As a person who once held the Kingdom Hearts series close to his heart, it was a bummer to watch the announcement trailer for Kingdom Hearts IV and be filled with indifference, and maybe even a bit of dread. But after Kingdom Hearts III concluded the story of protagonist Sora and antagonist Xehanort, watching the series expand into something even larger than its already complex crossover of Disney and Final Fantasy doesn’t evoke the same excitement I felt seeing Kingdom Hearts III’s announcement trailer back in 2013.
I’ve rebuffed a lot of criticism the Kingdom Hearts’ series has received over the years. Absurd naming conventions aside, I don’t have much of a problem with the franchise — even its major narrative reveals in games that aren’t the three numbered RPGs. Each game is a crucial piece to the series’ puzzle, which was established as far back as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories on the Game Boy Advance in 2004. The second game wasn’t a numbered entry, but it set the foundation Kingdom Hearts II would build on when it launched two years later on the PlayStation 2. I’ve always found criticisms of stories that require a holistic knowledge of previous works as being “too reliant on other entries” dismissive, as these are ongoing stories being written as such.
That said, releasing the series on multiple platforms across console families was more egregious, and was thankfully rectified by the collections Square Enix put out that released most of these games (or at least their cutscenes) on any platform. Those collections alone feel like an acknowledgment from Square Enix that it has not handled the rollout of these games in an easily digestible way for a layperson. And that gives me hope that whatever Kingdom Hearts IV is starting, the series will continue in a way that makes it more accessible to a larger group of people.
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But still, I wonder: is this a ride I want to get back on? Despite knowing Kingdom Hearts III isn’t the end of the series and was simply a conclusion to a nearly two-decade-long story arc, I was content with it. I love a heroic sacrifice, and I can live with Sora being tragically taken from his loved ones (even if the ending’s execution left something to be desired). But then came the DLC and the new story beats that followed. Then a rhythm game. And alongside Kingdom Hearts IV, the announcement of another mobile spin-off. It just has me thinking, for all the new beginnings Kingdom Hearts IV promises, has anything really changed? Or should I still expect a story to be given to me piecemeal until I’m in my late 40s?
Kingdom Hearts IV has plot beats to resolve that we already know about. The game is apparently the beginning of the “Lost Master Arc,” which seems to be taking Sora to worlds that don’t look too different from ours. Donald and Goofy are still in the mix, seemingly trying to meet up with Hades from Hercules as they search for Sora. So the elements of Kingdom Hearts we know are still here. But this has never been a series about conciseness. As its conflicts expand, they bring new rules about what we could expect Sora to see as he passes through Disney worlds. And I think, the bigger this universe gets, the less invested I’m feeling. It’s never been an issue of being confused by what’s going on, but rather that the constant escalation and expansion feels less daring than honing in on something definable.
I stood by Kingdom Hearts up until Kingdom Hearts III, and that was largely because I believed it was building toward something, though it seemed to be putting the tracks down as the train was already moving. Even if I didn’t love the third numbered entry, I did get a conclusion, satisfactory or not. But now, the universe expands farther and beyond a scope I couldn’t have fathomed when Sora first got his Keyblade 20 years ago. There are Disney worlds I still want him to see, and stories I’d love to see Square Enix riff on. But the ground that he once stood on feels shakier, and less defined with every new entry. Seeing him fight a heartless in a city that looks like Tokyo is just making it clearer to me than ever that we are getting farther and farther from home. Between now and when Kingdom Hearts IV launches, I have to determine if I’m willing to get back on the train, or if I even care if it leaves without me.