Kingdom Hearts 3 & Disney’s Controlling Hand

I’ve been playing Kingdom Hearts 3 and it’s been an up and down journey. While on the one hand I’m enjoying the moment to moment gameplay and there have been some genuinely great scenes and events, there’s also been something missing from a lot of the worlds so far.

Kingdom Hearts as a series is ostensibly about being able to interact with the Disney worlds and characters you love. It’s what attracted hordes of children and teenagers to the series when it debuted in the early 2000s. There was something magical about getting to explore Agrabah with Aladdin and swim through the ocean with Ariel.

But some of that magic is missing in KH3. Perhaps it’s because the Disney of 2019 is different from the Disney of 2002, but there is a corporate oppression lurking in the shadows of KH3’s overall design. I just completed Arendelle, the world based on Disney’s Frozen, and it was by far the worst and most glaringly obvious showing of Disney’s influence on the game. And considering I’m a person who hasn’t seen Frozen but was still frustrated with the world…well, that’s saying something.

Spoilers for KH3 Disney worlds and their plots will follow – no spoilers for any overarching KH plots will be in this article.

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Regardless of anything else, Kingdom Hearts 3 has achieved Pixar quality graphics.

The game’s first Disney world (which is basically the introduction to all the KH3 mechanics) is Olympus, which has been in most previous KH games. It has what is probably the closest plot to the original KH games – Hades is summoning the titans to take over Olympus. Cool. Hercules runs around with you and you fight monsters and save people in Thebes. Awesome. Eventually you fight all the titans, which are some great boss battles.

But then after that, Hades gets all angry and…Hercules tells him to leave. And then he does. You don’t fight Hades, he just goes off mumbling to himself about how he’ll be back, blah blah blah. And that’s it. There’s a brief “Yay we did it!” cut scene and then you’re done with the world.

What?

Like, sure we fought Hades in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2…but that was thirteen years ago! Where’s the actual climax? What is this wet fart of a conclusion? Especially if this is the last iteration of Olympus we see?

The way KH3 treats the Disney villains in this game is very weird. In the Toy Story world, there’s no Sid; there’s no Lotso. The antagonist is one of the KH villains and the final boss of the world is a spaceship. You get to interact with Woody and Buzz and a few other Toy Story characters, sure, but the driving plot of the world has no Toy Story villains in it whatsoever.

And the other worlds are similar. Randall antagonizes you throughout Monstropolis, but you never fight him and he is calmly escorted through a door for his conclusion, much like Hades’ exit. In the Tangled world, you interact with the villain once in a brief conversation and aren’t even present for the climax, before fighting a giant Heartless boss that is vaguely flower related? Which I guess relates it to Tangled maybe?

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The selfie tool is also really neat!

Compare this to KH and KH2, where you fought all kinds of Disney villains. You fought Clayton riding a giant Heartless chameleon in the Tarzan world. You fight Jafar pretty much every time you visit Agrabah. You get to show down with Scar in the Pride Lands. Hell, for most of the first game you think Maleficent is the Big Bad! This is exciting stuff! You actually get to face these iconic villains from your childhood! That’s why people became endeared to the KH games in the first place!

But again, the first KH games came out in the early 2000s. And sure, Disney’s always had a controlling hand with their properties (and we won’t even go into how they bent copyright law to their will). But there is very clearly a tighter leash on KH3 than there has been in the past. And no world magnifies that leash more than Arendelle.

Your actual interaction with any of the Frozen characters is slim to none, and almost all of it is in cut scenes. You speak to Elsa once. You watch an almost shot-for-shot remake of “Let It Go” with a few shots of Sora, Donald, and Goofy mixed in. You speak to Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf once and there’s a short (and kinda funny but also kinda annoying) sequence where you have to find Olaf’s scattered body parts. And you fight Marshmallow as a boss, who then joins your party very briefly for the climax.

That’s it. The actual world is you exploring an ice labyrinth that has nothing to do with the movie, and then climbing the mountain to get to Elsa’s palace not once, not twice, but three times. I haven’t seen Frozen, so I actually had to have the plot semi-explained to me by my girlfriend because you barely get to see any of it. And to top it all off, the villain of the movie only shows up for about thirty seconds of total screen time and has no speaking lines before turning into another giant Heartless boss. Even in the post-boss conclusion of the story, Sora doesn’t even interact with Elsa, Anna, and the others. He just looks at them from afar and says “They’re pretty awesome!”

The director of Kingdom Hearts has already said that Frozen had the most restrictions placed on it by Disney and it definitely shows in the final game. It’s almost like Disney feels the need to “protect” the popularity of the Frozen brand by making the world as curated an experience as possible. Arendelle feels like the product of a Frozen marketing meeting. “Here are the boxes that must be checked: Must have ‘Let It Go’ sung in its entirety for the millionth time, cannot explore Elsa’s palace, must not deviate from Frozen story in any way, must have as little interaction with non-Frozen characters as possible to not confuse brands.”

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This is the most interaction you get with Frozen characters. I’m not joking.

A fan of Frozen would probably get crazy excited about exploring with Elsa and having awesome ice magic as a party power. But instead, Elsa and the Frozen IP is placed on a pedestal to be admired from afar instead of giving fans a chance to truly live in the Disney worlds they love so much.

This curated, shallow Disney experience permeates throughout Kingdom Hearts 3. Toy Story starts in Andy’s room, but the majority of the world is a generic toy store with no real Toy Story references. Where’s Pizza Planet? Or Sid’s house? Why am I playing Armored Core in this world instead of having awesome Toy Story related adventures?!

Disney has more and more power – over movies, television, comics, and now they’re paying more attention to video games. It makes me worried for how they will sanitize Star Wars. Will future Star Wars games only have Han Solo with one speaking line before you explore a generic desert planet named Notatooine? Will there be strict instructions that you have to watch Luke blow up the Death Star in a cut scene – you can’t interact under any circumstances?

I get that the classic Disney has a family friendly vibe and they want to keep their characters from being bastardized. But if I wanted to watch Disney movies, I would watch them – not play Kingdom Hearts. Video games’ greatest asset is that it is an interactive medium, but they seem to have cut some of those options for KH3 and the game is a little disappointing because of it.

It’s sad because I waited many years for KH3 and was very excited for some of its worlds. But corporate, controlling Disney seems to have forgotten that its characters are supposed to inspire fun, not be displays in a museum labeled “Do Not Touch.” Maybe one day they’ll learn that their tight grip on content is crushing creativity instead of inspiring it, and they’ll choose to…

…let it go.

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