When Kingdom Hearts was first revealed way back at the turn of the century, it was an incredibly curious creature. Disney‘s many animated features are beloved the world over, and the Final Fantasy series is one of the most successful gaming franchises to date. Do they really belong in the same game though? They certainly used to, but recently I’m not so sure.
The whole selling point of Kingdom Hearts was the outlandish idea of taking iconic Final Fantasy faces and playing them opposite Disney’s near-endless cast of characters and locales. Playing as original character Sora with back-up from Donald and Goofy, you would travel to several familiar worlds, trying to save them from dark forces while looking for your two best friends, Riku and Kairi.
In addition to the trio from the Destiny Islands, the only new face in Kingdom Hearts is that of our endgame boss; Ansem, Seeker of Darkness, who controls the Heartless – your primary foes throughout the game.
Aside from them the entire cast is made up of Final Fantasy and Disney fare. Aladdin and Peter Pan join your party to take down bosses Jafar and Captain Hook; Dumbo, Bambi and Mushu assist you as summonable allies; Squall, Aerith, Yuffie and Cid make up your central support group; you travel to Tarzan‘s jungle and Ariel‘s ocean, and even get swallowed by the great whale, Monstro.
Not only that, but the entire plot revolves around the seven Princesses of Heart, including the likes of Belle, Snow White, Aurora, and more. Meanwhile the Disney baddies have sort of an Evil League of Evil going on, led by Maleficent herself. The Disney worlds tie everything together, while the inclusion of Final Fantasy mainstays make our new characters feel more at home and tell everyone that this isn’t just some fluffy Disney Princess game for girls and children.
Plainly put, without Disney or Final Fantasy, there would be no Kingdom Hearts. They came together unexpectedly beautifully, and as strange as this sounds considering the convoluted plot nowadays, without the effort from either side the game just wouldn’t make sense. It is a fantastic standalone game with great potential to continue.
For better or for worse, that potential has been utilized in the form of six follow-up stories to date. So let’s compare that wonderful introduction to the most recent title in the franchise, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance.
Directly following the events of Kingdom Hearts II and re:Coded, KH3D shows an older and more seasoned Sora and Riku, attempting to become Keyblade Masters by passing the Mark of Mastery test. They are doing this in order to counter Master Xehanort, the mastermind behind Ansem, Xemnas, and the entirety of Organization XIII.
If you’re not recognizing any of these names, that’s because they have all been introduced in previous games, as pivotal characters to the Kingdom Hearts canon specifically, coming from neither the Final Fantasy franchise nor any Disney universe.
Anyway, part of the test requires them to travel to seven sleeping worlds that had previously been overtaken by the Heartless and unlock them from their dream-like state. While the Disney worlds present in KH3D are a refreshingly new batch of locations (the first title thus far to exclude the supremely overused Olympus Coliseum, and only the second without Agrabah), they lack the pizzazz and wonder from Kingdom Hearts.
As I complained in my review of the game, the lack of Disney party members was extremely disappointing. Since our heroes were each alone in their trials, they didn’t even get Donald or Goofy on their team. Instead we were left with similar creatures as both allies and enemies, which only served to confuse and exacerbate things.
Dream Eaters replaced Heartless as the standard enemy, but there were bad ones (Nightmares) and good ones (Spirits). The Spirits were your teammates, and with them came a Pokémon feeling of ownership. There was the challenge to catch them all and train them up, and you could pet them and play with them to make them happy. It made for an amusing mini-game aesthetic, but they weren’t Donald and Goofy.
Even in the Disney-centric worlds of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tron Legacy, the people you befriend do nothing to help you unless it’s in a cutscene. Then once you’ve left their world and move on to the next, that’s it. There’s no over-arcing story where actions in one land have consequences in another. No Maleficent pulling the strings of each world’s boss. Your saving of the worlds feels completely obligatory, merely as a means to meet another form of Xehanort in each world, revealing another snippet of plot as you go.
So how about your support team? While Riku and Sora are wrapped up in their dream-test, where is your merry band of Final Fantasy friends, which expanded in Kingdom Hearts II to include Cloud (having joined the group from Hercules’ coliseum in KH1), Tifa, Yuna, Rikku, and Paine? Right, they’re not there. In fact, we see a grand total of zero Final Fantasy characters in KH3D, be they new or returning. Instead they are replaced with the main cast of Tetsuya Nomura’s other baby, The World Ends With You.
Don’t get me wrong; I love TWEWY, and the inclusion of Neku Sakuraba and his crew was a delightful surprise, but it just wasn’t the same. Throughout the four games to join the series since Kingdom Hearts II released in 2006, a grand total of ONE new representative from the Final Fantasy series made its way in. Zack Fair had a minor role in Birth by Sleep, and he could have easily been left out. His role was a throwaway, serving no purpose except to make Aqua (yet another franchise-born player) blush.
Meanwhile the Kingdom Hearts series bulked up in original characters substantially from its original four. Chain of Memories introduced us to about half of Organization XIII, plus the mysterious duo of Naminé and DiZ. Kingdom Hearts II showed off the rest of the Organization, plus Roxas and his Twilight Town pals. 358/2 Days gave us the seemingly important character of Xion, and Birth by Sleep gave us three new protagonists in Terra, Aqua and Ventus, plus their mentor, Keyblade Master Eraqus, the reveal of the supposed true being behind all of the hijinks from the beginning, and a handful of other side characters.
Speaking of which, Birth by Sleep is an interesting addition from any angle; it’s a prequel, so you see why and how Sora and friends are able to wield the keyblade. Perhaps more importantly, you are given a metric butt tonne of backstory surrounding Xehanort and his numerous iterations. You also see the same story from three differing points of view, learning more about the Princesses of Heart from the original game whose worlds you never previously visited.
In this regard, travelling to the lands where Cinderella, Snow White, and Aurora hailed from, in addition to action-packed Deep Space and fun-for-everyone Disney Town, were all made to feel substantial and worthwhile. Just like in KH3D, you have no Disney comrades in your party, and you interact with different people in different parts of each world depending on the character you play as.
However, in contrast to 3D, the worlds featured in BbS seemed strategically and purposefully picked to tie in with events mentioned or hinted at in previous titles. It feels more worthwhile in fleshing out the story you already know, while 3D just feels redundant, even with all new worlds.
The point I am trying to make is that following the success of Kingdom Hearts, the team was allowed to bring much, much more to the table with each subsequent title released. With each game the story becomes more convoluted and confusing. With each game we are introduced to more completely new characters and locales. With each game we are relying less and less on the beloved and pre-established Disney and Final Fantasy history as a driving force, in favor of knowing more about Master Xehanort and Roxas and Sora and Riku and Axel and the literal dozens of other series main-stays.
It makes questions like “What Disney worlds would you like to see?“ and “Which Final Fantasy characters should join the world?“ or “Will Marvel and Star Wars join Kingdom Hearts anytime soon?“ irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
Don’t get me wrong. I am, and always have been, an avid fan and follower of the series, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. I’ve waited 8 years for Kingdom Hearts III, I’m not going to give it all up now, when we’re on the verge of closing out the Dark Seeker Saga at last. To the credit of Nomura and his creative team, Organization XIII, the Birth by Sleep trio, the Nobodies and their Somebodies, and all the other introductions are mostly a great cast, and are becoming beloved classics in their own right.
Still, I can’t help but miss the magic and wonder that was brought to the table in 2002 when Kingdom Hearts took the stage in the most unlikely and most wonderful of mash-ups. Kingdom Hearts III may bring us the worlds of Frozen‘s Arrendale, Andy and Cid’s rooms from Toy Story, or even Star Wars’ Death Star, and like many fans I’ll eat it up like a French vanilla cheesecake. Regardless, I doubt they’ll be anywhere near as meaningful, integral or captivating as those present at the start.
If any part of the series can make it work, it will be a properly numbered title, especially the one that will close this chapter of Kingdom Hearts for good. Even so, I can’t help but worry and miss the magic from before.
Kingdom Hearts III is currently in production for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with no release date set.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and are not representative of Save/Continue as a whole.