Despite releasing in one of the the most critically rich periods in gaming history, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMix effortlessly pulled me back into the beloved marriage of Disney and Final Fantasy. As the stellar collection’s nostalgic mix of music, action and character washed over me, I couldn’t help but reminisce about a simpler time. Not just in terms of my personal journey (playing the original as a 9-year-old fresh off divorce to now as 23-year-old navigating the perils of young-adult life), but in regards to the series itself. See, Kingdom Hearts has a big problem, and it’s defined by everyone’s favorite House of Mouse. The issue is simple: Kingdom Hearts doesn’t have enough Disney.
I know what you’re thinking. Kingdom Hearts has tons of Disney. The series’ levels are almost entirely ripped straight from the works of the animation juggernaut, along with their respective characters and music. But with each passing title, these elements have a diminishing impact on the overall essence of the series. It is not a coincidence that the original Kingdom Hearts has the most Disney flavor while the most recent full release – Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance (3D) – has among the least. What started as a core tenet of the series has shifted to being merely a side piece, and that is evidenced by how the Disney pieces are utilized in the overarching narrative.
Kingdom Hearts featured iconic Sleeping Beauty villain Maleficent as the primary antagonist, and she was the leader of a “Legion of Doom” that featured legendary Disney rogues like Jafar, Captain Hook and Hades. Their goal was nefarious and world-threatening, involving Disney’s iconic princesses in an attempt to gain control of the titular Kingdom Hearts and achieve ultimate power. The Disney elements were integral to the overall story, and taking down each villain made me feel like I was inching toward my ultimate goal. Though they were not the true threat, they succeeded in feeling like powerful adversaries.
Contrast this to the story of Kingdom Hearts 3D and it is apparent how different the series now looks. In this title, a young version of the ultimate series villain participates in some headache-inducing time-travel shenanigans, manipulating series hero Sora into falling into a hopelessly complex trap and setting the board for an ultimate showdown in Kingdom Hearts 3. The Disney worlds are simply levels that must be overcome, offering nothing in terms of overall plot or character resonance. What’s worse is that the game’s worlds offer different incarnations of familiar characters (think Three Musketeers Mickey, Donald and Goofy or Sorcerer’s Apprentice Mickey), leading to retreaded interactions and relationships.
As the Disney influence has decreased, Kingdom Hearts’ original elements have risen to fill the void. The result is a narrative that has, pardon my French, crawled up its own ass. What started as the story of characters searching for lost friends has morphed into a tangled, incomprehensible mess. A mix of over explaining, split character identities (Sora has a whopping 4 incarnations), complex lore and a tendency to answer complex questions with more complex questions has led even the most hardcore fans down an endless rabbit hole of theorycrafting and debate. All that and a newly introduced time travel and future-sight angle. I’m obsessed with the story of Kingdom Hearts and even I have trouble piecing together its disparate links and intricacies.
That isn’t to say that the series’ original elements are bad; in fact it’s quite the opposite. Kingdom Hearts has become its own entity because of these elements, and the characters specifically give an emotional depth to the series that I’d put up against any other franchise. Characters like Roxas, Axel, Riku and Aqua are all incredibly interesting, and the series’ narrative on this level is outstanding. It is no wonder that entries like Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (ugh these titles) spin compelling stories when focusing on the micro rather than the macro.
Unfortunately, macro storytelling is necessary to move the narrative forward. However, Kingdom Hearts has told successful stories with larger scopes in both numbered entries. Each game moved the overarching plot forward, featured intriguing character relationships teeming with emotion and were not too difficult to wrap one’s head around. What do these two titles have that the others don’t? The most extensive usage of Disney in the series.
Both Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II make excellent use of their Disney properties, and each title does different things well. The former, as previously mentioned, puts Disney in the narrative spotlight and features a wealth of summons, allies and sprawling locations. The latter plays with the movie narratives of the individual worlds, putting a distinctive spin on many of the familiar Disney stories while infusing some of the series’ original elements. Personal favorites include Space Paranoids (Tron) being located in the Final Fantasy world’s computer system and Sora replacing Christopher Robin in the 100 Acre Wood (Winnie the Pooh).
These worlds are all beautifully recreated and blend familiarity with Kingdom Hearts’ secret sauce, enriching the overall experience. The most successful Disney integration in the series functions as a remix, taking what we love and adding a unique twist. The little we have seen from Kingdom Hearts 3 seems to hint at this approach, with Sora blasting off to Olympus Coliseum to train with Hercules and recover his lost abilities. This bodes well for other Disney stories in the game, and the Big Hero Six concept art hints at a sequel story of sorts featuring a corrupted Baymax. This is incredibly exciting for a longtime fan, and instills a hope that the convoluted narrative will sort itself out.
This hope stems from an idea that Disney can help shoulder some of Kingdom Hearts 3’s narrative weight. Clever fusions will result in audiences immediately understanding character roles and story beats. Sora needs to train, so who better than everyone’s favorite hero Hercules and his personal trainer, Phil? Sora doesn’t need to enter some transdimensional arena where time is slowed to train (another thing that exists in the series… see what I mean?) when there are Disney characters who can fill the role. Just as Maleficent worked beautifully as a powerful villain who was susceptible to manipulation, there are enough Disney characters and emotional beats to draw from that Kingdom Hearts 3 should never be wanting for a narrative piece.
If utilized correctly, Disney’s vast collection of beloved characters and locations can be a massive boon to Kingdom Hearts 3. As the most advanced entry from a technical perspective, the worlds will be more vibrant and engrossing than they have ever been, provided they have the narrative gusto to make them interesting. And this is precisely where the game needs Disney to succeed. Despite fan adoration of the series original characters, the plot entangling them has grown too complicated for its own good. Disney can help players connect the dots between the moment to moment plot while original elements drive home the massive questions that have been built toward for years. If put to work in an intentional and clever way, Disney can enrich the story in ways that original characters simply cannot. It’s called Disney Magic for a reason.
And if it takes another 15 years to realize, it will be worth the wait.
Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG who has put “Simple and Clean” on repeat until the release of Kingdom Hearts 3. You’re not wrong to question his sanity. You can follow his nonexistent ramblings on Twitter