I’m a gigantic fan of culture clashes. Like hot and cold air fronts, whenever two drastically different aesthetics meet at high speed, a storm happens. Whether or not that storm is any good is often up to debate, but it almost always ends up being spectacular in some way.
For those who don’t know, Kingdom Hearts is a crossover series between Japanese RPG juggernaut Final Fantasy and the many movies of Disney. This means that spiky-haired, obsessively optimistic main character Sora is joined by Donald Duck and Goofy of Disney fame to take down a nebulous darkness that has infested a multitude of Disney-themed worlds. Over the course of the series, these worlds have been just about as diverse as one can imagine, from The Hundred-Acre Wood from “Winnie the Pooh” to the Caribbean from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. Oh, and Sora wields magical, spell-casting key-shaped weapons called “Keyblades,” just to add to the weirdness already infesting the vast majority of these games.
With such a seemingly niche concept, one wouldn’t expect both Disney and the developer, Square Enix, to commit the time and resources to the project necessary to make it any good. For this reason, it was surprising that Kingdom Hearts and its sequel (Kingdom Hearts 2, because creativity is sometimes hard) attained cult classic status, or at least it would’ve been had one not taken a moment to reflect on the possibilities for pure fun the series held. Personally, once I had played through the story of Mulan, now featuring Donald and Goofy, I was pretty hooked. It’s out there, it’s ludicrous and that’s exactly what makes it such a blast to participate in. I’m a firm believer that an occasional dose of nonsense is good for the brain, and it doesn’t get much more nonsensical than Donald Duck beating Captain Barbossa over the head with a magic wand. Kingdom Hearts released in 2002 to strong sales and critical acclaim. Kingdom Hearts 2, released in 2005, built on what the original had set up and set the stage for a tide of smaller, unnumbered sequels, spinoffs and remasters. 14 years and eight games down the line, the third numbered entry in the series had an astronomical amount of hype to live up to. With every single game in the series carrying essential plot points for the overall story, the narrative had gone from a fun “what if…” exploration of a wacky crossover idea to an epic, multidimensional battle for the very fabric of reality. A soccer team’s worth of protagonists with improbable hairstyles and differing motivations had been introduced, and the burden of tying all their storylines into a neat narrative bow was on the shoulders of the forthcoming sequel.
After playing it, I can safely say that it would’ve been literally impossible for the game to live up to that hype. Don’t get me wrong, Kingdom Hearts 3 is a great game, but it isn’t the messianic end-all, be-all masterpiece that many fans were anticipating. How could it be? Having been taken in by the hype myself, I think it would be impossible for me to be objective in scoring this game. What I can do instead is offer a glimpse into some of the absurd magic the series is known for, which in my opinion shines more brightly in this entry than it ever has before. Extremely minor spoilers ahead. I’ve just finished beating up an army of shadow monsters that invade Monstropolis (from “Monsters Inc”) when I get a call from Chip and Dale on my fancy space phone. They tell me someone is waiting for me at a certain cafe with a certain book. When I get to the cafe, which is run by Remy the rat (the main character of “Ratatouille”) and Scrooge McDuck, I find Merlin (the wizard from “The Sword in the Stone”) enjoying a cup of coffee at a table. On said table is a copy of “Winnie the Pooh.” Being a savvy gamer, I know that this book has appeared in past entries in the series, and is actually a magical gateway to The Hundred Acre Woods. After jumping inside the book and helping Pooh and his friends pick vegetables in Rabbit’s garden, I’m rewarded with a key-shaped sword called the “Hunny Spout.” I can use the Hunny Spout to shoot bees at enemies. From there, I travel to Arrendelle (the setting of “Frozen”) and use that bee-shooting key sword to fight evil demon reindeer. The journey continues.
The point I’m trying to make is that this game was never going to live up to the expectations people had for it. What it was always going to do was embody the peak of what can be achieved through a crossover. No matter how diverse the franchises, anything can cross over well in the hands of a competent developer. If the kind of pure nonsense detailed above is the sort of thing that makes you happy, then this whole franchise is for you. It isn’t a particularly deep RPG, and the plot is legendarily convoluted, but it’s all worth it for that feeling of glorious, free-wheeling nonsense.