Kingdom Hearts III: What to expect when you’re expecting

As of March 2011, the Kingdom Hearts series has sold over 17 million copies worldwide. The original Kingdom Hearts was one of the top ten bestselling PlayStation 2 games of all time with its sequel, Kingdom Hearts II not far behind. The games are generally heralded as critical successes, with metacritic scores of 85% and 87% respectively. However, the subsequent handheld titles received less favourable scores, ranging from Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded’s lacklustre 66% to Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories 76%. Only Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep has broken the handheld curse, scoring a respectable 82%. With fans crying out for a sequel, and the stats suggesting a full console release as the best way forward I have to ask – where the hell is Kingdom Hearts III?!

I’d consider myself a long-time fan of the series but I have to admit I grew tired of the handheld games a long time ago. The fans that fell in love with the original Kingdom Hearts back in 2002 have been itching for the third console instalment of Sora’s story for over six years now, (Kingdom Hearts II released in 2006 in the US and UK). In a recent interview with Game Informer, Kingdom Hearts series director Tetsuya Nomura suggested that the next game in the series may come to home consoles, whilst maintaining the possibility of a PlayStation Vita title:

“The PS Vita is definitely a powerful device that is very interesting, but because of its high power, there isn’t much of a difference with a console. So even if we were to make a game, we would have to be very careful about how to create it for that device. I also feel that it’s about time that Kingdom Hearts should go back to being on a console”

In the same interview Nomura hinted at a HD collection of the Kingdom Hearts series, “If it is possible, I would like to do something about the series being spread over so many different consoles, too. I am thinking a lot about the future” I for one would gorge myself on a PS3 HD Collection of Kingdom Hearts I, II and Birth By Sleep. The original Kingdom Hearts games are one of the few reasons I keep coercing my 60GB PS3 back to life. With the Final Fantasy X HD remake on the horizon, a Kingdom Hearts collection would be the last nail in its undignified exit from this world. This would be a smart move from Square Enix; not only does it appease the fans and reacquaint the player with Sora’s tale, it allows the wider audience that missed the original games a cheap alternative to routing through eBay and bargain bins for a chance to play some of the best games of the last generation. Including Birth By Sleep shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge for Square Enix; the game is fresh in the teams memory and there are dev kits aplenty for PSP to PS3 game transferring.

The PlayStation 2 games were praised for their impressive visuals and remarkable animation. However, for me the series has never been about the graphics. The stylised look of the previous generation’s console iterations would lend itself well to a polished cell-shaded console release; emphasising attention to detail over graphical prowess. Whilst Final Fantasy XIII was far from the critical success we all hoped it would be, Square Enix have experience with the current consoles in an RPG environment. For all its faults, Final Fantasy XIII looked spectacular, and if they could make the next Kingdom Hearts just as visually evoking then they’ve got the review scores for visuals lined up.

What worked as gameplay mechanics on the handheld and in previous generations seems archaic by industry standards for consoles. In a single player experience Square Enix should be seriously considering a completely new HUD and camera system. Something akin to Mass Effect 3’s power and weapon wheels or Assassin’s Creed Revelations analogue dials are much more appropriate in this generation that the in-game menus for magic and items seen in the original console releases.

I was a fan of the Gummi Ship mechanic from the first two games, but you can’t argue that the basic visuals seemed odd in comparison to the polished feel of the rest of the game. Coming off the monumental success of indie giant Minecraft, the Gummi Ship segments could ironically appear like a half-baked rip off of the basic building blocks found in the recent success. Although I poured hours into these segments when I was younger, I reckon that the everyday gamer could do without them now. Square Enix need to develop an entirely new system for the Gummi Ship segments, (keeping those nostalgic undeniable roots in Lego), or take it out completely.

Many fans of the original console experiences, such as myself, grew up with Kingdom Hearts. As we have grown, so should the series. That is to say, we as long-time fans expect a more mature plot. I hope to see a developed romance between Sora and Kairi, complicated by Riku’s success and Sora’s failure in the Mark of Mastery exam in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance. We witnessed Roxas’ sacrifice in in Kingdom Hearts II and played as him in 358/2 Days. I want to see that sacrifice reverberate in Sora. Roxas surrendered his possible happiness with Namine in order for Sora to save his friends. If Kingdom Hearts III’s plot revolves around Sora’s attempts at finding and saving Terra, Aqua, Ventus, Namine and Roxas, (and subsequently train them as Keyblade Masters), then I expect to see character interaction on a depth we haven’t experienced in a Kingdom Hearts title before. Birth By Sleep played off the duality of the series; Terra (Latin for ‘earth’) and his Keyblade Earthshaker represent the land theme he and Riku share, Ventus (Latin for ‘wind’) and his Keyblade Wayward Wind represent the sky theme he and Sora share, and finally Aqua (Latin for ‘water’) and her Keyblade Rainfall represent the water theme both she and Kairi share. I hope to see mature developments to this duality, (instead of Square Enix  using it as an easy crutch for related prequels).

Finally, Square Enix needs to implement the plot in a way that doesn’t leave fans of the original console experiences out in the dark. Chances are anyone who hasn’t played the handheld is left feeling bewildered at the thought of Terra, Ventus and Aqua. Kingdom Hearts III needs to begin with a recap of the entire series thus far in as simple a way possible, and continue to weave the handheld experiences into the narrative throughout. If Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t at least start to wrap up the series then I fear the plot will become to convoluted for anyone but die-hard fans to decrypt.

It’s difficult to say exactly what new worlds the player will encounter in Kingdom Hearts III. In addition to acquiring Pixar Studios mid-2006, The Walt Disney Company owns and operates ABC, (the American Broadcasting Company for the British among us). Whilst the inclusion of the Pixar verse is almost a must for the series at this point, the idea of Square Enix attempting to implement storylines from Disney’s extensive universe seems a little farfetched and unnecessary. The team have proved the successful combination of Disney & Final Fantasy characters in the past so there’s no real reason to tweak that now. Square Enix already run the risk of overcomplicating Kingdom Hearts III by implementing too many new worlds when they should be focusing on wrapping up Sora’s, (and by extension the worlds previously visited) respective tales.

Perhaps most intriguing is whether or not Disney will choose to include any of the Marvel licences they now have access to, (the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel Entertainment at the very end of 2009). I for one can’t see the Marvel universe as a welcome addition, and its inclusion clouds an already extensive list of supporting characters and universes. Whilst I wouldn’t think the inclusion of one overarching world containing all the superheroes to be detrimental to either creative licence, I imagine the hefty amount of red tape that Disney would have to wade through to make something like this happen simply isn’t worth the trouble. However, with the recent success of The Avengers and the upcoming Iron Man 3, Captain America 2, Thor 2 and Avengers 2 squarely under Disney’s control I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see an upcoming feature film tie-in thrown into Kingdom Hearts III, Pirates of the Caribbean world anyone?

Speaking of Pirates of the Caribbean, there are currently rumours that a fifth film is in pre-production. As an already established world, (Port Royale made an appearance in Kingdom Hearts II), it’s unlikely but feasible that Disney would shove the ever diminishing franchise down our throats. Depending on the timing of both the film and game’s release, a Tron 3 related world is more likely. The original appeared in Kingdom Hearts II and the sequel Tron: Legacy made its debut in Dream Drop Distance. I’m much more welcoming to a Tron inspired world than a Pirates of the Caribbean world. With the Peter Pan world established in the first game, including Pirates of the Caribbean in Kingdom Hearts II seemed like a money hungry publicising move by Disney to promote the upcoming sequels.

I’m still not confident that Disney will choose to implement the Pixar verse this late in the game. For one, I’m not exactly sure if they own the rights to toy with the film’s creative licenses, whether they can simply apply the films to a game form, or whether they could only implement material from post-2006 films. If they did, they would have to explore worlds that are original to those already established in the Kingdom Hearts verse. Including a Finding Nemo world for example steals The Little Mermaid’s thunder, (though considering the abysmal rhythm minigame that constituted Kingdom Hearts II’s underwater segment this might just be preferable). Implementing a Toy Story world where Sora and his companions are shrunk to the size of toys (a la Alice in Wonderland from the original Kingdom Hearts) is an idea that I could wholeheartedly support, along with Sora donning an Incredibles inspired costume and teaming up with the superhero family or playing out scenarios ripped straight from WALL-E or Up. The key for me is not saturating the game with new worlds. Square Enix immersed me in the world of Kingdom Hearts over ten years ago. They need to draw me back into that world by reacquainting me with the characters and story I fell in love with all those years ago. I’m not saying that Disney shouldn’t use their extended universe, I just hope that if they decide to they use it sparingly, and not to attempt to hype fans of the series into seeing their latest releases.

The latest handheld games have featured less and less characters from Final Fantasy. Whilst Square Enix’s golden era has long since passed, fans of the Final Fantasy verse such as myself picked up the original Kingdom Hearts as a Final Fantasy inspired action-RPG with Disney characters and elements, not a Disney inspired action-RPG with Final Fantasy characters and elements. I’ve not been a huge fan of Square Enix’s decisions regarding the Final Fantasy series of late but deep inside me is the same twelve year old boy bristling with nostalgia for the original PlayStation’s Final Fantasy cast, (Final Fantasy V-X are the last six reasons that my poor 60GB PS3 clings to life). Kingdom Hearts II toyed with Final Fantasy: Advent Children’s plot extremely briefly, but a more in-depth look at Radiant Garden/Hollow Bastian and more Final Fantasy characters (a la Dissida Final Fantasy) couldn’t hurt.

Kingdom Hearts III has a lot of work to do if it wants to impress the gaming world. Six years is a substantial amount of time to go without a major console release in the gaming industry, (especially between generations), and I wonder whether Kingdom Hearts III can come close to achieving everything we expect of it. Chances are I and every other nostalgic early twenty-something will run to the stores day one regardless of pre-release gameplay and interviews. There’s a very real opportunity to make a critical and financial success here; whether or not Square Enix are faced with a horde of angry emotional fanboys is in their hands. Still, as long as we don’t make them change the ending.

For more thoughts on Kingdom Hearts and where the series might go next leave a question in the comments section below or follow me on Twitter @WallaceMerrett.