Like almost any child born in the ‘90s, I was obsessed with all things Disney. When Mulan came out on VHS I would watch it, rewind it, then immediately watch it again. There was only one other thing I’d obsessively spend that much time on: Final Fantasy. After my introduction to Final Fantasy VII, I played it no less than four times in the course of a year. Needless to say, when 11-year-old me saw a video game with Donald Duck, Goofy, and a spiky-haired protagonist that looked a lot like Cloud Strife, he was gobsmacked. Little did I know that 17 years and 10 games later, I’d be crying in my living room at the end of Kingdom Hearts 3, a pseudo-finale to a series that quite literally grew up with me.
Kingdom Hearts 3 has problems, quite a few of them. The Disney worlds feel uneven in quality, and the story is absurdly back-loaded into the final third. But despite that, its last five hours represent one of my favorite endings in video games, filled with an unbelievable amount of catharsis and emotional payoff. It’s ironic that the game includes a Toy Story world, as the narrative beats in Kingdom Hearts 3 remind me a lot of Toy Story 3, with its feeling of finality, acceptance, and moving on.
As much as Kingdom Hearts 3 meanders for the first thirty hours, everything after you reach the Keyblade Graveyard hits you like a truck. I could spend hours explaining the dozens of lore questions that are answered in that final stretch, but what really matters is the thematic storytelling, and how every major character’s plotline has a resolution.
The centerpiece of all this is Sora, the glue that holds everyone and everything from the series together. He’s the dense but kindhearted boy that everyone grows to love, the hero that never frowns in the face of adversity. That’s exactly what makes the first step of the final battle so gut-wrenching, as the party loses to Xehanort’s forces in The Badlands.
In the very first battle at The Badlands, the “good guys” are eliminated one by one, causing Sora to have a complete mental breakdown unlike anything the series has ever shown. It’s a harrowing moment for a series that’s almost always been light-hearted, even in its darkest moments. The quiet sobs of Sora are heartbreaking, but they also reflect the journey of growing up.
Sora’s led his whole life thinking all his powers come from his connection to others. Similarly, we often live our adolescent and teenage years fixated on friendships, groups, the wishes of parents, etc. When all that’s stripped away, when we head out into the world on our own, it’s immensely frightening. This single moment encapsulates what makes Kingdom Hearts 3 so special: an admittance of the journey we’ve taken and what’s required to keep going.
After that breakdown, with some guiding words from Riku, Sora learns that he has to dig into himself to keep going. It’s not just what you get from the ones you love, but also what you can give to them.
This is the key turning point in Kingdom Hearts 3, and the game only continues to build from there. Playing as Sora, we’re taken through a veritable museum of the series’ history. Each battle represents a different piece of Kingdom Hearts. It’s thematically fitting, but also holds key moments that are hugely meaningful within the narrative of the series. Roxas makes a grand comeback alongside Xion, Riku and Mickey battle side by side, Aqua and Ventuis are finally reunited with Terra, and even the long-neglected Kairi gets her moment.
Somehow, KH3 manages to pack in a half-dozen moments worthy of a grand finale for any other series. Every single main character sees their plot advanced in some meaningful way, and even the rogues’ gallery of villains, like Saix and Ansem, get their own sendoffs. New questions get raised for Kingdom Hearts’ lore, but for all intents and purposes this is the end of the Xehanort saga.
The bow on top that ties everything together is the final minutes of Kingdom Hearts 3, in which we see Sora fade from existence and end up in another world. It’s been a controversial detail among fans, but for my money, it’s fitting. Sora has been the guiding light that’s connected everything in Kingdom Hearts, he’s what binds every character together, every Disney world, and every absurd plot point. But now we’ve seen everything come to an end, and everyone get their happy ending.
That means it’s time to move on, both for fans and the series at large. Kingdom Hearts needs to move onto something new, and fans need to move on from the characters and stories they’ve grown up with. Sora’s departure represents the player’s connection to Kingdom Hearts fading, ending. Things can’t simply go on like they have: the people that picked up the first Kingdom Hearts, like myself, are now adults with jobs and families. The memories will always be there, but it’s time to move on.
Kingdom Hearts III is available now on Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, and PC.