The basic story of the Kingdom Hearts series boils down this: a boy named Sora likes this girl, Kairi, and wants to go on adventures exploring different worlds with her. Kairi gets kidnapped by the forces of darkness and Sora is bestowed the powers of the Keyblade that allows him to fight the darkness and go save Kairi. Some other things happen too (Sora’s best friend Riku hits puberty and becomes an edge lord, Donald and Goofy become butt-buddies with Sora, etc.), but this all happens in Kingdom Hearts 1. Eight games non-chronologically follow after this consisting of Chain of Memories, 365/2 Days, Kingdom Hearts 2, Birth By Sleep, Re:Coded, Dream Drop Distance, Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth By Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, and Kingdom Hearts Union X (pronounced “cross”), in which more things happen before and after the first Kingdom Hearts game (the entire story is a huuuuge Kudzu plot), and Sora saves Kairi and they both come to confront the darkness – all of which is released up through 2015. And throughout each game, the persisting theme that’s teased is that Kingdom Hearts 3 would be the end all be all to the series (the hype gets so bad to the point that there was a bundle titled Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, just to further imply that Kingdom Hearts 3 would be the “final chapter”). And then finally in January of 2019, when Kingdom Hearts 3 came out, we were finally provided a closure we had been waiting for: before the final battle with the forces of darkness, Sora and Kairi make a promise to always be together. Then immediately after that, during the final battle, Kairi is literally shattered into pieces by the big bad, and Sora (after defeating the big bad) then uses his powers to revive her, but at the cost of only getting to spend one last day with her before he himself fades away. And so the Dark Seeker Saga ultimately ends with the main antagonist defeated, the forces of darkness finally put to rest, and the good guys now safe and happy… save for Sora, who seems to have given up his life to save Kairi’s.
It’s really a bittersweet kind of ending that pounds hard alongside Utada Hikaru’s “Don’t Think Twice” gently playing in the background, but even then that’s still not what hits the hardest.
Essentially, the problem is that those of us in the Kingdom Hearts fandom, who’ve waded through all of the B-movie-esque story-telling that the series throws at us (and trust me, it’s some real cringe-worthy shit – the game portrays unrealistic expectations of the power of friendship bringing people back to life) on top of NUMEROUS fantastical deus ex machina ass pulls (the kind where Sora can step into different dimensions because “your heart is your guiding key”), went into Kingdom Hearts 3 finally expecting the game to tie a bow on everything after 17 years, and instead were left with an emptiness realizing that the wading is far from over, and that this is more than likely due to Square Enix planning to milk even more out of the Kingdom Hearts series. I definitely felt really off after finishing the game when Sora went and sacrificed himself to save Kairi, not so much because of his sacrifice, but more from the the precedence and pattern that the series has established at this point, being that death is never an end for any of the characters, and that these two will just get close enough but never be together.
What hits the hardest is knowing that Sora is just going to come back and reunite with her at some point, but only to be ripped from her again, and we have no idea when this will happen or whether it will ever end.
Admittedly, Sora is a poorly-developed character who’s unfaltering and overly-positive optimism in the face of doom becomes tiring and who’s success prominently relies on whatever deus ex machina that helps him overcome obstacles. I had fallen in love with his pure character as a middle schooler, but since then he hasn’t aged well and I’ll honestly have to also admit that fans such as myself more than likely became invested in him due to the amount of time we’ve spent with him – as him – and threw the rest of the his glaring fallacies to the wind. I had already begun growing weary of playing as Sora due to his characterization since halfway through the ten games, and then finding out at the end of the tenth game that we’re still not done with following his story, hit hard. This is what makes Kingdom Hearts 3 the sad kind of “sad” and not the good kind of “sad” one might find in other Square Enix masterpieces such as Drakengard, Dragon Quest, Nier, and Deus Ex Machina. In those games, there are characters who face a sad end, but there are artful executions done for those characters when they’re faced a definitive end for better or for worse. Though I didn’t want to play as Sora anymore, I was still invested in him to a certain extent and wanted to see him with a happy ending so I could be comfortable with moving forward with this chapter in my life that had begun with following Sora’s love for Kairi since Kingdom Hearts 1. However, it’s due to the expectations that the Kingdom Hearts series set up through its 17 years that it is apparent with the ending in Kingdom Hearts 3 that the story of the painfully-hard-to-follow-protagonist-Sora is not yet at an end, though it really should have been brought to an end. For those of us who had grown up following the series, it’s like watching a beloved old pet be beaten down again and again, only to be forced back up with external stimulus just so it could be beaten down again.
The gameplay behind Kingdom Hearts 3 is fortunately not as painful as its story, but still not enough to save the game as a whole. The Kingdom Hearts 3gameplay revolves around a button-mashing hack-and-slash combat system with flashy moves and lights, which when coupled with the visually impressive power of the Unreal Engine 4 game engine that Kingdom Hearts 3 utilized, made the game a visually enjoyable experience. However, that was the only good thing from the gameplay. Though the combat can be varied with magic and summons, they are not necessary to plow through enemies with basic button mashing. Moreover, everything else in Kingdom Hearts 3 recycles the gameplay loop from the previous titles such as limited semi-open worlds/levels with limited puzzle-solving and less-than-stellar RPG character building that, though are staples of the series, have not aged well.
The reappearance of various character musical themes was also incredibly satisfying. Being the game that ties everything up made Kingdom Hearts 3 the most musically diverse and audibly enjoyable game of the series, hearing memorable tracks such as Roxas’s and Xion’s Theme, Ventus’s Theme, Dearly Beloved, and the orchestral version of Simple and Clean that has since become the main Kingdom Hearts theme. With each time a thematic track plays, the game definitely capitalizes on the nostalgia factor. In tune with the nostalgia factor, not all of Kingdom Hearts 3’s plot is bad, as the game had some emotionally stirring (though incredibly deus-ex-machina-heavy) moments in which certain narratives were brought to a happy conclusion. The two best – BEST – moments, which most fans reportedly agree on, came during the final battle(s) in which the Axel-Roxas-Xion trio is reunited and the Terra-Aqua-Ventus trio is also reunited. Seeing these protagonists finally find their happy ending was incredibly relieving and touching as those who’ve played the games following these characters have come to know, they were put through some truly crushing events that tore their groups apart. Personally, I found witnessing these scenes to be supremely cathartic.
Nonetheless, the Kingdom Hearts series, despite all else, is a story-heavy game where the majority of the fanbase have kept up with the series solely for its core story following the main protagonist. And whereas there could have been a cathartic end to the 17-year chase that Sora’s been on to find a happy ending with Kairi, he’s not allowed that happy place to rest, and you know he’s just going to be blue balled for however long Square Enix keeps making money from his story. It’s plain gimmicky. And that’s just sad.
Developed and published by Square Enix Co., Kingdom Hearts 3 was released for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on January 25, 2019.