Skipping a Beat: Kingdom Hearts III and Consideration for the Lapsed

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Welcome to this blog about Kingdom Hearts with me, King Dumbfarts (why'd I let my cousin proofread this?). My goal here is to see how much sense 2019's Kingdom Hearts III makes if you're coming to it directly from Kingdom Hearts (released 2002) and Kingdom Hearts II (2005). That means no side-games, no bonus "2.8" chapter added to later remasters to help bridge the lore, and an approximate fourteen year gap between entries in which I've had plenty of time to forget all the nuances of the overarching story.

My other goal here, surprisingly, isn't to mock the game's dense worldbuilding and lore. In fact, part of me admires the game for respecting the intelligence of its prime audience of Zoomer tots by giving them half a Dostoevsky novel's worth of plot and characters to memorize, as they're smarter than we Gen-X/Millennials usually give them credit for. Of course, I say that conveniently forgetting that the first game was released seventeen years ago and kids who grew up with KH1 might well be introducing their own children to this sequel, which - like so many things these days - makes me curse the relentless and inexorable passage of time.

Rather, I want to see for myself - and pass that knowledge onto others in a similar quagmire of consumer anxiety - just how accessible Kingdom Hearts III is for those who didn't read the wiki and refuse to do so. If you're launching into this game directly from KH1 and KH2, which makes all the sense in the world if you know how sequels work, how much of the plot should you be able to follow? What "Previously On" type of catch-up media is included for our sake? If I don't know who Aqua, Venti, Trenta, and Grande are, will the game helpfully explain their backstories, either directly or through some in-game codex to peruse? That's what I've been curious to find out ever since I impulse bought the game and why I've chosen to chronicle here my early escapades with the latest Square Enix/Disney crossover despite the strife that might ensue.

First though, before we can introduce any new information, we need to establish how much I can remember about Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2.

Everything I Remember About Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2: A Half-Recalled Primer

Donald Duck, enjoying a brief lunch.
Donald Duck, enjoying a brief lunch.
  • Sora is the main kid. He has brown hair and a sunny disposition. He's died several times but it has yet to stick.
  • Donald is a belligerent waterfowl who makes a lot of noise. Not to be confused with the Untitled Goose Game goose.
  • Goofy's job is to hold a shield and run into bad guys. He has almost died at least once, but then Disney stepped in and was like "naw, son". They might still want to bring back Goof Troop someday.
  • Mickey is the King of all Dismos but for story related reasons is not playable and fucks off to try and solve the entire game on his own in a moody hoodie, or moodie. Like Sora, he also has a keyswordtar.
  • Riku is Sora's friend but also a dick. He had "darkness in his heart" (arrhythmia?) so he became a bad guy for a little while, but he's mostly over it. He kind of Proto Mans his way around the periphery of Sora's adventures now.
  • Kairi is Sora's other friend, and a vague love interest. Also a canonical Disney Princess, which is significant in this world because of the power they wield over hearts. She got mostly sidelined in the second game where she's living a normal schoolkid life irrespective of the world-ending calamities that Sora has to deal with.
  • Ansem is the bad guy of KH1 but this got retconned in KH2 by having Ansom be this different Mummies Alive exposition dude voiced by Christopher Lee (though I guess not any more, since Lee is a for-real mummy) while the real bad guy was Xehanort, who can possess others and frequently does so for evil. Hence the term "norted".
  • Organization XIII is a team of douchey Final Fantasy XIII defenders that all wear cloaks and have "X"es in their names. I have no idea which is which, but they were the antagonists of KH2 and that one interstitial GBA game with the cards. I believe their names are Xemnas (the leader and final boss of KH2), Axel (the red-haired one), Roxas (the Sora one), Larxene (the girl one), Xigbar, Weetabix, Luxeria, Boxcar Bob, Zexion, Rolex, Busty St. Coxxx, Marluxia, Xanax, and Xiggy Stardust.
  • The Disney/KH metaverse is comprised of different worlds or dimensions all based on Disney properties. There's an Aladdin world, a The Little Mermaid world, a Tarzan world, and a Nightmare Before Christmas world, as well as many others. You fly between them and the hub world, Traverse Town, in "gummi ships," even though the game has none of the Gummi Bears in it, despite that being one of the best Saturday morning cartoons Disney ever made. In fact, they get non-Rescue Rangers versions of Chip and Dale to man the gummi garage, which is just adding insult to injury. The gummi ships mostly vanished in the second game because everyone got angry about earning fifty "slanted block (L)" as a reward instead of something actually useful like an elixir or duck armor to stop Donald keeling over immediately once a boss fight starts.
  • Some worlds got voiped before Sora could save them. One of those is the 101 Dalmatians world, which led to collecting its spotted dog diaspora across worlds as a game-wide scavenger hunt. Winnie the Pooh's world exists as a book with pages you also have to pick up. One time Pooh died and his ghost flew to heaven, and that became a meme.
  • The Heartless are these black creatures who were once people who got real sad and changed into monsters. These monsters are also mindless, but it could be that they're being controlled by a greater force hidden in the darkness. Most of the KH bosses have been Heartless.
  • The Nobodies are the human shells left behind when a person's soul becomes a Heartless (I think? That's what Roxas is, at least). They have their own sapience irrespective of their original selves somehow, and are usually but not always evil. Sora and Kairi both have one. Sora's is called Roxas and Kairi's is called Namine.
  • In addition to people, worlds have hearts too. If they get corrupted the whole world vanishes or turns evil or becomes a Chernobog. Sora spent a lot of time fixing these worlds up with his keyswordtar in KH 1 and 2.
  • There were Final Fantasy characters in major supporting roles in the first game but not so much in the second, barring a few cameo fights and FFX-2's Gullwings showing up as Tinkerbells. I'll look out for any in KH3 but my hopes aren't high.
  • My favorite world was Space Paranoids, the Tron world, which first showed up in KH2. I hope it's still there in KH3. Here's some other Disney/Pixar properties I hope made it into this game (without checking beforehand to make sure): The Adventures of the Gummi Bears (obv), Darkwing Duck, TaleSpin, Gargoyles, pretty much that whole Disney Afternoon block, Incredibles, Monsters Inc. (Motherfucking Mike Wazowski), Wreck-It Ralph, Inside Out, The Muppets, Star Wars, The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers, 24, House, The X-Files, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, aaaaaaand Prince of Persia.

A Quick Dive Into the Memory Archive

So the first thing that greets you upon starting the game, provided you have all the patches and it's done making a system settings save, is a montage video attract mode full of people I instantly don't recognize. There's a bald guy with yellow eyes (Xehanort, I guess?), some dude with a beard, two fashion models playing chess, and some people in cloaks where I can't see their faces and wouldn't know them even if I could. However! Skipping past this to the title screen reveals a "Memory Archive" option that, helpfully, breaks up all the Kingdom Hearts lore thus far into five short videos.

Couldn't just use the names of the games, huh. You do you, Kingdom Hearts.
Couldn't just use the names of the games, huh. You do you, Kingdom Hearts.

I'm going to quickly jot down everything that is revealed and try to consolidate that with what I already know. This will be in a weird order because KH has a lot of prequels and interquels - that is to say, set long before Sora showed up or happening simultaneously with the first two KH games - but it should give me the booster I need to hit the ground running when I start KH3 in earnest. (I should mention, though, that these videos are barely two or three minutes apiece, so they're hardly exhaustive recaps.)

Episode 1: Departure

This is just Kingdom Hearts 1. I remember most of this. Oddly, I remember it better than KH2, despite playing the second game more recently. I guess because it had more bullshit in it. Departure/KH is Sora finding his keyblade (yes, I know what they're called), meeting Donald and Goofy, visiting a whole bunch of worlds, confronting a possessed Riku, briefly becoming Heartless and then getting better, defeating "Ansom," and saving the metaverse from the Heartless. It was nice hearing the orchestral version of Simple and Clean again.

I'll be adding "takeaways" from each of these Memory Archive episodes, based on what I predict will play a major role in the game to come. In KH1's case, it'll be the base foundation for the sequel and side-games to build on.

Episode 2: Memories

OK, so now we're getting into the side-games. I happen to recognize this one, however: Chain of Memories for GBA, set (and originally released) between the first and second KH. I remember it adopting a new card system for its combat that I didn't much care for. This is also when Sora - and the player - is introduced to Naminé and the mysterious Organization XIII.

Takeaway: The adventure messed with Sora's memories a bit, putting him out of sorts for a while once KH2 starts. Also, I think Sora gets put into stasis after this adventure concludes, which takes him out of the picture for a while and allows a few new characters to spring up in his absence. Oh, and that Organization XIII are a buncha jerks.

Episode 3: Twilight

Ah, here we have Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, a side-game for DS that I skipped. It's set before Kingdom Hearts II and features two Organization XIII characters linked to Sora: Roxas, his Nobody, and a girl named Xion who I guess is siphoning Sora's keyblade power as he sleeps (I forget why he's sleeping, but he's like that when KH2 starts so... whatev). This game seems like it'd be useful if you have trouble distinguishing between members of Organization XIII or wanted to know more about the inner workings of same, as 358/2 Days focuses exclusively on this enigmatic cabal. Seriously would've been helpful if this game had released before KH2 (where Organization XIII plays a major role) instead of four years afterwards.

Takeaways: The friendship between Roxas and Axel, which plays a major part in KH2 by way of Axel's white-hot animosity towards Sora, and the brief existence of Sora's equally empathetic female "soul doppelganger" Xion.

Episode 4: Dawn

It is dawning on me that there's a lot more Kingdom Hearts that I didn't play than there is that I did play. So, with this video we learn more about what Riku and Mickey were up to after the events of KH1 and during 358/2 Days above when Sora was in that deep sleep (more like Snora, am I right? Don't dignify that with a response). Riku gets to grips with his balance of light and dark and decides he has to help Sora even if it means defeating Roxas and Xion in the process, since their existence is why he can't wake up. I have no idea which game this is all from though; maybe a different part of 358/2 Days?

Takeaways: Riku's mostly at peace with himself, Mickey is still doing the bare minimum to help, and I guess the end of this sets the stage for the start of KH2.

Episode 5: Darkness

This is where the Memory Archive realizes it has way too much plot left for its fifth and final entry, and so hits the fast-forward button with all of Birth By Sleep and Kingdom Hearts II combined. Xehanort, we're told, once fought against Aqua, Terra, and Ventus after creating Ventus's evil double, Vanitas, so the two would clash and cause a "keyblade war". This also involved creating something called the squiggle-blade, which is still pronounced "keyblade" so why they insisted on using this Prince symbol every time it's mentioned is anyone's guess. Vanitas and Xehanort were defeated, but Xehanort comes back years later with a new scheme involving seven Disney princesses (which represent the light) and a familiar group of thirteen dickwads in cloaks (which represent the darkness) but was foiled by Sora twice in KH1 and KH2. Xehanort had split into two by this point: Ansem, the guy you fight in KH1, and Xemnas, the guy you fight in KH2.

Takeaways: The last scene of this round-up is what I assume shows up in the 2.8 bonus chapter, where Xehanort reveals that Organization XIII are to be his thirteen vessels with Xemnas and Ansem both gone. His essence now spread across his subordinates, he plans one last ditch attempt to... combine light and dark? Or have them fight to see who wins out of an idle curiosity? I'm as confused as before.

I'm still not entirely sure why we had two of these books focus on different halves of the same game, while the last one had to do the heavy lifting of two whole games and a hundred years of KH history and barely even mention the events of KH2 beyond the final boss fight. Did they run out of cash and time when putting these montages together? Or are more on their way and I just happened to drop in midway through a season? Is there really nothing I need to know about the story of Dream Drop Distance, which is conspicuously absent in these recaps? At any rate, this is all the backstory I'll have to rely on to understand the first few hours of Kingdom Hearts III. Wish me luck.

OK, Finally Starting Kingdom Hearts III For Real Now

Here's the disclaimer where I pretend that I'm not here to try to figure out Xehanort's ambitions or track every Organization XIII member's coming and going, and that I'm here to visit some Disney worlds (but not Disney World, sadly) with my pals Donald and Goofy and have a grand old time beating up Heartless with a club shaped like a key. However, I'm fooling nobody here, least of all myself. Of course I'm going to try to make sense of the overarching story. I can't enjoy a piece of fiction without fully understanding its narrative (or understanding that there is little to understand, in some cases), even if it happens to be the type of fiction where it lets me run around and hit things when the cutscenes aren't playing.

After the first scene of the intro, I'm also faced with another conundrum. For the record, it features two people playing some kind of isometric chess, and are likewise black/white opposites of each other. Now, am I supposed to know who these are based on previous games? Or is this a mystery pair that Kingdom Hearts III are specifically establishing now and will resolve later in the plot? It's an ambiguity distinct to serial fiction: if you miss an entry or a chapter, it's not clear if you're meant to have foreknowledge of something unfamiliar or if this is meant to be an entirely new development. Am I going from point A to point B to point C here, or is this actually Point G and I'm going to start at Point C in just a moment and work my way back to it as the author always intended? I mean, two goobers talking circuitously about keyblade wars ain't exactly My Dinner With Andre (does Disney own that too?), but I imagine there'll be more scenarios like this in the cutscenes ahead where I'm thinking "I should know who that guy is, probably".

Precious memories, just like the... wait, when the hell were we all cowboys? Are those the TWEWY people? What the hell?
Precious memories, just like the... wait, when the hell were we all cowboys? Are those the TWEWY people? What the hell?

The subsequent dialogue-free montage, set to the new theme "Face My Fears," helps clear a lot of this up, actually. The color-switched chess player is revealed to be, if not a younger Xehanort, then perhaps another avatar of "the darkness" that drives him. This montage also quickly rushes through the chronological events of Birth By Sleep, KH1, 358/2 Days, KH2, and brings us back to the revelation that the new Organization XIII are Xehanort's puppets from here on out. If the Memory Archive didn't exist, and for a while after KH3's release it didn't, then I figure this was the game's way of trying to bring lapsed players like myself back up to speed. (I also didn't mention the trio of keyblade wielders from BBS: Aqua, the blue girl, fell into a hole and vanished; Terra got corrupted by darkness and became Ansem/Xemnas, Xehanort's regular "home away from home"; and I think the implication is that Ventus landed on Destiny Islands and was reincarnated as Sora, since they do look alike. Aqua seems to be the only loose thread there, so I imagine we'll be meeting her at some point.)

What I didn't expect is that the game, once it starts for real in the sense that you get control over it, begins the exact same way as Kingdom Hearts 1. That is, Sora's in some void with stained glass floors picking a "class" for themselves. Even the tutorial boss that follows is the familiar giant with a concealed face and heart-shaped cavity that you fight a few times in Kingdom Hearts 1. I guess with the huge gap between the first game and this one, it's nice to touch base.

The First Few Hours of Kingdom Hearts III

  • Dream Drop Distance gets briefly mentioned: Sora had to earn a "Mastery Mark" in an exam but screwed up and almost got Norted, which is also the game's convenient explanation for why we're back to level 1 again. Of course, Riku passed with flying colors. Forever Sora's Shelbyville, that guy.
  • Kingdom Hearts 2.9?? I guess this is meant to be the prologue to 3, then? I don't think any amount of KH lore dumps will explain all this numeric frivolity.
  • Off to Olympus to learn from a master of getting dunked on and springing back stronger than ever. I hope they don't mean furry Danny DeVito.
  • They don't, because his character doesn't speak at any point during his multiple appearances. Somebody didn't answer the phone...
  • ...Sadly, that somebody wasn't James Woods, who ended up being a bigger villain than anyone at Disney realized while casting Hercules.
  • The brief Olympus chapter works to introduce (or reintroduce) a lot of mechanics that either appear here for the first time or earlier in one of the more recent spin-offs. I like the Attractions, a prompt which causes Disneyland rides to show up and wreck shop, but they seem a bit arbitrary. All the free-running and airstepping makes traversal faster, at least.
It's gaudy as hell. Like some kind of Bayonetta summon, if Bayonetta went to Las Vegas for a wild weekend.
It's gaudy as hell. Like some kind of Bayonetta summon, if Bayonetta went to Las Vegas for a wild weekend.

  • We also briefly meet Xigbar, one of the XIII, as well as Maleficent and Pete, two recurring villains from the series. I thought Pete reformed? Did he turn evil again when I wasn't looking?
  • Olympus concluded. Felt like old times, between fighting the titans again (including a few new ones) and having Hercules show up as a guest fighter. I'm glad the game no longer requires you to switch out either Donald and Goofy to accommodate these world-specific guests, because I never bothered. I'm going to be using duck and dog for the whole game, why would I bench them and deprive them of XP?
  • Right after this little honeymoon period, we're thrown right back into the labyrinth of shit again with a small interstitial chapter with Mickey and Riku in the land of darkness, followed by a whole bunch of new mechanics dropped on our lap, a few new characters (sorta, I recognize them as reformed Organization XIII types - someone mentions "Lea" and it took me a second to realize they meant Axel but without the X), and capped off with the reintroduction of the gummi ship. Phew.
  • The gummi ship sequences are a little more open now, letting you explore pockets of space instead of putting you through on-rails sequences. Kind of like a Star Fox thing. I'm still earning dozens of ship parts that I have no idea what to do with or why I would want them, so that brings me back.
  • All right, it's sending me back to Twilight Town, which was the basis of the holodeck-like place they dumped Roxas at the start of KH2. That means the story's about to get headachey again, so I'll stop the play-by-play here.

In Conclusion

While I've yet to get too far, I don't feel I'm constantly smacking into walls of inscrutability as I play Kingdom Hearts III. Pains have been taken to make a lot of KH3 feel like familiar territory to long-time fans, with the advanced mechanics introduced in spin-offs doled out gradually for the sake of those who are getting the basics down again before they're in an experienced enough position to incorporate more of these new features into their playstyle. Other modern exploration mechanics, like free-running up walls or across small platforms, are self-explanatory and reduce the usual frustration with the game's platforming sequences, allowing the developers to create more dynamic level design without requiring too much from the player in the way of tricky maneuvers and multiple button functions to memorize (it's not dissimilar to the ninja running from Metal Gear Rising, actually, though I'm sure plenty of other action-RPGs/character-action games have incorporated similar features since then).

The overarching plot has always been Kingdom Hearts's weakness, but I think a part of that comes with the territory of the core Kingdom Hearts games opting for a vignette style of storytelling, where each world has its own backstories to learn, characters to befriend, and obstacles to overcome. The game's archvillains will pop in to explain their plans for this immediate world, and you'll get a bunch of cutscenes between worlds, but you're usually contending with whomever the antagonist was for that particular movie(s) - Hades for Olympus, Scar for Pride Rock, Jafar for Agrabah, etc. - and plans that boil down to "I'm going to do the same thing I did last time, but with Heartless helping me out".

I'll let you all know as soon as these guys show up.
I'll let you all know as soon as these guys show up.

As it stands, I've been enjoying Kingdom Hearts III quite a bit. I was concerned it would throw too much at me too quickly, plot and mechanics alike, but it has so far exercised a modicum of restraint. It appears to acknowledge that people like me exist: those who have kept their distance (dream drop or otherwise) and could use a little on boarding, or at the very least has provided some familiar landmarks that we can use to reorient ourselves before we welcome the multitude of new additions. The series-wide storytelling is still an iterative process building from each previous episode, and more than once I've said "who in the Sam Hill is that?" (because I come from the 1920s, I guess), but I've come to terms with how there's certain aspects that I'll just have to fill in through context.

I neglected to mention it above, but there is an in-game codex of sorts: the Gummiphone, which is an all-purpose mobile device that can be used to take photos of "lucky emblems" (Mickey's head), journalizes the story so far via the ever-reliable Jiminy Cricket, has a glossary of terms for those who forgot the difference between Heartless and Nobodies, and detailed character files on everyone you've met so far. You have to get a few hours into the game before you first have access to it, but it's cleared up any doubts that KH3 intends to leave the majority of us in the lurch. Considering the game owes its audience nothing if they've been skipping entries, I'd say these boons were gracious enough.

Until then, I'll have more to say once the game is complete. Looks like I'm playing a Kingdom Hearts game again. Whee.