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May 3, 2018

I Still Like Kingdom Hearts, Despite Everything (Part 2)

I’ve been thinking about this before I started playing Kingdom Hearts 3D the other day, but now that I’m back in, I feel like I have to ask:

Is it just me, or is Sora the cause of countless problems in the canon?

Okay, wait, hold on.  Let me explain.  I don’t mean that question as a way of suggesting that Sora is everything wrong with Kingdom Hearts.  I mean given what we know -- or given what I know, prior to completing 3D -- I’m wondering if a lot of problems could have been sidestepped if Sora didn’t exist.  The obvious counterargument is that without Sora, the bad guys would’ve won.  On the other hand, how close have the bad guys come to winning because of our hero?  Remember, in KHII Organization XIII wanted to use the Keyblade wielder to slaughter Heartless en masse so they could create their own version of Kingdom Hearts.  And Sora obliged them even after he learned about their master plan.  It’s not like he had a choice, but still.  How close to the brink were all of the worlds, just because of one saucy boi?

Organization XIII has been trying to make use of Sora since their existence was outed in the canon.  At the time (barring King Mickey), no one else could use the Keyblade, or a Keyblade at least.  So what else could they do besides manipulate him as they saw fit, from kidnapping his pals to screwing with his memories, all the way up to making a decisively-unstable clone of him?  If at any point their plans went through, KH would be telling a much different story for its third chapter.

Really, though, I think the biggest issue with Sora isn’t how much he puts the plot at risk.  It’s the personal, emotional cost at play -- that his mere existence is enough to ruin lives.

Roxas was a mistake.  An accident.  Sora couldn’t have possibly known that plunging that Keyblade into his chest to save Kairi would have given birth to a being that shouldn’t even exist.  But actions have consequences, and Roxas is proof of that.  Having rewatched KHII in its entirety -- plus the Final Mix additions, as well as Days -- recently, I’m viewing the canon from a different perspective.  Was Roxas mishandled in II?  Yes, and severely.  Do I like him now more than I did when I did my playthrough years ago and pretty much wrote him off?  Not necessarily.  But I get him more than I did back then, and I actually kind of appreciate what he brings to the table.

Roxas ended up gaining sentience, identity, and willpower -- a level of humanity that you wouldn’t expect from a creature called a Nobody.  He may have worked with the bad guys just because they got close to him first (imagine if King Mickey recruited him instead), but his goals ultimately splintered off from those of Organization XIII.  He just wanted to live a quiet life with his friends and some ice cream.  But Sora took all of that away from him, even when he spent a year in cryosleep.  Roxas’ anger, frustration, and hatred come from a real place, even if the recipient of that hate caused the Nobody’s anguish through no fault of his own.  Then again, whoever said anger has to be rational?

Sora being alive either facilitates the villains’ plans, or tampers with the lives of those stuck in between.  Again, I haven’t finished 3D yet, but based on the dialogue I’ve seen so far?  I’m inclined to believe that Sora -- if only by accident -- is keeping every other character in the game locked inside his heart.  He shared some of his light with Ventus, which presumably tethered them together (which would help explain why Ventus and Roxas share a face).  And because Ventus is in there -- possibly against his will, trapped and with no hope of escape without outside intervention -- I can’t help but wonder if his dark half Vanitas is locked up, too.  And Xion?  That’s a bit of a pull, but at this stage nothing would surprise me, least of all the ersatz owner of his memories still existing in some capacity.

It makes me wonder if there’s a hidden point to all of this.  The Sora I know has, for the most part, been a glib, spirited adventurer entrusted with a sacred weapon.  All well and good, but let’s not pretend like he’s the brightest bulb in the box; he’s simple-minded, childish, and reckless.  (Friendly reminder: he stabbed himself with a black Keyblade.)  Yet his biggest weakness may be one that’s been staring us in the face all along: ignorance.

Sora’s gotten out there and seen what’s in the multiverse.  Again and again, he’s expressed childlike wonder and whimsy.  He sees good guys?  They’re his new friends.  He sees bad guys?  Time to whack them with his key.  Friends missing?  Better go find them.  How much time has he put into learning the full extent of the worlds he’s visited, or the nature of the powers around him?  Or even the power he wields?  Does he really understand what it means to have the Keyblade?  Does he even know what the Keyblade is?  The KH canon is over 15 years old, but if anything, it seems like he’s getting dumber.  More childish.  More innocently naive.  That won’t fly forever, given that he’s sharing a body (?) with someone with every right to resent him.

And Roxas isn’t the only one with that right.  Birth by Sleep showed that Riku and Kairi both had Keyblade connections through direct contact with Terra and Aqua, respectively.  The Sora/Ventus connection was an accident -- a merry coincidence that for the time proved pretty convenient.  Imagine how Riku must feel, knowing that he’s the taller, stronger, smarter, braver, wiser, and (probably in his eyes) handsomer of the two, but the Kingdom Key chose Sora over him.  Twice.  All of Riku’s passion and ambition don’t mean anything, because in the eyes of fate, an idiot is better-suited for the job.  And the girl.

Riku giving into the darkness throughout KHI?  Bad move.  But in a way, I can’t blame him for it.  He calls out Sora for (in his eyes, but no doubt in the eyes of others) frolicking his way across the multiverse to pal around with assorted Disney crews.  While he’s goofing off with a pants-free duck, Kairi is practically comatose, Destiny Islands has been effectively erased, and hordes of hellspawn are crawling through one dimension after another.  Results and progress are essential, not good feelings and fun.  Is it any wonder Riku adopted a “by any means necessary” approach?

And what about Kairi?  She and Sora got separated at the end of KHI, and for a while it looked as if they would never meet again.  Then Chain of Memories happened, and she forgot about him -- only to remember all at once in KHII, with all of the distress and emotional turmoil that that implies.  That pain doesn’t go away, even if the game doesn’t really address it.  You would think that Sora would opt to go visit her given that he has access to the Gummi Ship; granted, I assume the built-in reasoning is that the bridge to Destiny Islands is gone, so Sora had no choice but to stay separated.  That’s fine.  I get it.

…Still doesn’t explain why Sora’s reunion with Riku is WAY more pronounced than his reunion with Kairi.  If I were her, I’d be more than a little bitter.  Probably not as bitter as Sora’s parents, though -- who I pray to God he talked to between games, because otherwise his mom’s been waiting over a year for him to come to dinner.

Sora being the OG Keyblade wielder (in terms of chronological, IRL release dates of the games) used to mean that he was special -- different from all the rest, and the most important person in the universe.  Nowadays, not so much…at least not in the traditional, “chosen one” sense.  He’s saved the multiverse at least twice, which is good.  But he’s also (directly or indirectly) endangered it at least twice, which is not so good.  He’s a wildcard, a joker that can utterly shatter the multiverse if he ever stepped out of line -- or worse yet, if he merely chose to do nothing and let the actual, smart people wield his power.

If things don’t come to a head by the end of 3D -- and I suspect they will -- then they’re bound to reach the apex in III.  We’ll see in full what sort of person Sora is, knowing full well what he’s been up to this point; more to the point, we’ll see where he goes, and what sort of man he’ll decide to be when the credits roll.  So at the absolute bare minimum, I’m looking forward to the third chapter because it means I’ll get to spend more time with Sora, AKA the fulcrum the whole franchise pivots on.  But there’s more to it than that.  The past 1500 words should be all the proof you need.

The reason why I still like Kingdom Hearts is because, despite everything, it actually has a good story.

Is that the right description to use?  I don’t know.  Probably not, given who and what we’re dealing with.  But right now, that’s the description I’m sticking with.  KH has as many faults as there are stars in the sky, yet here I am -- and here we all are -- eager to see the “end” that’s coming up soon.  Is it just because of the sunk cost fallacy?  Because of some morbid sense of curiosity?  Because we’re all tethered to the franchise thanks to the chains of nostalgia?


But it goes further than that, I think.  It really says a lot about this franchise when it can make so many people do what so many other franchises fail to do: make people care.  They care.  I care.  While there are various elements of the canon I could do without, the core elements are what have kept me going all these years, so much so that I’ve managed to avoid all but hints of what goes down in 3D.  I have an investment in the story that manages to transcend whatever justified disdain I lay out.  If I didn’t, then would you have seen me use up multiple paragraphs in this post alone explaining my cocktail of headcanon and analysis?

The good parts of KH are what drive me forward -- and there ARE good parts, no matter what anyone says.  Sora is one of the good parts.  His optimism and cheer are what make KH work; his childish sense of wonder are what make his adventures through the Disney worlds feel genuine -- sincere, and able to crack the shell of even the most jaded adult.  I’m assuming that 3D will make us (and Sora himself) see the flaws deep in his core, but even KHI managed to give him some depth.  

He was some doofus pretty much trapped on his island home, forced again and again to acknowledge his inadequacy in the face of his pal Riku.  Gaining the Keyblade and going on his first adventure made him feel special, but it was all (partly) a facade.  A farce.  He was a dumb kid who got to play hero -- and only became the true hero once he proved his strength of heart.

THAT’S what makes me like KH.  When it’s dealing with abstract metaphysics and schmaltzy platitudes, it’s trash.  But it can go into unique, and even exciting, territory when it drops the pedantry and becomes relatable.  Concrete.  In fact, I’ll go a little further.  Instead of the game constantly telling us how important it is to have friends and how much power they give, they just need to show us friends being friends in a natural, not-stilted way.  BBS and Days crashed and burned on that front.  KHI and II, and chunks of 3D as well, haven’t.

Can’t imagine why.

I think that KH is at its best when it goes for charm -- and it does that surprisingly often, assuming that its best characters are at the helm.  With that said, I don’t want to devalue everyone else that isn’t in the main trio.  There’s a reason why Riku has been a consistent force in the canon, and I appreciate what he offers in contrast to his comrade.  KHII turned him into a needlessly-grim caricature of himself, but his KHI incarnation brings some important traits to the forefront: confidence, wit, and ambition.  And, thankfully, 3D is doing its best to run him back to his original characterization, or maybe even something better than that.  If Sora is becoming more childish as the story progresses, then Riku is becoming more mature -- contemplative, but not the emo sadsack you’d expect from the genre and the company.

Even at some of its worst, it’s not as if KH is irredeemable.  Organization XIII has been horribly mishandled for years now, requiring multiple investments into multiple games and devices to get the full treatment of the canon’s pivotal villains.  But with that in mind?  Even if the band of Nobodies has nothing to go by except for a few key gimmicks, they’re good key gimmicks.  Or good enough, at least.  In the US, Luxord got nothing between his first appearance in 2006 and his second in 2009.  He had nothing to go by except for a couple of flourishes in the brief time he spent onscreen.  And you know what?  Even though I’ll argue that he and the others need more characterization -- and argue even when I’m on my death bed -- the bastard is still my favorite of the bunch.    

I would say that KH stumbles ass-backwards into a fair amount of its depth and thematic heft, with the rest being…tolerable…at best.  But the franchise as a whole can and has delivered on shallow, knee-jerk thrills.  I’ve argued again and again that you should be able to enjoy a work on more than just that shallow level, but damned if this franchise hasn’t tried to make me eat my words.  And in some ways, it’s succeeded.  

The Disney worlds may end up truncated in each game, but in a lot of cases their charm still manages to shine through -- so the core gimmick of the entire franchise remains, in spite of the nearly-completed sabotage by Squeenix.  Exploring these worlds in KHI was interesting, but the Flowmotion system in 3D kicks it up a notch, reviving the breadth and vertical draw of the levels.  The animations continue to be as expressive as the Disney animated canon’s best -- bouncy, stylized, and full of energy.

And the soundtrack.  Let’s not kid ourselves here.  The soundtrack is virtually unrivaled.

Whatever Yoko Shimomura is getting paid (or has gotten paid), it’s not enough.  It should be doubled all the time, every time.  Video games are as much about their sounds as their sights, so for all the franchise’s faults, the soundtrack is far from one of them.  I could embed any one of a dozen tracks and fail to capture how incredible the music is.  I could embed more than a dozen tracks and fail to capture how incredible the music is.  The only thing that could possible trump KH’s music is the HD remixed, orchestral music for the remastered versions -- tracks I only recently learned existed, but now have no choice but to grovel in the face of.  

And even though I’ve harped on the gameplay before, I’ve got no problems admitting that A) even at their mash-happy worst, it’s not enough to make the games any less than passable, and B) given the improvements (IMO) in 3D, I’m inclined to think that things are looking up.  The last fight against the Heartless in the End of the World was a highlight for me.  The Thousand Heartless Battle in Hollow Bastion went all out to try and bridge the gap between raw spectacle and gameplay thrills.  And now in 3D, I’m eager to take on hordes of Dream Eaters to put my combo-building skills to the test.  Despite everything, I’m still playing these games for a reason.

I have no clue what’s going to happen with this franchise going forward.  There’s a part of me that thinks the best way to guarantee KHIII is a quality game is to make sure it has a budget rivaling the GDP of a small country.  With enough resources, the game could take the production values it’s always somewhat banked on, and use them to blow all our asses out of the water.  More animation; more dynamic, kinetic scenes; more worlds with a massive scale; more incredible music; more characters, major and minor; more, more, more.  I want to see the third chapter utterly overwhelm us from all angles.

Why?  Because KH as a whole hasn’t fully lived up to its potential.  The first game was a good start, but those who say it’s shown its age aren’t wrong for it.  Subsequent games have had their issues, whether it’s with the gameplay or the story.  (In the former’s case?  I’d bet that it’s harder to reach an epic scale when you’re cramming sprawling adventures into pocket-friendly devices.)  With the PS4 fully embraced by nearly 80 million players -- as of writing -- there’s never been a better opportunity to get the most out of the technology, the franchise, and the love of the fans.

And that love doesn’t come from a wrongheaded place.  It’s real.  It’s powerful.  I know, because I’ve felt it too.  I feel it, too.  Because despite everything -- despite flaws, failures, and every fumble along the way -- I still like Kingdom Hearts.

And I get the feeling you do, too.

Thinking of you, wherever you are.
We pray for our sorrows to end,
and hope that our hearts will blend.
Now I will step forward to realize this wish.
And who knows:
starting a new journey may not be so hard
or maybe it has already begun.
There are many worlds,
but they share the same sky --
one sky, one destiny.

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