Kingdom Hearts III is an awesome game. Its sense of spectacle and emotional payoffs for over a decade of character-driven lore are enough to make this landmark franchise sequel one of the best-reviewed games of the year. That said, throughout the series I have had and continue to have big problems with the driving, interactive force running this bizarre, heartfelt show: the combat.
While often fast and loose enough to get by, with more and more verbs and Frankenstein-like features bolted on to make it all work, this kingdom still sits atop a shaky foundation. I have a proposal. It is one that might inspire some fun reactions, but nevertheless is both feasible and defensible.
Square Enix should bring Koei Tecmo in on the next Kingdom Hearts.
First, let’s talk about the Koei Tecmo brand and what that encompasses. There are multiple teams within Koei Tecmo and multiple franchises or series with different goals. But with the exception of Gust’s RPG fare, most of these titles are not only action-oriented, but are generally exceptional or high quality experiences. Some of that is debatable, such as the divisive nature of the Musou series. But there are also easy classics, such as the Ninja Gaiden series, Dead or Alive (the fighters, not the volleyball nonsense), and the more recent hit Nioh. I just happen to be a pretty big fan of Musou, so you can bet that’s going to be a big factor in this argument. That’s especially because there are so many similarities in Kingdom Hearts to the Musou style (or rather, a misguided perception of it).
Boiled down to its essence, Kingdom Hearts has always been about building a bridge between simple action gameplay and Final Fantasy‘s menu-based structure. With various changing parts of the controller, players use a “submenu” that looks generally like a classic Final Fantasy menu in tandem with mashing the cross (and sometimes triangle) buttons. This has varied in complexity over the years, bringing in things like “Flowmotion,” team attacks, attractions, and more. But fundamentally, Kingdom Hearts often struggles with a bit of an identity crisis.
Not unlike the recent Darksiders III, Kingdom Hearts often can’t decide if it’s a hardcore character action game with a heavy emphasis on timing and defense or if it’s, well, a fancy Musou game with anime-ass air combat. When you get to mash that cross button, Sora (or Roxas, or Ventus, or Riku, uhh) flies through the air, spinning around like a human yo-yo and stringing together huge combos. In Kingdom Hearts III, you can even run on walls and fly through the air, making even trivial encounters against jabroni heartless look like a deleted scene from Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. Combined with the context-sensitive Flowmotion maneuvers and over the top, screen-filling special moves you can access, and Kingdom Hearts has grown into one of the most visually impressive character action games in a world in which Platinum Games exists.
Until Kingdom Hearts decides it’s time for you to trip and fall.
An important part of character action games, one that is often understated, is limitation. Limits imposed by the game design are what defines the experience and establishes the rel identity of an action title. This is the fuel that sets apart Ninja Gaiden from Devil May Cry, for example. Kingdom Hearts doesn’t want to have limits, that much is evident in how Nomura’s storytelling has progressed over the past decade-plus. But it imposes those limits anyway, because that’s what’s in the rulebook. Like Dante, Sora can only take so many actions before he has to stop. Like Ryu Hayabusa, Sora has to occasionally defend himself. Unlike those two, Sora doesn’t handle these things well.
When it’s time for Sora’s airborne antics to end, he freezes and awkwardly floats back down to Earth like a bubble full of soap. He can block, but not without halting everything he’s doing first and dealing with not only what his enemies are doing, but his own reluctance to do so. He can also dodge, but the Kingdom Hearts team has not once settled on how a dodge roll should function across so many titles. Frankly, it’s no wonder the poor boy failed his keyblade mastery exam.
While the Kingdom Hearts team (or teams over the years) often struggles with its big ideas, the folks at Koei Tecmo have combat down to a science. Each of its unique games establish clear senses of identity and purpose, with expertly-communicated rules and limitations that makes playing them a breeze. Except for Metroid: Other M. The Musou series is the most comparable to Kingdom Hearts, with a running theme over the years of removing player limits and leaning into cancels and giant combos. Nioh slides perfectly into that popular Dark Souls-like space, with more intense aggression but that same emphasis on defense.
Ninja Gaiden is arguably similar (and first), as its punishing encounters are based on fishing for and capitalizing on openings. In recent years, Team Ninja itself has showed a surprising capacity for exploring new spaces, with its partnerships with Nintendo. Not only did Team Ninja join in with Omega Force to expand what Musou could be with games based on Zelda and Fire Emblem, but it will also be talking on the Marvel Ultimate Alliance series in 2019. There’s also Metroid: Other M. We don’t talk about Metroid: Other M.
Metroid: Other M is bad, is what I’m saying.
Now, this is all fine and good. Sure, Koei Tecmo has action chops. But you may be wondering what the hell that has to do with Kingdom Hearts, one of Square Enix’s flagship franchises handled exclusively in-house. Well, there’s precedent. Koei Tecmo and Square Enix already have a healthy relationship, and both Omega Force and Team Ninja have already touched the top of Square Enix’s IP ladder. The companies have collaborated on multiple Dissidia Final Fantasy titles, and multiple Dragon Quest spinoffs. Koei Tecmo was even brought in for Dragon Quest Builders 2 with the express purpose to improve the combat from the first game. There you go.
I’m not necessarily suggesting we should see that “KT” logo on the box for Kingdom Hearts IV (I mean, I totally am, but baby steps are fine too). However, if nothing else Kingdom Hearts is known for a vast library of spin-offs. Granted, those spin-offs are all canon anyway, but I digress. Personally, I think based on both the trajectory of the series and some stuff that went down at the end of Kingdom Hearts III, that we’ll be seeing the next part of the story before we see that fourth roman numeral land. And when we veer into that space, it’s the perfect opportunity for some experimentation. And with Koei Tecmo on board in this hypothetical situation, we could end up with a game that can truly hang in the space it wants to occupy.