Why Kingdom Hearts 3 should escape its convoluted past

If you want to make sense of Kingdom Hearts’ labyrinthine narrative in preparation for the action-RPG’s long-awaited return in Kingdom Hearts 3 (opens in new tab), I have three words for you: good freaking luck. It’s the simple story of a young boy named Sora, who teams up with classic Disney characters Donald Duck and Goofy as they protect the titular Kingdom Hearts from the likes of villainess Maleficent and her evil Heartless. Sora fights monsters with a Keyblade (a blade shaped like a key), meets an eclectic band of Disney and Final Fantasy characters, visits various worlds based on Disney movies, and ends up cryogenically frozen so he can regain his memories, while his Nobody (a person who has lost their heart to darkness but is still strong enough to exist) runs around having adventures with a group called Organization XIII, who seek to reclaim their hearts and become whole again, but their real purpose is to transform into clones of Master Xehanort so he can use them to recreate the χ-blade, which was lost during the Keyblade War. Also, Sephiroth shows up as a hidden boss – because why not at this point.

This isn’t a narrative. It’s an eight-year-old’s caffeine-addled fanfic given form. Calling it a mess is one hell of an understatement.

The worst part? This wasn’t the natural result of a slow unspooling of characters, locations, and scenarios set over the course of the franchise’s history, a la Metal Gear Solid. No, Kingdom Hearts was goddamn impenetrable by the series’ second main console outing. And if the franchise wants to have a chance at appealing to anyone other than the most obsessive of die-hard fans, Kingdom Hearts 3 needs to do what so many video game sequels have successfully done in the past – stand on its own as much as it possibly can and effectively reboot the series.

Developing a game in 2015 is far more expensive than it was when Kingdom Hearts first arrived on the scene, and even sequels or continuations of long-standing franchises need to recoup their costs somehow. The most successful ones are able to expand on these stories while still providing a self-contained narrative. One of my favorite games of 2014 was Wolfenstein: The New Order, and I’ve barely played the other games in the series. Even though I have a cursory knowledge of the franchise, I still felt invested in The New Order’s narrative. I didn’t need to know what happened in prior entries; all I need to know is conveyed within the first few minutes of gameplay – BJ Blazkowicz is a hardened Nazi killer, this isn’t his first rodeo, and the Allied effort is quickly disintegrating. The rest of the events that follow do refer back to prior moments in the series, but they’re revealed in such a way that I don’t feel like I’m missing out for not having played them – but I know that if I had, I’d appreciate those moments that much more.

Oh, if only Kingdom Hearts took the same approach.

You’d think that if you play Kingdom Hearts 2 right after the first game you’d be set for whatever nonsense it’s planning on dishing out. It’s only logical – two comes after one, ergo, the events of the second game follow the events of the first. So you’d be forgiven if, like me, you were completely lost for the first six hours (and mostly lost for the remaining 30). That’s because, while it’s called Kingdom Hearts 2, it’s actually the third game in the series, taking place about a year after the Game Boy Advance game Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Chain of Memories wasn’t some one-off side story – its events take place directly after the first game and lead into the second.

So, for the first six hours or so of Kingdom Hearts 2, you’re playing as a random kid named Roxas who has some kind of unexplained connection to Sora. When the switch finally happens near the end of the intro, it’s explained in such a way that assumes you’ve played the GBA game before touching this one. It’s confusing and off-putting, and if you don’t own a Game Boy Advance, you’re effectively screwed out of a potentially meaningful twist. If Kingdom Hearts 3 pulls the same trick, it’s going to be several orders of magnitude worse, due to the current state of the franchise. Since Kingdom Hearts 2, there have been four new Kingdom Hearts games, spread across three different platforms: re:Coded and 358/2 Days on the DS, Birth by Sleep on PSP, and Dream Drop Distance on 3DS. Each one expands on previously explored concepts and plot points or simply retcons them altogether.

“Just play them before the next game comes out,” you might say. “Most of the series is on PS3 now. Just revisit them there.” That’s all well and good for folks who have the time available to commit to over a half-dozen games, but it’s just not realistic for Square Enix to assume that players will have done this before playing Kingdom Hearts 3. A few years ago, MC Chris went on an impassioned rant about the differences between Kingdom Hearts 2 and Resident Evil 4. He (like many others) jumped into Kingdom Hearts 2 without having played the first one (and likely had never even heard of the GBA entry), and was confused for hours. He kept waiting for the good part to start, where he would finally get whisked away on the train to Disney adventureland, but getting to that moment takes forever. He then contrasts that with Resident Evil 4, which takes a few minutes to give you a quick run-down of everything you need to know (an evil corporation created a virus that turned people into zombies; the government shut them down; now the president’s daughter’s been kidnapped, and it’s up to us to save her), and then thrusts you into a room full of zombies with hand axes. Sure, there are moments where Resident Evil 4 expands on the series’ increasingly convoluted lore, but much of it is simply set dressing, and besides, there’s a dude with a chainsaw with a burlap sack over his face and HE’S COMING RIGHT FOR YOU.

Sure, there will always be fanatics who have played all of these games and know every bit of Kingdom Hearts minutia inside and out, but they represent a fraction of a fraction of the potential player base who would be interested in checking out a new Kingdom Hearts. Not to mention that, for many people, the PS4 or Xbox One is their first game console, and this will be the first chance they’ve had with the series. They just want to traipse around Disney worlds on a chocobo, not have their head set spinning by obliquely referenced past events and inter-organizational politics.

The strangest part about Kingdom Hearts is that Disney even allows it to exist in this form. This is a corporation specifically designed around getting as many eyeballs watching its products as humanly possible. Disney has been able to take sprawling properties like the Marvel Comics Universe and condense them into bite-sized, highly-watchable chunks. Even The Avengers, a film built on the backs of several other properties, is able to stand on its own, requiring little to no prior knowledge to be enjoyable. Disney has gone so far as to remove the entire Expanded Universe from Star Wars canon in an attempt to simplify and condense the experience to a handful of films and franchises. That Kingdom Hearts was ever allowed to get this sprawling is impressive, but if it ever wants to be as big as the rest of Disney’s portfolio, it needs to trim the fat, get players up to speed, and let them get into wacky dancing minigames with Jiminy Cricket as quickly as possible.

That doesn’t mean Kingdom Hearts needs needs to be a complete do-over – it would just need to create a clean slate for this new entry while still expanding on the overall lore. Keep characters like Ansem, leave in the enigmatic boy-band Organization XIII, and send Sora and friends on a quest to find whatever MacGuffin they need to protect Kingdom Hearts from evil once and for all (or at least this time). The countless other video game sequels that effortlessly get newbies up to speed prove that there’s no excuse for Kingdom Hearts 3 to revert to the “shoved in the deep end and hope you don’t drown” approach Square Enix tried with Kingdom Hearts 2.

Kingdom Hearts shouldn’t drop the convoluted storylines and melodrama entirely – honestly, that’s half of the fun. These games throw Final Fantasy heroes like Squall and Aerith in the mix with classic Disney characters like Donald Duck and Aladdin. They’re allowed to get real weird with the whole premise. But you shouldn’t have to read an encyclopedia-worth of wikis and plot summaries before you even play it. Kingdom Hearts 3 needs stand on its own or it’s going to lose newcomers and casual fans – and then we’ll never get to see Goofy in a Tron outfit ever again.

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