While it’s undeniable that Sora, Kairi, and Riku have solidified their place as popular RPG heroes over the years, it takes more than that to become a classic.
There aren’t many games as polarizing as those in the Kingdom Hearts series, and there’s a good reason why – the premise of the universe that the games inhabit is so bizarre, fans have been wondering for years now exactly how the first title got produced in the first place. It’s hard to imagine a meeting between business executives and game developers taking place where both parties arrived at the conclusion that a mashup of the Final Fantasy and Disney franchises would be a worthwhile endeavor, and yet here we are, thirteen years later, inching closer to the long-anticipated Kingdom Hearts 3.
The series as a whole defies conventional wisdom about what should sell a video game. New IPs, that wisdom would say, should be able to stand alone without much prior knowledge of popular culture required to enjoy the story. Kingdom Hearts, buoyed by the ubiquitous nature of Disney in the media, spits in the face of that sage advice – if gamers aren’t familiar with Mulan, or The Nightmare Before Christmas, then it’s on them to shore that knowledge up before they can fully appreciate the way Kingdom Hearts recreates those worlds within a standalone video game.
Despite this, however, Kingdom Hearts somehow works. I still remember stumbling across Halloween Town in the first Kingdom Hearts and being blown away by the level design. The amount of care that goes into the recreations of some of the most memorable Disney locations is astounding, and the Kingdom Hearts-original characters are a perfect blend of Final Fantasy chosen one seriousness and Disney charm and childishness. Even the gameplay, which has gone through some very noticeable changes and upgrades, has consistently remained fun and engaging. By all accounts, Kingdom Hearts is a success, and the critical reception of the core games – Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2 – has proven that.
So why hasn’t Kingdom Hearts ever had the kind of sales figures of games like The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4? It’s easy to suggest that the games appeal to different demographics within the video game community, but honestly, there are a lot of children now who have begun playing video games ever since parents began to understand their kids can make careers out of button mashing or level design if they’re good or passionate enough. Kingdom Hearts also has a very dedicated adult fanbase, so it doesn’t appear that age is the factor. There is one thing that The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 do that Kingdom Hearts, as a franchise, has never been able to, however – the former two games tell a coherent story, while Kingdom Hearts appears to be making things up as it goes along.
Make no mistake, I’m not suggesting Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t going to be a big seller once it finally hits, whenever that actually is. I am, however, a strong believer in the fact that its storytelling principles and design have been holding the game back since Kingdom Hearts 2, and that the success the third core installment will see pales in comparison to the massive sales numbers it would see if it just made sense.
The fact is, only the most dedicated Kingdom Hearts fans have even the slightest idea of what’s going on at this point. A quick search through YouTube reveals that, of the many, many attempts gamers have made to summarize the narrative in a coherent manner, most videos can’t even keep the summary down under twenty minutes. I’m pretty sure I could summarize every single Call of Duty game ever in about fifteen, and that spare five minutes could be used to cover most of The Witcher 3, a game that spanned well over a hundred hours of gameplay.
So, yes, forgive me if I’m not giddy with anticipation that Kingdom Hearts 3 director Tetsuya Nomura has suggested that the game represents the end of Xehanort’s story within the franchise. Yes, the same Xehanort who writers thought it would be a good decision to have adopt the name of Ansem, who is already a major character within the Kingdom Hearts story. Also, Xehanort is only one version of a villain who has had at least two other different incarnations within the series as well. I’m not sure exactly how one goes about concluding the age old tale of a man who is actually three very similar people, but then again, I’m fairly certain Disney and Square don’t know either.
Part of the problem is that the Kingdom Hearts series has been released in a manner that can generously be described as nonsensical. While prequel games aren’t uncommon for a series as popular as the Square and Disney hybrid effort, the complete disregard for anything resembling a normal timeline is fairly rare. The fact that Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a necessity to bridge the gap and understand the story as it progresses between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2 is already pretty egregious, since Chain of Memories released for the Game Boy Advance, a handheld produced by an entirely different company than the PS2 that the first two core titles were released on.
While that alone would isolate a number of gamers, the release of various titles that take place in between specific games and the prequel Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep has created a narrative that requires a deep financial investment in games that, simply put, aren’t always as good as the PS2 titles. Essentially, the Kingdom Hearts universe is blockaded by two very noticeable barriers that prevent new players from engaging with it. The story is too complex and requires too much time investment to understand it, and the narrative is also locked behind four different game systems.
As a result, Kingdom Hearts 3 is going to be a lot of younger gamers’ first experience with the series, and they’re going to have no idea what’s happening. While the allure of a world where Donald Duck can throw a fireball at a villain while riding a Buzz Lightyear Astro Blaster should hold their attention regardless, it’s going to represent yet another missed opportunity for Disney and Square Enix to make Kingdom Hearts one of the biggest video game franchises in the world.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m going to buy Kingdom Hearts 3 because some of the moments in the previous games have been amazing. Getting to help Cloud tackle a reborn Sephiroth as a secret boss in the original Kingdom Hearts has to be one of the coolest battles I’ve ever fought with a controller in hand. But when Kingdom Hearts 3 sells six million copies instead of twenty million, it’s going to be because somehow a fun, engaging, and aesthetically beautiful series has never been able to figure out how to do what made its Disney and Final Fantasy inspirations so famous in the first place.
Kingdom Hearts should appeal to a wider playerbase than almost every other game, but the series has never been able to tell its own story despite being developed by two of the best narrative weavers in the business. Because of that, Kingdom Hearts 3 is going to be big – but just big, a notable release among other AAA titles on a calendar at some point, and not the massive cultural phenomenon it could be.
Kingdom Hearts 3 will be available for the Xbox One and PS4, and no release date has been announced.