Kingdom Hearts and Story-Gameplay integration

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how Kingdom Hearts uses its gameplay to enhance its story more than people give it credit for. Now, gameplay and story integration is one of those things the more pretentious of us gamers like to give lip service too, but it’s hard to define. For the purposes of this article I’ll be defining it as aspects of the gameplay that either greatly contribute to the feelings the story is trying to convey, or when the gameplay conveys something without the use of cutscenes. All said, when used well, gameplay-story integration has the potential to make moments much more impactful than they would’ve otherwise, and the KH games do this beautifully, in my opinion.

Now I would love to tell you that the Kingdom Hearts games developed by the Square Enix Tokyo studio – which are often praised as being the best in the series – had amazing moments of this practice, but I can’t. Trust me, I was really prepared to say KH1 and CoM did this well (when they’re some of my favorite games) but they just don’t. If anything Kingdom Hearts 2 is the worst at this with moments like the kind-hearted Sora having a menacing expression as he chops through buildings in the gameplay, but then stopping to talk with the villain like he normally would. It all just undermines itself. No,the games developed by Square Enix Osaka are much better at this. Not that this is exclusive to Osaka Square overall of course; it’s just that Tetsuya Nomura himself never seemed to care about this sort of thing until the late 2000s with Crisis Core.

Which brings me to the first example of Kingdom Hearts attempting some form of gameplay-story integration: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days.

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days and Monotony of Work

In Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, we take control of Roxas during his days as a member of the dastardly Organization XIII. His daily routine is to wake up, get orders from his boss, do whatever they say, get paid, and go to bed. For nearly an entire year this routine is unbroken. Even when there’s personal drama and a JRPG plot unfolding this routine, this is all Roxas knows.

The gameplay of 358/2 Days consists of scouting worlds by going to various locations, fighting the same few enemy types, and occasionally fighting bosses that are either reused from the first three games or are recolors of other enemies. These same few tasks are repeated over and over again for 91 missions.

The gameplay of 358/2 Days is criticized as being monotonous and repetitive, and that’s because it is. Just as Roxas is stuck in this work cycle, you are stuck in this monotonous gameplay loop. At the end of each day we go to the top of the clock tower to have ice cream with our friends, even when Roxas knows they won’t show up he goes anyway because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly do.

And that’s nearly all of 358/2 Days. Even when the higher ups mistreat you, even when you know they’re working against your best interests, no matter what they do to you and make you do, Roxas simply continues to work for them and you continue the same gameplay loop.

It’s only at the very end of the game when Roxas has lost nearly everything that he decides he can take no more and leaves, breaking the cycle. His second to final diary entry sums it up better than me: “I am done with this!”.

However, the Organization doesn’t accept resignations.

Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep and an Unlikely Bond

This one’s pretty short, a standard modern Tetsuya Nomura finale that takes advantage of a gameplay mechanic to add some emotional weight to the story.

Birth By Sleep has an interesting mechanic known as D-Links. When you meet a character in the story and your character becomes friends with them you’ll be able to switch to a D-Link moveset where you have several attacks and a few passive abilities based on that character. 

Depending on who you ask D-Links are either a completely useless mechanic that they chose to never use or one of the most broken mechanics which they used to beat the true final boss in a matter of seconds. No matter where you stand on D-Links as a mechanic, there is one moment where you are required to use one:

During the final boss fight of Ventus’ story Vantias throws the X-Blade at the ground of the Station of Awakening, shattering it. Breaking Ventus’ heart physically and metaphorically. Once this happens Ventus is unable to use any of his normal attacks and the player is forced into a D-Link, one with a character Ventus has formed an unlikely bond with: Vanitas

For this final battle these ill-born twins are parallels of each other in every known definition, even their moveset. To win this battle you must fill up the D-Link gauge by using Vanitas’ own attacks against him in a fashion comparable to rock, paper, scissors…or you can just spam shoelaces, another mechanic that is either completely overpowered or “I didn’t use it” depending on who you ask.

Kingdom Hearts 3 and the Break of Daybreak

Environmental storytelling was never something really attempted by the Kingdom Hearts franchise. The worlds in this series have always been closer to theme park attractions than real living places. The closest we really got is the Keyblade Graveyard’s existence, however that’s more an environment to match the exposition than the environment telling the story itself.

With the final boss of Kingdom Hearts 3, the series dips its toes into attempting this. The final boss fight of Kingdom Hearts 3 takes place in an area called Scala Ad Caelum. As of May 30th 2021 there is no longer any real mystery surrounding this location, however back in January 2019 what exactly this place even was was up to debate in the fanbase as the game doesn’t say anything about it.

However those with a keen eye would notice something during the second phase of the fight. At this phase Xehanort brings the battle with Sora to under the water of Scala Ad Caleum’s sea. Under the sea here is an upside down destroyed city. Once here players of the mobile game Kingdom Hearts Union Cross would recognize one of the biggest buildings well.

Scala Ad Caleum is Daybreak Town, or rather was built over Daybreak Town. However even upon recognizing this building all we had to go on was theories until the Kingdom Hearts 3 DLC: ReMind a year later.

One of the best parts of this DLC was being able to walk around Scala Ad Caleum’s outside of the Xehanort boss fight. While exploring players come across a moving mural depicting Daybreak Town, the sky of the mural turns red and all but the word Break fade from the title before things are built anew as Scala Ad Caelum. 

Players of the mobile game would soon learn more details about the break of Daybreak Town, but for players who only played the main series this environmental storytelling is more than enough and set the fanbase ablaze for nearly a year.

Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory and Our Perception of Genre and Death

The genre of Rhythm games is one many would never expect story-gameplay integration from, and why would you? A majority of rhythm games don’t even have a story and those that do like Melody of Memory don’t really try to tie it into the gameplay. For the first 90% of the game Melody of Memory’s story is practically nonexistent. Just a narrator recapping the plot of Kingdom Hearts while you play a rhythm game with songs from the series. However, during its final hour Melody of Memory plays its hand.

Once you have cleared the Kingdom Hearts 3 songs the final world of Melody of Memory opens up. What came after the Keyblade Graveyard in Kingdom Hearts 3? From Kairi’s perspective: The Final World. In the Kingdom Hearts universe The Final World is the afterlife, no other way of looking at it. Souls wander here for eternity. Here in Kingdom Hearts 3 we play as Kairi in The Final World. The top right of our screen has the fragments of Kairi that Sora collected in Kingdom Hearts 3 to restore her, but as we wait for him to collect them we’re just flying in the sky endlessly.

You play through a song where you have no score counter, no points chain to congratulate you on hitting several notes in a row, no health bar, and no way of seeing how long the song is. Just endlessly flying not knowing if it will end. One of the most carefree genres in the gaming industry, rhythm games, is being used to portray a somber period of death. To me this small moment, one that most people either completely glossed over or just didn’t see because they instead chose to look up a cutscene compilation online is one of the highlights of the Kingdom Hearts franchise.

This section is hauntingly calm

I’ve always been one to appreciate unique forms of storytelling in gaming (it’s part of why Musou is my favorite gaming genre) and for Square Enix to surprise me by doing this in a rhythm game of all things commands respect, and all the moments mentioned in this article do. 

Tetsuya Nomura games in recent years have excelled at moments like this, not just the Kingdom Hearts franchise, but they rarely get talked about over other aspects of the games or making jokes about his style being confusing.

Kingdom Hearts and Square Enix games in general have been aspiring in recent years to blur the line between Story and Gameplay and while I often see games like Nier praised for this I rarely see the exact same praise thrown toward Kingdom Hearts and Crisis Core. Tetsuya Nomura is an excellent game director. People may complain about his plots or how long it takes these games to release but he always puts out an excellent product that inevitably takes normal “gamey” things and crafts a beautiful story around them

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