Kingdom Hearts III vs The Newcomer

It’s like attending a wedding for strangers

I have never played a Kingdom Hearts game. However, its immense popularity among my peers does mean that I knew something about the series prior to jumping in so late. I knew Sora, Riku, and Kiari’s names; I was aware of the general conceit of the series, being a Square Enix-style action RPG with loads of Disney elements. And I was definitely familiar with just how complex the over-arching Kingdom Hearts story was meant to be. I even knew some basic details about what the Heartless, Nobodies, and Somebodies were. But what I was missing — crucially — was the experience of seeing these things all develop naturally over the course of nearly 17 years.

Jumping into Kingdom Hearts III just recently indicated one important fact, too: this game doesn’t care about me at all. That is to say, it’s not remotely interested in my history — or lack thereof — with its esoteric lore. Nevertheless, I decided to finally take the plunge and see what all the fuss is about. This was in part because of the sheer magnitude of the franchise; as someone who writes about games, and as the producer of the Super Jump Podcast, I feel it necessary to stay up-to-date on such things. There was a part of me, too, that felt I could possibly write a review of the game even if it didn’t really click with me on a personal level.

Well, I did like the game, but I absolutely cannot write a review. My review of Kingdom Hearts III would be about as worthwhile as my review of a Tibetan throat singer. It simply isn’t my background, and the throat singer did not ask for my input. Kingdom Hearts III is not the new Zelda, or the new Final Fantasy, or the new God of War; it is the new Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts III is not a jumping-on point for the series. It has a job to do and it has no intention of slowing down its voyage to the fight with Xehanort in order to help newbies along.

I, however, am a newbie, and I liked it quite a bit.

I cannot say I loved it. Love is an emotion that must be nurtured over time. Love must be continually stoked because even the hottest fire dies out to entropy, and, again, Kingdom Hearts III has better things to do.

This game is about 60% cutscene. If I were writing a review, this might be something I would criticize (thankfully, I’m not writing a review). Kingdom Hearts III has a moderately interesting combat system and a full world to explore, but that’s not what the game is about. Sora’s journey to rescue Aqua, Terra, and Ventus and inevitably clash with Xehanort is what takes precedence here. The story is told through cutscenes for the most part and, while there might have been a more interactive way to deliver it, it’s those cutscenes that are what long-time Kingdom Hearts fans are here for.

One such long-time fan described what he wanted out of this game by comparing it to another Disney property. “Imagine if they just stopped after Empire Strikes Back. They made some books, and comics, and other bullshit that technically forwards the story, but Return of the Jedi just never quite happened. If, after all this time, Jedi finally came out, would you care if it’s good? Like the story has to be good, but does the cinematography? Does the acting? It would be nice, but I just need to know how it ends, man. You know?”

I do know! I don’t understand, necessarily, because I didn’t begin this adventure with Sora all the way back in 2002 like some others did, but I do know.

Most major tentpole AAA games of the last few years have been made in a way that doesn’t require any previous experience at all. There is a veritable trove of Zelda lore that a player could pore over in an attempt to understand the complete history of Hyrule, but none of that is required before playing Breath of the Wild. Every Mario game resets the score board. Pokémon games always hold newcomers’ hands through the early sections of their journey. Kingdom Hearts’ refusal to tamp itself down to cater to players with no knowledge of the series at all comes off as a sign of respect. It knows what is being asked of it. There is a story to finish and it will get there, newcomers be damned.

It’s worth noting that, as far as following the story is concerned, I was fine. It really wasn’t an issue. People blow the complexities of Kingdom Hearts’ story out of proportion. There’s a lot there, but all of the critical information is available online and the game itself does a fairly good job of presenting everything in a way that is, if not immediately transparent, inevitably solvable. For all of its complexity, none of the various narrative tangles of the series’ growth are particularly vague. If you have a question, there is an answer (and if there isn’t, then you’re already caught up to where everyone else is by not knowing).

What was more impenetrable to me was the story’s tone. There’s a fairly quick series of events that happens near the end of the game that I felt I was supposed to care about and just didn’t. The end of this story only has emotional weight for audience members who didn’t tap in two-thirds of the way through the show, which is completely fair. I think fans of Kingdom Hearts think that their series is inaccessible because there’s too much prerequisite knowledge to study up on, but the real issue is that, even if I learn all of that, there’s no guarantee that I’ll care about Organization XIII unless I have a personal connection with it, and I don’t. I likely never will.

Also, I have frankly no idea what Disney being involved does for this game. For a game that spends around 25 of its 30 hours in levels based on classic Disney and Pixar movies, Disney could be completely written out of this story with no negative side effects. King Mickey is important in his own right, and Sora calls Donald and Goofy two of his best friends, but… why? You’d think that if Disney is involved, some of the major players in the game’s story would be Disney characters, but everyone worth noting in a plot synopsis is a completely original character. The Disney locales offer a soothing sense of familiarity in an otherwise strange world, and that’s a nice thing to have, but why not bring Buzz and Elsa into the final battle? Because this game has Buzz and Elsa in it! Do you know how many other RPGs have both Buzz Lightyear and Elsa in them? Five, at most. Despite this installment of the series breaking tradition and not including any characters from other Square-Enix franchises, Kingdom Hearts III feels solidly like a Final Fantasy game that happens to have appearances from select Disney franchises.

Fans of the series would likely be quick to tell me that Sora cannot let denizens of the various Disney worlds know about their place within their shared universe for fear of dismantling the “world order,” but the developers could simply have not have the universe work like that. This is something that I’m sure is barely a blip on the radar of veteran players. “Why would Elsa interrupt Sora’s long-anticipated destiny?” they’d likely ask. Yeah, I guess I don’t know why she would. It’s not really my call, is it? It may be a real criticism and this may be a genuinely sub-optimal way to organize a Disney crossover, but you wouldn’t call the NYPD to deal with a noise complaint in Los Angeles.

I got a lot out of Kingdom Hearts III, but much of it was directed at the people in my life who I know enjoy the series rather than at myself. As I reached the credits, the emotion I was most feeling was pride. I was proud of everyone who stuck with this series for its entire lifetime and I was happy for them to finally be able to see its (conditional) finale. I immediately called up a friend of mine from college who I remembered was a fan of the series and offered him a congratulations. He didn’t seem to understand the gesture, but he deserved it.

If you are wavering between catching up with the numerous spin-offs or playing Kingdom Hearts III blind, I’d recommend just jumping in. Playing the game without previously establishing a connection with the world and all of its inhabitants is like watching a parade of people you don’t know walk at a college graduation. You can understand what’s going on. You may even have your own degree you’ve earned in the past that could lend you insight into what the graduates have achieved. Still, it isn’t your story. It’s not your turn to graduate; it’s your turn to clap.