Rumors suggested that we’d hear a little bit about Kingdom Hearts III on the anniversary of the first and second game’s release, March 28, 2018. I was disappointed when nothing came but, alas! I am used to disappointment as it has become par for the course with these games and, to an extent, this company.
The first Kingdom Hearts game was released on March 28, 2002, following a series of enticing behind-the-scenes videos aired on Disney channel. The premise was simple; the game would be a cultural rendezvous between popular, lighthearted Disney characters and the decidedly more melodramatic cast of various Final Fantasy games. I was 12, and I was as excited as I could be. When I played the game, I played it to 100% completion. The reward for doing so? A secret cutscene that implies a sequel. I was as patient as I could be for a teenager but 4 years felt like a long time.
Fortunately, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories was released to help temper the unbearable wait; I loved the game for the singular reason of it being more Kingdom Hearts. The game also functioned as a bridge between the simplicity of the first game and the slightly complicated narrative of the second. On March 28, 2006, I eagerly tore into the sequel and enjoyed it well enough but, somehow, my enthusiasm had faded. Critically, it was a good game for the time. But something had changed, and it is unclear whether that thing was me or the franchise.
Still, I had hope for a third game and when it was official that the game would, eventually, be released, my sense of hype grew. In the interim, other games were released that expanded the Kingdom Hearts universe. I tried very, very hard to enjoy these extra titles but just couldn’t. So, what changed?
For one, the story was becoming, in typical Nomura fashion, convoluted. Every single entry seemed to propose another metaphysical, identity-rending layer to what was originally a fun romp through Disney worlds. It was not what I signed up for.
Through this process, in which characters split into new forms and personalities, the cast grew. Out of necessity, and this was certainly present in Kingdom Hearts II, less time was given to the development of any single character. Consequently, I lost emotional investment in most of the villains and, to a degree, a handful of protagonists. The presence of Final Fantasy characters also seemed to wane.
Now, I won’t argue that the story is impossible to understand – it isn’t. There are those within the community who have a working knowledge or, at the least, a compelling theory about the inner complexities of the Kingdom Hearts narrative. I tried to pick up on the thread through playing the game and, despite multiple courses studying narrative and story theory, I just couldn’t. That thread may forever be lost to me because I don’t believe I should put in that much effort to understand the franchise. For those that find the experience enriching, I encourage you to mine the wiki pages for the requisite puzzle pieces you will need to assemble. But, for me, this process is in stark contrast to the archetypal hero’s quest that was initially apparent within the series; I prefer a working understanding on my first or second playthrough.
I will concede, however, that there are games that inspire me to obsessively hunt and consume information in a fashion not unlike the behavior of a hardcore Kingdom Hearts fan. I was once in a position where, certainly, I would be willing to do this for Kingdom Hearts as well. In fact, I used to be the kid in class who produced shitty sketches of something vaguely resembling Riku’s visage within the pages of my math notebook. And then, to my shame, I would draw a version of myself in the fashion of Kingdom Hearts. I do understand the love for the series.
Perhaps the Square Enix hype cycle is partially to blame. Modern Square Enix takes eons to complete a game and as they work, they release a slow drip feed of news that whets the consumer’s appetite. Often, once the game is released, we are disappointed. Not because the game is bad, necessarily but because it is adequate. With such a long development time, a scarcity of news, and historically amazing games, my expectations are always high. When the wrong expectations are conveyed, disappointment is inevitable. The trouble is, I do this to myself. Square Enix markets the games, yes. That is irrefutable. But I also place a lot of hope into the games, whether they are ports, remakes, or new entries in a beloved series, and hope is a powerful addiction. But more and more it appears that my hope is a symptom of naivete. And my current cynicism is a symptom of having that hope dashed repeatedly.
I didn’t want my cynicism to take hold, though. I decided to try to rekindle my original love for Kingdom Hearts by replaying the originals. My train of thought: What if the only reason I can’t enjoy the series is because the recent games have been bad? Is that what is killing my excitement? What if I went back to the roots? That’ll help!
It didn’t. Emphatically, the original games have aged poorly. Combat is dreadfully boring early into the game and the difficulty curve is entirely too easy or, potentially obnoxiously grind-y all depending on which planets you choose to visit first. And, if you choose the wrong planet and want to try the opposite choice, then you must make a few trips through space in your Gummi ship. I used to love the Gummi ship. Now? I can’t express my feelings without profuse swearing.
Further diminishing my fun was the standout cringe-fuel radiating from the brooding edginess of the characters; it just doesn’t seem cool anymore. Emotions in that game are generally very surface, palpable, but they seem to suggest something complex and deep is going on beneath the surface; it’s not the case, though. Riku is basically a stock character when I look at him now. And it’s not that I am just so complicated and emotionally deep as an adult to appreciate the game (I do love the cuter elements of the game) but the angst that used to resonate with me is no longer necessary; I don’t need, nor want, a Riku to relate to.
So, what does Square Enix need to do? Likely, nothing. They have a new demographic to consider now that the originals have been out so long and a new range of buyers have come of age. I want teenagers to have the experience I had with Kingdom Hearts. And, certainly, I don’t expect the company to cater to my feelings here (these feelings are not universal although I also think they are not unique.) But if I had my way, I’d want a combat system that is vastly improved, Gummi ships that suck less, more information between releases so my hype can be justified, the obliteration of Alice in Wonderland worlds, fewer characters, simpler characters, better worlds, a cohesive narrative, and, please, more Final Fantasy characters.