Out of all the Kingdom Hearts games, this is the one that I’m most interested in playing. I’ve never touched it before, same with Re:Coded and Dream Drop Distance, and the fact that it’s a card game has always piqued my curiosity. You don’t get much gameplay variation across this series so it’s exciting not knowing what to expect. But also maybe there’s a reason they don’t mess with the gameplay too much after this one.
Having started it there’s a lot going on here. Running around a 3d space, deck management, playing higher value cards and keeping an eye on your health has proved difficult for my brain. My brain wants to hit attack and block but the game’s telling me to play the cards! I feel like a fool. I’m hoping I can adjust a little and get more into the swing of things since I’ve only played an hour. The story is the part I’m really interested in here with the introduction of Organization XIII and the weirdness around losing memories. It’s an intriguing idea but so far has only been to kind of revisit what happened in 1. Also hoping that the dialogue changes from some variation of “what happened again?” and “what are we doing?” That said I most definitely popped for Axel, love that dude.
Anyways, here’s hoping my pessimism subsides over the next series. You can watch episode 1 now:
It’s wild how much of a template a PS2 game from 2002 set. A weird experiment of mashing two very distinct franchises together hit big and spawned a long lasting video game franchise and a dedicated fan base. Playing the game it’s not hard to see why; it’s a Shonen anime that balances on a fine tightrope of suspense and mystery. The Disney worlds bring you in but the focus on the series’ metaphysics and mythology is Kingdom Hearts true staying power. The story in the first game, revolving around forces attempting to control people by accessing the power that creates souls, completely caught me off guard when I was young. It was fascinating replaying it and finding where my memory had filled in gaps or placed higher importance on things in the 15 years since I first played (the unreliable nature of memory is a very apropos way to start the series). Kingdom Hearts is very story light leaving the back ¼ to do all the heavy lifting. The majority of it is traipsing through Disney movies and barely seeds some of the big back half reveals. This exact storytelling method continues to run through all the rest of the series. It’s amazing too that the gameplay loop is almost identical with each new iteration getting mostly nips and tucks on the battle system (save for Chain of Memories). It’s a strange and imperfect game but one that’s effective at establishing characters and reasons for investment.
In a way, Kingdom Hearts predates some of what would follow the megahit Lost. The audience’s fervor over the next reveal and mystery drove the popularity of that show and that idea of storytelling disseminated out into other media. Kingdom Hearts does something similar; it gives you just enough breadcrumbs to gather an idea of what some of the wider ideas might mean. The significance of Hearts for example are pretty clearly explained as an analogue for souls and the Heartless the monster result of what happens when someone loses their soul. You also get a good idea of how the universe is set up, with individual worlds living blissfully unaware of each other. The Gummi Ship does a good idea of conveying these worlds as individual planets existing in a solar system. Moving from one to the next is akin to interstellar travel and the party of protagonists are visiting aliens. These ideas are established relatively early in the runtime and are clearly laid out. It’s the acceleration of the back half and the way it dishes out complicated subjects that fuels the audience’s imagination.
I didn’t realize how late in the game Hollow Bastion is given how important it is to the story in this game and the series going forward. We learn that the Princesses of Heart have been captured to open a door to darkness, thus granting Maleficent unimaginable power. Riku becomes possessed by a being named Ansem, the cloaked figure we see at the beginning of the game, and someone who has been casually referenced as an important figure. Ansem, as we know him through the collected reports and mentions by the transposed people of Traverse Town, is responsible for a lot of the knowledge surrounding the Heartless. In the end he takes over Riku completely, fights Sora at the End of the World and opens what is assumed to be Kingdom Hearts, a doorway to the darkness where all Hearts originate from. It’s all delivered so fast that it can’t help but get your brain going asking how it all works. How are these individuals marked as the Princesses of Heart and how does Kairi play into that? How did her Heart become part of Sora and why was he able to regain his true form? How did Ansem become a dispossessed figure and find Riku? Was he the one who triggered the collapsing and destruction of Worlds? Just what is Kingdom Hearts and why did it hold light? And just how the hell did Mickey appear in the Darkness?
All of this is told to us over a relatively compressed amount of time. Kingdom Hearts lulls you into a false idea of what the game actually becomes in its ending moments. Emily and I playing through were relatively relaxed replaying through old Disney movies until the gas pedal was pushed all the way to the floor. The fact that the ideas are left relatively mysterious is a canny move and one the series will continue to return to. The full Ansem reports don’t offer much meaningful conclusions other than defining how Heartless and Nobodies (more to come on that one) are made. They’re also full of hints at what transpired in the past and things we may see in the future. References to mass experiments on people and a specific “girl” (maybe Kairi?) add to a puzzle that begs to be solved. Here you are fans, get guessing! The addition of the “Secret Movie” is a great move as well. It’s a fun short that takes the ideas of the Kingdom Hearts universe deadly serious, providing action and mysterious characters. The Secret Movie is designed to be pulled apart, slowed down and each individual shot studied meticulously. This type of fan behavior is commonplace now. The easiest example is the fervor around Marvel movies and their trailers, with fan created videos running down all the Easter Eggs hinting at what’s to come. It also has this in common with the big web comic hit Homestuck (you should listen to the incredible Homestuck Made This World Podcast for more on that) and I would assume shares a big overlap with that comics fan community. It becomes a perpetual machine of forecasting the next big reveal of the next big mystery and the individual works themselves become backgrounded. They’re encouraging the fan behavior to dissect and parse out the vague mystery they placed before them. The events in the games that precede those plot relevant story bits are secondary.
I will note that this is only one part of the fandom and there’s an entire piece dedicated to high level play. The action game elements are rewarding for people to play and challenge themselves on the highest difficulty. Tough as nails bosses like Sepiroth are also important to engaging fans. Kingdom Hearts provides a rewarding experience to players looking for that intense action gameplay. There is a reason there’s a vibrant community built around speedrunning Kingdom Hearts 2 (you should definitely watch this co-op race through the randomized game). Kingdom Hearts offers the opportunity for players to challenge themselves against bosses with high damage, fast and erratic attack patterns and even new wrinkles to the mechanics. The fact that this is part of a Disney mashup game is truly astounding.
The longer the series goes on, the mystery seeding becomes more pronounced and along with the more tangled the explanatory pieces of lore. I’m eager to see how the series hits now that I have a relatively good idea of where everything goes. The present lore of Kingdom Hearts is by no means resolved but it’ll be interesting to see how things land when I know certain bits will get backtracked or re-explained. It’s also interesting seeing how much of Kingdom Hearts mysterious storytelling arrives before this becomes more commonplace and how it’ll inform other media. In many ways, Kingdom Hearts helps establish the template for the widespread fandom interaction we see today. For now though, you can watch our full playthrough of Kingdom Hearts with more Let’s Plays to come in the future.
This new series is very exciting for both Emily and I. I honestly couldn’t believe we hadn’t thought of it sooner, props to Emily for the suggestion. We both have some affinity for the series. She played 1 & 2 back in the day and is a big fan of all things Disney. I’ve kept a healthy obsession for the series since I first played it in middle school and it’s the series that got me into RPGs. I’ll be something of a lore guide, but our Let’s Plays will be spoiler free. It’s very fitting though that we’re both very hazy on the first one so we’ll be coming in with fresh eyes. We plan on going through the whole series though and we’ll be following release order:
Kingdom Hearts Final Mix
Re:Chain of Memories (technically this came out later but we’ll go buy the GBA games release date)
Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days*
Birth by Sleep Final Mix
Dream Drop Distance
2.8 Final Chapter Prologue
Kingdom Hearts III
Melody of Memory
I’m not sure how well tackle both 358 and Re:Coded; both games only came out for the DS. At the very least we’ll do a talk over of the packaged cutscenes that come with our 1.5+2.5 set. We also won’t be covering χ, Union or Dark Road; all of those mobile games are very long. Maybe we can do a wrap up lore session on those when we get to it. We’re very excited to be launching on this journey and you can watch the first episode here:
Spoiler Warning: Full story details discussed below
It honestly feels like trolling at this point. It’s not like there weren’t worrying signals leading into this game, but even by those standards this takes the cake. After Kingdom Hearts 3 essentially fridged Kairi, there was a large fan pushback against yet another instance of her being the “woman in peril.” The Re Mind dlc took a half step, allowing you to play as Kairi but alongside Sora. Nomura essentially then tripled down by speaking of a larger role for Kairi in Melody of Memory which meant that she was narrating the game. Meanwhile all the trailers showed footage of playable Sora, Donald, and Goofy. Even in her own game she was deprioritized. Now having finished the game, Nomura’s statement is incredibly laughable and Melody of Memory goes the extra mile in showing Kairi out of the way. I didn’t have high hopes but it’s incredible how the game sinks even below those standards. I believe @headfallsoff on Twitter put it best.
That reaction may seem outsized for what is a relatively simple rhythm game. Melody of Memory picks up where Kingdom Hearts 3 left off with Sora missing and Kairi being put to sleep so she can explore her memories for clues of Sora’s location. Melody doesn’t include any of that upfront though; there’s no opening cutscene when you start the campaign. The game literally drops you directly onto the map, no story context given. Kairi’s talked up narration doesn’t even begin until a few worlds in. The campaign is meant to work as a recap of the story so far. As you complete musical stages on different worlds, which highlight musical pieces of characters from past games, you’ll unlock recap movies where Kairi narrates a high level overview of past events. Melody of Memory is supposed to be a celebration of Kingdom Hearts as a series and the Square Enix blog even lists it as an ideal entry point for the series. As a celebration of the series it’s surprisingly on point, meaning it feels half-baked and extremely messy. All of the tracks you play are one – two minute loops of original orchestral music and instrumental versions of classic Disney songs (minus “Let it Go” which remains untouched). There’s surprisingly no Hikaru Utada songs on the main campaign, arguably the main Kingdom Hearts music. I was shocked I only got to play “Simple and Clean” on the opening cutscene before I even received a tutorial. The majority of the unlocks are for the condensed museum area. The museum gives a very sleight overview of Kingdom Hearts, with unlockable stills of past cutscenes, character portraits, and music. Better yet, Museum mode isn’t even unlocked until you play a song in the single select mode “Track Selection.” There’s not a lot of reason to go digging into the Museum as it only gives you the barrest of high level collectibles.
As a series entry point, Melody of Memory fails spectacularly. The recap videos are dispersed along the campaign map after completing tracks on plot important worlds. The worlds themselves are also grouped together by their associated games. Completing the tracks on “Hollow Bastion” will unlock a recap of Sora’s battle with Riku and Sora losing his heart. Having played the games, I understand the significance of this part. Riku fully gives into the darkness, Sora gives up his heart to release Kairi, creates both his Heartless and Nobody, and is healed by Kairi. For anyone watching without playing the original games, they’ll only have the faintest idea who these characters are let alone what a Heartless even is. The recap videos tell you what happens in the scenes, but miss the broader context of what that actually means. There’s no background explanation for the series’ dense lore at any point during the game. The example above is when the lore is fairly straightforward but the later cutscenes fail to provide deeper context for the scene’s it’s showing you. The side games are especially egregious. The “Birth by Sleep” levels don’t even let you know that it takes place before all of the other games and gives no context to who these new sets of characters are. The “365/2 Days” levels give zero background on Xion who even in the context of the game is hard to explain. Melody of Memory is essentially the Kingdom Hearts wikipedia entry stripped down to it’s bare essentials. The chances that this game is being used as an entry point is already pretty slim, but it’s laughable that they marketed it as one.
Finally at the end of the campaign (about 8 hours with me playing every track once), you are rewarded with new cutscenes which is ostensibly why Kingdom Hearts fans like myself purchased the game. Melody of Memory suddenly breaks it’s recap structure and drops you directly into new story cutscenes. It’s jarring and really feels like it should’ve been placed alongside the other cutscenes in Kingdom Hearts 3. Nevertheless it’s Kairi’s time to shine as she becomes the main character. Hooray! Kairi arrives in the “Final World” and instead of finding Sora runs into a manifestation of Xenahort. He starts saying vaguely ominous things and Kairi charges into battle. You can tell Xenahort is playing with her and he’s definitely stronger in battle. Kairi backed into a corner starts to power up. As Kairi seems to dig deep and find the power to defeat Xenahort, she starts to glow and becomes…Sora. Kairi literally transforms into Sora.
Are you serious?? It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out. Typical hero arcs (whether Shonen Anime or beyond) dictate that the hero has to find the strength in themselves to overcome the obstacle. Kairi is apparently not up to the task so Sora literally has to take over her body to do the deed for her. It literally is Sora too, not some sort of will being manifested from Kairi. Xenahort remarks at this stating that it’s impressive he’s able to reach there but knows why Sora is unable to talk. The context too is that this is all taking place in Kairi’s head. This is her world made real, so Nomura is essentially saying that she lacks the emotional resilience to beat her darkest fears and that it’s better if her boyfriend steps in for her. Sora will fight your battles, just cheer him on. After being captured in both 1 & 3, you would think that Kairi would have built up her strength. During 3 she was literally even training as a Keyblade wielder. Her arc at the end of Melody is her coming to terms once again that she’s not strong enough. Kairi gets to go train some more while Riku does the hero (man)’s job of rescuing Sora. It’s a new low for a character that has always been treated like a pawn. Riku even has to put down her request to join him, which is just heartbreaking.
Kairi doesn’t get a moment to shine nor is she even part of one of the playable characters in the selectable “parties” (groups of 3 characters you can play as on the rhythm game levels). It’s baffling, especially when Riku’s party contains two minor Dream Eaters from “Dream, Drop, Distance.” Her important role is talking about how cool everyone else is. She gets the exciting role of telling all of the players about the exciting adventures all of the rest of the cast took part in. She rarely ever gets to use the first person; she has and always will be relegated to the side. When the expectations are literally at the floor it’s hard to believe it’ll go lower. It’s hard to believe that Nomura actually thinks that Kairi’s treatment is positive especially when the larger fan reaction is negative. It seems like nobody wants Kairi to suffer more than Nomura does.
The Kingdom Hearts series doesn’t make any sense on paper. Disney meets Final Fantasy. Donald Duck and Goofy working side by side with Aerith and Squall. Keys are giant swords. Mickey Mouse is the ultimate samurai warrior. Disney movies as planets. Hearts leaving bodies and memories being wiped. All of these elements combined sound like a story being tossed around on a fan fiction forum. But in 2002, Square Enix put these ideas into a video game and made Disney anime. The first Kingdom Hearts proved that this unlikely alliance between the world’s largest movie universe and arguably the most revered game series could make for an engaging crossover. Over the course of 15 years, 7 games (with only 2 numbered sequels) and 4 collections, Square has created a fleshed out if overly convoluted mythology. Now with the announcement of the Marvel cinematic universe being taken over by Square subsidiary Eidos Montreal and a new Kingdom Hearts collection dropping this month, it is the perfect time to look back and understand why this series is such a phenomenon.
Kingdom Hearts takes the entirety of the Disney movie universe and places them in a Final Fantasy game. Besides the core Disney animated characters (the staples Mickey, Donald and Goofy) the other movies are separated into cordoned off worlds that the main characters visit. This allows the player to visit famous hallmarks of Disney movies such as Neverland and Halloweentown, but remain a detached visitor. The main core of the game revolves around Sora defeating a heartless infestation and locking the world with his keyblade. Each world involves missions that revolve around the movies’ plot points. It is important to note that this world hopping campaign has remained unchanged across all of the 7 games. This has proved to be the series main attraction while also being its greatest weakness. Many Disney films are only comprised of one film meaning that you are often replaying the same movie plot points across multiple games.
The Kingdom Hearts series would be nothing without its Disney backbone though. The nostalgic excitement of moving from Agrabah to Tarzan is wholly unique to Disney. These various worlds also offer the chance to team up with famous Disney heroes and square off against infamous villains. Square smartly keeps the hero team ups to their respective worlds while villains are given a chance to take on a more plot central role. Pete and Maleficent often make up part of the main antagonist team and are usually the main drivers of the heartless invasions. The Disney villains are not given the same importance as the newly created antagonists of the series, but their hierarchy in the enemy legion allows for plenty of face time and confrontation with Sora and the team.
While Disney forms the main backbone of the series’ campaigns, the core of the plot revolves around the new and original characters in the series. The plot of Kingdom Hearts takes the family friendly American values of Disney and animes the fuck out of them. A deathly serious tone revolving around the fate of the universe? Check. Amnesiac protagonists and memories being erased? Check. Existential themes revolving around souls and consciousness? A very big check. The Kingdom Hearts games take what could be considered a crossover event very seriously. Light and Darkness are very real and tangible items in the universe as represented by characters with or without hearts (or bodies without hearts). The enemies of the series are much more multidimensional in comparison to their Disney counterparts. Ansem and Organization XIII are looking for spiritual fulfillment through the series McGuffin Kingdom Hearts. The series also toys with its own protagonists’ souls as well, with characters often having to undergo ego death (or rejecting it at their own expense) to become whole like in the case of Roxas and Tera.
The plot would be nothing without the series’ engaging cast of characters. Fans immediately latched onto the pretty trio of protagonists Sora, Riku, and Kairi with each representing certain anime character tropes: the earnest good-hearted hero, the troubled but well intentioned friend, and the wise beyond her years love interest. The basis for these characters may not be original, but they have proven to be unique in their struggle to defeat the darkness invading their worlds and within themselves. The enemies also prove to be engaging through their aforementioned multidimensionality. Their tragic backstories, usually a result of their formers selves losing their hearts, add the backstory to their single-minded and emotionless pursuit to be whole again. They have no regard for others because they are incapable of being empathetic and their goal is to one day be whole again. Their main goal is to have their hearts and bodies reunited making them similar to our heroes.
If all that sounds extremely complicated, it is. Square Enix have done themselves no favors in creating games that provide more incremental detail and more mystery to their universe in between making a fully-fledged numbered sequel (with still no date as of yet announce). This overly complex mythology though is exactly what keeps fans clamoring for each successive game in the series. It may be unfair to say that Square may not have a great idea how to wrap up all of these disparate plot points with their next mainline game, but they certainly do seem hesitant to move the plot forward in a meaningful way. Even with that in mind, the Kingdom Hearts series has more than earned its fanatical following.