Anticipation for Kingdom Hearts III has been palpable since the second entry in the franchise arrived in 2006. Surprisingly, gamers went an entire console generation without so much as a meaningful peep out of Square Enix regarding a true, third main installment in the franchise. Multiple spin-offs were released on various handheld platforms to tide us over, but nothing satisfies me like the narrative impact of a console iteration.
Finally, when all hope seemed lost, at Sony’s E3 2013 conference, Tetsuya Nomura drew back the curtain on what we’ve all been waiting for: Kingdom Hearts III. This is Square Enix’s chance to demonstrate its faith in and competence with the series’ long-term future. So long as Kingdom Hearts learns from its past, it can shine bright in the future–here are the five most important history lessons.
Hit the ground running
I’m easily in Camp KH2 when it comes to selecting my favorite entry in the franchise, but there’s one aspect of the second console entry that really grinds my gears in subsequent playthroughs: the prologue. While I appreciate what Square Enix was trying to accomplish by utilizing Roxas as an instrument for getting the player through the initial expository sequences, it went on a bit too long. It takes several hours before you’re in control of Sora again, and I feel that such a move killed the adventure’s early pacing. If it were a brief segment, that would be fine, but when I’m subjected to menial tasks and nerf bat tournaments that do little more than eke out a bit of extra fan service and game time, it gets to be a little much. There’s little action in the prologue until its climax (dual-wielding Keyblades!?), which seems out of place in a franchise that sports such a fun combat system. Kingdom Hearts III needs to give us reason to care right away.
No more musical worlds
I’m a fan of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and didn’t mind Atlantis’ inclusion in the original Kingdom Hearts. So when it came time to return to where the seaweed is always greener, I was all for it–until I saw what Square Enix did to my favorite underwater excursion in the sequel. There’s virtually no combat in the Atlantis of Kingdom Hearts II, as each time you return, you’re subjected to another cringe-worthy rhythm sequence that casts familiar characters in a nonsensical light. I’m assuming this was done to not only disrupt gameplay tedium, but to also introduce more cinematic appeal. I can appreciate the effort on both counts, but only if player engagement and meaningful plot are among the results. I get that musicals are a part of Disney’s lifeblood, but honoring the company’s storied sonic history can be (and has been) done better–see the incorporation of music into the environment and combat of Dream Drop Distance’s Symphony of Sorcery, based on Fantasia.
All Sora, all the time
Several portable spin-offs have put the player in control of new characters in an effort to help flesh out the existing narrative, and that’s great. One important thing to note, however, is that when Kingdom Hearts started as–and at its core, has always been–Sora’s story. Kingdom Hearts III needs to focus on the wonderful dynamic that exists between Sora, Donald, and Goofy as they traverse through worlds that play off our nostalgia with new, exciting story elements. Riku, Kairi, the cast of Birth by Sleep, and others have become fan favorites in their own right, but for me, their (admittedly worthwhile) stories have failed to top the emotional resonance of the classic trio.
Dream Drop Distance was something of a double-duty compromise, the player spending equal time with main characters Sora and Riku. But this experiment killed any attempt at even pacing and became a gameplay nuisance very quickly. Ignore the perspective shifts, Square Enix, and give us our Sora.
Hercules is easily one of my favorite Disney flicks, but I won’t be heartbroken this time around if Olympus Coliseum isn’t on Sora’s itinerary. With the exception of a few spin-offs, we’ve pretty much seen a pretty same-y rotation of Disney worlds in each Kingdom Hearts title. With recent acquisitions by Disney, we’re due for some fresh stomping grounds. How great would it be to hang out in Andy’s room from Toy Story? Or mow down Heartless on the mountains of Frozen? There’s also the potential for inclusion of worlds from Marvel Comics and Star Wars, though that’s arguably a bit removed from what we’ve come to expect from this universe. Regardless, there’s more awaiting inside the Disney Vault than what we’ve been seen thus far, to say nothing of Square’s own vault of Final Fantasy backstories.
No Dogs Allowed
Pet grooming isn’t a term that should have any connotation with the Kingdom Hearts franchise. However, Square saw fit to introduce Dream Eaters to the world in 2012’s Dream Drop Distance, and made me cringe every time we had the desire to boost Sora/Riku’s skill set a bit further. Aside from being the equivalent of DDD’s Heartless, Dream Eaters served another purpose in that they were the source of skill progression.
On paper, it sounds like an interesting idea, until the execution takes shape and you’re forced to use the 3DS’ touch screen to play Nintendogs for longer than anyone ever should. In order to build skills, the player was forced to care for their Dream Eaters by engaging in tedious pet sim activities to cultivate their happiness. There’s nothing that stops a game dead like an arbitrary activity that no one wants to take part in, and expecting us to continue doing so if we’d like to fulfill our need for stat progression. I feel that we’re safe in that the Dream Eater’s mechanic was relegated to the 3DS handheld outing, but all the same, Square needs to avoid implementing anything like this in the third outing.
Going back and replaying Kingdom Hearts through the magic of Kingdom Hearts I.5 HD Remix has been for the most part, a wonderful time. There are definitely some mechanics and gameplay aspects that haven’t held up as well as I’d hoped, but none are quite as egregious as the Gummi Ship combat and construction. Being a huge Star Fox fan, I was pretty jazzed about the idea of on-rails shooter segments that aided in my galactic traversal in Kingdom Hearts in 2002. They weren’t the most exciting thing in the world, but they did what they set out to do, and I didn’t complain. I think I was a bit more forgiving back then. Playing now, the controls are cumbersome, the environments are all-too-similar, and the segments themselves are far too repetitive.
Adding insult to injury is the ability to craft your own gummi ships with what’s easily the most frustrating and needlessly complicated tool kit I’ve come across in the gaming medium. Spending hours building a gummi ship to navigate the ‘verse shouldn’t be because I’m still wrapping my head around the awkward controls, but instead because I yearn for perfection and I’m taking pride in my unique creation. Kingdom Hearts II improved on these aspects, but still had a ways to go in nailing them down as enjoyable aspects of the game. Kingdom Hearts III needs a streamlined approach to customizing your ship, and flying it needs to be thrilling as opposed to filling you with a sense of dread when you know you have to enter the cockpit.
Do you agree with my selection, or do you have your own ideas about what might spice up the next instaltment of Kingdom Hearts?