Kingdom Hearts initially garnered widespread attention all those years ago for its outlandish premise. Classic Disney characters and settings mixed with original, Final Fantasy-esque characters? It was like nothing that had ever been done before. From letting you play as over a dozen characters with wildly different gameplay styles, to a card-based battle system, Kingdom Hearts was a series that took risks for a while. But 15 years later its long-awaited third mainline entry, Kingdom Hearts III, feels like one of the series’ most conservative installments. And its only planned DLC, Re: Mind, only serves to further emphasize Kingdom Hearts’ current dilemma: that it lacks the desire to make the changes and take the risks that have made other series, like Square Enix’s own Final Fantasy, still exciting to follow after all these years.
Re: Mind is, in theory, supposed to address what many fans were left wanting from Kingdom Hearts III—a little less Disney, a little more diving into the franchise’s fascinating and at times convoluted lore. It’s essentially a retelling of the end of Kingdom Hearts III similar to route B in NieR: Automata, in which slightly different events happen and are witnessed from a different perspective. But that perspective doesn’t actually add much here—it’s mostly just re-doing repetitive boss battles and rewatching cutscenes that have exhausted their emotional weight.
It’s also still largely from Sora’s perspective; like Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black, he’s the main character who is far less interesting than every person around him. And unlike the aforementioned show, Kingdom Hearts III is determined to focus on him above everyone else, dragging down its most interesting subplots and squandering opportunities for rich character development in the process. Instead of making use of the fact that Re: Mind’s narrative takes place during a segment in which the entire series’ main cast is united for the first time by allowing you to play as each cast member, the game gives you the option of either playing as a few of them or as Sora, highlighting its reluctance to let him go even momentarily.
Another indication of Kingdom Hearts III’s aversion to taking any risk is the constant reiteration of already established lore points. Conversations about how hearts, vessels and souls work in this universe are regurgitated. Not only does this turn characters into mere vehicles for exposition, but it also feels like it isn’t confident enough in its audience’s ability to understand it. Convoluted it may often be, but incomprehensible itultimatelyisn’t. The DLC chooses to do this and provide more questions without trusting in its audience enough to provide answers, and considering it’s been almost 15 years since the last mainline entry, it’s frustrating.
And, once again, after all the last few years of criticism regarding the series’s treatment of women, they are still shafted in this DLC. The best moment in Re: Mind is a battle in which almost every main character comes together to create a powerful, visual spectacle of a fight. You’ll make a finishing move as a character and then get switched to another one with a slightly different moveset. The graphics are stunning, the music is exemplary, and there is emotional significance to this fight for fans. But it wasn’t lost on me that you mostly get to play as the men while the women help perform a defensive attack. At one point, Square Enix finally delivers what fans have been asking since the series’ inception: the chance to play as Kairi, Kingdom Hearts’ usually damseled heroine. But it’s a short, unsatisfying battle that accentuates the game’s odd characterization of someone much less confident and assertive than she was in the first game, offering little in hopes of her treatment suddenly getting better after this milestone.
The one sign of incoming change and risk-taking comes in the form of a short secret movie at the end of the DLC’s Limit Cut episode. But I can’t say the direction is one I’m excited for. It’s also locked behind some of the most difficult battles in the series, which will require the average player to grind for two to three times the level they finished the game at. The reward simply isn’t worth it, similarly to Kingdom Hearts Coded, which contains minimal story; Dream Drop Distance, which delivers series-altering story beats until the very end; and Union X, which reserves some of the most mature and compelling storytelling in the series in tiny segments spread across hundreds of hours of mundane level-grinding.
I had a lovely time playing Kingdom Hearts III, but not because it was a great game. I enjoyed it despite its flaws because of the excitement of playing a mainline entry again; the nostalgia for the characters and universe that sparked my love for JRPGs; the hope that the series grew in its absence. Kingdom Hearts can only ride on nostalgia for so long, and for me, that time is running up. Re: Mind only serves to remind me of all the untapped potential of this series; of all the room it has to evolve; of how its audience has matured but it has failed to do so alongside it. I only hope that the series will increasingly look forward and challenge itself instead of relying on what it remembers as being sufficient in the past.
Kingdom Hearts III Re: Mind was developed and published by Square Enix. Our review is based on the Playstation 4 version. It is also available for Xbox One.
Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things.