Kingdom Hearts is a wild mashup of properties that somehow, some way, fit together. But they don’t just fit together. They create something new with familiar parts. While there are new stories for Disney characters as well, the series is really the ultimate, mundane AU, or “alternate universe” if you’re not up on fanfic terms, for its Final Fantasy characters. Their inclusion in Kingdom Hearts has been a staple since the start — and a point of contention — but the fact that they exist in this strange new world at all gives them a new lease on life.
These characters are the central heroes of their own stories, facing bombastic, JRPG-level threats like fascistic megacorps. The fate of the world rests on their shoulders alone. But in Kingdom Hearts they’re rebooted: given a chance to try again. And this time they have access to totally different ways to change the world. While Tetsuya Nomura’s OC, Sora, is out there taking on the huge baddies, the displaced FF characters deal with far more mundane — but arguably just as important — issues.
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This crew of misfits has lost everything, but unlike Sora and Riku, they weren’t looking to leave home when everything went to hell. They’re still connected to the places they’re from. That binds them tightly to others from those far-off lands and gives them a unified goal. Even after they’re thrown into Traverse Town, losing their home worlds and everything they love, Leon and Aerith come together to create a close-knit group of activists ready to help through the crisis. They provide intel to someone better-equipped for the situation at hand (even if it’s hard to swallow that this carefree boy they’ve never heard of has a better handle on things). “Leon” still wants to be the JRPG hero, challenging Sora for his Keyblade, but realizes it’s not his place. He’s a support character in this world. And honestly? That’s really fucking cool.
Video games, more often than not, are power fantasies. Kingdom Hearts is no different. But it tempers this with the Radiant Garden: a new home for the wayward souls. After the events of the first Kingdom Hearts, the Final Fantasy crew returns to this home they once shared with series antihero, Ansem the Wise. Since the city is still in the wake of its own destruction, there’s a lot of work to do in order to get things back in shape. And because they love their home, the heroes are willing to put in the work to repair it, applying their particular skills to get the job done.
In a series as over the top as Kingdom Hearts, a subplot about refugees turned city council members is unexpected, but all the more powerful for its inclusion. While Sora and Riku are obviously at the core of the story, taking on larger than life villains and dealing with their own internal struggles, the Final Fantasy characters provide support, encouragement, and teach the value of investing in your local community while working together toward net positive change.
Making Better Worlds Together
When given a second chance, outside the strangely confining scale of their own games, these characters are allowed to become heroes in a more impactful way. Aerith doesn’t have to die in Kingdom Hearts. Instead she’s allowed to take a leadership role in her community to push for improvements and recovery post-disaster. Leon (a.k.a. Squall) gets a new name and a new position to fill — one that makes him responsible for the well-being of his friends and larger community. Cid can use his tech expertise to create a security system that protects citizens from monstrous Heartless still roaming the city. That ends up being fairly useful to Sora and the gang during their time there, as well.
Though they’re not center stage, these characters do important work that we don’t often get to see in end-of-the-world scenarios. And because it’s unique in the genre — even comparable to our own day-to-day struggles — it makes a more lasting impression than just another cosmic battle. That’s not to say it feels out of place, either! By taking the lead in restoring Radiant Garden, Sora has one less thing on his plate to worry about, and when a climactic battle against the Heartless does inevitably occur, these characters are there, ready to back the hero up on center stage.
Kingdom Hearts has always been about the power of personal friendships and the connections we have to people, but the Final Fantasy characters add a deeper level by showing that change on a local level isn’t just possible. It’s necessary. Just because there are people out there fighting the big flashy fights, doesn’t mean that what we do day to day, on the ground, isn’t just as important.