight Days Over Two,” people). Even with my qualms about the repetitive mission structure, and the technical limitations of the DS hampering gameplay, I grew to care about the “sea salt trio” of Roxas, Xion, and Axel. That game’s story was a slow burn of a tragedy and enhanced that opening of Kingdom Hearts 2 that I and many others are nostalgic for. I greatly anticipated Xion’s return in Kingdom Hearts 3, and in the endgame, she returned with practically no explanation, a common point of criticism.
Contrary to those opinions, I couldn’t care any less. When Xion abruptly burst into tears upon being reunited with her friends, I wanted to do the same. Perhaps one can blame the complicated mechanics of hearts and bodies and time travel for discrepancies of how Xion came to be again, but I personally was locked into the emotional arc before me. I’m the fan who comes to Kingdom Hearts because of my personal investment in the characters and their fates, not to cross out explanations on a notepad and go through a checklist of plot predictions. To me, my catharsis was watching my favorite characters finally earn the happiness that I felt they deserved.
Adding to the list of “cheap tricks” that fans can say Tetsuya Nomura and company was the use of old music tracks. Composer Yoko Shimomura is perhaps my favorite video game composer, with her work on the Kingdom Hearts series being some of my favorite music of all time. I have fond memories sitting in my school bus with an iPod Shuffle, which I filled with mostly illicitly-obtained Kingdom Hearts 2 music. “The Other Promise,” a version of Roxas’s highly-emotional music theme that plays when Sora battles Roxas in Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix, was probably my favorite track, along with the final boss battle music “Darkness of the Unknown.”
Imagine my giddiness when Roxas made his grand return in III—accompanied by a grander version of “The Other Promise.” Roxas and Xion finally join you as battle companions for a single boss, featuring a mashup that included Xion’s musical theme from 358/2 Days, another favorite of mine. And then at the end of the absurd boss gauntlet were the three Xehanorts—Ansem, Seeker of Darkness from the first Kingdom Hearts, Xemnas from KH2, and Young Xehanort from Dream Drop Distance. Not only did you have a three-in-one of final bosses, but an expertly-arranged mashup of all of their themes: “Forze del Male” from Kingdom Hearts, “Dark Impetus” from Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance, and yes, my favorite of “Darkness of the Unknown” from KH2.
This could very well be considered a “cheap trick,” pulling at my nostalgia heartstrings to hide from a barebones plot and a perceived lack of content. Sure, there was no Traverse Town or Radiant Garden; sure, the Disney worlds added to nothing; and sure, the road leading to this endgame was wildly inconsistent in quality—but the game knew that “The Other Promise” and “Darkness of the Unknown” would work on me. To me, this was just a season finale, a reunion, an “Everyone is Here!” sequence, and to be honest, I never constructed my own vision of what this endgame would look like, so I allowed the game to take me through this ride even with all of its ups and downs.
With Square Enix being such a notoriously secretive and strange company, we may never fully understand what went on behind-the-scenes of Kingdom Hearts 3. I have to wonder how much of this end game was planned out early on, what compromises had to be made, and how the internal politics between Nomura and Square Enix affected the final content of the game. With so much build-up as a result of the drama behind what was then Final Fantasy Versus XIII, did Nomura ever have a clear vision for the end of the Xehanort Saga? More importantly, was that vision met?
There are valid criticisms to be made for Kingdom Hearts 3—there are not too many Keyblades compared to the previous games, the lack of Final Fantasy characters is absolutely baffling, considering their importance in previous games, and the lack of actual Disney bosses (I wanted to beat the crud out of Monsters Inc.‘s Randall) led to some rather uninspired generic boss fights. And I acknowledge that not every fan has the same affinity for nostalgia as I do. Maybe the ending of Lost really didn’t work for those same fans, even on an emotional level. Maybe the ending of Mass Effect 3 truly failed in all aspects, from plot to character development.
With the perceived lack of content, I am looking forward to seeing what is in store with planned (free and paid) DLC, apparently in lieu of a “Final Mix” version. The already-complicated legacy is not set in stone for Kingdom Hearts 3 just yet. Regardless of what will happen going forward, I know the moments I’ll hold close to my heart—it’ll be little moments like taking a selfie for the first time, with Sora’s goofy “Cheese!” It will be silly moments like Sora finding a black and white cartoon featuring himself and Mickey Mouse in Twilight Town and getting confused when he blocks the projector.
The lore of Kingdom Hearts may mean a lot to many fans—but the series is much more than that to me.