WARNING! This article assumes you have played every game in the Kingdom Hearts series, so there will be SPOILERS!
Consider yourself warned.
I love Kingdom Hearts. The first entry in the series remains one of my favorite games of all time to this day. The story was simple, but engaging, and the combat was great. The game felt like a promise of great things to come, but as the series progressed that promise has been broken time and time again.
When I first saw a commercial for Kingdom Hearts back in 2002, I was immediately sold. The concept was so bizarre, but yet so captivating at the same time. I bought a PS2 just to play that game, and it was totally worth it. The combat was unlike anything I had ever played before, a perfect combination of action RPG and hack and slash, action game. What resonated the most with me, however, was the story. Kingdom Hearts featured a likable cast, a strong villain, and a simple, yet surprisingly enthralling mythology. The story incorporated elements from classic mythology into standard JRPG fare, and it payed off in spades.
Sora and his friends, Riku and Kairi lived on a small set of islands, living a peaceful, idyllic life. When his island is destroyed, and his friends torn from him, Sora is thrust into a larger world he has little understanding of. Sora reluctantly journeys with his new friends, Donald and Goofy, on a quest to find the missing King Mickey, as he desperately searches for his lost friends. It’s a classic setup, borrowing many elements from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The simplicity of the mythology was what made it work so well. Light equaled good, and Darkness was bad. The Keyblade was Excalibur, and only Sora, the ‘Chosen Hero’ could use it, and save the world. Top it off with a compelling villain in Ansem, a wise ruler who fell to the lure of the darkness, and you’ve got yourself a great story that works incredibly well.
And then the sequels started. Chain of Memories for GBA, and later remade for the PS2, was the first sequel to come out. The biggest fault of the story in CoM is that it is all just setup for Kingdom Hearts 2. We’re introduced to characters that will come to play a big part in KH2, such as Naimine, DiZ, and our first introduction to members of Organization XIII, the primary antagonists of KH2. The villains’ plot is largely shrouded in mystery, we only know that this group is planning to use Sora and Riku to stage a coup of their Organization, but what exactly that Organization is, we aren’t told until the sequel. It succeeds in creating a compelling mystery, and interesting characters from the Organization, with Axel being the standout. Aside from this, we also deal with Riku coming to terms with the darkness in him; while Sora’s story about losing his memories is ultimately just a story construct to have him out of commission for the start of KH2. Despite this entry’s story not being as compelling as the first, I was still incredibly excited to see what was in store for the next one.
Unfortunately, Kingdom Hearts 2 was where the series first began its decline. Sora doesn’t make his appearance until pretty late in the game considering he is the main character, and when he does it becomes immediately apparent that this is not the same Sora I’ve come to love. Instead of the simple-minded, determined, and reflective character who was wise beyond his years, we get an arrogant, loud idiot, who is hellbent on destroying his enemy. A pretty big character change, if you ask me. Sora’s main reason for fighting the Nobodies is simply because Yen Sid, the Sorcerer from Fantasia, and Mickey’s mentor, has told them that they are evil. Throughout the game, the Nobodies are trying to get their hearts back and become whole people again. Sure, they’re messing with the worlds to achieve this goal, but is the aim of becoming human again, really that terrible?
The Sora from the first game would have tried to reach out to the Organization members, tried to make them see there is another way, possibly even wonder if what they are doing is really so bad. Nope, Sora pretty much annihilates the entire group without a second thought. In fact, when he first fights and defeats Demyx, Sora calls out for another member to come fight him, and at this point in the story, they haven’t really done much of anything to threaten Sora and his friends.
Organization XIII itself is another problem with KH2. As I said before, what is so bad about trying to get your heart back? It’s actually a pretty sympathetic plight in my opinion. For most of the game, this is what it seems the Organization is after; only at the end of the game do we find out there was a more nefarious plot afoot. But before the last hour or so of the game, they don’t really do much of anything. They appear in some worlds, they make threatening speeches, and a few of them fight Sora, so they seem to be actively getting in Sora’s way, but it’s just smoke and mirrors. In reality, they don’t pose much of a threat because they aren’t doing anything, and it makes Sora seem that much dumber for relentlessly pursuing them. Overall, the Organization are quite the departure as villains from the fallen philosopher-king Ansem was in the original game.
Speaking of Ansem, KH2 couldn’t leave that alone and fleshed out his character more. Turns out, the Ansem from Kingdom Hearts wasn’t the real Ansem, no, the real Ansem was an older gentleman who had been banished to the Realm in Between Light and Darkness by his apprentices, whose Nobodies now comprise Organization XIII. The Ansem we fought in the first game was actually the Heartless of the amnesiac lead apprentice of Ansem the Wise (what we call the true Ansem), Xehanort, who stole his master’s name. This strips the Ansem of the first game of everything that made him a compelling villain. Where we once had a tragic figure, a kind ruler who had fallen into darkness, we now have someone who seems to be evil, simply because he is.
Kingdom Hearts 2 was followed up by 358/2 Days on the DS, and Coded, released on cellphones (remade as Re:Coded for the DS). Days was a prequel starring Roxas, Sora’s Nobody introduced in KH2, and told us more about what the Organization was up to between the first and second game. Days told a surprisingly touching story about Roxas and his friends Axel and Xion, in the Organization. The story was solid, but ultimately unnecessary as it had little impact on the overall story, aside from introducing an erroneous fourteenth member of the Organization. I barely remember what happened in Coded, because the only story purpose the game served was to explain what was in Mickey’s letter at the end of Kingdom Hearts 2.
Much like with the PS2, I bought a PSP pretty much specifically to play a Kingdom Hearts game, Birth by Sleep. Birth by Sleep is set ten years before the first game, and let you play as three new Keyblade wielders: Terra, Ventus, and Aqua. As I played through the early parts of the game, I was excited. It seemed like every problem I had with KH2 had been fixed. The characters were compelling, the stakes were high, and I was learning new, interesting parts of the mythology. If I only knew how wrong I was.
I played through Terra’s story first, and I enjoyed his Anakin Skywalker-esque descent into darkness, as he desperately tried to stay on the straight and narrow path. I liked seeing Master Xehanort playing puppet master, slowly nudging Terra further along the dark path. It was apparent that these two characters were tied to the Xehanort that would become apprentice to Ansem the Wise, and antagonize Sora and friends. I kept trying to guess how it would happen. Terra looked a lot like Xehanort, and old Master Xehanort shared his name. Maybe Terra would kill the old man and steal his name, just as Xehanort the apprentice had done with Ansem the Wise. Nope. Master Xehanort was pushing Terra towards the darkness so he would become an appropriate vessel for Master Xehanort to inhabit. Well, that was disappointing.
This was a missed opportunity to restore some pathos and tragedy into the main antagonist of the series, but instead we are forced to deal with yet another unnecessary addendum to Xehanort’s backstory that ends with him being, again, evil for evil’s sake. In Terra, you had a truly good person who fell into darkness through his inability to overcome his own flaws, and someone who would make a fantastic tragic villain. Heck, it could even setup the idea of stealing names if he had stolen Xehanort’s and then Ansem’s.
Even with the stupid body switch (let’s be honest, it’s a dumb plot device), remaining part of the story, Master Xehanort could have been shown to have been a good man in his earlier days, after all, he was a Keyblade wielder, and turned away from the light because of some tragedy or fault. No, we’re merely told he was a good man at one point, and then watch him cackle maniacally throughout the game, and wonder how no one saw that he was clearly up to no good the entire time.
Sadly, this is not Birth by Sleep’s greatest fault. That (dis)honor lies in the fate of new character Ventus. Ventus was a pretty weak character throughout Birth by Sleep, and his ending reflected that. Unable to cope with the events, Ventus’ heart goes to sleep inside Sora’s, and that ends up being the reason that Sora can wield a Keyblade, removing just about everything that made Sora and the Keyblade special. In the first game, the Keyblade was presented as an Exaclibur-like weapon that only Sora could use, as its chosen bearer. It was a special weapon that Sora was fated to use to save the world. The Keyblade itself had already lost much of its luster since Mickey, Riku, Kairi, and just about everyone under the sun could use one now, but now Sora’s place as the chosen savior has been ripped away too. Sora can only use the Keyblade because of Ventus, not because of anything special within himself.
Finally, we arrive at the latest entry in the series, Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance. The ridiculousness of the title alone lets you know what you’re in for. By this point, I knew that Kingdom Hearts as a series was never going to return to the simple, classical storytelling of the first game, and that I was trapped in an anime-cliché filled parody of its former self. And that was fine, I still enjoyed the gameplay immensely, so I resigned myself to enjoying it just for that. I mean, the story can’t get any worse can it?
Enter Young Xehanort, the primary antagonist of KH3D. Young Xehanort is a time-traveling, younger version of old Master Xehanort who is messing around with Riku and Sora while they undertake their Mark of Mastery Exam. Hey, they already used body-switching, hearts hiding in hearts, and non-existent beings, why not add time travel to the cheap plot device list? Master Xehanort had his younger self travel throughout specific points in time to create a situation where Sora could be possessed by Master Xehanort, just as Terra had. Turns out the true purpose of Organization XIII was to create thirteen vessels for Master Xehanort to place pieces of his heart into and control. He would then use these thirteen vessels to combat seven chosen warriors of light to recreate the X-Blade. Yeah, my brain hurts too.
The only good thing to come out of this plot point is the idea of thirteen warriors of darkness and seven of light meeting to fight is appropriately epic conflict for Kingdom Hearts 3, the end of what is being called the “Xehanort Saga”. Too bad the path to that epic battle is so ridiculous and, frankly, stupid, it really doesn’t mean much anymore. Master Xehanort has essentially been pulling the strings behind everything that happened in the series so far, but it doesn’t feel like a brilliant play by a genius puppet master, rather it comes across as an incredibly cheap plot device created just to make an increasingly nonsensical plot fit together. If Kingdom Hearts as a series hadn’t jumped the shark before, it certainly had at this point.
KH3D committed one last sin; putting yet another nail in the coffin that contains Sora’s original character. The game ends with Riku passing the Mark of Mastery and Sora failing it. This test is really nothing more than a formality, but it is significant that Sora failed because it is yet another example of them weakening him as a character, and removing what makes him so extraordinary as a Keyblade wielder. Throughout the series, Riku was the one who was always supposed to be better than Sora, even being originally chosen for the Keyblade. But time and time again, Sora proved that there was something inside him that Riku just didn’t have, and that allowed Sora to achieve everything he had. Having Riku pass instead of Sora does nothing more than remind us this was how it was supposed to be from the beginning, and that maybe it was just dumb luck that got Sora through all his ordeals. Either way, it makes for a pretty poor main character.
Despite all this, I still eagerly play every Kingdom Hearts game that is released. I tell myself that it’s only for the gameplay, but I know that’s only partially true. I still enjoy the world, the mythology and the characters, just not nearly as much as I used to. I long for a return to the storytelling marriage of classic mythology and JRPG the first game managed so well, but I know it will never happen. I’ll always have the first Kingdom Hearts to go back to, yet I can’t help but be disappointed by what could have been.