I was on vacation last week. In addition to wandering New York and enjoying some of the finest pizza on the planet, I finally finished Kingdom Hearts III. In the process, I found a moment near the end of the game that perfectly captures the series’ magic and excitement. It also highlights one of Kingdom Hearts’ greatest flaws.
After journeying through a handful of charming but inconsequential Disney-themed worlds, Sora and the gang are ready to face off against the dastardly Master Xehanort. He’s a grumpy old wizard dude who wants to summon Kingdom Hearts, which is the heart of the universe. Using that, he plans to restart existence and rule over a world where Light and Darkness are in perfect balance. That’s some pretty wild stuff. Sora and his friends arrive at the Keyblade Graveyard, the site of a massive war that took place countless eons ago. They square off against the bad guys…and lose. But there’s some magical shenanigans that allow Sora to come back, revive all his friends, and try again.
When the bad guys summon a swarm of Heartless, the series’ evil enemy monsters, Sora receives a vision of a young boy: Ephemer. A lot of players might not know who Ephemer is, as he’s from the mobile game Kingdom Hearts Union χ[Cross]. Thousands of keyblades soar through the air, and Sora rides them into battle against the Heartless. Each attack uses a different keyblade, with a character’s name—presumably a player’s name from Union χ[Cross]—and the result is this amazing spectacle of magic, friendship, and heroes triumphing over the bad guys. This summary makes it sound hokey, but where you see it in motion, it’s honestly some of the most stunning action in the entire series.
Invariably, this moment will get compared to the ending credits for Nier: Automata, where players are aided in a bullet-hell segment by other players. The player gets extra shooty bits and a shield made up of little representations of other players’ save data. The sentiment is similar here: Each keyblade is a player, and the bonds of the fanbase are uniting to give Sora strength. But the goal here is less existential than Nier: Automata’s, which was making a point about persisting in the face of impossible odds. Kingdom Hearts III wears its heart on it sleeve. This moment is a celebration of community. It is the big catharsis that players have been waiting for since the end of Kingdom Hearts II in 2005. It’s the explosive moment where Sora truly shows his worth as a Keyblade Master. It’s flashy, emotional, and the kind of anime bullshit that makes the series great.
But it’s also emblematic of the series’ larger issue: lore lockout. For all the talk of Kingdom Hearts’ confusing plots, the individual games are very sound. Characters have a wonderful tendency to state their motivations clearly, and even if you don’t know the full details, the raw emotional beats land. Underneath all of that is a tangled timeline of dark magics, prophecy, and more. That’s the thing people are really complaining about when they mention Kingdom Hearts’ convolution. You can see it here with Ephemer’s sudden appearance. Who is this boy? Well, to explain that, you need to know about the first Keyblade War, which also means knowing about the different Unions, which means knowing about the Master of Masters, which also means knowing who the Dandelions were….And seriously, why is Ephemer suddenly here? Without this knowledge, the moment gets robbed of context. It’s still a great moment—badass moments are what Kingdom Hearts excels at—but it’s a moment predicated in part on knowledge of a mobile title that many players have no experience with.
It’s also a little confusing and presumes maybe more interest in the broader lore than is reasonable. But I loved it—the music, the lights, what it meant for Sora. I loved the intense victory rush it gave me: the resounding feeling that good can triumph against all odds. It’s Kingdom Hearts condensed to a single moment. Emotional, resonant, experimental.