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goldpanner has translated the KINGDOM HEARTS 3 Ultimania main interview with Series Director Tetsuya Nomura. He discusses the game's development, Utada Hikaru's return to the series with two new theme songs, certain late-game plot points and teases for the future.
[The reason there are 2 theme songs is because of the support from the fans.]
—At about what time did the production of KH3 begin?
Nomura: I began conceptualizing it right after we had finished with KH2. The actual development didn’t begin until much later, but from the beginning we had planned to release it on PS4 and Xbox One. I've heard there are rumours that we had initially planned to release it on the PS3, but the PS4 was already the latest console by the time development had begun. The game was always going to be for PS4 and Xbox One, even before we changed the game engine (an all-purpose “program” that is responsible for processing all the main components within the game) from Luminous Studios to the Unreal Engine,.
—Unlike KH1 and KH2, this time development was handled by the Osaka Team. Can you tell us about how this came about?
Nomura: The Osaka Team has been responsible for handling the development of the handheld games like KHBBS, as well as titles like KH Re:COM and the HD remasters, but from the beginning I had always wanted them to grow into a team that could develop a main numbered title for consoles. They had gained plenty of experience with the KH series while developing non-numbered games, and the Tokyo team had begun work on another title by then, so the time was finally right to leave KH3 to them.
—At the beginning of production, what sort of things did you request from the team?
Nomura: The first world we had decided on was Toy Box from the “Toy Story” series, so I told them that I wanted them to make battles where you could hop in and out of robots. I also said I wanted to make the project of having time sensitive commands appear and pile up above the command menu the main focus. Later, when it had been decided that we would go ahead with KH0.2, we included that system as a sort of experiment.
—We were worried that Utada Hikaru, who performed the theme songs for every numbered title up until now, would not return for KH3 as she had been taking an extended break from music. But, she returned safely to the business and provided the theme song this time around also.
Nomura: We actually approached Ms Utada regarding new songs for the non-numbered titles too, but we didn't get the opportunity to have it come to fruition. But because this game was to be the latest entry to the numbered titles, the time was ripe to ask her for a new song. And when we did, Ms Utada was the one who proposed that instead of using an arrangement for the opening theme, we go with a second completely different new song: we were over the moon. I believe that it was the power of the KH fans around the world that motivated her to do such a thing. All the messages sent to Ms Utada from fans globally would have been a big encouragement to her, I would like to think.
—You are also an illustrator. What kind of illustrations did you have in mind for this game?
Nomura: I knew I would have to at least draw the box art, and I got depressed when I remembered how hard it would be with so many characters (dry laughter). I've always used A4-size copy paper when drawing my original pieces, and I do my best to fit everything into that. But when I started drawing the box art this time on a piece of A4 paper, I'd only drawn Sora, Riku and Kairi when I realised there was no way everyone was going to fit. I joined two pieces of paper together and re-drew it on that… while thinking to myself, if I'd done it digitally, I could have just copy-pasted the three people I'd already drawn (laughs). That illustration dragged itself out until right before the deadline: coloring included, it took me about a week of straight work to finish. For some reason, the packaging manufacturing deadline for the overseas version was a lot earlier than the domestic one, so I worked on it in the midst of people urging me to hurry since "at this rate, the international version is just going to have a plain black cover!"
[He felt he couldn't make KH3 without including Pixar works]
—After KH2 was released, Pixar was purchased by Disney. Did this expand the range of worlds available for you to include in this title?
Nomura: Actually, we did make a few trial models of characters from Monsters Inc and Toy Story during the production of KH2, and we did begin negotiations to have them appear in the game. We did have to shelve them in the end, but I felt I couldn't make KH3 without including Pixar works, so I started up negotiations again—and this time, the situation between Disney and Pixar had changed, and we were able to make it happen. After we had finished deciding all the worlds for this game, Disney and Pixar kept releasing fascinating titles. I found myself wishing over and over again that we could have included this and that.
— So including Monsters Inc. and Toy Story in KH3 were highest in priority for you.
Nomura: Even so, the hurdles we had to jump to get there were higher than I had expected. To begin with, I went to America twice for negotiations, where it turned out that we couldn't move forward with that until we had a plot. So, I wrote the plot of Toy Box at a stage where the main story still hadn't been written. After that, we were in correspondence for quite a long time, until the plans were boiled down into something they finally approved. It was the first time we had worked with Pixar, and we built a relationship with them through Toy Story which we used as a base when suggesting other titles.
—We were surprised at how the plot of the Pixar worlds were continuations of the original movies.
Nomura: Originally, the basic pattern of the KH series was that Sora and the others get involved in scenes that depict the happenings of the original films. The Tangled and Frozen worlds fit that description. However, with Toy Story and Monsters Inc., upon request from the creators, we went with a pattern of depicting a period set after the movie as an "authorized history." Which pattern a world would follow depended greatly on the ideas of the creators and producers of the movies.
—The stories based on the events of the original movies still managed to cleverly incorporate episodes involving Sora and his friends, didn't they?
Nomura: That is the achievement of Oka (Masaru Oka: Scenario + Cutscene Director) and the level design team (the team that creates enemy positioning and the shape of the maps.) In recent KH titles, Oka has been discussing and deciding the location and flow (of battles and cutscenes) with the level design team and creating tentative scenarios that fit. I touch things up in the final stages, but what I correct is mostly to do with dialogue. The events of the story of each world mostly prioritize level design.
—Disney has now acquired companies other than Pixar, such as Marvel and LucasFilm. Will this expand the range of worlds available for future games?
Nomura: Yes. However, the contracts necessary to use a franchise in a game are each tied to their own separate companies, and in several cases there are existing contracts with other game companies. So, it's not as simple as "the company has been acquired by Disney, so it can appear in KH." We were only able to use a single cut of Mickey in KH1 for a similar reason. Another game company was releasing a Mickey game around the same time, so they told us we couldn't use him at all. But I was persistent, and I ended up receiving an idea for a compromise: "You can use him if it's just one cut, and it's just his silhouette, and he's just waving from far away or something." I deliberated over how to make the very most of that one chance, and the result is that appearance of his in KH1.
[We created new graphics while using the original films as reference]
—Among the worlds of KH3, Olympus is a constant that has appeared in nearly every game in the series so far. Do you have particular feelings towards it?
Nomura: There isn't really a reason for that, it's honestly just by chance. I mean, the reason it appears in KH3 is simply because it made for a perfect beginning to the journey: Sora going to visit a hero who had once regained lost powers, in order to try and regain his own. If I were to say I had particular feelings about it, I'd say that I love having Hades appear. He's a very funny character, and I start wanting to watch him moving about.
—The 100 Acre Wood is another constant, come to think of it.
Nomura: That's because Pooh is the kind of character who makes you feel safe just by being there (laughs.) Since I knew that the other worlds would take up a lot of production time, I thought from the start that I wanted to make the 100 Acre Wood a place for you to take a breather from the adventure, with a light minigame.
—In the 100 Acre Wood, the graphics switch to a unique style where the character outlines are much stronger.
Nomura: That processing wasn't added to the game until the last stages of development. For KH3 we used what we call the Kingdom Shader to change the feel of the graphics for each world, but Pooh's world was just normal. So, I had them make the graphics less like the cartoon and more like the original picture book. When trying to bring out that storybook feel, I personally was very particular about the color of the sky.
—On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Caribbean was overwhelmingly detailed - almost lifelike.
Nomura: In a way, that world was what determined the graphics quality for the whole game. In the early stages of development, I created a video of Sora sailing the sea and riding enemies through the skies for an in-house presentation session. The quality of the graphics in that one-off test clip were so high, and it looked so overwhelmingly good among all the other titles that our company was developing at the time, that it completely stole the show at that presentation session. I sensed that this world would be a highlight right from those early days. By the way, the coat Sora wears in the Caribbean is designed after a coat of my own that I gave the staff as a reference upon my request. I think I might not have gotten it back yet (laughs).
—Of all Sora's world-specific forms, he undergoes quite a drastic change in Monstropolis.
Nomura: In the beginning, I considered having him wear some kind of monster onesie, like Boo does in the original film, but thanks to Pixar's wishes he ended up turning into a monster. In the original Monsters Inc., there are rather strict rules concerning the colors and eye shapes that can be used in character designs. So, after they had decided upon designs that fit those rules, I made final adjustments of my own. Sora in particular started off with a soft shiny body that I felt wasn't quite coming together, so I put fur on him. But then Pixar instructed me not to make him look too much like a cat—it was a struggle to find a compromise. And so, even though it looks like Sora has cat ears they're actually horns (laughs.)
—You were able to recreate the graphics of the worlds based on CG titles to a very high level. Did you use graphics data from the original films?
Nomura: We did receive some to use as reference, but due to factors such as the number of polygons and the data format it's not something that's possible to use directly. So, we recreated everything anew, trying to make it look the same as the original film. For the cutscenes, the staff in charge watched the original films over and over again, adjusting the camera work and blocking. If you think that we recreated the graphics to a high level, it's all thanks to the hard work of the staff.
—In contrast, Classic Kingdom is done in the style of an old LCD game. People who remember those days find it so nostalgic.
Nomura: My vision was that since each minigame is based on a different short film, I wanted to make each minigame into a world, just like the other Disney works. Although even as worlds, they don't have maps, they have 1 screen (laughs). LCD games were booming when I was a child, but my parents wouldn't buy them for me. So, I bought them for myself when I grew up. I have dozens of them. I had wanted to make a smartphone RPG with LCD game style graphics, and had even submitted a project plan unrelated to KH. If I could, I'd love to make a real Classic Kingdom LCD game handheld.
The developments of the Dark Seeker Saga as envisioned since KH2
—With this title, the Dark Seeker Saga is complete. From when did you have this conclusion in mind?
Nomura: I started envisioning it as the Dark Seeker Saga at the time of KH2. I more or less had the outline of the story decided around then. There are parts that changed from my initial vision as I went on writing the scenarios, for as manga artists often say, characters have a mind of their own. However, the main flow of events didn't change.
—In KH2, we learned that the Ansem who appeared in KH1 was not the real one. Did you have that planned from the start?
Nomura: When I was writing the scenario for kH1, I thought to myself, "Ansem sure is super evil for a so-called wise man" (laughs). That feeling was the seed that influenced the setup from KH2 on.
—We never would have guessed how important Xigbar ended up being when he first appeared in KH2, either.
Nomura: I hear that a lot, but on the inside I meant for Xigbar to be a character with a special position from early on, which is why I had him do suspicious things. During voice recording for KH2, while listening to Hochu Otsuka's voice (Xigbar's voice actor), I felt that there was no way Xigbar was just an ordinary soldier in the system—he definitely had something going on behind the scenes—and midway through production the setup developed into what we have now. That kind of thing does happen sometimes: the setup behind a character transforming as I bounce off a voice actor.
—The story's endgame where all your friends and foes gather at the Keyblade Graveyard was a masterpiece.
Nomura: I know each fan has their own different beloved character, so I wanted to give each one an appropriate moment. But in the end there was too much story that had to be told then, and I ended up being restricted to the minimum necessary to move Sora forward. The truth is, the Keyblade Graveyard was the toughest part I faced when writing the scenario. Shining the spotlight on each character one by one allows you to depict the unfolding developments with time and care, but the flow of the game requires the player to control Sora and fight battles. Ideally, I should have had characters with connections fight it out one by one and settle things that way, but that would have required too much exposition. On the other hand, I did think of limiting the number of enemies you actually battle and finishing others with cutscenes, but it didn't feel right. At the end of deep worry and thought, I narrowed my aim and ended up with the way it is now, which prioritizes rhythm.
—The Final World is introduced as a place that is very important to the story. What kind of world is it?
Nomura: It's the world where those one step from death end up; a place connected to the Station of Awakening. The Station of Awakening as we have seen it so far has been a stained glass pillar standing in pitch darkness, and it represents the inside of the heart. But this time I wanted to represent it more tangibly, so I went with the setup that the Final World is like a portal for each heart. As said in the game, "the edges of sleep and death touch:" hearts that are in a state of sleeping are in the Station of Awakening, and if they continue to walk forward from there, they'll end up in the Final World. That's the sort of image I was going for.
—Was there a reason that no FF characters appeared in the game this time?
Nomura: It was simply that there was no room. There were so many characters appearing in the main story that in the end I wasn't able to create opportunities to use the FF characters. Although, I did have the team make polygon models of Leon and some others just in case. They also made the Fairy Godmother from Cinderella and a few others, but by the end I just couldn't find a place to use them. The production staff were mad at me.
[What world are Sora and Riku in, in the secret movie…?]
—Both the epilogue and secret movie made quite the impact. Does what we see in the epilogue mean that the characters from KH Union Cross have been revived?
Nomura: Yes. The Keyblade Masters from the distant past known as the Foretellers have transcended time to gather once again. Xigbar too was once a Foreteller: Luxu, who has been alive for a very long time, changing his form.
—Xigbar says, "I had a role to play. And after all these years, it's done." What was his role?
Nomura: He was directed by his mentor, someone called the Master of Masters, to make sure that they Keyblade entrusted to him was passed down into the future. This was tied to another mission… which will be made clear in a future game.
—We really want to know what is inside the black box...
Nomura: Everyone asks that, but it's the key to the future games. As the Master of Masters said in KH X BC, it's a surprise~ (laughs).
—In the last part of the epilogue, seven black pieces are brought out to be used in a new game. Do six of those represent the six apprentices of the Master of Masters?
—Who is the remaining one?
Nomura: It's… someone you may be able to guess, but it's a secret.
—So, is Sora the white piece?
Nomura: Well, maybe… Either way, the epilogue is hinting at what is to come after the Dark Seeker Saga.
—We see. Next, we'd like to ask about the secret movie. Does that scene follow on from the ending?
Nomura: Yes. When Sora disappears in the ending, he ends up in the world in the secret movie. That's the flow of events.
—Is Sora in the world of the World Ends With You (a game Nomura previously directed)?
Nomura: It does look like it. But there's more meaning in the fact that it is not Shibuya (written with kanji), but Shibuya (written with katakana). Also, Sora promised Neku and the others in KH3D that he would meet them in Shibuya (written in katakana), but that doesn't mean it's directly connected to this movie.
—The scenery of the world Riku is in is also very exciting. It feels like it's trying to summon past memories. The man looking down from the roof of the building looks a lot like Yozora from VERUM REX, the game that was popular in the Toy Box world...
Nomura: Yeah, he's Yozora.
—So that means that's the world of VERUM REX?
Nomura: Yes, that's right. I know the visuals have some people thinking it's the same as a title I had been working on in the past, but it isn't. There are parts of the unreleased project that have been cooking along inside me, so there's a chance that I may have some overlap of ideas, but VERUM REX is a completely different thing. Nobody knows what was in the project that wasn't released, and VERUM REX doesn't even exist yet, so perhaps it's difficult to understand right now, but I will just say that they are different things and leave it at that.
—Who was the person in the black robe who made a heart with their hands against the moon in the final scene?
Nomura: The Master of Masters. Nobody else would be messing around while dressed like that (laughs).
There are things that need to be depicted before KH4 can be made
—Is work on the upcoming DLC going well?
Nomura: At this point in time, I have given the staff a list of the battle elements I want to do, and they are investigating. As for additional story, I think it will mainly be expanding on the Keyblade Graveyard things I mentioned before when I talked about narrowing my aim. I do plan to complete it as soon as possible, but as we are working on it alongside preparation for the next project, I still can't tell you when to expect it to be released. For the time being, we are planning to present several pieces of content as one pack rather than release several separate things.
—Final Mixes have been a staple of the KH series. Do you plan to release one for KH3 too?
Nomura: I have no plans for a separately released Final Mix title. I am thinking of adding an English mode to the DLC pack. Also, we were moderate with the battle difficulty levels due to taking the tendencies of modern players into consideration, but many people have let us know that they want to fight harder enemies. So, I plan to release a Critical Mode soon as a free download, and add Final Mix type tough enemies to the purchasable DLC pack.
—With the end of the Dark Seeker Saga creating a moment of punctuation to the KH series, how do you feel?
Nomura: I expected to feel relieved once it was over, but it hasn't been like that at all. Even now I am right in the middle of work on DLC, and I'm involved in several other titles all at the same time. I also want to hurry up and start work on the next title, so honestly it doesn't feel like any kind of punctuation to me.
—The fans would love to know what's coming next in the KH series…
Nomura: No official projects have been decided, so I can't say anything at this point. The current top priority for the KH series is the KH3 DLC, and we are also in the middle of preparing a large update for KH Union Cross. For the time being, I do have two ideas for future developments, and there's another special project I have to think about. I hope to be able to tighten these up into two future titles. Also, there are things that need to be depicted before KH4 can be made, so I am also considering the possibility of doing another title in between. So that we can move on past the Dark Seeker Saga, I hope for the support of the fans of the KH series.
Secret of this title that only he knows:
There were theories that the cat next to Ventus on the box art was Chirithy, but it's my pet cat. Also, the protuberances on the corners of the clock tower are actually black robed figures.
goldpanner has done a lot of translations for Kingdom Hearts fans everywhere over so many years! You can say thank you to her by buying her a coffee!