It’s funny that Kingdom Hearts III‘s battle system so heavily emphasized the use of Disneyland attractions because the game itself was a rollercoaster full of peaks and valleys. There’s a lot of good in the game, but there’s also so much wasted potential buried deep within it that the ending left me unsatisfied. In some ways, this isn’t Kingdom Hearts III‘s fault entirely — the immense weight of a decade of spin-offs begging for any sort of concrete story progress put an almost oppressive air on the trilogy’s finale, which was not helped by the six-year wait from announcement to release. With Square Enix’s announcement of Kingdom Hearts IV — ostensibly a brand new story in the Kingdom Hearts universe — they have a chance of finally and actually making good on the opportunities Kingdom Hearts III squandered.
To say Kingdom Hearts is inaccessible for newcomers is a gross understatement. Despite Square Enix’s protestations otherwise, it takes at minimum two games to figure out the fundamental idea the series wants to express and a dozen more to get all the details. In theory, Kingdom Hearts III put to bed most of the lingering plotlines since the first game’s release in 2004; in actuality, it teased a new adventure at the end with connections to all the characters people already know and love. That means Kingdom Hearts IV could conceivably combine its love of the familiar with the one thing the series has always failed at employing well: restraint.
Kingdom Hearts III felt like it was simultaneously trying to exercise restraint while giving in to its own deepest and darkest excesses by framing the story as a regular old adventure across Disney worlds for Sora and his animal companions. Toward the end of the game, the title reverted back to the wild and complicated intrapersonal Keyblade War story that desperately needed resolution but also maybe more breathing room than it got. The end result is a game that appealed to a very narrow set of players while everyone else found the Disney worlds too rote without enough story progress, or the story progress too tempestuous without enough self-discipline.
But I think that’s what gives Kingdom Hearts IV the opportunities that Kingdom Hearts III either didn’t have or didn’t capitalize on. There aren’t expectations for Kingdom Hearts IV to finish off the remaining Kingdom Hearts story or even to rein it in. It doesn’t have to do anything besides be a good video game that combines Disney properties with action gameplay. It will, of course, do more than that — there’s generally no way to stop Tetsuya Nomura and Kazushige Nojima from being themselves — but it can lay down that foundation first before they figure out in which ways they want to punch through the walls they put up. It is time, I think, for the Kingdom Hearts series to have its introspection moment.
In the build-up to Kingdom Hearts III, the pressures of creating a finale to a kraken’s worth of tentacles didn’t allow the time or space to consider the ways in which the series can grow itself. Despite some skeletal connection and sinew tying it to older games, Kingdom Hearts IV can rethink what being the fourth (or sixteenth) game in a series can mean, as well as the myriad ways its creators can modernize Kingdom Hearts titles without losing fans attracted to the premise. In a game about discovering the fantastical, Kingdom Hearts has played its cards largely conservatively. The team at Square Enix now has the chance to explore a world of their own making by letting this game, pardon the pun, soar on its own wings.