With Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue out next month, Mark Ankucic takes a look at why gamers regard the series so highly.
There is no sense – not taste, or sight, or feel – that should allow for children’s light-hearted distractions to mix so elegantly with manifestations of existential dread.
Yet Kingdom Hearts succeeds with the assuredness of a runaway mine cart.
Despite its passionate following, Kingdom Hearts is a niche title. You couldn’t blame your average shopper from looking at the cover and dismissing it as ‘some weird Japanese thing’; yet the keener-eyed of them might glance again and think ‘what the hell is Goofy doing next to a spiky-haired, ridiculously round-eyed anime trope?’
It’s a good question, and the answer is quite simple. Disney and Square Enix shared an office building, and some creators got talking in an elevator. Fast forward through what I’m sure was the most convoluted legal and creative processes in the history of entertainment, and voila, Cloud Strife strides proudly alongside Donald Duck. And it works.
It really, really works – for a few reasons.
It’s about neither and both franchises
You’ll hear themes bandied around the KH series, of hope and darkness and hearts and love and all the elements that make sappy anime unbearably addictive. You’ll recognise that these themes exist in Final Fantasy, normally encapsulated deep within superbly outrageous Japanese metaphor, and within Disney, normally encapsulated on the surface following Goofy falling off something and saying ‘YAAAAAAHA HA HOOOOOOIE’.
Arguably, what separates how each franchise handles these themes is their respected demographics. Disney is for children and girls in their mid-to-late twenties who still reckon they’re a princess, and Final Fantasy is for angsty teens and grown-up people that need a 60-hour excuse to escape their families.
KH is basically the bridge between the two; the ‘tween’ game, where things are bright, and colourful, and hopeful, but constantly challenged by the new, the scary, the dark, and the fear of things to come.
It’s the gaming equivalent of taking your favourite teddy with you to investigate the noises in the dark – old enough to face the problem, but not without button-eyed emotional support.
For a lot of people, that’s the sweet spot, calling back to a time of confusion and hope and angst, all while being surrounded by faces you love and trust.
One of the problems with franchises like God of War is that everything you do is epic. You’re either fighting a hundred guys at once or slaying a city-sized monster, so the sense of scale in the game expands and then retracts back to normality. Epic is about juxtaposition more than things being big and explosive all the time.
And that’s one of the secrets of KH – it understands epic on more than one level.
For those not invested in KH, this is easily seen in the boss fights throughout the series. Stages are set, the cinematics are badass, and the combat intensifies significantly from the norm. There’s also some cases where you can perform special, boss-specific moves.
It’s more than just the visual of the attack, or the damage output – it’s about significance in that moment. Change has occurred and you have to pay attention, because this isn’t like every other fight. Oh no, this is its own moment and it’s going to stick with you.
However, for those in the KH fandom, their sense of the epic might’ve also been tickled by the characters, story and reveals. For those unaware, KH is one of the most convoluted Square Enix games of all time, if not the most. This is the same developer who brought us FFXIII- XIII-2 and Lightning Returns, so that might give you an idea of the tangled web of bottom-of-the-bag headphones plot involved.
Of course, that makes the reveals, and the rules of the universe, all the more impactful. Every new bit of information, every twist, every character, fundamentally changes how the game can be viewed. Hell, every KH forum is filled with theory and speculation.
It’s still a JRPG
KH is not a franchise banking on Mickey’s good looks to make its buck – it has a level of gameplay, customisation and level progression behind it that would make your Europa Universalis player think that some people have too much time on their hands.
You can get lost in levelling and progressing your characters to fill roles as niche or rounded as you can think. Weapons, medals, attacks, stats – whatever has been in a JRPG and could have been in a JRPG can be found and configured to make a system that is truly yours and unlike anyone else’s. This means the playthrough value is almost endless, giving players the excuse to fight alongside their favourite faces time and time again.
As strange as Kingdom Hearts is, it’s undeniable that it comes together beautifully, like pork and apple, salt and caramel, hopeful youth and bewildered teen.