I love Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy equally. As a preteen, I followed countless podcasts about both series, posted endlessly on fan forums, and even ran my own podcast about Kingdom Hearts. These two series, which are closely entwined, are a core part of my taste in, and love of, video games. So when I got through Kingdom Hearts III, only to discover it didn’t have a single character from Final Fantasy (excluding Moogle shopkeepers, which don’t really count as “characters”), I was incredibly disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed Kingdom Hearts III, but the lack of Final Fantasy characters had a notable impact on my enjoyment of the game, as I’m sure it did for many others. You may be asking why that is, as many articles across the net praise this exclusion, or say it just makes sense. I couldn’t disagree more with these points, and here’s why.
An obvious reason is that Kingdom Hearts was literally conceptualized as a crossover between Final Fantasy and Disney properties. Yes, the presence of Final Fantasy characters began to slow down around 358/2 Days onwards, but Final Fantasy was never truly absent unless the story demanded it. 358/2 Days has you carry out missions for Organization XIII, so it makes sense that you would avoid confronting these powerful heroes. Dream Drop Distance takes place in dream worlds, meaning the inclusion of characters from The World Ends With You, who had never been featured in Kingdom Hearts, made sense as an introduction.
Even Birth by Sleep, a prequel that takes place ten years before the original game, made up for its lack of series regulars (Cloud, Aerith, Squall/Leon, Yuffie, etc.) by including Zack Fair, who had recently starred in his own Final Fantasy prequel. There has always been an effort to include Final Fantasy characters, or explain their absence in a worst-case scenario.
This is not the case in Kingdom Hearts III, which has no trace of any major Final Fantasy characters, established or new to the series. A random line of dialogue from an NPC in Twilight Town notes that Final Fantasy VIII’s Seifer, established as the town’s head of discipline in Kingdom Hearts II, hasn’t been around for a while. A recap of the events from Olympus Coliseum shows small statues of Cloud and Auron, who played major roles in previous games. And that’s it. Even though a good chunk of the story happens at Radiant Garden while Sora flies around Disney worlds, the Final Fantasy characters who rebuilt the world after the original Kingdom Hearts are nowhere. Not seen, not mentioned, like they never existed at all.
It’s jarring, because these characters were important not only to players, but to the story of Kingdom Hearts. It was Squall (calling himself “Leon”) from Final Fantasy VIII and Yuffie from Final Fantasy VII that introduced Sora to the Heartless, and the Keyblade itself. Cloud’s time as a pawn of Hades is what taught Sora about how a good heart can be manipulated. Final Fantasy VII’s Cid was a central part of both the Gummiship’s introduction, and Sora’s visit to Tron’s world, Space Paranoids. All these characters band together in Kingdom Hearts II to partake in the Battle of a Thousand Heartless, and to undo the damage that Maleficent wrought on Hollow Bastion, turning it back into Radiant Garden. Why did they do this? Because it’s their home world, and yet, they’re nowhere to be found when Kingdom Hearts III revisits this central world. This makes it feel as though the game is missing something, in an awkward and honestly disheartening way.
This is without even considering the many now-unresolved stories that these Final Fantasy characters left with us. What happened to Zack after Birth by Sleep, which ended with him disappearing and leaving behind only a black feather (an allusion to Final Fantasy VII’s villain and Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 secret boss, Sephiroth). What about Cloud and Sephiroth’s story, which ends with them battling one another and disappearing in a flash, with Tifa leaving to find Cloud. The credits of Kingdom Hearts II show Leon holding an envelope that is branded with wings, the emblem of Rinoa, one of the main characters of Final Fantasy VIII and Leon’s love interest. So many loose threads have seemingly been left untied, and whether you personally cared for these stories or not, they were featured prevalently throughout all of Kingdom Hearts.
In an interview last year, series director Tetsuya Nomura said that Kingdom Hearts doesn’t need Final Fantasy like it used to, and that the focus was now on Kingdom Hearts’ original characters. As much as I respect Mr. Nomura and his creative choices, I can’t wrap my head around this mindset. Even if it was his original intent, Final Fantasy was never a tacked-on gimmick to get more eyes on Kingdom Hearts. It has always been a major part of the DNA of Kingdom Hearts, as much as any Disney world or character (outside of maybe Mickey, Donald, and Goofy) is.
By excluding Final Fantasy characters from Kingdom Hearts III, Square Enix removed half of what the series represents. This isn’t a Final Fantasy fanboy wanting to see empty cameos, this is a fan of Kingdom Hearts wanting to see these stories reach a conclusion, and these characters back in their rightful place. Excluding Final Fantasy characters from Kingdom Hearts III was a terrible idea, because in the end, this meant excluding part of what made Kingdom Hearts so special; a piece of its heart, if you will.