Kingdom Hearts month: Holding back the years – retro appeal or timeless game design

KH3 title

By Neil Merrett

Kingdom Hearts 3, Released in 2019 on Playstation 4 and Xbox One, developed by Square Enix

Non-gamers may be surprised to find the melancholic characters from AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories stuffed into Kingdom Hearts. This is a series of games that brings together the storytelling tropes of Walt Disney with the introspective narrative of Japanese RPGs developed by Squaresoft, such as Final Fantasy.

Yet much like Winnie the Pooh and the other colourful denizens of the 100 hundred Acre Wood that that are now somehow part of the Kingdom Hearts games, the series seems to exist in its own distorted sense of time, untouched by the broader technical development and innovations in video gaming.

This is true certainly from a plot perspective, where the 100 Acre Wood serves as an otherworldly place where, childhood innocence and naivety is preserved untouched, outside of the normal passage of time. But it is also the case from a development perspective, where much of the series core gameplay and locations have not significantly been revamped or overhauled in the last decade, beyond graphical flourishes and some new places to visit.

In many ways, the core concepts of the Kingdom Hearts series have not changed since the first title, a mashup of the characters and worlds of Walt Disney is mashed together was the esoteric RPGs of Japanese developer Square, was first released on Playstation 2 in 2002.

Over more than a decade and a half of software and hardware development, the core series is still about playing a wide-eyed young boy battling monsters with enchanted keys that are brandished as swords.  This is all done while facing up to convoluted metaphors about souls, hearts and darkness.

With the third official title now released after more than a decade of releasing spin-offs and remakes of earlier titles, modern hardware has allowed for slightly more complex combat where characters can scale walls and magically hurl themselves into aerial battles.

At the same time, an array of existing and new game worlds, often based on populer Disney fairytales and Pixar properties such as Toy story, are beautifully realised in the game via atmospheric HD.

Yet Kingdom Hearts has not followed many other long running game series that have attempted to try and modernise by embracing the concept of an open world that can be widely explored for its mysteries.

The worlds of Kingdom Hearts 3, as is the case in a number of handheld spin-offs and 2006’s Kingdom Hearts 2, are well realised, but limited arena-like levels that the player navigates in a series of enclosed battles and quests.

The beautifully-realised ‘Realm of the Gods’ for instance, a level that recreates a key setting of Disney’s retelling of Hercules, is much like a living cartoon, where an entire palace is built of lush, whispy cloud.

KH3 gods

Yet this most colourful of levels that seems to extend out into the limitless heavens, is actually limited like all of the game’s worlds.

Kingdom Hearts is not billed as a retro game, but it remains a throwback to a style of world building from the early 2000s. These are worlds complete with platforms and hidden alcoves, but also sometimes invisible walls and barriers that force the player down a limited number of paths.

The technical limitations of the Playstation 2 and original X-Box meant that levels were intended to be limited and therefore clever design was needed to create a sense of immersion.

Aided by the idiosyncratic design and appeal of Walt Disney films, there is a thrill to revisiting Kingdom Hearts built on a strong sense of nostalgia not just for timeless cartoons, but a unique and sometimes perplexing game series that is now in its literal teens.

The limited arenas built for Kingdom Hearts 3, are not necessarily a bad thing, and do have some benefits in creating a tighter arena to battle more classic Disney foes, as well as the game’s own creations of heartless and nobodies that are created once characters sacrifice or lose themselves to their darker impulses.

Equally, the opportunity to scale Rapunzel’s tower in a beautifully designed hidden glen in order to launch yourself upon some unsuspecting foes is a strangely immersive experience despite the relatively limited areas to explore.

Combat is where the game is perhaps most changed, with a range of new yet somehow familiar techniques added to the player’s moveset. This provides a strange mix of thrilling button combinations, magic attacks, and quick parkour-esque movement, all built around hitting bad guys over the head with a giant key.

The game throws some surprises into the mix, such as special minigame-like attacks using the design and mechanics of classic Disney theme-park rides, or the opportunity for miniature mech battles in an expansive shopping centre.

At the sametime, the game mechanics can create strangely complicated and confusing confrontations based on quick-time button presses that are barely used elsewhere in the game. This is particularly the case when battling scaled up creatures such as the gargantuan titans of Greek and now Disney legend early in the game.

Yet amidst these new HD worlds, are some of the same old levels and locations used regularly throughout Kingdom Hearts series. These are all now all visually reimagined with a new HD lick of paint, yet strangely the same in terms of their design, geography and size. For series veterans, it is literally revisiting places from their youths as if nothing has changed.

The character may have new abilities, but the strange old mansions hidden deep in a wood outside the ‘Twilight Town’ level continues to exist untouched from previous games.

For many, proceeding through Kingdom Hearts for good and bad will be like be revisiting their younger years and misspent childhood.

This is literally going back to places you knew once ago. Although it may be a digital recreation of a building – that doesn’t make it any less tangible to come back to.

KH3-body

There may be certainly more to do in Kingdom Hearts 3, from quests whereby the player must capture hidden Mickey Mouse emblems hidden around the world with their camera phone, to fleshed-out exploration and combat in your very own spaceship. But there are also the same populer mechanics of cowering levels for treasures, hidden weapons and secret ending to find.

This has always been the appeal of Kingdom Hearts, for those who enjoy or even put up with the series.

Ironically, the sometimes unchanged worlds in which the player continues to playthrough, will serve as a stark contrast to the changes in many gamers’ lives since they first picked up the series.

There is comfort then in this, as well as likely frustration of a tried and tested, yet sometimes antiquated gameplay-style.

While the series may be a 3D adventure game with an often glorious orchestral score – rather than the 2D pixelated graphics of the 1980s often associated with the term retro – retro is perhaps the most fitting term for Kingdom Hearts.

This is an old fashioned way of making games when you consider how much change there has been in the way we play and design games. This is not how we expect our 3D worlds to play and feel, although it is very much what many will expect from Kingdom Hearts.

Everything the player may remember of the series – everything they may have loved or hated, and all those associated emotions and feels – is all still here at the push of a button.

As we seek to either embrace the thrill of change in our lives, or hold on to facing certainties, it is perhaps nice to know that the silly and throw away things you once loved can still do something so profound, even for just a few hours.

Not a terrible legacy for a Disney game then, even one without an open world or a Moana level.

But it is impossible to come away from Kingdom Hearts 3 and feel that this isn’t a lovingly realised retro game.  For some, it may well feel antiquated in the PlayStation 4 era.  But for others, it may serve as one last satisfying hurrah for the series’ now 17-year old game mechanics and level design.

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