Kingdom Hearts in the Right Place: The Ranking of All Cosmos

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I was struck when listening to the Beastcast conversation on Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts III that, when prompted by Dan to explain what Kingdom Hearts was, Vinny never thought to compare the progression of Kingdom Hearts III - or any given KH game - to his beloved Mass Effect. In both franchises, the player spends their time pursuing smaller stories isolated to particular worlds - the Therian on Feros in ME1, for example, or the Quarian/Geth dispute that pops up in all three - while also grappling with an overarching story that affects the entire galaxy. The player also visits these worlds in a semi-linear order (you often have the choice between two or three planets at any given juncture) and completes their objectives before the larger story kicks back in, giving each planet and its troubles a sort of episodic structure like a TV season that revisits the main arc every few episodes or so.

As anyone familiar with the Kingdom Hearts franchise would tell you, these worlds are invariably based on a particular Disney or Pixar property. In the past, the series has visited worlds based on The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Tron (and Tron: Legacy), The Nightmare Before Christmas, Alice in Wonderland, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (None of these places are in Kingdom Hearts III, incidentally.) Kingdom Hearts also has this unusual practice where the "quest" of each world corresponds with the plot of the movie they pertain to: using an above example, in the Aladdin world Agrabah you help Aladdin find the Genie and defeat Jafar after the latter steals Genie's lamp and kidnaps Princess Jasmine. However, in some worlds - especially revisits - the movie's story has already occurred and the designers have found something new for that cast of characters to do once Sora arrives.

When rating the worlds of Kingdom Hearts III, which is what we're here to do today, I considered three criteria:

  • The accuracy of each world. How effectively do they convey not only the themes and characters of the movie(s), but the visual design?
  • The variety in the gameplay and level design. Some worlds get bonus points here for creating imaginative fight scenarios, or distinctive geography with its own rules of traversal, or even mini-game distractions (dependent on their quality).
  • Transformations. While not particularly vital to the game, I appreciate whenever a new world polymorphs Sora, Donald, and Goofy to some new "inconspicuous" form to help them integrate easier. I guess I also like the idea that the Kingdom Hearts universe has its own version of Star Trek's Prime Directive.

(This is where I'd normally post a disclaimer about there being Kingdom Hearts III spoilers throughout, but how do you even go about spoiling the plot of Kingdom Hearts? Even if you had the context nothing really makes any sense. To clarify then: there will be mild spoilers regarding the individual worlds and the events within, but not a whole lot about Xehanort and the Keyblade Wars and what Organization XIII is up to.)

TL;DR: Kingdom Hearts III worlds in order of preference. Let's do this. From worst to best:

Keyblade Graveyard

Source: Kingdom Hearts Original.

For as ominous and climactic as the Keyblade Graveyard is in the grand scheme of things, it really just a wasteland filled with keyblades. Like two whole areas total, neither of which has anything but fights and boring mesas. In fairness, the desolation is meant to convey a ground zero of some ancient conflict that destroyed whatever fertile ecosystem used to be here, but this stack of reddish-brown rocks is not all that interesting to look at and offers very little in the way of gameplay variety or a visual style with any character. Good if you like keyblades though, because it has a bunch.

The Keyblade Graveyard also includes the Skein of Severance, which sounds like something you'd get after being laid off from a textiles factory. This area's just a giant labyrinth where seven or eight of the game's final boss fights take place, and again isn't visually arresting or fun to navigate in the slightest. I'd hate to suggest the developers ran out of time and money when it came to the game's finale, but considering what happened to the similarly delayed and re-delayed Final Fantasy XV it's a distinct possibility.

Twilight Town

Source: Kingdom Hearts Original.

My resentment over Twilight Town is that it replaced Traverse Town as the game's effective "hub" of civilization. Traverse Town was cool because it contained the diaspora of many destroyed worlds who had gathered together there because they had no other place to go. Twilight Town lacks this melting pot of refugees (which included The 101 Dalmatians, suggesting London got blown up by Ansem at some point, so good on him) and instead is just this vaguely nostalgic steampunk setting that is only revelant to the plot because it was recreated as Roxas' virtual world (or prison, if you prefer) in Kingdom Hearts II. This "real" version of Twilight Town doesn't even have Seifer in it, which makes it even more pointless.

The whole world consists of the town itself, a few sewer pipes (and if you've seen one sewer dungeon you've seen them all), and the creepy mansion in the woods where the computers that ran Roxas's virtual world are situated. Landmarks include Unca Scrooge's bistro, where Remy the rat (though he's never referred to by name) cooks up hoity-toity French cuisine in one of KH3's better mini-games, and the local projection booth which broadcasts classic cartoons. I dunno about it says about me, but listening to Unca Scrooge talk about waving a "GummiPhone" over a QR code on a movie poster to play a tie-in mobile game was perhaps one of the lowest points of the series so far. Is nothing spared from your relentless marketing, Disney? Why not have a subplot where the Beagle Boys steal a bunch of user data from Disney+ while we're at it.

Arendelle

Source: Frozen (2013).

I think Frozen is just an OK movie. I don't really get the hype, but at the same time I'm not reflexively going to dump on it because of its wild popularity. It has some catchy tunes, a sweet message about the platonic love between siblings, some of its auroral visuals can be striking, and I can almost tolerate Josh Gad as that damn snowman. However, I'm far more inclined to say Frozen's Kingdom Hearts III world absolutely does suck.

For one, almost the entire world is set on that one mountain Elsa runs off to. You get to visit the lake where the movie's climax takes place, briefly, but you don't see the actual kingdom of Arendelle at all except from a heightened distance. The one time the level design breaks away from cliff-faces and snowy pine trees is when you get trapped in Larxene's icy abyss (not a euphemism), which has a few elevator puzzles to solve but isn't all that engrossing. Finally, there's a snowboarding equivalent mini-game that is more annoying than thrilling: imagine SSX where the slightest collision sends you careening off to the side. They don't even give Sora and friends any warm clothes to wear as a transformation option, though the benefit of that is you get to hear them complain endlessly about the cold. Awesome.

What's worse is that the usual practice of adapting the movie's plot for the KH story of that world is so tangentially done here, more so than in any other world I can recall. Sora and friends pop in just as Elsa escapes to make her own little ice fortress of solitude and only very briefly meet up with Anna and Kristoff, and most of the movie's big moments - Anna and the kingdom getting struck with the ice curse, Anna's whole fling with Hans, anything to do with the snow trolls - you only hear about second-hand if at all. Two-thirds of the movie happen off-screen, while you're busy traipsing up yet another identical stretch of wintry mountain path. The only thing Sora and co. are there to see - in full - is the "Let It Go" musical number because you couldn't really have a Frozen thing without it. It is definitely the Wonderland of KH3: the place that felt most like a chore to get through.

Kingdom of Corona

Source: Tangled (2010).

On the whole I prefer Tangled a little more than Frozen, and that's reflected in how I feel about their KH3 appearances also. The same issues plague both worlds - there's only small fragments of the movie plot which mostly treats Sora and friends as bystanders rather than active participants, the general world design isn't all that varied or interesting to move through, and there aren't any fun transformations - but overall the world of Tangled feels a little more Kingdom Hearts-ready than Arendelle was. What helps a lot is that the companions you get in Corona - both Flynn Rider and Rapunzel herself - have some fun chemistry with each other and with the usual group, and Rapunzel comes in useful for crossing gaps by using her hair like a rope, which is the one part of the Rapunzel mythos I always had an issue with. Even if her hair did have that kind of tensile strength, how much pressure is it exerting on her skull to carry that many people? Not that I expected Kingdom Hearts to go full "Homer Simpson ripping her scalp off" with it, but carrying the whole party over chasms is kind of a stretch. Whatever, it's magic hair, they established that pretty quick.

If you're wondering what kind of workable geography the Tangled movie has that could be leveraged by a video game, the response is "yeah, good question". Turns out most of it involves wandering through the woods, and then through a spookier marsh, and then through more woods, and then a mine for some reason, and finally a big slide down past some more woods. When you get to the kingdom itself - and you do, so that's another point in its favor over Arendelle - there's a brief recreation of Rapunzel's newfound joy of line-dancing with the commonfolk before the plot kicks into gear and you head to the boss and the end of the segment. There are no interiors - excluding cutscenes, you only see Rapunzel and Gothel's mysteriously tiny tower from the outside - and while it did recreate that fun montage where Rapunzel rapidly switches between giddy and distraught after leaving the tower despite Mother Gothel's orders, there's a whole lot of nothing happening story-wise in that long stretch between leaving the tower and reaching Corona. That they then have to jam in half the entire movie once you get to the end feels like a slight failure of the designers to figure out how to pace this world out better. All the same, it feels a lot less sweaty than Arendelle's half-assed integration of the Frozen story.

(You might ask at this juncture what the importance is of accurately displaying the plot of these movies in-game, given everyone coming to Kingdom Hearts has presumably already seen them: I'd argue that the way Sora and his friends are integrated into these movies' plots are where the game's story can be seen at its most cleverly adaptive, and I'd also argue that even if you're already familiar with the beats these stories should still be conveyed in such a manner that it makes sense in isolation, for the sake of the game's storytelling if nothing else. If you're just getting a highlights reel with very little of the necessary context, that world's plotting comes off as rushed and incoherent - and Kingdom Hearts really can't afford to make itself any more incoherent than it already is.)

Scala ad Caelum

Source: Kingdom Hearts Original.

As the final destination, there's not much I can say about Scala ad Caelum that wouldn't be spoiling things, but it's both simultaneously one of the most original worlds Kingdom Hearts has ever created and a massive disappointment due to how the game's ending feels rushed (see above, with the Keyblade Graveyard). Scala ad Caelum is Xehanort's old stomping ground, from some untold number of years in the past, and looks the closest to a Final Fantasy setting this series has ever produced. For all we know, it could be where a few of the series' Final Fantasy characters originally hailed from. Well, back when the Kingdom Hearts series still acknowledged them anyway.

That "for all we know" is important, because there's a whole lot we don't know about this enigmatic wind-powered island utopia and the game never thinks to tell us. We don't know how it disappeared and why (though we can assume it was an early victim of the Keyblade Wars that the antagonist is trying to re-invoke), we never get to see the place in its prime (the version Sora visits is a memory, absent of people), and we don't spend nearly enough time there before the final boss fight warps it beyond all recognition. After all, for "warped beyond all recognition" to work as a dramatic visual concept, you need to be able to recognize a place somewhat first.

It earns some points for being a visually striking location for a final battle and one that I'm positive future games will dive back into, or maybe one of the many interquel games already has. Even its name is cool: Scala ad Caelum is latin for "Stairway to Heaven," though it's a setting sadly absent of Jimmy Page guitar solos. But the odd throwaway nature of its appearance in this game - I suppose an issue with any Final Fantasy final dungeon - means that it lacks the backstory and context to be properly memorable. Cool windmills though.

The Hundred Acre Woods

Source: Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1966).

It's not that I dislike hanging out with everyone's favorite silly old bear and his friends in Kingdom Hearts's most wholesome of recurring worlds, it's just that this world always feels the most tacked-on and inconsequential in any game in which it appears. There is no conflict in the Hundred Acre Woods, unless you count Rabbit getting pissed that someone stood on his cabbage patch again, so you can't create combat scenarios filled with Heartless like you can anywhere else. Instead, visits to the Hundred Acre Woods invariably involve a handful of mini-games and story cutscenes that are entirely irrespective to the rest of the game. Kingdom Hearts III is no exception in this regard.

The only real change for KH3's Hundred Acre Woods are the new mini-games: suppressing Hong Kong protesters and forcing Bobby Kotick to fire a couple of disrespectful Hearthstone streamers helping Rabbit harvest some fruit, some veggies, and some flowers. These mini-games all riff on Bust-a-Move with slightly different rules, the chief connecting mechanic (one it took me a while to figure out) is that you can send multiple versions of the same item out at once, making it a lot easier to create chains. These mini-games aren't particularly difficult, perhaps befitting of the kindergarten-age property they appear in, so I bounced quickly after I got everything I needed to from this world. Bye for now Pooh, and I look forward to some Tigger Tetris when KH4 rolls around.

Olympus

Source: Hercules (1997)

Olympus has the unenviable task of being the first world out of the gate, and saddled even further by having the voice of professional crappy person James Woods to cause exasperated sighs every few moments. I didn't watch the Hercules movie, but Olympus has popped up in both the previous games so I'm at least familiar enough with the Kingdom Hearts version. In the first game all you saw of this place was the Coliseum: a place where you'd get into a few story-related scraps early on with the likes of Cloud and then kept returning to for optional battles against increasingly tougher encounters. In the second Kingdom Hearts, they gave the characters that dwell in Olympus a little more to do, bringing in Meg and the plot of the movie as well as dragging in Final Fantasy X's resident cool dad Auron as some reluctant undead muscle. If the Olympus events of KH1 and KH2 combined were roughly analogous to the Hercules movie give or take a booze-swilling samurai, KH3 is very much in the post-movie timeline: this gives the core characters like Meg or Phil (who doesn't even speak) less to do, as their arcs are over, but does at least have a neat little coda with Hercules and Sora about what true strength means.

As the first world, Olympus is also given the task of tutorializing a lot of the game's new (or recent, at least) traversal mechanics. Subsequently, the level designers really had to go all out in creating a set of scenarios that could showcase every one of them, ensuring that the player was well-equipped to deal with any similar obstacles in the worlds ahead. This includes context-based commands (in Olympus's case, using Goofy's shield to bypass burning areas of Thebes) and an ascent up Mt. Olympus by using the new wall-running mechanic to sprint up the sides of sheer cliffs. There's not much of a story here - Hades figures out how to summon all the Titans at once, and Hercules and Sora has to take the fight all the way up to Zeus's seat in Olympus - but as a prologue it works adequately for setting the stage and introducing the player to everything new. I also appreciate that some effort was made in recreating the "antiquity" artistic flourishes seen in the movie, though we were robbed of seeing Donald and Goofy in togas.

Monstropolis

Source: Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Motherfucking Mike Wazowski! No kidding, Monsters, Inc. was one of the worlds I was most excited to visit upon starting up the game. In part because I knew Sora and friends would turn into some goofy-ass monsters, but also because I was curious how much of the movie and how much of the titular Monsters, Inc. building we would get to see. Now, to be fair on the game, I wasn't exactly expecting something like Control's The Oldest House or anything, but I knew the level designers could have a lot of fun recreating the innards of this enigmatic scream (now laughter) factory from the fast assembly lines of "active" closet doors down to the battery center and converters and other power plant paraphernalia.

I will say this for Monstropolis: you do get intimately acquainted with the power plant of the movie, from a brief glimpse of Roz's cluttered office to the "shop floor" - now filled with balloons and comedy props, because we are talking post-movie here - to the deeper floors full of heavy duty machinery and explosive fire hazards. Boo's still here, along with Mike and Sulley, and there are a few occasions where you have to make her laugh in order to overpower the machinery and make progress, which was always cute. The reason it's somewhere in the middle of this list though, is that running through all these factory areas was a little too boring for its own good: I wasn't sure what I was anticipating, but the Monsters, Inc. factory looks a lot like every other damn factory out there. There wasn't even any fun "make sure to keep your tentacles away from the heavy machinery" type mock safety posters, at least none that I could see. It looked more to me like the concept artists just took a day tour around an actual power plant and sketched out all the relevant areas. A mite on the dull side in terms of geography then, but I have to give it props for two decent soundalike companions and some cool monster designs for Sora, Donald, and Goofy (Goofy in particular looked like he could pass as Toejam's cousin).

San Fransokyo

Source: Big Hero 6 (2014)

I liked the movie Big Hero 6 plenty enough; it felt like Disney finally acknowledging that, for a large portion of their younger audience, the star-studded localizations of the Japanese Studio Ghibli movies were what the company was best known for producing. Big Hero 6 was an overt attempt to combine western and eastern cultures - the main city is called San Fransokyo, after all - with all the requisite mecha and superheroes and kaiju and comic one-liners. It's also another KH world where the movie's plot already came and went, and so Sora is introduced to a fully formed Big Hero 6 team with little (but not zero) of the trauma that defined the movie's themes.

What I liked about this world and the one following it on the list is that the level designers realized they couldn't really make every single one of KH3's worlds a strictly linear affair. Instead, the format of San Fransokyo takes after that most commonly seen in a comic book-based video game: the open-world genre. San Fransokyo's tasks involve traversing a large but static urban map of high-rises and train tracks to accomplish multiple objectives, including one where Sora has to quickly whiz around the map saving each individual member of the Big Hero 6 (besides Hiro, who has a support role, and Baymax, who is your companion for this world) in their respective conflicts with the Heartless. It was also a joy to comb that cityscape for all the hidden collectibles (KH3 has two main types: treasure chests and circular icons that look like Mickey's head), and I appreciated the effort that went into making both a day and night version of the same map, with different encounters. I even thought its little tale about the return of the microbots and an earlier, corrupted Baymax was one of the better of KH3's self-contained stories.

The Caribbean

Source: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)

It's hard for me to get a solid grasp of how I felt about the Pirates movies, given what's emerged about Johnny Depp in recent years but also because of the way that original trilogy went so deep up its own ass. The first movie had some fun double-crosses and pirate trickery, as befitting of the literary genre it was playing around in, but the second and third just lost me with how much you had to follow who was betraying who and for what reason when they were supposed to be silly pirate movies produced by Disney where Jack Sparrow kept falling over because his brain was suspended in fermented molasses. That KH3 chooses to follow the events of the third movie, skipping the second entirely unless I missed an interquel somewhere, makes it even harder for Sora (and the audience) to know what the hell is happening with Davy Jones and Tia Dalma and Barbossa and that one smarmy bad guy in a powdered wig whose name escapes me.

However, what this chapter does have in its corner is a remarkable microcosm re-enactment of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. As soon as you're done with the sub-aquatic prologue of this world, where you and Jack eventually discover a fancy new ship hidden inside a mountain Goonies-style and take it out into the open sea, you make a small pit-stop at Port Royal to catch some crabs (long story) and are then prompted to head to where to the boss and chapter end awaits. Before then, though, you can take your new boat and travel across an archipelago of different isles full of treasure, puzzles, and sea-themed Heartless to slay. Along the way, you bump into enemy ships in what I reckon is a pretty decent facsimile of the ship-to-ship combat of the Assassin's Creed games, or at least the ones with nautical sections. Collecting crabs from all over the Caribbean further evolves your ship (again, long story) and makes these battles even more layered and fun, with unusual abilities like launching the ship several hundred feet into the air and bring it crashing down on an opponent. The thrilling two-prong final boss fight with Davy Jones and his ship, The Flying Dutchman, makes up for all the dense plotting they have to squeeze into the start and end of this particular world. And hey, Sora's pirate captain transformation is back - including missing teeth and a ragged waterlogged look that must smell like a barnacle's armpit when the sun hits it.

Toy Box

Source: Toy Story (1995)

I think everyone's most anticipated KH3 world was the Toy Story world, and to the game's credit you go here almost immediately once you're done with the prologue chapter in Olympus, presumably because the developers know how impatient we are for it after hours of climbing a mountain to face a guy we've beaten twice before. The chronology of the movies, which are all a few years apart, makes it difficult to determine when in the lives of the toys this particular adventure is set. They side-step the unusual quandary of the giant-sized humans by suggesting that this particular group of toys - a carefully curated selection of just Woody, Buzz, Rex, Hamm, a squad of army men, and a trio of the claw-catcher aliens - is trapped in a simulation not unlike the one that imprisoned Roxas so many moons ago. They also account for Sora's appearance as a stylish anime action figure by suggesting he's a toy based on a video game that is currently popular in the Toy Story world, which is some kind of Inception spiral of toys based on games based on toys in a video game that I'm not awake enough to sort out right now.

Besides the action figure transformations, the other great thing about the Toy Story world is just how imaginative the level design is. In particular, the way each part of the multi-floor toy store that the crew finds themselves in has its own self-contained adventure: there's a pre-school area that ends up being fairly creepy with its evil dolls, a store full of cool action toys that pits you against dinosaurs and mutants, a video game store where you're temporarily transplanted into a MechWarrior style arena shooter, and a "kiddie corral" play center that includes a ball pit and a fortress of blocks and slides. From the small perspective, these areas are a blast to run around and fight in, and this world is the only one to have a substantial number of unique enemies, most of which are toys possessed by a specific type of puppeteer Heartless. The fights with the gothic lolita dolls and the manned mech suits were unlike anything else in the game.

The Toy Story world definitely felt like the most realized of all the worlds in KH3, and is presumably why it was rolled out early so the game could begin with its best foot forward. It's a shame the rest of the game's worlds couldn't quite stack up by comparison, beyond the original concepts (for KH, at least) brought forward by San Fransokyo and The Caribbean. I think if the whole game exhibited the ambition and variety of Toy Box, Kingdom Hearts III might make a stronger case for its inclusion in the GOTY discourse. Unfortunately, I think overall there were too many cut corners and ideas that weren't as fully realized as they could've been. I might still prefer KH3 to its two predecessors, if only because so much time has passed and game design (especially where quality-of-life tweaks are concerned) has evolved so much since then, but even with all these Pixar ringers to draw from it feels a little underwhelming. Still, I won't brook any arguments that the game was a total wipeout: Toy Box and its plethora of highlights are an indication of what Kingdom Hearts can be at its best.

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