Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

Why Kingdom Hearts must return to consoles


This is a column by Kat Bailey dedicated to the analysis of the once beloved Japanese RPG sub-genre. Tune in every Wednesday for thoughts on white-haired villains, giant robots, Infinity+1 swords, and everything else the wonderful world of JRPGs has to offer.

It's time for Kingdom Hearts to go back to home consoles. Square Enix have scrunched four of these games onto tiny handheld screens now – five if you want to count the oddball Chain of Memories. That's five games worth of parsing the shadows of Traverse Town in the glare of the sun while riding the bus. Five games worth of Kingdom Hearts' nausea-inducing camera on those tiny screens.

Enough already. If Final Fantasy Versus XIII is actually dead and buried (which Square Enix says it isn't – but whatever), then shift all those internal resources to Kingdom Hearts 3 and be done with it. It's a disservice to the franchise, the source material and the platforms to keep squeezing these games into such ill-fitting confines.

Okay, I've got the light rage out of my system. The sky is not falling. Birth by Sleep and now Dream Drop Distance are perfectly serviceable games. But is the series reaching its potential on those platforms? I don't think it is. Barring some drastic change, Kingdom Hearts is always going to be better-suited for home consoles than handhelds. It's in the franchise's DNA. It's even evident in additions like Dream Drop Distance's new "Flowmotion System," for instance, which sends Sora bouncing off walls and objects, like lamp posts and even enemies. It's not a bad idea and would be a nice addition to a console game. On the 3DS screen though? There's just too much going on.

Gallery: Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (7/17/12) | 34 Photos

I wouldn't call Kingdom Hearts a deep action game – it's certainly nowhere near the level of an Assassin's Creed or a Devil May Cry – but it's still pretty big. Just the addition of an extra dimension, which must be constantly monitored during battle, can feel taxing when riding the bus. I've been picking up Dream Drop Distance on and off for about a week now, but my sessions rarely last longer than 30 or 45 minutes. The fast pace of action, the smallish enemies and the dark levels just make my eyes hurt.

Admittedly, it's better now than it used to be. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days for the Nintendo DS was an admirable technical effort, but its raw blend of blurry textures and clashing colors made it hard to look at. By comparison, Dream Drop Distance is very easy on the eyes – smooth textures, impressive models (an appearance by Ursula five minutes into the game really takes the cake), and solid pyrotechnics bring it closer than ever to replicating the look and feel of the PlayStation 2 games.

Kingdom Hearts, however, is a partnership between Square Enix and Disney. One trademark of classic Disney animation is its grandeur – sweeping vistas, complicated action sequences and lavishly animated characters (Pinocchio's escape from Monstro is still one of my favorite action sequences ever). The first two games were far from perfect, but they did their part in capturing that elusive sense of grandeur that is so important in Disney films through the mid-90s. It's not a feeling that is easily replicated on handheld screens.

Then there's the fact that by keeping one of its most important franchises on handheld, Square Enix has boxed itself in. Dragon Quest worked in part because of its classic format and its unique take on multiplayer. Final Fantasy has a million different permutations, some of which work really well on handhelds (see: Final Fantasy Tactics). With the exception of Chain of Memories though, Kingdom Hearts has always been the same. Thus far, Square Enix has declined to take the series in new directions, and a complete reinvention seems out of the question until a Kingdom Hearts 3 is developed. And Square Enix is definitely not going to put a true Kingdom Hearts sequel on a handheld (Dragon Quest IX, as I've already mentioned, is something of a unique case).

Much as I understand Square's predicament, I don't feel like they're doing what's become a flagship franchise any favors.

Unfortunately, the net effect is that Kingdom Hearts is now stale. After multiple spinoffs, most of the pertinent questions from Kingdom Hearts 2 have been answered, and there's not a lot for Sora and Riku to do. In some ways, Dream Drop Distance is the equivalent of Dagobah from The Empire Strikes Back: Sora is off training and learning to be a Keyblade Master. That's great and all. Let me know when they finally get around to kicking off that war they've been hinting at for ... what? Two or three games now?

I suspect that the delays have something to do with Square Enix's resources being stretched by Final Fantasy XIII and Versus XIII – projects that have taken up their attention for some six years now. Under better conditions, I'm sure Square Enix would love to put Kingdom Hearts 3 on the PS3, Xbox 360 or the Wii U. But much as I understand Square's predicament, I don't feel like they're doing what's become a flagship franchise any favors; where the announcement of a new Kingdom Hearts might have once generated intense excitement, it's only garnering yawns now. It being basically the same in form as its original 2002 incarnation, and on a less-than-optimal platform to boot, is only serving to accelerate the malaise.

At this point, I think it's time. A return to home consoles would be good not only for Square Enix and its fans, but RPGs as a whole. It would at least partially reinvigorate one of the genre's most popular franchises – one of the rare Japanese-developed RPGs that has retained some level of global popularity. The time has passed for handheld ports and spinoffs. If Kingdom Hearts can't start anew, at least let it return to the platforms that it's best suited. Then, at least, Square Enix can begin looking to the future.

Kat Bailey is a freelance writer based out of San Francisco, California. Her work has been featured on multiple outlets, including GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, gamesTM, and GameSpot. You can follow her on Twitter at @the_katbot.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr