By now I assume most of the big fans of Kingdom Hearts have gotten their hands on 3. The discussion is in full swing. Some love it, some hate it, and both reactions feel inevitable after 13 years since the second game’s release. One thing I think we all basically agree about; the plot sucks. It’s not disappointing or kind of weak, it’s a nigh-incomprehensible tidal wave of deus ex machinas, bad dialogue, bad pacing, and contradictory plot points. To be honest, I expected nothing else.
Despite all these gigantic flaws, I still found myself enjoying the game a lot. I happily ran through the game, eager to see what happened, and when I walked away I felt happy. I was satisfied because I cared about the characters and appreciated my final moments with them. And so I sit here wondering just how in the world this game, and really the entire series, made me care so much despite so much being wrong with it.
The main problem with Kingdom Hearts 3 is the same problem plaguing the entire series: there are no real rules to anything. This creates a situation where basically anything can and does happen, no matter how dumb it is. This character is dead? Not anymore! You need to find some way to make this character appear? Ha, here they are, never mind. Remember how the original Kingdom Hearts at least tried at the idea of Sora, Donald, and Goofy pretending to belong to the worlds they visit, so as to not interrupt the order of the worlds? That hasn’t been true since.
This isn’t so big an issue in the Disney worlds, where things generally follow simple plots resembling the movie they represent. Yeah, weird, nonsensical things happen but typically not in any horribly egregious way. There’s a serious issue with Sora’s presence feeling pointless, leaving the player basically watching half a movie they have no impact on. The world for Frozen especially suffers this way. I can’t help but wonder why they included it when Sora might as well not be there.
By the end of the game, though, when the plot kicks into gear and all the storylines gathered throughout the series start to resolve…hoo boy. By the end I genuinely had no idea what was happening. Momentum shifts between good and evil, numerous locations come and go, enemies resurrect and die. What does it all mean? What even was that cliffhanger? I honestly don’t know how any of it happened.
Unfortunately, so many major moments happen quickly and ridiculously because of truly terrible pacing. All the major boss fights happen in the last 5 hours. All the reunions and revelations as well. KH3 goes from too little happening to too much happening at the snap of your fingers. Why not spread these events out more? All these eventual bosses hound you at all the Disney worlds. Why not deal with some of them then, rather than all at once in the endgame?
Kingdom Hearts 2 made this same mistake, as did Dream Drop Distance. I hoped Kingdom Hearts 3 would avoid the same mistake, but if anything it was even worse. I love the Disney worlds and experiencing something resembling their movie stories, but with Sora and the gang involved. But why not add at least some of the main story as well? The first game did.
Many of the payoff moments suffer as well. Were you looking forward to finding out if and how characters like Roxas and Terra would return? The how of it might disappoint you, and are unquestionably weirdly rushed. Looking forward to numerous reunions? Some are great, others not so much. So much gets shoved into the final hours that damn near none of it receives room to breathe. This gets even worse when nearly every main antagonist gets a quasi-redemption dialogue after their defeats. Some of them make sense, some don’t make any sense at all, and all of them are rushed.
This is another reason some of these fights should have happened on the Disney worlds. These moments of characterization could have received more attention and care. They’re there anyway, why not have a boss fight and dialogue then? As is, they fall flat.
And I haven’t even mentioned one of the main antagonists of the series literally walking around looking for something and having no impact on anything. Talk about filler.
Worst of all may be the game’s dialogue. Much of the game’s overarching plot occurs through dragging, dry exposition that feels like it was stuffed into that moment to avoid forgetting what is happening. Characters explain things to each other in the most boring ways possible. Despite having played all but one game in the series, I had no clue what characters said sometimes. Everything gets mashed together in weird explanations involving replicas, hearts, data stores, secret identities, half-whispered backstabbings…it’s exhausting and weird.
The poorness of the story dialogue makes me wonder how the character banter succeeded so well. This is easily the funniest game in the series, with really entertaining exchanges.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is a disaster in storytelling. Even by the lesser standards of video game plots, it really is bad. So why the hell did I still walk away happy? Why did I still react so strongly to these rushed, silly, stupid moments? Why did I still enjoy the journey so much?
Open, Honest Optimism
Part of it certainly has to do with expectations. I went in expecting a baffling story that pulled nonsense out of nowhere, so it didn’t disappoint me when it happened. Other than the first game and Birth By Sleep, Kingdom Hearts has never done a good job telling the story. Why expect anything different here?
It also helps that Kingdom Hearts 3 is so much fun. I fully agree with the complaints about the lack of difficulty, but the core gameplay is arguably the best of the series, and certainly no worse than second place. The keyblade transformations add significantly different tactical options to combat and magic functions better than ever. The fusion attacks create a sense of teamwork and spectacle you’d expect after three games of Sora, Donald, and Goofy fighting together. The attraction ride attacks are hopelessly broken, but they’re incredibly gorgeous.
So yeah, it helps me ignore the story when I’m having a very good time actually playing the game.
It also helps that the marathon of boss fights which make up the last few hours of the game feel suitably epic. Maybe the story beats preceding and succeeding them don’t work great, but damn if my blood doesn’t pump when the fight starts. As for the quality of the boss fights? Pretty freaking good. They still lean towards the easy side, but they demand much more of the player than the rest of the game. You see more of the combat’s quality when you’re fighting multiple bosses alongside multiple allies.
Most of all, though, Kingdom Hearts 3 succeeded in making me feel because it is unabashedly open about what it is. It is not a story based in steep rules for how things work. It’s shonen anime injected into heartfelt Disney stories. Kingdom Hearts, from beginning to end, tries and succeeds to be earnest and positive about the power of friendship and love, and how the connections we make throughout our lives can make us the best version of ourselves.
Is this message childish? Of course, and that’s the point. For all its flaws, Kingdom Hearts is basically just a Disney story with a Japanese flair for ridiculously convoluted plotting, and it makes for an experience unlike anything else in gaming.
I’m not using Disney as an excuse for poor storytelling. Rather, I feel like Kingdom Hearts replicates much of the magic that has always made Disney movies enjoyable.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is the series at its most Kingdom Hearts-y. Literally anything seems to be possible when you believe in the power of friendship. No obstacle can beat a pure heart and friends to see you through. Literal death will be transcended if your connections to other hearts are strong enough. Half the time Sora and the other protagonists seem to have no clue what they’re doing. They just know that with the power of light and love and friendship, they just have to point their keyblades and something good will happen.
More than any game, Kingdom Hearts 3 is very self-aware of all this and pokes fun at itself. A lot of the fun dialogue involves characters ripping on each other or commenting on weird moments the way the player would. While poking fun at your story’s flaws doesn’t erase those flaws, I can at least appreciate and find fun in their awareness of them. It also shows how the KH team knows what kind of series they make, and has fun with it.
While grimdark doesn’t grip the entertainment world as strongly as it did a couple years ago, there’s still something refreshing about the unironic joy and positivity of something like Kingdom Hearts. While certainly not as good as Steven Universe, I think the same things attract me to both. They both focus so much on positive messaging and shameless happiness. Both hold strong to the power of friendship and love. They even both star a ridiculously overpowered teenage boy.
Whatever is wrong with the plot of Kingdom Hearts 3, it never loses focus on its core messaging of light and friendship in the face of the worst hardships life throws at you. Maybe the kid in me still reigns supreme. Maybe I’m just an unabashed optimism who likes it when media rewards my optimism. Kingdom Hearts always has rewarded me, and did again here.
This consistent focus on friendship makes me want the best for the characters of the series. Much of Kingdom Hearts 3 focuses on finding and recovering characters lost in previous games. While there’s certainly an element of investment in it all after so many years, of needing to see what happens now that the conclusion finally arrived, I also doubt I would still be here after so long if I didn’t care about the characters themselves.
Believe me, I cared. I really cared. When those rushed, sloppy reunions finally happened, they moved me. Whatever problems the plot has, I still enjoyed watching these characters meet again. Kingdom Hearts has always maintained consistent characterization, and did so again in this third entry. Sora acts for his friends like he always has. Riku battles his inner darkness. Aqua, Ventus, and Terra care about each other like always. Axel wants to find Roxas and Xion.
Everyone acts like they always have, and display the growth you expect from their arcs to date.
Spend any time around fandoms and you’ll eventually come across the debate between plot and character. How far does a good plot carry a story without good characters, or vice versa? Kingdom Hearts stretches and often snaps the line where characters make up for plot. I fully understand those who think it fails completely.
I thought Kingdom Hearts 3 did fine, and delivered what I wanted, even if it wasn’t all satisfactory. There’s definitely an element of fan service to my personal satisfaction. All those endgame events I mentioned that made no sense? Most of them served to make happen things I wanted to see happen. They also typically did something important for the characters. At what point does plot nonsense invalidate good character moments? That’s for you to decide, but plot never invalidated the characters for me.
There’s something inexplicable about it, but it just works. There’s a magic to it that keeps bringing me back.
After 9 games, the series has a formula that while not perfected, is damn effective for its fans. They do a terrific job replicating the fun and awe of the Disney worlds they adapt. They know how to transfer that same feeling to their original content. Kingdom Hearts also captures the insanity of shonen anime, with all the spectacle, power levels, and fanservice you’d expect.
Kingdom Hearts 3 hit peak levels of its characteristics, for better and worse.
The Magic Kingdom
Personally, I found Kingdom Hearts 3 to be good, campy, honest fun. It’s magic; a weird, unique magic you don’t really find in any other video games. An outdated, convoluted, stupid, silly, earnest magic that took too long to come about and somehow still feels timely.
I think Kingdom Hearts 3 succeeds in a feeling of childhood wonder that makes Disney movies live forever. I think most people still seek and enjoy these types of stories. No matter how old you are, no matter what you’ve been through in your life, I think everyone has a part of them that will always need a story like Kingdom Hearts to exist. So much bad stuff exists in the world. Every day people see friends go, sees people they care about betray them, lose connections they can’t imagine living without.
How can I not love a story that offers such an escape from the grief of the real world? Disney has lived forever on this formula, and Kingdom Hearts hits at those same feelings.
Stories like these often come built in with meta criticisms anymore. Even Disney movies often inject awkward subversions based on the idea that you can’t just write a purely magical and optimistic story anymore. The princess needs to deliver snarky comments about a cliché, or someone needs to break the fourth wall to attack other movies. More and more it feels like you can’t write a classic story of good and evil anymore.
While storytelling must always evolve, and is always right to try new things with old formulas, Kingdom Hearts 3 is the culmination of something you just don’t see much of now. I’m glad it exists. Flaws and all. How did it make me care? I’m still not sure, over 2,000 words later. There is no simple answer. I can’t even claim I care because Kingdom Hearts did a good job.
But here I am, ready to dive into another playthrough and happy to do so. And I bet it will feel every bit as magical this time as it did the first time.