The Kingdom Hearts series recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, and it is still something that is very near and dear to many people’s...uh...hearts. I consider it one of the few franchises that came along at the just the right time for millennial gamers, not unlike Pokemon or Harry Potter. Kingdom Hearts, intentionally or not, capitalized on two things that were extremely popular among millenials when it came out: Disney nostalgia and shonen anime. By effectively combining these two into an action RPG, it quickly became the cornerstone of a hyper-dedicated fanbase. And that’s just a surface-level description of what makes it so beloved.

I used to consider myself a fan of Kingdom Hearts as well, and it was only after looking back at the various games in the series that my opinion of them started to change. I should preface all this by saying that Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II were undoubtedly good action RPGs - for their time. But the formula that they established certainly wasn’t perfect, and yet it has haunted almost every game in the series since then. Here, I want to break down that formula and explain why I fell out of love with the series - but also why I think the future could be promising for Kingdom Hearts.

To start with, let me give you a little bit of backstory: I first learned about Kingdom Hearts through an article on GameSpot back in 2001, and I remember laughing at its absurd premise. A crossover game between Disney and Squaresoft? Like... Cloud Strife fighting alongside Scrooge McDuck? “Court Wizard Donald” and “Guard Captain Goofy”? I couldn’t believe such a game was being made, but it definitely got my attention. As its western release date neared, I saw more and more favorable impressions of it from different sites, and my scoffing turned to genuine interest. I was interested to see how Square had managed to create a good game out of such a ridiculous idea, but I wasn't interested enough to throw down fifty bucks of savings just to find out.

It wasn’t until my neighbor got the game shortly after it came out that I had the first chance to play it for myself. The game had hooked him good, and he was singing its praises as I picked up the controller to start my own file. A few hours later, and I was impressed by the flashy combat, weirdly cool art design, excellent music and nostalgic Disney worlds. And so began our years-long journey through the Kingdom Hearts series, buying each new entry as it came out and playing them together. It eventually got to a point where we imported the Final Mix versions of KH1 and 2 just so we could play all their bonus content on my modded PS2.

At this point, I’ve played hundreds of hours of Kingdom Hearts across every game in the series and completed every challenge that each one had to offer. I have an uncomfortably vast knowledge of the series’ overarching plot and characters, no matter how nonsensical. But despite the time that I (and many others) devoted to it, I’ve noticed more and more issues with Kingdom Hearts over the years, especially when looking back on it all as an adult.

THE COMBAT

I used to believe that Kingdom Hearts exemplified the idea of an “easy to learn, hard to master” combat system. Nowadays, I realize that it’s just easy. Not easy in the good sense; more like the “mind-numbingly basic after a little while” kind of sense. That’s not to say it isn’t rewarding, though - KH combat has always been fluid and flashy, despite the fact that it rarely deviates from mashing the X button. The problem is that its “flashy and mashy” nature hasn’t developed substantially over the course of each game, aside from the addition of triangle skills, and the FlowMotion system in KH3D. The inherently lazy feeling of Kingdom Hearts’ gameplay (outside of bosses) is perhaps what makes it so enjoyable to play with friends - but that’s because you aren't engaged with the game itself.

THE CHARACTERS

The characters of Kingdom Hearts might be the most boring, stagnant aspect of the ongoing series. Originally, their simplicity seemed to work well within the story: Sora and Riku act like kids who have been caught up in events beyond their control, and they both have the singular goal of rescuing Kairi and going back to their home on Destiny Islands. Sora meets up with good people (or cartoons, as it were) and is influenced by their friendship, knowledge and problems. Riku falls in with bad people and succumbs to darker influences. However, the shonen character archetypes and recurring themes like “the power of friendship” have made most characters throughout the series nearly identical in personalities and values, even the newer protagonists. The cringey dialogue and awkward interactions with Disney stand-ins certainly don’t help either. Or maybe I’m expecting too much from spiky-haired kids wearing clown shoes who hit things with blunt objects that look like giant keys.

THE WORLDS

To be fair, the various Disney worlds of Kingdom Hearts were a lot more technically impressive during the PS2 era. They were still these stilted 3D renditions of classic Disney films that were chopped up by loading screens, but each new “room” seemed to have a neat little gimmick that shook up combat or platforming. But as the series went on, they started to feel increasingly claustrophobic, soulless, and polygonal, not to mention the fact that you had to backtrack through them again at some point in the story. There is barely anyone to interact with in most of the worlds, and the only thing you’re doing in most situations is fighting the same groups of the same Heartless/Nobodies/Unversed/Dream Eaters over and over again. Unless you want to talk about the minigame-filled Hundred Acre Wood, or that atrocious sing-a-long version of Atlantis in Kingdom Hearts II. 

THE PLOT

Look, I know the plot and writing of Kingdom Hearts was never exactly Shakespeare, but at least it had a fairly concrete and self-contained story by the end of KH2. The events of the first three games reached a reasonable conclusion as Sora, Donald, Goofy and Riku accomplished their respective goals. But Square just had to leave that one little cliffhanger at the end of the game: a message in a bottle. Ten years and numerous sequels, prequels, and "secret cutscenes" later, we now have an overlong plot with more preposterous twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Every contradiction seems to be justified with “magic,” and each new entry is filled with information but devoid of substance as Square Enix tries to pad things out into more games to sell. By the time I finished Dream Drop Distance and its wealth of conflicting information, I knew there was no way that they could salvage this story into anything meaningful. Lest we forget:

Even with all these problems in hindsight, I still hold some faith in the future of Kingdom Hearts. Mercifully, the Dark Seeker saga will be ending soon (if KH3 comes out before I’m on my deathbed). I also recently played Kingdom Hearts 0.2 -A fragmentary passage-, which was essentially a playable teaser for Kingdom Hearts III. The experience managed to give me some hope for KH3, even if that hope is partly based on speculation. It had faster combat with more options and smarter enemies, and my party member was actually useful in a fight. Environments were significantly larger and more detailed - it looked gorgeous in Unreal 4, albeit at the expense of the frame rate. I had it crash on me a couple times, so I’m really hoping that all this extra development time on KH3 is being used to optimize its performance in Unreal 4. It's kinda important for an action game to run well. Aside from that, there was also improved character mobility and some mildly interesting little puzzles, which could be expanded on in the final game.

So... do you still like Kingdom Hearts? Why or why not? What kind of role did (or does) it play in your life, if any? Do you agree or disagree with my points above? Is there a certain argument you’d like to make? Comment and let me know, I would love to read and respond to them! My next post will probably bring my “Why You Should Play” series to Game Informer, where I dig through new independent releases on different platforms every week or so and recommend one based on relevance, quality, or uniqueness. Look forward to one about Rivals of Aether, a Kickstarted “Smash-like” fighting game, in the near future!