On the metaphorical eve of NEO The World Ends With You, the palms of DS era game nostalgics sweat with anticipation to finally once again dive into that fashionable culture labyrinth called Shibuya (assuming they didn’t play any iteration of Persona 5), though they’ll have traded their dual-screen Nintendos for Joy-Cons and Dual Shocks in this modern era. Why we are launching an article supposedly about Kingdom Hearts 2 with a TWEWY non sequitur has an actual answer: Beyond both being SQUARE ENIX melodramas in which buckle-wizard Tetsuya Nomura holds a heavy stake in and partially but not exclusively relating to the fact that The World Ends With You gang crosses over into the sole 3DS entry Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, there is also that sky in the NEO Twewy cover-art that exactly resembles the sky on the Kingdom Hearts 3 box, not to mention what its secret ending signals.
However, we’re not here to discuss what all these implications could suggest, but rather what them ‘suggesting’ anything at all says about the state of Kingdom Hearts.
Kingdom Hearts 3 released after a 13-year gap since the previously mainline entry of the highly beloved and influential Final Fantasy and Disney amalgamation. Not even the deepest trenches of fan-fiction could manifest before it existing. That release was a miracle for exactly three groups of people: those who played each and every Kingdom Hearts spin-off game no matter how superfluous; younger folk that had always heard about the series but didn’t want to play PlayStation 2 games; and those who stopped exactly after Kingdom Hearts 2 came out.
You might remember upon Kingdom Hearts 3 releasing that every video game-centric web publication and YouTube channel had their own version of ‘Kingdom Hearts Timeline Guides’, and to everyone’s credit they were necessary/ As those in the Kingdom Hearts completionist group would warn you, each spin-off since KH2 further extended, twisted, and complicated the franchise’s lore and every following release would require to understand all of it.
Arguably, Kingdom Hearts 3 faced down the barrel of a gun called ‘impossible odds’ since its very inception. 13 years of fan’s deepest hopes, wildest imaginations, and endless hype created an unobtainable spectral image demanding that this game be perfect. Of course, Tetsuya Nomura orchestrated such a twisted web of hard-to-follow events, adding mind-shifting and time-traveling to the already complicated framework, having multiple kinds of alternate versions of characters called Heartless and Nobodies depending on what criteria were met, and he was determined to incorporate every last detail one could find in one of those YouTube videos called ‘Here’s All That Wacky Kingdom Hearts You Missed Because You Didn’t Play All 358/2 Spin-Offs.’
Yoko Taro didn’t require you to play Nier before playing Nier Automata. Shigeru Miyamoto never released a prequel called Super Mario 63. But Tetsuya Nomura’s no such man, routinely and increasingly committing to every single creative decision he’s ever made for better… or more specifically… for worse.
We’re now two and half years post the release of Kingdom Hearts 3, with one pretty decent DLC, one unnecessary but fine rhythm game, and a half-new mobile entry being released in that interim, and fan consensus now equipped with that double-edged ‘hindsight’ keyblade declares KH3 a mixed experience.
Some fans, holding onto their 13-year crystalline ideal vision of the game, scorned the result for not living up to their expectations, forgetting that they themselves are no longer impressionable teenagers. KH3 took advantage of current-day technology to deliver truly stunning interpretations of Disney worlds, significantly more of a wonder to traverse through than any previous game. But unfortunately, Kingdom Heart’s mythology being complicated alone wasn’t the problem: What held it back from the get-go was its insistence of beating you over the head with every forgettable detail, and too neatly wrapping those details up, instead of telling its own story or embarking on any truly new territory.
Conversely, Kingdom Hearts 2 entered the world on a silver platter, and the stars seemingly had aligned just for it. That isn’t to say that it’s not ultimately deserved of its reputation as the pinnacle of the franchise. It further elevated the pure magic and melodramatic moods of the original game, weaved in a significantly fuller story that raised all the stakes for Sora, Donald, and Goofy, and supported its unlikely narrative of mini-cult overtaking Disney worlds in hopes to regain their humanity with richer and more varied gameplay.
While Roxas’s inclusion was first met with confusion, fans quickly opened up soaking in Twilight Town’s atmosphere watching his bittersweet slice of Kingdom Hearts story play out all the way to the KH1 secret-ending fever dream turned playable The World That Never Was.
While Kingdom Hearts 2 undeniably delivered on all of its promises, really holding as the entry that solidified the franchise as its own force, separate from co-collaborators Final Fantasy and Mickey Mouse, fans would have ate it up, regardless. With only the sparse original game, and a story-heavy but limited Game Boy advance spin-off, to go on, the then hyped-up teen legion of fans who came into the franchise as starry-eyed adolescents were hungry for anything.
Kingdom Hearts 2 happens to be the best Kingdom Hearts game, but a horde of cosplayers and proto-cosplayers wanted it to be the best Kingdom Hearts game. Kingdom Hearts 3 didn’t live up to every expectation, but its now jaded-adult fan base held it up to impossible standards. They never allowed for it to be its own experience, but then again, how could have they when Nomura didn’t either? By incorporating every single piece of KH minutia haphazardly laid out by handheld spin-offs for 13 years, KH3 never had the chance to be its own thing.
Those who’ve kept up since know that Nomura once again seems to be setting up something grand, with NEO The World Ends With You being spiritually part of the puzzle, whether all the signaling canonically ends up a red herring or not.
While a strict adherence to previously tethered lore netted mixed results in the past, Nomura’s doing something very different this time around: The reanimation of Final Fantasy versus XIII in other games, after it was taken out of his hands and labeled Final Fantasy XV by SQUARE corporate overlords.
Said reanimation could shape into one of the most ambitious experiments in all narrative story-telling, not just gaming. And through it, Nomura has found something meaningfully new to do with Kingdom Hearts once again, weirdly with that very same thinking that limited it in the first place.