In the final hours of the Square Enix game Kingdom Hearts II, a bad boy named Axel sacrifices himself in the middle of an overwhelming battle. He swings his weapon and summons fire until he falls in exhaustion. As he dies next to Sora (our protagonist) with Donald Duck and Goofy not far behind, Axel admits that Sora made him feel like he had a heart, then fades away.
Axel’s death embodies the convoluted but deceptively effective treatment of male friendship, loyalty, and vulnerability apparent throughout the Kingdom Hearts franchise. It can be difficult to articulate this, especially when the franchise’s combination of Final Fantasy and Disney characters distracts those unfamiliar with the franchise. “I’ve been told,” Alexa Ray Corriea admits at the start of her book Kingdom Hearts II, “that when I talk about Kingdom Hearts, I make absolutely no sense.”
In her book, Corriea becomes a worthy ambassador to Kingdom Hearts lore while also divulging her personal relationship with the series. She got her copy of the original Kingdom Hearts when she was fourteen because her mother decided, “‘it had Disney characters on it and it looked fine.’” Her account of playing Kingdom Hearts along with her younger brothers Jake and Raymond (who was born with achondroplasia) are among the most effective passages in the book. “We talked about what we would do in Sora’s shoes,” she remembers, “were we brave enough to take on such dastardly villains with such high stakes?”
Corriea’s book does an excellent job of articulating the increasingly complicated depiction of good and evil in the Kingdom Hearts universe. According to Corriea, the series teaches us, “you don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be saintly, and a few bad or selfish choices don’t make you evil.” Instead, she says, “you are only bad if you let that darkness harm others.” While pure good (Sora) and pure evil (the main villain, Ansem) exist in Kingdom Hearts as they do in so many other video game franchises, it is the characters on the precipice of evil that keep the narrative engaging.
While many players fondly remember the Kingdom Hearts franchise for its complicated characters, Corriea notes that the action of the Kingdom Hearts series is centered almost exclusively on its male main characters. “There are many women in the series,” she points out, “they’re just not the heroes.” This is especially disappointing when we consider that the source material for Kingdom Hearts is full of well-motivated female characters. “Final Fantasy, with which Kingdom Hearts is closely linked, includes 25 years of games featuring women chasing their own destinies.” Likewise, “Disney … is replete with strong women in films like Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, and more recently Tangled and Frozen.” Corriea posits that the unmotivated female characters of Kingdom Hearts I and II are blatantly disingenuous to the worlds they’ve been lent from.
The narrative of Kingdom Hearts is anything but simple. Even during this review, I have avoided mentioning important characters like Kairi and concepts like the Nobodies so I would not lose myself in an unending sequence of explanations. It is easy to get swallowed up in the immensity of Kingdom Heart folklore and there are times when Corriea’s book feels overwhelmed by the video game’s plot. I was hoping to learn more about the making of the Kingdom Hearts games, the franchise’s various gameplay elements, and gaming culture in the early 2000s. While Corriea does go into some of these topics in detail, it is clear that her main objective in Kingdom Hearts II is to unpack the narrative threads of the franchise. It is to the credit of Boss Fight Books that, despite producing sixteen books covering one video game apiece, each book still manages to set its own goals and construct a distinct personality.
Kingdom Hearts is a series that cares so much about intimacy and the power of friendship that its creators concocted a nearly incoherent but overwhelmingly sincere narrative to explore the themes. Corriea manages to navigate the franchise’s narrative and metaphors more tactfully than any other writer I have encountered. If Kingdom Hearts is a franchise that haunts you like it haunts me, or if the combination of Final Fantasy, Disney, and My Chemical Romance-esque drama just sounds like a good time, then Corriea’s Kingdom Hearts II is a helpful guide.
Kingdom Hearts II, by Alexa Ray Corriea. Los Angeles, California: Boss Fight Books, June 2017. 144 pages. $14.95, paper.
James Ardis is the author of Your Arkansas: A Strategy Guide (Gauss PDF, 2016), a project that combines psychosis and video game strategy guides. His writing has most recently appeared in FreezeRay, Devil’s Lake, and Leveler. His most recent criticism is available at The Collagist, and forthcoming from Entropy, and The Rumpus. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.