The Caribbean and San Fransokyo Break the Traditional KH World Mold



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With the release of Kingdom Hearts II so many years ago, the world design of the Kingdom Hearts series has been fairly cemented and consistent. Worlds are depicted as small but highly detailed combat arenas that you move through in a rather linear fashion. This wasn’t just the case with Kingdom hearts.

Lots of action based games went down this path. Devil May Cry eventually dialed back on its Resident Evil styled exploration in favor of a more streamlined approach. The rebooted Ninja Gaiden removed its Zelda-like elements for its sequel, Ninja Gaiden II, which focused more heavily on combat in linear stages. Moving outside of action games, lets not forget that Final Fantasy in its 10th and 13th installment opted for a more linear approach.

In that sense, the world design that Kingdom Hearts eventually settled in was actually pretty par for the course for the industry. This didn’t bother me so much at the time but when I played through KHDDD for the first time, with its focus on speedy traversal but without levels that really supported it, I started to realize that I wanted something fresh. The worlds of the Kingdom Hearts series were starting to blur together. Digital Foundry, in a graphical anaylisis of Kingdom Hearts 3 footage, found the perfect words for me. The worlds of Kingdom Hearts felt less like worlds but more like tiny, Disney-based vignettes.

Along comes Kingdom Hearts 3. In particular, the final two Disney based worlds: The Caribbean and San Fransokyo. Upon completing both of these worlds I was struck by how differently they felt in comparison to regular Kingdom Hearts worlds. At the time I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was different, but overtime my thoughts became more clear.

These worlds feel so different because they aren’t ‘traditional’ Kingdom Hearts worlds. These aren’t highly detailed, battle focused, vignettes. Rather, instead of drawing inspiration from the usual linear approach of previous Kingdom Hearts games, these two worlds draw their inspiration from different genres of games. The Caribbean plants Kingdom Hearts’ style of gameplay in a pirate game, like Assassin’s Creed 4. San Fransokyo plants Kingdom Hearts’ style of gameplay in a superhero sandbox, like the recent Spider-Man.




Functionally the Kingdom Hearts gameplay system is all still there. You’re still largely spending most of your time fighting verities of fearsome foes. The framing, though, is different. In The Caribbean you explore. You journey to what you think is interesting and fight badies along the way. Superhero sandbox games on the other hand put a lot of their emphasis on movement, so its only proper that in San Fransokyo you soar. Instead of the traditional linear levels you have one big area absolutely full of rails to grind on, walls to run up, and points to zip to. And of course, you’ll still be fighting those badies along the way. You could also argue that Toy Box too breaks the mold, this time being more inspired by Mecha games like Armored Core or Titan Fall.

Now, as a bit of a caveat, I want to mention that I’m not nessisarly saying this different approach to world design in the Kingdom Hearts series is inherently better. I know many people who did not like The Caribbean because it detracted too much from the usual combat. What I am saying is that before KH3 the way the worlds of the series were constructed had largely fallen into a rut. By analyzing how worlds like The Caribbean and San Fransokyo break the classic KH mold we can discover new ways to makes KH worlds feel fresh, allowing us to fully capitalize on the rich and distinctive settings of the Disney films that they are based on.

So, what are your opinions how how these worlds work? Do you agree with me, or do you see this as a bit of a stretch? Most importantly, what makes a Kingdom Hearts world fresh to you?
 

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I loved the Caribbean World in KH3, but I was really annoying by the constant attacks while you are traveling via ship. It took so unnecessarily long to get from island to island because the ship control is kinda awkward and there are really many enemies so it's hard to outmaneuver them. I love the islands. They look amazing, they look wild, they give this sense of pirate adventure. I had more fun traveling from island to island in that world than following the actual story - which I because it's been years that I watched the movie - didn't understand at all.

San Fransokyo on the other hand, couldn't catch me. It felt too similar in itself. Often enough I didn't know whether I had been on this specific building before (looking for Mickey heads) and visually it was, well, a city. That's not bad, but that's also not as interesting as a snow mountain (in theory) or colorful islands. I think KH3 did best in areas that felt like open spaces because they gave you the feeling of actually being in a big new world.
 
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San Fransokyo on the other hand, couldn't catch me. It felt too similar in itself. Often enough I didn't know whether I had been on this specific building before (looking for Mickey heads) and visually it was, well, a city. That's not bad, but that's also not as interesting as a snow mountain (in theory) or colorful islands. I think KH3 did best in areas that felt like open spaces because they gave you the feeling of actually being in a big new world.
To be perfectly honest, I wasen’t that much of a fan of San Fransokyo when I first played it. You didn’t get much chance to explore, it felt sort, and I thought the Baymax fight was really undercooked. It was only when I went back to the world to look for treasures and lucky emblems that I even came to understand how open it was thus coming to the ‘Superhero sandbox’ conclusion that I mentioned.

It’s still not really an incredible world in my eyes (in terms of how it plays out). I hope by saying that I can highlight how strongly I feel about how San Fransokyo isn’t a traditional Kingdom Hearts world. It’s identity within the context of the series is very unique and represents a change in mentality as far as how the structure of the worlds are approached. I think, if capitalized on successfully, basing worlds on different genres is a fascinating and fun way for them series to evolve for future installments.
 
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I disagree with you on San Fransokyo I actually expected more from the world itself such as exploring more on the San Fransokyo Bridge 🌉, going to Fred’s House, the San Fransokyo Tech institute or going to the Lucky Cat café but instead we just only get Hiro’s Garage (which is a small room) and a 1/4 of the San Fransokyo City (which is just a Large Square) and pretty much it is just two rooms. It's unfortunate as apparently the other Disney worlds (minus the 100 Acre Wood) in the game such as Olympus and especially The Caribbean had a lot more rooms and Open world Exploration than San Fransokyo, particularly the Latter as your exploring the Islands and a vast Ocean.
 

AdrianXXII

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I'm also quite happy with the variety the worlds in this game offered. I hope they continue to take inspiration for different feels from genres where they make sense.

The worlds in this game weren't just the biggest they've ever been they also were the most interesting implementations of the worlds so far imo. They felt more like actual places people live in. Obviously the size and details of them help in that regard, but also just the designs of the places felt a bit more natural to me.

In past games most places didn't seem that lived in and more like set pieces, with how wide and open everything tended to be. they were great for combat, but often felt rather off.
Another plus for me personally was that the worlds actually looked like they were from the movies and not just inspired by them as some of the previous KH games felt to me.

That said I do agree with DizneyXBirds95 that San Fransokyo was a bit of a let down seeing we didn't get to see the iconic spots of the movie and get a rather generic more Tokyo leaning rendition of the place. I was at least expecting to see Hiro's aunts shop or the bridge.
Still for the first proper modern City I found the implementation nice and liked how they offered good mobility with rails and such.
 

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I can appreciate that big hero 6 was their first try at big city so there might be some trial & error there. I think I would have wanted some different rooms areas rather than just one big town. But there were some cool parts like the train system and there was a fun novelty of running up a huge building.
 

Face My Fears

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The Caribbean is awesome, that goes without saying.

San Fransokyo, I got what they were trying to do with that world. It felt like a superhero game - like Arkham City or Spiderman - where you can explore the whole city at once with no loading screens. There is so much detail on each street and alley that you can take hours to explore the whole city. The only things I was hoping more from in San Fransokyo were more party members (like 2 per section of the map, and when you go to a different section the party members swap), seeing more locations from the film, and "Immortals" (instrumental/actual song) being used during the upgrade scene. Also, I think San Fransokyo is WAY more fun to explore after you get glide. It's a little more tedious and less superhero-y when you first visit and have to run/air dash everywhere.
 

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I don't like the boat battle sections in The Caribbean. If we could at least use some of the skills we gained during 90% of the game somehow in these sections I'd like much much more.

There is no problem in diverging the gameplay to something different and creative, but what the boat battles do is to remove all Abilities/Skills/Controls already learned by Sora/Players at this point of the game (The caribbean is one of the last worlds) and make us learn something completely new all of a sudden. Not just that: the boat sections takes more spotlight in the final and important battles (VS Luxord and VS the Kraken) than Sora fighting with a keyblade.

Travelling later, using the boat to get to the islands and exploring the seas is really nice, tho.
Exploring the seas is a really great addition when they don't force you to master the boat's controls for hard battles.
 

Alpha Baymax

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Great analysis, I never considered this. I just want to go on record and say that Big Hero 6 was the last Disney world chosen and developed and it shows...

There's no Visual Works CG cutscene and the assets in the world are the least polished when zoomed up close compared to the other Disney worlds in the game. A big misconception of the world is that the storyline is shorter. That's not necessarily true as YouTube length indicates it to be around the same length as the other Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts III.

Still, my bias for Big Hero 6 makes me more forgiving for its addition as a Disney property in Kingdom Hearts. It's still the best video game representation of Big Hero 6 so I can't complain too much. I also think that people arguing about it being too "modern" is baffling only because variety is a good thing for Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts in itself is a juxtaposition, it's only fair that we have a variety of different Disney worlds that represent the juxtaposition of various Disney properties.
 

Face My Fears

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Great analysis, I never considered this. I just want to go on record and say that Big Hero 6 was the last Disney world chosen and developed and it shows...

There's no Visual Works CG cutscene and the assets in the world are the least polished when zoomed up close compared to the other Disney worlds in the game. A big misconception of the world is that the storyline is shorter. That's not necessarily true as YouTube length indicates it to be around the same length as the other Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts III.

Still, my bias for Big Hero 6 makes me more forgiving for its addition as a Disney property in Kingdom Hearts. It's still the best video game representation of Big Hero 6 so I can't complain too much. I also think that people arguing about it being too "modern" is baffling only because variety is a good thing for Kingdom Hearts. Kingdom Hearts in itself is a juxtaposition, it's only fair that we have a variety of different Disney worlds that represent the juxtaposition of various Disney properties.
I think KH3 was the first game that featured worlds with cars in them. I find that so interesting, I wish Sora had investigated them wondering what they were. I did like that he was in awe at the city.
 

AdrianXXII

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I think KH3 was the first game that featured worlds with cars in them. I find that so interesting, I wish Sora had investigated them wondering what they were. I did like that he was in awe at the city.
Well maybe destiny island already has cars? We don't know how big the main islands are and if there are other islands in that world.
Though likely he's just seen enough fantastical stuff that a car just seems like a less impressive gummiship.

Still in a few worlds in the KH games we've seen maps of earth and in KHUX, Aladdin mentions he and Jasmin are going to visit other countries and Belle and Adam mention wanting to go to far off places together as well.
So i think it fair to assume most worlds do in fact have much more to them than you'd see at first glance.

Of course each world is different and some (especially the originals) might not be nuch more than what we get to see. Riku in BBS does make it seem like their world only has the two islands, which seems a bit odd.
 

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Well maybe destiny island already has cars? We don't know how big the main islands are and if there are other islands in that world.
Though likely he's just seen enough fantastical stuff that a car just seems like a less impressive gummiship.

Still in a few worlds in the KH games we've seen maps of earth and in KHUX, Aladdin mentions he and Jasmin are going to visit other countries and Belle and Adam mention wanting to go to far off places together as well.
So i think it fair to assume most worlds do in fact have much more to them than you'd see at first glance.

Of course each world is different and some (especially the originals) might not be nuch more than what we get to see. Riku in BBS does make it seem like their world only has the two islands, which seems a bit odd.
11857
Chief, I'm not quite sure a village like this would have cars. Yet...at the same time the uniform seems modern enough to merit SOME form of transportation. Perhaps steampunk or something...? Something that could've been explored, but to Square's eyes the village doesn't even matter...and Destiny Islands is only an island. After all, Sora's mother doesn't exist. Wonder how cold that dinner is.

11858


Here's another thing that doesn't exist anymore and is nothing more than a copy and paste for Ven & Rox-oh. That was intentional wasn't it?

ANYWAY, looking at this picture...to an extent I supposed there's technology in Sora's world to...somewhat merit a car I think? There's no specific time period to where Sora's world take place and it drives me insane. THERE'S MORE TO THIS WORLD THAN THE GODDAMN ISLAND, NOMURA, YOU FORGOT THAT?! The original worlds seem to have a specific time period to it. They all sure as hell don't take place in a time as modern as Hiro's world. Radiant Garden being the most steampunk/cyberpunk world of them all. I can't say I can pinpoint the rest...Disney Town is the one that confuses me the most.
 
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In the KH1 Ultimania, Nomura commented that he had asked Utada not to include words of things that didn't exist in the game's worlds (such as "cellphone") into her lyrics, although she ended up using "television". But I'd assume if there are neither of these things, there are probably no cars either.

Of course things have changed since then, so maybe technology on Destiny Islands has made significant advancements lol
 

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Personally from the little we've seen of Destiny Islands it kinda seems to be in a time period mirroring our mid to late 20th century.

If it's the mid to late 20th century, that would probably kinda explain away Sora's unfamiliarity with computers and the lack of cellphone.

The houses seem somewhat modern and they definitely have electricity.
 

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Of course things have changed since then, so maybe technology on Destiny Islands has made significant advancements lol
Not like we'll ever know because it seems the ISLAND is the main focus. Sora and Riku's home, village? Yeah they don't exist.

God if the story is to be excluded in a SINGULAR place then what's the point of having worlds anymore? After all we've already seen how the Disney worlds impacted nothing and are used for nothing out of being only gameplay bait. The world building in this game will always be the ONE thing that irks me. 85% of the game is put on to locations that have nothing to do with the story...AND ARE JUST THERE. And 10% is story......and Destiny Islands is just there.
 
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To me, these worlds are total opposites: San Fransokyo captures the soulless, empty KH world theming we all know and love to hate (yes, there are NPCs and it's better than before, but this is honestly where KHII should've been regarding immersion), while the Caribbean is one of the standouts; incidentally, it was probably my least hyped world in the game as it was a returning, live action world (I prefer the pre-Y2K classic hand-drawn films -- where is Robin Hood?)
 

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In a way San Fransokyo kind of feels like a taste of what's to come from Shibuya and Shinjuku. Only difference being the big modern city is likely to be the hub worlds.

Like Divine mentioned it was their first go a developing a big modern city as a world. Which is why I'm hoping the concept gets more fleshed out next game
 

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Kingdom Hearts II onwards had the series settle into the comfortability of providing players with small rooms that are nothing but window dressing for combat. There wasn't the charm that Kingdom Hearts 1 had, where you could push furniture into walls to discover new places in Wonderland or you had to find the right rooms in the cave of wonders and break pillars in order to proceed.

With the Caribbean, I definitely felt a little spark of the Kingdom Hearts 1 level design return. There were so many places you had to go out of your way to explore (this is due to a problem with the plot, mind, since it only has you visit one island area and then Tortuga before you finish the world), each with little secrets and pathways to explore in order to collect treasures (that room with like, 9 treasure chests under the water was an absolute delight), dive break boxes, and search for Lucky Emblems.

The freedom it presented to travel wherever I wanted and explore was something that the Kingdom Hearts series had never really given out before. While worlds like Corona were charming with how you interacted with Rapunzel as she explored the land, it was on a set pathway which did have you go from A to B with little outside of that pathway to see.

San Fransokyo, on the other hand, didn't live up to what the Caribbean had put forth. The two do try and emulate the same kind of feeling - that of exploring a big environment, but San Fransokyo was ultimately a tiny fraction of the size of the Caribbean. The Caribbean had multiple little islands and side areas to explore but exploring in San Fransokyo was effectively just get to the top of a building and then head back down and repeat as you move across the map. There are layers, something that Kingdom Hearts II onwards did not have until Dream Drop Distance, which is fantastic, but it really lacked the feeling of properly exploring a city environment.

In a city, in a real life city, you walk the streets with a lot of people and go inside buildings and explore, dine, shop, and socialise. I understand the limitations with this and video games, as video games struggle to provide sand box areas with in-depth buildings to explore (unless you're Yakuza and you reuse the same map which then lets you work on inside buildings). Then again, this kind of expansion doesn't fit with the Big Hero 6 style. They are super heroes that skate, bounce, and fly. That doesn't really lend itself to indoors environments.

Maybe San Fransokyo needed another environment to explore. You don't really get to enjoy the bridge outside of a battle portal, and you're stuck in battle so you don't get to take it all in. SFIT is unfortunately omitted in not just appearance but name as well (NPCs refer to it as the University rather than SFIT and I'm baffled because it really takes me out of the world building). Another area could have promoted exploration and a new layout design as well. We could have had the city map and then a hybrid park / city area as well, and a park lends itself to exploration.



I'm thrilled that Osaka went out and rectified a problem that grew from Kingdom Hearts II. I'm glad that worlds in Kingdom Hearts III did promote exploration and I'm sure if they had more time to dedicate to developing these worlds then they would have (San Fransokyo was worked on from August 2015-November 2018, and unlike other games set in cities, that time was not fully dedicated to that world).

It does give me hope. Like @Happyfunshineman said, this could make future Kingdom Hearts worlds feel fresh. Osaka need to take the design approach that they did with those two worlds, not have them be glorified battle areas, but treat the Disney property with respect and let the player explore and find secrets. Disney movies are filled with references and treats for fans. It's time for Square Enix to do the same with the worlds they make.

And if they want us to explore Shibuya in the next game then they need to get cracking on their city world early on in development this time.
 
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