The common refrain for middling or non-committed Kingdom Hearts fans is that the series is confusing. The narrative has gotten too bloated and there are too many characters who aren’t familiar Disney or Final Fantasy characters who talk a lot about the darkness in their hearts with tears streaming from their eyes. And sometimes those characters are the same people, even though they look completely different.
This is all absolutely true, but if I am being honest with myself, I have been confused about what is happening in Kingdom Hearts since the opening tutorial of the original game. When Sora transitioned from pre-rendered cutscene and gently floated onto a gigantic stained-glass platform featuring Snow White and the seven dwarves, I knew I was in for something weird. Even exploring Sora’s tiny little island home felt strange and alien, and I remember marveling at how the end of Kingdom Hearts II threw all established laws of gravity out the window for a bizarre, but flashy finale.
Even when the Kingdom Hearts series only accounted for one game, I had trouble following it. The whole series plays like someone else’s fever dream, but since you yourself are not the dreamer, the logic never quite clicks into place. To Kingdom Hearts’ credit, I think this is the intention, to feel like you are in a dream, but it doesn’t make it any less confusing. It is a unique story, even if it is a poorly constructed one. There is nothing else like it, which counts for something in an era when so much entertainment is a series of tropes.
When it comes to Kingdom Hearts III, I am very confused about what is happening – but I don’t care. My eyes glaze over during the surprisingly long cutscenes that explain what is happening with Organization XIII. Anytime the guys with black hooded trench coats and giant zippers emerge from swirling black vortexes so Sora can shout their unfamiliar name at them, I instinctively check my phone. During one cutscene in which Mickey explained why Xehanort is multiple people of varying ages, I managed to pay a number of online bills I had been putting off.
The story moments I do follow are the self-contained ones that take place in the individual Disney (and now Pixar) levels. In most cases, Sora and pals are entering these areas as strangers unfamiliar with the worlds, which affords the story a moment to reset and start from zero. I particularly enjoyed Toy Story’s Toy Box world. These individual Disney/Pixar-centric short stories are saccharine and often cheesy, but they’re not confusing, and it’s fun to play through them.
The combat is also huge, fantastic, and flashy. I would go so far as to say it is probably my favorite combat of any action-RPG. It pushes you to use huge special attacks often and Sora’s animation is fluid and expressive in a way that makes every encounter, even the ones against piddling little groups of heartless, worth taking on. The combat is the best it has ever been in the series, and it is a highlight.
Ahead of Kingdom Hearts III’s release, I watched some catch-up videos, read some story summaries (like Kim’s beginner guide to the series and intern Hunter’s open plot threads piece), and replayed some of Kingdom Hearts II. Before starting a save file in III, I even watched all the Memory Archive videos, but it was about half-way through those that I realized I just don’t care. I enjoy the gameplay, world, level design, Disney references and Easter Eggs, and music enough that if that one facet of my Kingdom Hearts experience, understanding the larger story, is underdeveloped, then so be it. As I bounce around worlds, pay bills during cutscenes, and call in Disney attractions to absolutely destroy enemies and bosses, I am having a great time.