Ask Kingdom Hearts fans and detractors alike whether the Final Fantasy-meets-Disney mashup is convoluted, and you’ll get answers ranging the spectrum from “absolutely not” to “I lost track of things after the first game.”
It’s not hard to see why. The series’ plot is a gloriously tangled mess of time travel, MacGuffins, big villains with even bigger villains behind them, body switching, and a million other contrivances only possible in fantasy and video games — and I love every bit of it.
However, there’s no denying the Kingdom Hearts we have now is vastly different from the first Kingdom Hearts that graced our screens on the PlayStation 2. The focus not-so-gradually shifted from telling the growing up stories of three conflicted children to losing sight of the same characters — and brands — that made it shine once.
After getting a glimpse of what Kingdom Hearts 3‘s DLC, Re:Mind has in store for us, though, it looks like the storytelling pendulum might be swinging back in the other direction again, focusing on the characters and their challenges as a way to lead us into the next chapter of the Kingdom Hearts saga.
Once Upon A Time…
Once long ago, we were introduced to a gaggle of children living free from adult supervision on an island. Because that’s normal.
One day, a great darkness arrived on the island and seemingly devoured everything there. Sora escaped somehow, but in the process, he lost contact with Riku and Kairi.
Thus began Sora’s fairly straightforward journey to find his friends again. He uncovered a mysterious plot to kidnap pure-hearted princesses, because Disney. He learned of the precarious balance that held all the worlds he visited, and came face to face with the one who wanted to redefine that balance in favor of darkness and so gain the power of Kingdom Hearts — or so he thought.
Along the way, Riku had fallen victim to his inner darkness, while Kairi remained pure as ever and dangerously close to being renamed Plot Device.
In other words, the original Kingdom Hearts was a relatively simple plot following the usual RPG narrative beats made unique thanks to the unlikely combination of Final Fantasy and Disney characters and concepts. Those were special combinations, but the personal stories and struggles, the universal appeal of friendships strained by envy and new feelings, were the game’s backbone. And the game knew that too, because that’s what it chiefly focused on.
In a way, Kingdom Hearts is a lot like Star Wars. What started out seemingly simple grew in unexpected ways and drew on an increasing number of plot devices and MacGuffins to develop its narrative, a story that vastly overshadowed the original, even while there are hints of that bigger picture from the start.
For example, the dark Ansem boss at the end of Kingdom Hearts means there has to be some force that created the darkness, a real Ansem, and, thus, a bigger story than Sora — and we — could possibly realize. It’s just like A New Hope. Because it’s “The Empire,” there has to be an emperor ruling it somewhere, a story about how he seized power, and a big black chair waiting for him to retire to later. We just didn’t see it at first.
Because frankly, I wouldn’t be too surprised if there was a huge change of mind (or heart?) regarding the series’ direction after the first Kingdom Hearts released.
Following this analogy further, Kingdom Hearts Final Mix is basically like George Lucas’ special editions of the original Star Wars trilogy, adding in new ideas that weren’t really sticking to the original ideas but reflected later thinking that fit with the overall whole. We see the hooded folks who would become Organization XIII and play a big role — but not for long — and the Kingdom Hearts that opens up is way different from the one Sora encounters in the first game.
Chain of Memories kickstarted this process of change by introducing some of Organization XIII without really setting its significance in stone yet outside the existence of Nobodies. Then we get to Kingdom Hearts II. Suddenly, the Princesses of Heart aren’t important because you can apparently get to Kingdom Hearts by just releasing a lot of hearts. Kairi’s still important, now because of Namine, which means Namine is important.
We learn the truth about Ansem and meet Xehanort — well, one incarnation of him — find out what Nobodies really are, and see how Riku grew.
Only Riku. Kairi herself gets demoted to damsel in distress because Disney, and Sora sort of gets sidelined by the various conflicts his friends and the Nobodies are dealing with. Development in general takes a backseat to plot, and hoo boy, does plot start to take some big turns.
Another New Story
So far, we’ve got two Kingdom Hearts and two people who are and aren’t the same wanting to get it for different but similar reasons. Then Birth by Sleep happens. Now we’ve got the real mastermind behind the masterminds who manages to manipulate people throughout time to try and restore his youthful self to its real power and claim the power of worlds — yeah, like Star Wars.
The three heroes have stories, but more importantly, they have plots that mirror the three original heroes, and that turns them into types more than characters.
On top of that comes supernatural body snatching, time travel (which is never a good thing) the three new protagonists get connections to the original three heroes and the new ones introduced in the Organization XIII stories, and villains with yet another changed end-goal. First Princesses of Heart, then Emblem Heartless, now the X-Blade. Only the X-Blade has its own twisted history and story that you absolutely cannot convince me the team had in mind when Kingdom Hearts was created, and it’s the latest Big Important Thing that will surely, this time of all times, help the baddies unlock Kingdom Hearts or something.
Now the Princesses’ light dwells in 7 others, including Sora of course, and it’s balanced by 13 bits of darkness that are actually just bits of Xehanort. There’s a big war from the past that Kingdom Hearts 3 tells us will probably get repeated again, but we still can’t play as Kairi, and the Nobodies are surprisingly mobile and alive for being, well, fused with their hosts and/or dead (or both) before hopping in some Replicas.
There is internal logic here, but it’s starting to seem like Kingdom Hearts re-invents its plot and core ideas in each iteration without satisfactorily finishing off any of the previous ideas, all with gradually less of what made the first game so addictive and charming. Kingdom Hearts 3 is the biggest offender of the bunch.
Not only is there less Final Fantasy than ever before, but there’s the MacGuffin of traveling around the worlds to regain Sora’s strength again, gathering the bearers of light again, lots of convenient Replicas, followed by the (hugely satisfying) event of everything coming together at the end to finally destroy Master Xehanort. We guess. Who knows, he might be back later because Master Xehanort v.2 is really the Master of Masters with more Replicas in tanks and a fleet of Death Star Destroy… wait.
Anyway, while all this plot is happening, and people are waking up from the past, fighting specters, and trying to tie up lots of story threads, these same people are getting lost in their own action. It’s hard to see the emphasis on the power of light and hope as genuinely significant when it’s just light and hope, the same as we see in countless other RPGs.
Apart from the ending with Xehanort suddenly deciding he’d been a bad boy, take Aqua for an example of this. Aqua’s story is one of the most intriguing that also gets the least attention until it matters at the end. Even then, we only get a surface look at the reason her darkness is so strong until Sora restores her heart’s light because he’s Sora.
Assuming you’ve played Birth by Sleep, you can connect the dots and realize why she might feel the way she does, including the fact that the Mouse Himself was a bit of a dirtbag to her, but still. Her troubles just vanish like that because someone re-introduced light to her life. Why? Seeing her work through them and feeling that anguish and frustration would make all the difference here.
Re:Mind — Kingdom Hearts Comes Full-Circle?
It boils down to this: Along the way, Nomura and his narrative team seem to have been caught up in the excitement of action and big plot points, forgetting the characters are what drive our interest in that story to begin with.
Enter Kingdom Hearts 3‘s DLC, Re:Mind. It’s supposed to follow Sora’s journey into the unknown as he travels the connections between the seven hearts of light and learns the stories behind the people who helped him save the world — again. Plus there’s Aerith.
That’s pretty important stuff and it hearkens back to what made the original so good, with plenty of opportunities to examine some of the thornier issues that got swept under the rug along the way, i.e. what it means to be alive, how the heart works, and how one overcomes one’s own darkness. Kairi will hopefully get more of a story and more of a starring role in her own story, not to mention us getting more insight into Riku’s and Aqua’s respective troubles.
It will, without doubt, add so much more significance to the game’s ending not just by tying together loose ends KH3 couldn’t deal with, but because it helps everyone involved seem more human. I care much more about a developed character engaging in a thrilling final battle capping off their tortured character development spanning in-game decades than I do a plot device smacking another plot device with a key until he decides he really prefers light over dark.
It also seems significant there’s going to be Final Fantasy in Kingdom Hearts again at long last as well. It could just be fanservice, but Aerith and Yuffie were with Sora from close to the beginning in his original adventure, so there must be some kind of something planned by re-invoking these figures from the past in the quest to find Sora and understand the hearts of the heroes.
If Square Enix is actually taking Kingdom Hearts in the direction of Shin Megami Tensei and bringing it to some version of the real world like the secret ending suggests, these changes will probably be pretty important.
Characters from each arc — Ventus, Riku, Aqua, Sora, etc. — are all hinted at having more trouble to deal with in the future. And it seems like that trouble could very well relate to a mix of our world and other Final Fantasy titles, assuming references to FFXIII Versus and The World Ends with You really are what they seem.
What better direction for Kingdom Hearts to go than taking these characters we finally got to see deep inside of on new, difficult journeys alongside Final Fantasy characters? It’s essentially what the original Kingdom Hearts promised us before the story veered off into another timeline anyway.