Back in the good old days of Generation 7 (let’s say 2007-2010ish), there was considered a holy trilogy of sorts for long awaited, eagerly anticipated games. The first one was Duke Nukem: Forever, a largely ironic pick that eventually materialized into a completely forgettable, rather terrible game. The second one was Half-Life 3, which at the time (post The Orange Box) was considered an actual possibility! Like I said, good old days. But the third long awaited sequel in this triangle was — of course — Kingdom Hearts III.
Yes, Kingdom Hearts III was something of a white whale for gamers, especially the ones who grew up with it as a part of their video game upbringing. In fac, here’s a quick story for you: back on my first day of college, I was outside talking to one of my new neighbors. He noticed my shirt (a Dead Space tee, which was the style at the time), and we got talking about video games. He was a tattooed, bro-y, stoner type, and I’m prejudiced, so I thought he would be in to things like Call of Duty and the like. And for the first part of the conversation, that proved to be true. We conversed about the latest CoD game for a bit, and it was overall a pretty simple, unsurprising icebreaker discussion. But then, unprompted and completely out of the blue, Stoner Neighbor said something I would have never expected out of him:
“Yo, when they fuck are they making Kingdom Hearts III, though?”
I mean, to a certain degree, it made sense. Before he spent his days cosplaying as James Franco from Pineapple Express, the dude was just a young kid…assumingly (like, he didn’t come out of his mother with long blond cornrows and smelling of weed, right?) At one point in time, he was just a kid who played video game in the early 2000’s. And if you were a kid who played video games in the early 2000’s, you played Kingdom Hearts. You just did.
This is The Force Awakens of gaming – so why does it feel like I’m waiting for the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story?
Because, despite being a weird ass turducken of Final Fantasy grafted onto the world of Disney, I would consider Kingdom Hearts something of a cultural touchstone of my generation of gamers. Its familiar Disney worlds and characters unlocked the grander universe of JRPG’s to a new generation of players, in a move that turned out to be rather ingenious for both Square Enix and Disney. The first two sold like hotcakes, and spun off a a series of very successful games, only second to the aforementioned Final Fantasy in terms of Square’s largest heavy hitter franchises. And yet, nearly 17 years after the release of the first game, the series is barely approaching its third “main” entry, with Kingdom Hearts III. My ne’er-do-well neighbor had a point: where was Kingdom Hearts III?
But on this point, on the eve of the games launch, the question is moot. We might not have known where Kindom Hearts III was then, but we know where it is now: sitting in a truck, being delivered to homes and stores worldwide as we speak…at least, I hope. Frankly, I still haven’t ruled out this as a long, elaborate con by Disney and Square Enix, and that the game is being delayed yet again (you know, for old time’s sake!) But as close as we might stand to the release of Kingdom Hearts III, one thing keeps weighing on my mind: no matter how hard I try, I just can’t get all that amped about the launch of this game. And I can’t help but feel like I’m not the only one. This is The Force Awakens of gaming – so why does it feel like I’m waiting for the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story?
Well, the issue is two-fold, but I’ll start with the more minor offense: frankly, the advertising has been kind of terrible for this one. The game set a strong precedent early on with its debut teaser trailer, which pulled on its nostalgic themes and next gen presentation to wow everyone watching Sony’s E3 presser back in 2013. It was a short, but evocative look at the game that left gamers everywhere clamoring for more.
But since then? It’s just been a baffling set of weird decisions from Square Enix when it came to advertising this game. Over the six years, they released approximately 9,000 different trailers, each vaguer and emptier than the last. It put the game’s marketing in this weird place in which it was showing too much, and also not showing anything at all. It was all just so disposable – a reminder that the game was indeed happening (All those “In Development…” title cards became something of a running joke in my neck of the woods), but never really presenting why we should care. Every trailer just started to feel like someone at Square Enix saw some person testing out a completely random portion of the game, eyeballed it for a few seconds, threw the same bad song badly edited on top of it, proclaimed “Good enough!,” and released it to the world in the form of a “trailer.” And don’t forget, the trailer was entirely in Japanese, if there was any dialogue at all.
And though I appreciate the commitment to having trailers that show actual gameplay, rather than just fabricated CGI short films that show nothing about the game itself…maybe this is one of those times a few trailers like that would have gone a long way in making the anticipation palpable for folks like me, who need a little bit more than “YOU CAN TALK TO ELSA FROM FROZEN IN THIS ONE” to really get amped. What would that entail, exactly? I don’t know, and what worries me most is that the people behind Kingdom Hearts III didn’t seem to know either.
You can’t help but feel like the Kingdom Hearts III‘s trailers were purposely keeping things close to the chest, especially in the story department. For a while there, all that would happen at the end of the random gameplay sample is a ten second moment of a cutscene, with some plot reveal that would fall flat for all but the hardcore, and seemed only to be a part of the “trailer” as a way of saying “yeah, there’s still an overarching story here, guys!” Which, for the faithful, is probably enough. They care about the overarching story, at least to some extent. But for me…how do I couch this in a way that’s sensitive to the fans, the creators, and everyone else involved. Ah, got it!
Who gives a fucking shit?
Yeah, I know: that’s a bit harsh. But it’s really the only thing I can think of to explain the hulking, messy beast that is the Kingdom Hearts narrative. I mean, let’s be clear: the Kingdom Hearts story was NEVER all that amazing to begin with but, at the very least, it was compelling enough to keep me invested in the game. Hell, I would say really invested. I played Kingdom Hearts II more times than I can count. I liked all the Roxas stuff, for god’s sake (it’s probably plodding now, but weirdo kid me was all in on it.) I even did something that is both A) extremely nerdy B) deeply embarrassing and C) very on brand for both kid and adult me. On my third playthrough, I took the entire game and, as I played it, I divided it into “episodes” and seasons. With titles and shit, guys. TITLES. I probably still have the notebook for that under my bed, although lord knows I would prefer to never look at that ridiculousness ever again. But my point is this: even if I can look back now and realize the story was merely passable (at best), when I was young, I LOVED IT. So even purely for nostalgia’s sake, I should be eager to pick this one up.
But here’s the sad thing: this franchise passed me by a long time ago, and it’s not entirely my fault for that. Just the pure number of spin-offs in between the second and third game is overwhelming and, frankly, the quality of them was rather enthusiasm killing. I tried Birth by Sleep, I really did. But I got bored just a few hours in, and coupled with my frustration in playing a game of that type on a Sony PSP (of all things!), I just had no desire to keep going. “But hey,” I thought to myself at the time, “No big deal. I don’t have to play all these spin-offs, and there’s no harm in just sitting back and waiting for the actual sequel to come out.”
Except no, apparently. There was a LOT of harm in waiting for the sequel, as these “spin-off” games decided to actually set up important plot points and story directions for the third entry. And not just in a way that “fills in” what’s going on – from all reports, Kingdom Hearts III begins with our characters immediately after the events of the last handheld game (I want to say Dream Drop Distance? All the weird KH titles blend together.) So unlike other games with long in development sequels, there’s a whole swatch of content that me – and many others like me — completely missed out on. And well you, overeager Kingdom Hearts fan, might yell at me that Square re-released all the games for me to “catch up” on before part 3…yeah, they did. For PS3 and PS4, two consoles I don’t have permanent ownership of. This, despite the fact that Kingdom Hearts III will be multiplatform with Xbox One and, if anyone needed a re-released collection of games to catch up, it would be Xbox owners. And that’s not even getting into the fact that, by all accounts (and by all attempts to have others fill me in on the story up to this point), the whole thing is a gigantic fucking mess. The story is convoluted, and there’s nothing for me to latch on to because of it.
Which, again: isn’t a breaking point for me, per say. Well I still believe story is key for most games, I don’t have to be 100% into it in order to enjoy the experience. And, to be fair to myself, saying I have no interest in Kingdom Hearts III would be a lie: I’m picking up my pre-order tomorrow. Despite everything, I still want to see what this game is and, if anything, whether the fast paced action/RPG gameplay (which I loved to death in Kingdom Hearts II) at all stands the test of time.
It’s not like I’m writing this to explain why I don’t care about the release of this game: I very much do. But 12 year old me would be losing his absolute shit right now, and my anticipation just isn’t even close to that level. I’ve presented a couple of the reasons why this is the case for me (bad marketing, bizarre franchise structure, etc.), but the unspoken third thing is an idea that, conceptually, I’m not even confident about: am I just older? Did the part of me that loved Kingdom Hearts just grow up, and nothing that this series could try would truly bring me back to the warm place that it previously had in my heart (GET IT?)
That’s a danger inherent in all these long in-development sequels: will the long wait just make fans all the more eager for the project when it finally launches? Or will you run the danger of making them wait so long that, eventually, they just start to lose interest? It’s the risk these “decades later” sequels always take, and sometimes holding back ends up working out well (The Force Awakens! Creed! Toy Story 3!) And sometimes it doesn’t (who the fuck even asked for a second Independence Day movie, really?) Unfortunately, when it comes to my personal take, I’m thinking Kingdom Hearts III, in its nine years to an official announcement, and its five years of development time after, ending up skirting far too close to the later category.
But that’s very much not a set-in-stone judgement, and these things of course vary by the person. Which is something I do want to make clear: before I stop writing this treatise and continue my vain effort to complete the story of my current game before starting this next one (Red Dead Redemption 2 is just so much game, you guys), there’s this: as always, I can only speak to my personal experience here, and I know I’m far from the universal case, with pretty much everything. Even though I am lukewarm going into the release of this game, I know PLENTY of people are over-the-moon for it, and absolutely salivating to get their hands on something they’ve waited nearly two decades for. And who be it for me to be the asshole to rain on their parade, and take that anticipation away from them? Coming off of pretty much the exact same thing with last week’s release of Glass, I absolutely get it: the heart wants what the heart wants. And not everyone’s heart is the same, right? That’s the beauty…of hearts.
(The last three sentences were my homage to every single dramatic exchange of “dialogue” within the Kingdom Hearts series. Not too shabby, huh? I’d like to say I kid because I love but, well…)
If you’re one of the hardcore Kingdom Hearts fans out there in absolutely euphoria to see the release of Kingdom Hearts III: godspeed. I wish I was standing right there beside you. Instead, I’m slightly off the sidelines, shrugging his shoulders well saying “Sure, it could be fun.” My only hope is that getting my hands on the game and actually getting back into the experience will do more than years of HYPE! ever could.
For what it’s worth, I’m still left just thinking about my old stoner neighbor. I hope he’s excited for tomorrow.
Also published on Medium.