“You make a good other.”
Few franchises have been able to weave a story as complex, convoluted, and endlessly charming as Kingdom Hearts. A seemingly inexplicable crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy, the series quickly took on a life of its own, carving itself an important role in the video game medium’s history. What’s perhaps more surprising than the fabric of Kingdom Hearts’ existence, however, is the fact it took the series 12 games and 17 years to tell one complete story arc. Kind of. The phrase ‘Dark Seeker Saga’ seems to have popped up for the first time in 2012 –in volume 1242 of Weekly Famitsu– and has defined Kingdom Hearts’ story so far ever since.
There had been anticipation building for Kingdom Hearts III from as early as 2005, and as more & more games released, it seemed as though the third numbered installment would be destined to wrap up the series’ growing plot threads. But the introduction of the ‘Dark Seeker Saga’ as a mere concept opened a new door for the franchise: one where the end was nowhere near in sight. It can leave one feeling as if the story waltzed right past its natural stopping point. Plots that had been building for years are resolved, but with an assurance that there’s more to come for everyone involved. Even Xehanort himself hasn’t been retired as a character, with Dark Road outright featuring him in the lead role.
It makes sense, though. Think of the context around Kingdom Hearts III’s release: Union x was actively pumping out new lore on smartphones, Back Cover brought the series’ story further back than ever, and the distinct lack of content at III’s launch (most notably Critical) all but confirmed work was still to be done on the final entry of the Dark Seeker saga. Why feign finality when anyone paying attention can tell Kingdom Hearts isn’t going to end anytime soon? It’s not as if III doesn’t resolve the story beats that defined Kingdom Hearts’ first story arc, but it’s hard not to feel disappointed that Kingdom Hearts III ended up as little more than just another piece of the puzzle. Especially since the series did indulge in finality once before.
Although only the third game in the series, Kingdom Hearts II was the franchise’s natural, emotional climax. Kingdom Hearts I may have ended on a cliffhanger, but it was a self-contained story for the most part. All the same, both the ending and the secret ending made it clear that while the main plot was resolved, there was still more story left to tell. Then came Chain of Memories, a GBA ‘side game’ developed alongside Kingdom Hearts II with the explicit purpose of forming a more meaningful connection between Kingdom Hearts I and II.
Kingdom Hearts I and Chain of Memories work in conjunction to set a very specific stage for Kingdom Hearts II to play out. Unresolved threads from Kingdom Hearts I are expanded upon in Chain of Memories, but come to the end of Reverse/Rebirth– the latter’s post-game– it’s made clear that Kingdom Hearts II will be tasked with wrapping everything up. How could it not? The very presence of Chain of Memories– a game literally designed to fill narrative blanks– all but promised its successor would provide answers to Kingdom Hearts’ slowly piling questions. And while KH II does conclude with a few mysteries left hanging in the air, every major thread established between the first game and CoM is logically & sensibly resolved come credits. What hang-ups remain are details ultimately inconsequential to the narrative & themes that defined these first three games specifically.
Sora’s main goal in the first game saw him trying to reunite with his childhood friends, Kairi and Riku, after their Island is consumed by darkness. While Kairi is sent home safely come the end of the first game, Sora is essentially left where he started– albeit more mature and experienced. Chain of Memories twists Sora’s motivation by having his memories altered, but the main point is that CoM ends with Sora’s main goal still unresolved. Which is the case for most arcs come the end of Chain of Memories. Donald & Goofy still haven’t found Mickey, Riku hasn’t conquered the Darkness inside him, and the Organization hasn’t been fully dissolved. Where Kingdom Hearts wrapped itself up in such a way where the story could stand on its own just fine without sequels, the development team had the luxury of knowing for a fact Chain of Memories would not be it for the series. A luxury its sequel lacked.
As a result, Kingdom Hearts II serves as a potential stopping point for the franchise should the series needed to end here, with a grand sense of finality permeating over the entire experience. From the moment Sora wakes up following his year long nap at the end of Chain of Memories, KH II contextualizes itself as one last hurrah for Sora, Donald, and Goofy; but that’s not how Kingdom Hearts II begins. To build towards a natural conclusion, Kingdom Hearts II needed to open not with Sora, but his other– Roxas.
To understand how Roxas contributes to Kingdom Hearts II’s sense of finality, it’s important to recognize that Roxas’ prologue does not exist in a vacuum. It is not a random bait and switch at the start of II, but a very deliberate easing into the story’s next major chapter. The original Kingdom Hearts is a rather traditional coming of age story in the grand scheme of things, but the theme of identity is present throughout the whole adventure. Who is Sora now that he’s been forced into the role of hero that was never truly his? Who is Riku now that he’s rejected his destiny and embraced the negativity inside him? Who is the real Ansem, a man seeking knowledge or a man seeking chaos?
Chain of Memories builds off the theme of identity further, particularly through the use of memory. Sora has key memories stripped away as he scales Castle Oblivion, forgetting crucial parts of his identity that define him. At the same time, Sora is still Sora– with or without memories, he holds onto his agency until the bitter end. Riku, on the other hand, is confronted with a distinct absence of memories. Where Sora is able to affirm his identity through his arc, Riku has to discover himself. Come the end of Reverse/Rebirth, Riku has a better understanding of who he is and his relation to the world around him (contextualized through light & darkness.) All this is done for the better of Sora & Riku’s arcs, but also as a means to justify Roxas’ inclusion at the start of Kingdom Hearts II.
While it’s not clear at first, Roxas is the fallout of Sora becoming a Heartless near the end of the original game. In taking his own Heart, Sora’s body and soul linger on as a Nobody– a new entity entirely named Roxas. Roxas is plagued by Sora’s memories, which come to him as dreams. It’s clear he has some connection to Sora out the gate, but Roxas’ prologue is structured so that audiences gain an understanding of Roxas as his own individual before revealing he’s simply a part of Sora. Roxas finds himself in a thematic position similar to both Sora and Riku: haunted by memories that aren’t his and forced to come to terms with the memories he never made.
Roxas’ prologue offers a fresh perspective at the themes of identity and memory that arguably became central to Kingdom Hearts by the end of Chain of Memories. Heading into II, it only makes sense the opening hours would use these themes not only as a jumping-off point, but ultimately the game’s framing. Through Roxas, Kingdom Hearts II can set up a more intimate conclusion to Sora’s arc & hero’s journey. Sora is by no means a flat character between KH I and CoM, but his arc was lacking a certain emotional ‘oomph.’ That gripping hook Riku had, but Sora didn’t. Roxas gives that to Sora, adding a tragic layer to the character’s very existence, all while twisting the relationship between player & main character.
Roxas is a true representation of the player. We all want to answer a great call to adventure, yet the fact of the matter is we can’t. Like Roxas, we can adventure vicariously through Sora, but this idea sees further expansion in the final world when Roxas asserts that he doesn’t need to live vicariously through Sora, and the two need to come to a psychological understanding with one another– one that sees Sora and Roxas coming to terms with the former as the host. At the same time, this isn’t seen as Roxas allowing himself to be assimilated into Sora. Rather, Sora makes it clear that his experiences are Roxas’ experience. Metatextuality, Sora & Roxas’ relationship is representative of the inherent intimacy & interconnectivity between player and avatar. Sora accepting Roxas as a part of himself is akin to Kingdom Hearts accepting you as a part of the experience.
Roxas’ prologue brings audiences deeper into the world of Kingdom Hearts, offering a more intimate understanding of Sora’s character, removed from Sora himself. Roxas not only puts into perspective the effect Sora has on the world, but how the series’ themes are a core part of Sora’s arc. More important than anything, Roxas reconstructs Sora’s story for there to be a more emotionally satisfying conclusion to his arc. Sora can’t come of age again, and simply finding Riku isn’t enough. Forcing Sora to reconcile the Roxas of it all allows KH II an opportunity to highlight Sora’s empathy and emotional maturity– two details integral to Kingdom Hearts’ story.
When it comes down to it, though, there’s more to the finality in Kingdom Hearts II beyond just Sora and Roxas’ relationship. Roxas himself is really only the beginning of the end, so to speak. He marks the introduction and resolution of the game’s (& series’) core themes– along with Sora’s arc– but he’s relatively dormant for a good chunk of Kingdom Hearts II. While Roxas offers meaningful thematic resolution, the rest of KH II is spent building up to an endgame that very much feels like the endgame.
“Are you done rambling?”
At its core, Kingdom Hearts II is a slow burn to the last act, where all the dominoes set by Kingdom Hearts I and Chain of Memories– narrative, thematic, emotional come falling down in The World That Never Was. The Disney Worlds don’t exactly have a sense of finality to them in comparison, but the fact Sora visits each World multiple times does lend the impression of a grander story– one epic in scope, fitting for a finale. By the time Sora reaches The World That Never Was, players will have conquered each major World twice over, having earned their right to challenge the Organization head-on once and for all.
Beyond the set-up, there’s just a great deal of narrative finality at play within The World That Never Was. Circling back to the theme of identity, Riku’s character arc comes to its natural conclusion. The end of Chain of Memories saw Riku accepting the darkness within him, whereas Kingdom Hearts II reveals that Riku succumbed to his darkness in between games. All the same, Riku isn’t in the same position he was in when darkness came over him in the first game. Riku’s body is twisted into Ansem’s, but he weaponizes this darkness as a strength. Before the final world is done, Riku conquers a physical manifestation of the darkness within him, freeing Riku of his baggage and finally removing Ansem from the story.
Of course, Kingdom Hearts II also reveals that the Ansem Sora & Riku knew was not only an imposter but actually the Heartless of a man named Xehanort. And just like Sora, Xehanort had a Nobody to go with his Heartless. Xemnas is to Ansem what Roxas is to Sora in just about every respect. More than just a foil, Xemnas adds more depth to Ansem. Where Ansem was full of emotion, Xemnas is seemingly agonized by a lack of it. Forget how the series recontextualizes Nobodies and their hearts. As presented in Kingdom Hearts II, Xemnas has the perfectly sympathetic motivation of wanting to give Nobodies Hearts– of wanting to give them the emotions that quite literally define Kingdom Hearts as a franchise.
It’s implied he has bad intentions in the grand scheme of things, and the Organization is consistently antagonistic in nature, but Xemnas as originally depicted is more nuanced than his predecessor, Ansem. But even then, he exists to complement Ansem. They’re two sides of the same coin, and both characters painted a picture of who Xehanort the man was before he was formally introduced in Birth by Sleep. Through Xemnas, Kingdom Hearts gains a stronger defined antagonist in the same way Roxas paved the way to a stronger defined protagonist.
Xemnas’ relationship with light and darkness is particularly interesting as well. He’s not as gung ho on darkness as Ansem was, instead preaching a reasonable balance between the two: “You accept darkness, yet choose to live in the light. So why is it that you loathe us who teeter on the edge of nothing? We who were turned away by both light and dark– never given a choice?” Through Xemnas, the game’s main villain, Kingdom Hearts II forces audiences to consider the balance between light and dark. Sora and Riku even nearly end the story trapped in the Realm of Darkness. Only by accepting the naturality of darkness does the light beckon them home– affirming the equilibrium between light & darkness central to Xemnas’ and the Organization’s initial motivations.
Even the gameplay has a strong sense of finality to it, especially during the final boss fight against Xemnas. A five-phase final boss, Xemnas puts Ansem, Seeker of Darkness to shame. Reaction commands keep the action big and bold as Triangle presses cause Sora to slice & dice his way through gravity-defying buildings, and having Riku serve as the game’s final party member is an excellent choice that continues his increased relevance from Chain of Memories. Not just that, Riku is actually playable at one point during the fight, saving Sora from Xemnas and establishing the two Keyblade wielders as an equal partnership– the yin to each other’s yang.
It’s hard not to feel like Kingdom Hearts II is the end-all, be all when Sora & Riku fight side by side to defeat the last living remnant of the series’ main antagonist, eliminating all established threats in the plot. By the end of the game, Sora completes both of his remaining journeys by finding Riku and coming home; Donald & Goofy reunite with King Mickey, but visit the Destiny Islands to assert their friendship with Sora; Sora hasn’t thanked Namine, but Roxas returning to him and Namine returning to Kairi spiritually reunite them. King Mickey’s letter beckons Sora with one more call to adventure, but with nothing in particular in mind. A fitting acknowledgment that Sora’s adventuring days are far from over.
Following Kingdom Hearts I’s lead, the secret ending promises even more, so why wrap everything up so cleanly? It’s unlikely the dev team intended or wanted to end the series here, but Kingdom Hearts II has enough foresight to understand that good stories end– and KH II’s ending ensures the first three games can exist in a self-contained vacuum with a beginning, middle, & end independent of the rest of the series. Simply playing KH I, CoM, and KH II will give audiences a full Kingdom Hearts experience, even if it’s not the full Kingdom Hearts experience.
To their credit, both 358/2 Days and Birth by Sleep did a good enough job of recontextualizing Kingdom Hearts where the series is now 12 entries in & healthy, but the current state of the series all but means there won’t be a game as secure in its potential finality as Kingdom Hearts II unless it’s time for the franchise to end for good. With only two games of build-up, Kingdom Hearts II feels more final– and more meaningful– than Kingdom Hearts III does with 11. Which really speaks for itself. Of course, the game that isn’t carrying hundreds of hours of narrative baggage ends up having a better story, but this isn’t about quality. It’s about knowing when to call it quits.
Kingdom Hearts III’s story prioritizes wrapping up plot threads to set the stage for the next major arc. III’s ending is vastly different from I and II’s as a result, in that III doesn’t even humor the possibility of there being no more Kingdom Hearts. II’s story, on the other hand, prioritizes wrapping up plot threads to ensure the story’s core themes & arcs are resolved in an emotionally and narratively satisfying manner. Sora doesn’t accept Roxas within him to set up a new game. Riku doesn’t conquer his darkness to prep an expedition into the Realm of Darkness. Their character arcs simply come to their natural conclusion and are allowed to end.
Which is the real strength of Kingdom Hearts II. This is a game that accepts the prospect of the end, and it’s an idea hammered in early on. In the same way, Roxas has to accept that his summer vacation has to end, so do audiences need to accept that Kingdom Hearts II needs to end– and perhaps the franchise with it. But it didn’t end, and it won’t end anytime. All the same, that doesn’t invalidate the finality at the heart of Kingdom Hearts II. If anything, that makes it more special. Kingdom Hearts II ends with that perpetual promise of more, but with none of the baggage that weighs on every other game in the series.
Kingdom Hearts II leaves fans wanting more not because of what it leaves unresolved, but because good stories resonate with audiences– and good stories need to be allowed to end. What good is it resolving a plot 17 years in the making if in the very same breath you’re going to strip away any sense of finality by underscoring the next big story? Even considering the vast difference in context between KH II and III’s release, Kingdom Hearts III should have taken a page from its numbered predecessor and feigned finality for the sake of it. Not “just in case,” but because Kingdom Hearts II set an important precedent for concise storytelling. At the end of the day, the finality in Kingdom Hearts II is simply evident in thoughtful writing. A story doesn’t have to be the end to feel like the end. Kingdom Hearts is better off not having ended at II, but the series’ natural stopping point came and went in 2005.