Last Time On – Kingdom Hearts
After a lot of self-debate on whether or not I should cover this game so soon after release, I’ve decided to round out the end of the Dark Seeker arc in Kingdom Hearts. Since we’re pretending that KHUx isn’t a thing, our last dive into the series took us into dreams as the plot decided to reach for levels of convoluted which went beyond even the endgame of Kingdom Hearts 1. The whole ‘dream’ part of Dream Drop ended up being an utter mess that was more confusing than it was worth and improperly implemented time travel mechanics didn’t make things any easier to swallow. In the end, all the game really did was reset Sora to be level 1 again in KHIII and establish the obvious, which is that Xehanort is the villain again.
Something I did like about Dream Drop was the fact that Sora’s imperfections as a Keyblade wielder were highlighted and that, to an extent, was the reason why he almost ended up becoming a vessel for Xehanort. At this juncture, Sora should have doubts due to needing to be saved but also be more driven than ever to round himself out and become a true master. Kingdom Hearts III should be the big finale not just for Xehanort but for Sora as well. This story should show him finally understand what it means to be a Keyblade wielder as he ties the loose ends regarding Aqua, Ventus and Terra. There’s been plenty of supplementary content to put all of the pieces in place so this title should be dedicated to one big, decisive payoff.
What I Enjoyed
- The implementation of the Disney worlds – In every instalment of this franchise after the first, the feeling of the Disney worlds just kinda being there has been consistently prevalent. While the first game saw the plot weaved into the worlds themselves, they ended up just becoming filler between actual major plot moments somewhere along the way. This has led to the Disney worlds feeling dead and empty in the past, especially in games with particularly limited hardware to work with like Birth by Sleep. In that regard, being on modern consoles has done wonders for Kingdom Hearts III.
The Olympus tutorial sets the precedent well for this title as it presents a version of this world that’s vibrant and populated. Sora actually interacts and rescues people as Thebes is going up in flames and more than ever before it feels like we’re actually entering this setting. This remains mostly consistent throughout the entire game with several areas being dedicated to the NPCs who live in the Disney worlds. Furthermore, the themes of the worlds do line up with the overall plot which helps to give the sense that Sora is actually learning and growing thanks to his experiences throughout.
There are times when I think they could have pushed things a little harder with Corona and Arendelle being the most glaring examples. In my KHI amendment there was a section wherein I discussed having Sora actually speak with Ariel about the similarities they share. A similar thing could have happened here between him and, say, Rapunzel, but instead we’re greeted to mostly just movie plot with the Kingdom Hearts part just superimposed on there. This would have served to drive home just how much more mature he’s gotten throughout his adventures, which would have been a nice touch. Overall, though, between the likes of the Toy Story and Monster’s Inc. worlds I can say I was impressed with the Disney worlds this time around.
- Characterization – This is something that I haven’t touched on maybe as much as I should have in previous amendments but in previous titles of this series the script-writing has been less than stellar. A lot of the performances have been dull or flat and a lot of what fed into that was the inane dialogue being spoken out. Put that together with limiting plot details like the Nobodies supposedly having no emotions and you have a recipe for some less than spectacular character presentation. Dream Drop, for all the problems I had with it, was the game that really made me aware of this just because of how much better the script and performances felt in that game compared to previous titles.
I’m glad to say that recent improvement in script-writing has remained in Kingdom Hearts III. The characters actually feel like the characters they’re meant to be and with the premise of Nobodies having no heart/emotions tossed to the wayside we even get a more interesting insight into some of the old Organization members. This doesn’t necessarily say anything for the plot itself but it did elevate my enjoyment of this game’s scenes immensely. The characters feel more animate and memorable and I wish that the series could have hit this standard long before this point.
- The chess interludes – This may seem like an odd point to focus in on but I actually really enjoyed seeing young Xehanort and Eraqus, regardless of how brief their scenes are. I’ve mentioned in previous posts about how I’ve wanted to see a younger, more likeable Xehanort before his eventual fall to darkness. This helps him to feel like a person instead of just some anomalous evil force and it’s a shame it took until now to experience this side of him. Eraqus, too, was a hideously presented character in the game he was introduced in. These interludes suggest that he was meant to be a hero of light, the one who would be called upon to save the world, yet in Birth by Sleep he’s just an asshole who would kill one of his students without a second thought. His death would have felt so much more tragic if we got to see this iteration of him beforehand but things happening too late seems to be a theme in this game.
What Needs Changed
- The pacing of the ‘find Roxas’ plot – While I was playing through this game I absolutely felt like this plotline of Sora wanting to separate Roxas from himself came out of absolutely nowhere. It’s just something that Sora comes up with out of the blue and at the time it feels just phoned in to give Sora some extra motivation past his objective goal of unlocking the power of awakening. It takes until much later into the plot during a scene between Kairi and Axel for the narrative to wholly justify this plot point, before that point it just feels like we’re being strung along.
I do also take issue with Sora’s initial solution of wanting to put Roxas back into the artificial Twilight Town. The idea of just plopping someone into an artificial datascape to live out the rest of their days just feels really gross to me, even if this series wants us to believe that data entities can have hearts. I suppose the idea is that Sora doesn’t know any better because he isn’t aware of the actual life Roxas had when he was a part of Organization XIII but I feel like he should still be more aware than he is here.
In the end, I don’t have any issues with this plot thread in concept. Returning Ventus’ heart to him is one of the primary goals of this game from the start and, riding on that theme, it would make sense for Sora to want to free the other hearts inside of him. It’s the handling of this plot that’s the issue and I’ll talk more about another problem I have with it further down.
- The power of waking – Even after having completed the game, I can’t claim that I really understand what the power of waking is. This ability is the primary motive for Sora going through all of the worlds in this title and yet it’s never clearly presented what it is. It was to my assumption that it was the ability Riku used at the end of Dream Drop to go into Sora’s heart and battle the darkness that had settled within. From that, I thought that Sora had to learn this ability so he could return the piece of Ventus’ heart that’s inside of him but the events of this game are contrary to that.
Sora isn’t allowed to aid in the effort to save Aqua before he masters this ability, which implies that it’s necessary to navigate the realm of darkness. Then, at the very end of the game, Sora uses the power of waking to leap into some anomalous space so he can find Kairi’s heart after Xehanort straight up killed her. I guess I can mark this as another thing Dream Drop did poorly because the entire purpose of that game was for Sora and Riku to learn this ability as well. It feels to me that this power is what it has to be for the sake of plot convenience and if it really is that poorly thought through then I can’t just let it slide.
- Plot-induced stupidity and random incompetency – From the very first world there is an inordinate amount of unfounded stupidity from several characters. First and foremost, Hades and Maleficent, who against all better judgement decide not to deal with Sora while he’s in a weakened state. They just completely disregard him even though he’s been the central issue in their plans several times. In itself this isn’t a tremendous issue, it’d be an anticlimactic story if the protag were just unceremoniously killed off at the start, but I can assure that it’s just the tip of the iceburg.
While Sora is attempting to rejuvenate his lost abilities, Riku and Mickey spend the entire length of the game failing to save Aqua. First of all, Mickey is a moron for waiting this long to mount this rescue attempt in the first place. Second, even though these two characters were shown to be ridiculously competent in Dream Drop, they manage to get walloped by swarms of basic Heartless multiple times. Allow me to remind you, Riku has defeated the likes of Ansem multiple times, even by himself in their most recent encounter. Mickey managed to cast a time spell potent enough to lock down a majority of the members of the new Organization XIII. Here, they lose to a pile of Shadows stacked on top of each other because they’re ‘stronger in the realm of darkness’.
I see no reason why Riku couldn’t have resolved the Aqua rescue plot by himself. He was the one who mastered the power of waking in Dream Drop, there’s no reason to make him suddenly incompetent now just so Sora can end up doing it. Then you get moments like getting to fight Vanitas as Aqua, winning the fight but no actually the cutscene afterwards tells you she lost the fight really. I hate when stories turn every side character into a jobber just so the main protagonist can have more spotlight, I despise that trope with every fibre of my being. There’s plenty of smaller moments where this happens in this game, especially nearing the endgame, where characters just stand around bug-eyed instead of trying to fight at all. It’s horrendous and it makes the final conflict feel a lot lamer than it should be.
- The fact that most of the plot isn’t for this game – So I talked about how the ‘find Roxas’ plot seems random and rushed into prevalence and I think I can piece together why. Because of the number of plot threads that are resolved in this game compared to the number that are opened are not balanced in the slightest. It all begins with talk of a black box, one which Pete and Maleficent have a vested interest in getting their hands on. This black box is one of the major points of interest throughout the whole game and yet absolutely nothing comes of it. Given how much focus is put into it, it feels like there should be some sort of resolution but no, that’s for next game.
On top of that, just so you’re made certain that the series isn’t ending, there are several more plot elements that remain vague and mysterious. Xemnas claims that Larxene, Marluxia, Demyx and Luxord hold some sort of Keyblade legacy. Xigbar turns out to be Luxu, a Keyblade master from the time before the Keyblade war. There’s a mysterious girl who Ansem the Wise experimented on who disappeared and everyone involved regrets it. Sora is dead, which means we’re obviously going to have to find a way to get him back and a Final Fantasy vs XIII-esque game that’s introduced in the Toy Story world is maybe real.
I don’t have any issue with the idea of some things being left open so the series has avenues in which to continue on. However, Kingdom Hearts III was something that was built up to for a long time. In my mind, it was meant to be this grand finale, what everything up until this point had been building up to. With that mentality, all of these plot elements meant for the next game feel like they’re taking away from this one. The sense of finality is watered down so much by the series constantly reminding you that it’s far from over. It makes the conclusion to the Xehanort saga feel less satisfying, like it was just one step after all this time. I’m left feeling that more should have been focused on what was happening rather than what’s going to happen and, while I am interested in these unresolved plot points, it just made this game feel less notable to me.
- Keyblade Graveyard & The Final World – This may be the most controversial take in this post but I think the first visit to the Keyblade Graveyard where the heroes lose sucks. I was into it at first, whenever Donald cast Zettaflare on Terranort and obliterated that man I was hype. Then Sora just kinda… gives up? In itself I hate that the seven lights end up getting practically soloed by a tornado of fodder but Sora’s reaction just feels too extremely negative. His friends get swept up and instead of trying to fight at all Sora just falls to his knees and starts weeping because they’re gone forever. I understand that he values his bonds but my expectation of this character at this point would be for him to fight and try to get them back. That disconnect between how I perceived the character and how he actually acted, paired with the lame way his allies were defeated, made the emotional impact in this scene a total miss for me.
Then we have the part of the game that takes place in some purgatory called The Final World which I can’t even begin to justify. The summary is that Sora does some arbitrary bs which brings everyone back to before the point they got wiped. Then, despite none of the characters doing anything to change the events which unfold, Terra’s lingering will shows up to fight Terranort. There is no reason why this didn’t just happen the first time around. After that, the climax to this segment ends up being something that can only be appreciated if you’ve interacted with the mobile game and I don’t like that one bit. Alright, it’s a nice touch for the people who have but for those who haven’t, which I would believe is a majority of players, it’s just a triangle mashing segment.
This entire section of the game is completely arbitrary and just ends up getting in the way of the final battle with the thirteen darknesses. I can’t help but feel like an actual final world akin to The World That Never Was would have made for much better build-up because what happens here is a total waste of time.
- Xion & Terra – This might seem odd to say about a game that took so long to come out but there are certain parts of the endgame that feel rushed. Xion and Terra are the most glaring examples of us having to suspend our disbelief and accepting that things just work. Beginning with Xion, the first question I have is how is she there in the first place? We have to assume that she was removed from Sora’s heart by Xehanort’s side at some point but the question is when. The moment in the game that pops to mind for me is in Corona when Marluxia put him to sleep but I may be overlooking other viable points.
What makes this notably weird is the fact that there is a scene much earlier in the game where Ienzo talks to Sora about compartmentalising Roxas and Xion’s memories so that they can be properly restored or something along those lines but that idea is never acted upon and never comes up again. Instead, Xion just shows up as one of the thirteen darknesses and fights the lights for no discernible reason. I couldn’t tell you what her motive for fighting them could be, especially since she ends up being talked down extraordinarily easily. She defects practically instantly and that makes me wonder how she was even counted as one of the darknesses with regards to the forging of the X-blade. A whole lot of handwaved convenience here, but it doesn’t end with her.
What makes Terra an odd case is the fact that, by all accounts, he should be a replica. If Master Xehanort is the ‘current’ Xehanort, that would mean that Terranort is the one from the end of Birth by Sleep. This is supported by the fact that he looks the way he did at that point rather than how he did when he was Ansem the Wise’s apprentice. Unless I’ve misunderstood how the replicas function, this should mean that Terra would have to return to the past at some point even after he was restored, which would cause some abnormalities in the timeline. The fact that he was dragged to the future in itself would change things but y’know there’s always stuff to handwave when time travel is involved. As I said, it feels rushed, the situation here isn’t clear to me. It just works because they wanted to bring Terra back but just working isn’t good enough for me.
- Kairi – Who’s surprised to see Kairi in this section again? I hope the answer is no one because, as expected, she got done dirty again. Let’s begin with the fact that she spends a majority of this game in-training with Axel and is hinted at to be somewhat comparable to him. Yet, in practice, Axel is the only one to ever actually do anything. Then, when we get to the point in the game where she has the chance to prove herself, she gets damseled and killed by Xehanort with practically no resistance. The reason for this happening isn’t even good, Master Xehanort claims that it’s to give Sora ‘motivation’ but I don’t think he was about to turn away from the final battle regardless.
Kairi ends up being more of a plot object than a Keyblade wielder and that sucks. To my knowledge, there were a lot of people who had stock in Kairi actually being cool this game, myself included. She could have finally stood up with Sora and Riku as a fighter in her own right but that possibility is stripped away for some generic, unsatisfying garbage. Why couldn’t she have fought alongside Sora in the final sequence against Master Xehanort instead of Donald and Goofy? It would have mirrored Sora and Riku vs Xemnas in KHII, making the battle both more poignant and memorable and if she has to fall at least let her fall in battle. Even if she did train, she’s still far less experienced in proper combat compared to Sora or Xehanort. Her going down in itself isn’t the problem, it’s that she didn’t have the chance to rise first.
- Xehanort’s plan – In the end, Xehanort’s entire deal ends up being nothing like what was hinted at in the previous games. Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop seemed to imply that some mysterious event occurred as a result of the Keyblade war, an event which Xehanort wished to recreate for the sake of his own morbid curiosity. The beginning of this game implies that Xehanort was taken in by the idea that darkness will inevitably prevail from a young age. With these factors in mind, I think it would have been fine if he was just this selfish man who would bring irreversible harm to the worlds just to learn this one apparently magnificent thing.
If he believed that darkness swallowing the worlds to be an inevitability then why would he feel remorse for his actions? Here, it seems like they’re trying to redeem him by giving him this motive of granting the world a second chance and creating a new reality where hearts aren’t corrupted by darkness. At this point, it just becomes confusing as to whether or not Xehanort is allied with darkness or light and it feels, especially given his previous actions and those of his other incarnations, completely unwarranted. This is not a redeemable character after all that’s happened so trying to take this direction now is awful and weak.
Despite the numerous issues I’ve listed here, I do believe the core elements of what could make this plot good are there. As I said, I don’t actually have any problems with the find Roxas plotline in itself, it’s just the presentation that’s off to me. Take away Sora’s trashy ‘put him back in the data world’ solution and put the scene between Kairi and Axel which elaborates on it sooner and it’s an easy fix. Maybe toss in a scene where Sora compares the situation with Roxas to the one with Ventus when he finds out he has Ven’s heart within him to replace the weird compartmentalisation thing that Ienzo brings up which turns out to be irrelevant.
The power of waking, while a shoddily presented ability, isn’t necessarily an awful motive. I think it would be much better if it worked as per my original assumption where it allows one to enter another’s heart to restore it and/or ward away the darkness within. Establish that Sora is the one who has to learn it because he’s literally the only one with the means of restoring Ventus and leave the Aqua rescue plot to Riku and Mickey. Those two should be competent enough to get her back without Sora dropping in, they’ve proven themselves capable before and Riku also has the power of waking if he needs to utilize it.
More time should be spent setting up for the final battle than the next game. I understand that the build-up to this final battle has been literally every game before this one but you can’t just change tracks before you cross the finish line. If plot elements like the black box and the girl who disappeared have to be there then at least attempt to justify how they could effect the final clash. In the Pirates of the Caribbean world, Vexen and Luxord are shown looking for the box, which demonstrates that it’s something that could be beneficial to the darknesses. Do more of that, tie things together, make it seem like it could be relevant now instead of later.
The Keyblade Graveyard should be made into an actual world rather than what it is now. When the lights first enter the world, Sora fights the initial wave of enemies and then they encounter Terranort. The lingering will shows up the first time and the clash between the two takes them off into the distance. Queue several more massive waves of Heartless, Nobodies and Unversed until the stage of the final battle is reached. No mvp tornado, no Final World, no inexplicable KHUx nonsense, this is the last grind towards the conclusion of this whole ordeal.
With the weird premise set by Ienzo taken out earlier, all Xion needs to work is a more definitive moment where she’s removed from Sora’s heart and an actual motive for fighting him. I doubt she still has any loyalty to Xemnas in her so the only thing I can think would be that she wants to free Roxas from Sora personally. To do this, she has been handed the Keyblade of People’s Hearts from the first game so she can separate Sora back into Heartless and Nobody again. If that isn’t enough then say Xehanort conditioned her into believing that the only way she can ever be her own entity is if Sora is gone.
Terra’s a far more difficult character to justify in this case, so let’s analyze the pieces that we have and try to come to some sort of conclusion. This game confirms that Terra is Ansem’s Guardian and we can assume that this is the manifestation of his Heartless. When Terranort separated himself into Heartless and Nobody, Ansem and the Guardian stuck together as two Heartless from one, merged heart. They were both defeated simultaneously, leaving them both in a state of waiting for Xemnas to be defeated so they could be restored to one whole.
The inexplicable part is how, when Xemnas was defeated, it was Master Xehanort who came back with his old body. If his heart was going to return to that body then he logically should have been restored when Ansem was defeated in the first game. Xemnas’ defeat, in this case, should have brought back Terra because Xemnas is Terra’s body. The only reason this didn’t happen was because it would be anticlimactic for Terra to just be back. The logical solution here would be to have Xehanort restore himself into his form as Ansem the Wise’s apprentice, leaving Terra’s heart without anywhere to go.
We already know that the lingering will doesn’t contain Terra’s heart. I believe it’s claimed that it’s his mind that’s in there but in my Birth by Sleep amendment I altered it to be the remnant light of Terra’s heart that was pushed out when Xehanort took him over. Either way, I think the best direction would be to have his heart return to the only place it can; his armor. The location of Terra’s heart is crucial to his restoration because as things stand we’re left assuming that it’s a past version of him that’s restored inside of a replica. His current heart, if it still remains, is left in an unknown state.
This puts Terra in a state we understand, like Roxas, Xion and Naminé he needs a replica body to put his heart in. That can happen any time, for the sake of the final battle Terra is the armor. Honestly, I think it would be fine if Terra’s endgame was remaining an untalking suit of armor forever so he couldn’t say anything dumb any more. That wouldn’t work with the vibe of the series, though, so I would just say he gets a replica body after the fact. The other possibility that I thought about for a bit would be putting Terra’s heart inside of Xemnas since Xemnas is Terra’s body. Lingering Will Terra vs Xemnas would make for a rad fight and the two becoming one would work the same way Sora and Roxas did. Only issue with this is that I assume Xemnas and Ansem are also drawn from the past so the same issues would pop up there as with current Terranort.
For Kairi, all I want is for an opportunity where she can be useful and look cool doing it. My proposed solution is unchanged; I think she should fight Master Xehanort alongside Sora in Scala ad Caelum. Sora and Riku fighting Xemnas was sick as hell so why not do it again, give us the hot runback. Then, at the conclusion of the fight, when Sora and Kairi give Master Xehanort one last chance to stop, he runs Kairi through with the X-blade. I’m sticking to the fact that this man shouldn’t be redeemable, until the end he should be a selfish man who will do anything to feel in control.
At this point I’d throw in some lore like ‘those slain by the X-blade will have their hearts returned to Kingdom Hearts’, spurring Sora to use the power of waking to dive into Kingdom Hearts to get Kairi back. The use of the ability remains consistent and him not making it back makes sense because obviously just throwing yourself into something like Kingdom Hearts is going to have consequences. In that sense, we could finally connect with Sora on the deepest level possible.
I didn’t want to admit it but, even though I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the game, Kingdom Hearts III’s narrative leaves a lot to be desired. I should have expected as much given that this is Kingdom Hearts but I’d hoped that the finale would at least end on a high note. The biggest positive I can take away from this game is that the character writing has gotten so much better since the earlier titles. If such a fact remains true in later titles then we might even get to see more characters who aren’t rushed and underdeveloped.
The most consistent issue throughout this title is the reliance on plot convenience to make things happen. The many instances of characters being incompetent, the usage of the power of waking, Xion and Terra just being there because it’s easier than writing them in properly; a lot of what’s wrong here comes down to attempts to make things more convenient. This just ends up making a lot of the game’s events infuriating and unsatisfying, even after we’ve waited so long for this payoff. The only consolation is that, since we’re given so much sequel bait, we can hope that maybe next time will be better.
In the end, I don’t think many are going to contest the statement that Kingdom Hearts II remains the best game in the series in many regards. While the characterization in that game might be weaker than in Dream Drop or this one, its narrative was surprisingly solid and I don’t think I have to convince anyone as to the quality of combat in that title. This franchise has so much potential, throughout this journey I’ve seen the makings of a great story hidden underneath all the mess. With this arc of the tale brought to a close, I’m left feeling that this franchise still hasn’t reached it’s potential. I can only hope, with more Kingdom Hearts on the horizon, that it does one day.