Kingdom Hearts almost feels like an impossible video game. It’s a fusion of two properties that couldn’t be more different. Yet, it’s these differences between Final Fantasy and Disney that made a compelling story. With an ambitious crossover like Kingdom Hearts, there was bound to some bumps along the road. Add to that Tetsuya Nomura’s questionable storytelling, and you might end up with some unexpected issues.
Now, the point of this article isn’t to convince anyone that Kingdom Hearts has a bad story. Nor do I think this series is the absolute worst either. Remember, games like Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of a New World exist that have truly awful stories. The thing with Kingdom Hearts though, is that there’s a lot of potential for a great plot. It’s a shame that some major problems are holding it back. In the rest of the article, I will go over each separate point. As a disclaimer, there will be spoilers for Kingdom Hearts III.
It’s very important to have a set of rules to define a world. They are the boundaries of what it is possible and what isn’t. Without a guideline to follow, plot points can happen out of nothing and without any explanation. Kingdom Hearts does have its own rules. Many people like to joke about how “convoluted” the story is, but a lot of things do have a logical flow to them. Sora doesn’t have multiple hearts inside of him for no reason.
The problem is, there are too many cases of events breaking the rules or newer games adding completely new ones that don’t make sense. Of course, an argument is meaningless without examples. I have one in particular which illustrates the point I’m trying to make.
When a Nobody and Heartless dies, the original person returns to life. Several characters also mention that a Nobody cannot coexist with their original persona. That was one of the plot points of Kingdom Hearts II. Roxas had to return to Sora’s body so the latter could wake up. Except, there are cases of Nobodies existing alongside their original form. Roxas coexists with Sora and Namine with Kairi.
For the former, you could say that Kairi’s magic was the reason why Sora was able to come back. She was a Princess of Light and we still don’t the full extent of their powers. With Kairi and Namine, once again, they are able to exist at the same time. Again, this probably has something to do with the fact that Kairi is a Princess of Light. However, simply having an explanation for something doesn’t make it good. The poor reasoning for why these specific Nobodies can coexist with their original personas feels lazy.
When you sidestep the rules of your own world, it often results in lazy storytelling. It reveals a constant shift in the vision of the storyteller, which is partly true. The first Kingdom Hearts game was made as a sort of one-off thing. References to later games were made with the updated Final Mix version, not the original game. It’s natural that there would be some problems with having a consistent story.
Sora is a Boring Protagonist
The time of silent protagonists with no obvious personality is over. Although Sora does indeed speak, his personality is less fleshed out than non-speaking characters like Crono from Chrono Trigger. Sora is proof that Square Enix’s creative team is stuck in the past when it comes to storytelling.
Modern games tend to have well written and fleshed out main characters that people can relate to. There are some exceptions like Persona or Dark Souls which have silent heroes. However, in those games, the main character acts as an insert for the player. Sora is not an insert for the audience. He has his own personality which was given to him by the writers. It just so happens that his character is not fleshed out.
Sora is your stereotypical dumb, strong-willed and determined young hero. He acts selflessly and is always quick to jump into action without any good reason. The saddest part is that Sora never seems to learn anything from his actions. It’s because there are no consequences for his failures. This is another major issue, but we will come back to it later.
I understand what they are trying to do with this character. They made him dumb and goofy on purpose to make it seem like Sora is just a regular kid. It can be charming at times, especially with the way he interacts with Donald and Goofy. But there has to be a limit to how stupid they write him. At some point, it stops being charming and starts getting frustrating.
In Dream Drop Distance, Sora was almost corrupted by the darkness. That should have a much greater effect on his character than we see in Kingdom Hearts III. Why not have Sora make some questionable decisions or flat out disobey Master Yen Sid? Maybe even have him tap into that darkness and show us that he also has flaws. While these ideas still aren’t that great, it would still be some form of character development.
Lack of Consequence
The last thing you want in your story is for the audience to not care about what happens to a given character. The best way to do this, is by completely removing the idea of “consequence” from your plot. Kingdom Hearts does a great job at this, making sure that when a character dies, you won’t give a damn. They will probably be back in the next game.
The criminal, in this case, is Kingdom Hearts III. Roxas comes back to life, despite coming to terms with his existence as part of Sora. His entire character arc was about accepting the fact that he’s a Nobody and not meant to exist. It was a compelling story with a lot of emotional value and a solid conclusion. His final battle with Sora in Kingdom Hearts II is the perfect end to the arc. There was no need to bring him back and undo all of that development.
I’m not necessarily against the idea of bringing back characters from the dead in a fantasy game. However, there needs to be some sort of reason behind it, other than mindless fanservice. Roxas coming back does not improve the story of Kingdom Hearts in anyway. He’s not the only one though, as Xion also returns.
Xion’s circumstances are even more crazy, which I didn’t think was possible. She was supposed to be completely erased from existence to the point that people forgot about her. Even her best friends, Roxas and Axel, forgot about her. Once again, it was a touching moment undone by Kingdom Hearts III. If you’re going to take a bold move, like killing off a main character, then you should have the guts to stick with it! Bringing back older characters makes for great fanservice, but it can also ruin the story. Although it’s clear that Square was more obsessed with nostalgia than they were with good writing.
So, what does this mean for the future of the franchise? Well, the next time a character “dies,” you know they are going to come back. In fact, the secret ending of Kingdom Hearts III pretty much pokes fun at itself. Not only do we see Sora alive and well (after “dying”), but the five Foretellers are still around. You know, those Keyblade Masters from a few thousand years ago. Sequel baiting at its finest. If there’s one nothing Nomura is good at, it’s making sure there’s always more questions than answers. That way, we have no choice but to keep coming back, hopeful of a satisfying ending.
Bad Voice Acting and Writing
Considering the original Kingdom Hearts game came out the same time as Final Fantasy X, I can excuse the voice acting. At the time, Kingdom Hearts was actually an industry leader in this aspect. They clearly put a lot of effort into making the cutscenes as immersive as possible. Considering how bad the presentation was in Final Fantasy X, it was quite surprising to Kingdom Hearts do such a great job.
The times sure have changed. Final Fantasy XV came out a few years ago, and it has stunning voice acting and great writing. Every character feels like a real human. The delivery is perfect, even when the writing doesn’t match up. Even the Kingsglaive movie had great acting. You would think that Square Enix has this figured out by now. A big name series like Kingdom Hearts shouldn’t mess up such a fundamental aspect of a modern video game.
Too bad that the voice acting in Kingdom Hearts III is terrible. The bad writing accentuates this, but there’s no excuse for such a poor performance. Every character feels like they are reading off a script. The voices always feel so stilted and uninterested in what’s happening. Only Hades felt like a proper performance by a professional actor. Everyone else, especially Riku and Mickey Mouse, were a huge disappointment. A damn shame considering this is supposed to be the most important game in the series.
Another problem is the writing. The series as a whole has very poor dialogue. The writers are too obvious about the themes of the story. More often than not, characters just say things to explain something. The most important rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell.” The audience isn’t stupid. We have this magical ability to infer ideas from limited information. There’s no need to spell out every little detail. Instead of constantly talking about darkness and light, why not showcase these themes through the characters’ actions?
I found Kingdom Hearts III to be particularly offensive in this aspect. So much of the dialogue is characters explaining the plot. Add in the bad voice acting, and it’s as if everyone is simply reading the Kingdom Hearts wiki. Every time Mickey Mouse is on screen, he’s explaining something. There’s one scene where he’s telling Riku about Ansem’s history. Even the part where Ansem possessed Riku. Why bother to write this scene and waste everyone’s time? Riku already knows everything, and so does the player.
People like to say that Kingdom Hearts III isn’t meant for newcomers. It’s for the old fans who have stuck by this series for 17 years, playing every entry. That statement is completely false. Kingdom Hearts III spends more time recapping events from older games than it does on its own “new” story. Even after making so many collections and recap videos, Nomura still thinks we don’t understand his extremely complex and convoluted excuse for a plot. In the game, they play it off the fact that Sora doesn’t “remember” anything. Really? That’s the best they could come up with? Maybe Sora is the one who should play all the Kingdom Hearts games.
If you genuinely enjoy the story of Kingdom Hearts, that’s awesome. I wish I could go back to the time when I thought Kingdom Hearts was the best thing ever. Maybe during the PS2 era, it was genuinely good. However, gaming has reached far greater heights since then. While others have moved on, Kingdom Hearts remains fixated on recapturing the magic of the early 2000s. Even so, we have plenty of indie games that do just that but better.
As a AAA title, Kingdom Hearts III should’ve aimed higher. The potential for a mindblowing experience is there. Some of the Disney worlds like Olympus and Toy Story had really good individual stories. I can’t think of any reason why this franchise shouldn’t be more ambitious than it is. It’s a crossover between Final Fantasy and Disney. Kingdom Hearts should be a celebration of what makes those two franchises great. Instead, we have a mess of a series that is far less than the sum of its parts.