Mild spoilers for the Kingdom Hearts games below.
With the release of Kingdom Hearts 3, the franchise that originally brought the Disney and Final Fantasy universes together has been propelled back into the limelight. At a glance, it’s easy to see why so many fans are eager to return to the series that defined a generation of gamers. The familiar characters weaved throughout gorgeous landscapes, both original and based on some of the many Disney franchises and Final Fantasy locations, appear to be the main reason that the series is adored. Topped with accessible gameplay and some stellar sound design, it’s no surprise that Kingdom Hearts 3 broke franchise sales records in both the UK and US.
Considering the amount of longform YouTube essays you can find that spend thirty minutes trying to explain the timeline of a 14-game series that’s somehow only just getting to its third main instalment, it’s safe to say that the storyline of Kingdom Hearts is convoluted.
It’s not all fun, games, and getting goofy on Destiny Island though. The lens of nostalgia is strong, but it can’t hide everything wrong with the series; the most notable problem being the fact that most of the time no one knows what the hell is going on. Considering the amount of longform YouTube essays you can find that spend thirty minutes trying to explain the timeline of a 14-game series that’s somehow only just getting to its third main instalment, it’s safe to say that the storyline of Kingdom Hearts is convoluted. Its fans have even jokingly adopted the term “getting ‘norted”, to describe the trope of the main villain, Xehanort, possessing or inhabiting characters throughout the games, something that has happened upwards of thirteen times.
Even with the main villain pulling double/triple/quadruple duty, and everyone and their mother trying to explain what’s actually going on plot wise, the series has never strayed from being one of the most popular series in gaming. In a modern time where the earliest KH fans are all grown up, and single-player titles like God of War show how a poor story can make or break a whole game, how is it that Kingdom Hearts has never really suffered commercially because of it?
The characters are so personable and entertaining that, despite everything wrong with the timeline, it’s hard not to get invested in Sora’s journey.
You can really boil its continued success down to one simple fact: Kingdom Hearts is just plain fun. As said before, the stylish combat, compared to other JRPGs, is engaging and easy to pick up. The characters are so personable and entertaining that, despite everything wrong with the timeline, it’s hard not to get invested in Sora’s journey. Besides, it doesn’t matter how old you are — fighting hordes of the heartless in a fantasy RPG setting with Goofy and Donald Duck is sure to fill you with some ridiculous sense of childhood wonder. It’s a series loved by both hardcore and casual gamers, by Disney fans and JRPG purists, by young and old, because it goes all out. Even if that means a ridiculous story, everything else about the game is so stylised and unique that it is easy to overlook while you’re taking everything else in.
Kingdom Hearts will always be infamous for its timeline, there’s no doubt about it. But it is also known for breaking the conventions of its genre, inspiring fans from different generations, and featuring some of the most visually and sonically appealing gameplay of the era. This franchise has cemented itself into gaming and pop culture history. Truly, you only have to understand some of it, to enjoy all of it.