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Media Review: October 2019

A Review of Kingdom Hearts III – by LaShawn, Who Never Played It

Kingdom Hearts III
Written by ‎Tetsuya Nomura and Masaru Oka; directed by Tetsuya Nomura and Tai Yasue
Developed by Square Enix Co., Ltd.
Worldwide release January 29, 2019, for PlayStation 4 and Xbox

It is February 2019 and I am about to sit down and watch a YouTube Let’s Play Video of SirSkyward playing Kingdom Hearts III for the first time. His anticipation is palpable through the screen, although by the time I’ve watched this, I’m sure he’s already played it several times. Yet his excitement is infectious, and I can’t blame him. This sequel to Kingdom Hearts II has been fourteen years in the making.

Not to say that players have been sitting idle all this time. There are several backstory and mobile games that contribute to the overall plot, not to mention merchandise and fan videos from how-to videos on making sea-salt ice cream (bit.ly/2OTjGsc), a treat ubiquitous to the game, to a Kingdom Hearts-themed Talisman board game which debuted at GenCon this year. There are even Kingdom Hearts concerts—I could do a whole article alone on the music of Kingdom Hearts, which is a character of its own.

It was the music that pulled me into Kingdom Hearts. My sister had invited me to a Final Fantasy concert, so I decided to familiarize myself with the soundtrack on YouTube—and Kingdom Hearts popped up in my recommendations. Curious, I listened to a few songs and liked them so much I decided to check out the game itself. Kingdom Hearts is about a boy named Sora who fight creatures called the Heartless using a giant key that functions both as a weapon and as an unlocking device. His goal is to become a Keyblade Warrior and disrupt the efforts of the nefarious Organization XIII, who are using the Heartless for their own ends. The newest installment, Kingdom Hearts III, came out in January 2019.

Personally, I have never actually played a Kingdom Hearts game. The only gaming consoles I have are a Nintendo 3DS, the Wii, and my computer. I like to think of myself as a RPG gamer, but the reality is that I get impatient when I have to grind to get to the next part of the story. I find it’s easier to watch people like SirSkyward (bit.ly/2zNdLdz), Suzy Lu (bit.ly/2Lm3ESx), and SuperButterBuns (bit.ly/SuperButterBuns) play on YouTube and Twitch. It’s the equivalent to standing in the arcade watching someone way better than you play, and as a bonus, you get their comments and reactions.

So why am I reviewing Kingdom Hearts III if I’ve never actually played it? Because the narrative in Kingdom Hearts is both beautiful and ridiculous.

There is a convoluted plot about hearts and darkness and light and worlds, spread across different consoles such as the PlayStation and the Nintendo DS. There’s mistaken identity and clones, memory loss, parallel worlds, and time travel. Characters masquerade as other characters. Explanations are retconned into oblivion. Kingdom Hearts II starts with a protagonist named Roxas who disappears a quarter into the game to be replaced by Sora. Even the titles make no sense. Dream Drop Distance? Birth By Sleep? The plot is so confusing, whole websites and videos are dedicated to explaining what Kingdom Hearts is about, including a 400+ page Google document (bit.ly/SleepingRealm) complete with gifs and screencaps contending that the entire third game exists as a dream.

By all rights, Kingdom Hearts shouldn’t be popular. And yet it is. When Kingdom Hearts III was finally released, it sold five million copies worldwide in its first week. People love it despite its convoluted plot. Why?

Three words: Sora, Donald, and Goofy.

Sora, the large-gymshoed protagonist throughout most of the games, is a staple of Square Enix main characters—male, spikey-haired, not exactly made of hero material, but plucky and enthusiastic. The first game starts off with Sora and his friends about to leave their home, when a dark force causes his friends to vanish. While searching for them, Sora meets Donald and Goofy, who are searching for King Mickey Mouse, who has also vanished under mysterious circumstances. Their friendship becomes the heart (so to speak) of all the Kingdom Heart games—each game touches on the theme that the power of friendship can overcome darkness.

In pairing this with well-known Disney stories, which themselves are based on folklore and fairy tales, Sora’s journey becomes the mythical hero’s journey with plenty of pitfalls and trials that parallels Odysseus and his quest to return home. Donald and Goofy are, well, Donald and Goofy in game form (though Goofy displays surprising wisdom every once in a while.) Though at times the plot requires Sora to become extremely dense or overly plucky for his own good, being matched with Donald and Goofy brings the trio into a charming sweetness that is fun to watch, particularly in the third game.

They are not the only ones. Kingdom Hearts is rife with friendship triads. I had mentioned Roxas earlier—he himself is the subject of his own game, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (again with the weird title), where he spends his days getting to know Axel and Xion, his fellow warriors in the nefarious Organization XIII. Another trio involves three Keyblade Warriors: Terra, Aqua, and Ventus (who looks uncannily like Roxas . . . for reasons). These two trios do not share the same happy-go-lucky plot as Sora; in fact, the plot of the third game has Sora searching for ways to help all these people out of their tragic experiences. It doesn’t matter that he has never met them in person. He is connected to them, so he considers them his friends, and he will fight for them to be safe.

Which brings us back to the third game, finally released this year. Was it worth the anticipation?

Yes, yes, and oh yes.

Using the same hyper-realistic, open air game mechanics as Final Fantasy XV, Kingdom Hearts III has so much attention to detail, it’s absolutely gorgeous to watch. The Tangled world alone must have been created just for Sora, Donald, and Goofy to take sheer delight in its beauty: running through flowers, splashing each other in a small pool, and charming birds to Rapunzel’s side. Furthermore, because the game creators worked so closely with Pixar, you actually feel as if Sora, Donald, and Goofy were dropped directly into the Disney worlds. Mostly they are integral to the storyline (some say, in fact, the Big Hero 6 storyline is considered a sequel of sorts). Other times, it feels like the trio are mere spectators. For instance, we experience the moment in Frozen where Elsa sings “Let it Go” from the point of view of Sora, Donald, and Goofy. Sure, it’s unnecessary and feels a bit like self-inserted fanfiction. But then again, it’s fun to watch Sora react in awe to Elsa’s powers.

That said, the story of Kingdom Hearts III does have its flaws. Kairi, who had been one of Sora’s missing friends, had been built up throughout the series as becoming a Keyblade Warrior. In the third game, this anticipated build-up is tossed out in an inexcusable move that made most reviewers, including me, upset. While Final Fantasy characters have been a staple in the KH series, in the third game there’s no presence of any crossover characters, unless you count an in-game trailer pointing to something that may be a large clue to the next game. And while the game does resolve a major storyline arc, Sora’s own existence is called into question with a very ambiguous ending that makes us unsure if he’s still alive.

One thing we do know though. The story of Kingdom Hearts, and Sora, is not over yet. We have been assured that there will be a Kingdom Hearts IV. And there’ll even be another title before that: bit.ly/KHgames. Before I became enamored of Kingdom Hearts, I did not like Disney movies all that much. This series helped redefine Disney in a fun away that makes me want to rewatch the movies with a new eye.

Furthermore, watching the third game has given me the incentive to start picking up KH games of my own. Watching other people play on Twitch and YouTube helped satisfy the need for me to see the full story without all the grinding. There’s a part of me, however, that wants the full experience. I want to try my hand at fighting the Heartless, completing the boss battles and exploring the worlds on my own. The only way to do that is by actually playing the games. I’ve already downloaded the free mobile game, Union X, and I’m eyeing the DS games as well. Now that I know how the story ends (at least for now), perhaps I won’t mind grinding as much.

I just hope we don’t have to wait fourteen years for the next game.

LaShawn M. Wanak

LaShawn Wanak

LaShawn M. Wanak is a graduate of the 2011 class of Viable Paradise. Her fiction has been published in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and Ideomancer. She served as Associate Editor at Podcastle, and has written nonfiction for Fantasy Magazine, the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and the anthology Invisible 2.