Kingdom Hearts is a strange beast. To the uneducated observer, the series is a convoluted procession of sequels, prequels and spin-offs, a curious, mixed-up game world that is a mess of seemingly completely different influences, and an incomprehensible story that baffles anyone not versed in the lore. Those who are passionate about every minute detail of protagonist Sora’s long-running quest are starting to get excited, though, as Kingdom Hearts III is scheduled for release in 2017 (well, the optimistic ones at least). And there are millions of those fans out there, make no mistake. So why, exactly, does Kingdom Hearts have such enduring charm?
It has the broadest appeal
When Kingdom Hearts released in 2002, it was a huge success, building an instant and adoring fan base. Though the series hasn’t always hit the heights of the original, the trend has continued as the series has evolved and iterated in the years since, right up to the recently released (and crazily titled) Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, which topped the charts in Japan on launch. To date, the Kingdom Hearts series has sold well in excess of 20 million copies worldwide.
It’s not hard to see why the franchise has done so well across the globe. The combination of recognizable Disney and Final Fantasy characters is just the concoction to entice both young children and adult gamers, so even at face value, Squaresoft (Now Square Enix) were onto a winner before a single button was pressed.
But it's not just the clever implementation of well-loved characters and settings that gives the Kingdom Hearts series its broad appeal. It’s the integration of these elements within a plot that is truly epic in scale, giving the game that quintessential JPRG flavor which builds the series’ attractiveness to a wide audience. The way Disney favorites like Donald Duck, Mulan and Simba are woven together into the same rich story was unprecedented in 2002 and is still unmatched today.
This approach was not in place from the start, though. Originally Kingdom Hearts was developed to be exclusively targeted towards a younger audience, with a much more simplistic, less sweeping story. It took a meeting between executive producer Hironobu Sakaguchi and Tetsuya Nomura to change the game’s trajectory. Sakaguchi reportedly told Nomura that the game would flop if the development team didn’t aim for a level of polish comparable to that of the other big role-playing franchises in the Squaresoft stable, such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. History has proven that approach correct, and although we can’t say for certain, it’s certainly difficult to imagine the series having the same longevity if it continued its purely kid-centric original path.
It’s (mostly) critically acclaimed
Over the years since the original’s release, there have been 11 additional games in the Kingdom Hearts series, including a true sequel in 2005’s Kingdom Hearts II. It’s fair to say that over the course of these many games spread across multiple platforms, the strength of the central story in Kingdom Hearts has been diluted somewhat. Tiny nuggets of individual characters’ stories and small details relevant to the game’s story are often dispersed over multiple games, leading to diehard fans having to buy every game to gain a complete understanding of the lore. This confusing strategy has led to some truly unnecessary games that seem to expand the game’s universe very little, leaving many to wonder why the obviously considerable talent being put to work on the series hasn’t been applied to another mainline sequel earlier.
While it’s true that Kingdom Hearts’ lore is pretty impregnable to an outsider, and the constant stream of confusingly titled spin-offs and remasters does nothing to help that situation, the overall quality of the series has, by and large, stayed pretty high. Looking at Metacritic scores for the franchise as a whole reveals that the original game and its mainline sequel garner the majority of the praise, with scores of 85 and 87 respectively. But perhaps surprisingly, only Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain Of Memories, a PlayStation 2 remake of what was originally a Game Boy Advance title, and Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, another remake, this time of a Japan-only mobile game, achieved aggregate scores of less than 70.
This is a remarkable achievement when you consider the sheer breadth of gameplay that has been given a Kingdom Hearts label: From card-battle mechanics to puzzle-solving and, of course, combat, the developers have not been afraid to try out different approaches within the series. Games have also been spread across various formats and multiple generations of hardware, including Sony’s PSP, the Nintendo DS, and even web browsers. To maintain a level of consistency while developing for all these different platforms is admirable.
The JRPG is back in the mainstream
Since FFXV did crazy numbers at launch, there must be a sense that the Japanese RPG has once again begun to edge its way back into the mainstream gaming consciousness in a way it hasn’t been since the days of Final Fantasy VII’s original release.
Now is surely the perfect time to reintroduce Kingdom Hearts, a franchise which has the potential to be the most mainstream JRPG of them all, with its plethora of characters that are highly recognizable to a Western audience. If Square Enix play this right and try to ensure Kingdom Hearts III isn’t quite as inaccessible as other entries into the series, then it may attract even more fans, hooking them in just in time for the series to kick into high gear once the promised new story arc begins.
Yes, this is perhaps the most important reason of all why Kingdom Hearts still matters over 15 years after its first release — there is story left to be told. The developers have promised that Kingdom Hearts III will conclude the trilogy which started with the original game, finally bringing the resolution fans have been waiting for.
But after this conclusion, there’s no talk of an end to the series. Kingdom Hearts will continue, and Square Enix will be hoping it will do so with a bunch of new fans, and a renewed vigor. The future certainly looks bright for the franchise. The smart money’s on Kingdom Hearts becoming an even bigger success in the years to come.