Kingdom Hearts fans ate pretty well during the series 20th Anniversary presentation, which focused on a small handful of titles in the series. Chiefly among those was certainly the reveal of Kingdom Hearts IV. True to franchise reputation however, the game’s reveal is equally confusing as it is exciting. On the flip side, where previous major title reveals in the series have been shrouded in mystery, the clues to what is going on in Kingdom Hearts IV are abundant here, so we’re going to break down the why, the who, what where and when of this trailer, and explain it as best as we can along the way.
Why is Sora in the real world?
The trailer for Kingdom Hearts IV picks up where Kingdom Hearts III and its corresponding DLC Re:Mind left Sora – set adrift in an unfamiliar world that looks suspiciously like modern day Japan. We’re told this is Quadratum, a world whose name was first revealed at the end of the more recently released Melody of Memory game.
In Melody of Memory, Sora’s friends discover that Quadratum is not just different visually from other worlds they’ve encountered but that it doesn’t even exist in their own reality. Quadratum exists in a state of fiction, from their perspective, which is of course why it looks like the world we inhabit. We’ve analyzed previously the metatextual implications of this reveal and other recent Tetsuya Nomura projects, so for these purposes it’s just important to know that Sora’s actually in an alternate reality.
Who are all of these other people?
What is equally interesting as Sora’s whereabouts is who we know to be in Quadratum with him. Sora is brought quickly up to speed by a girl that will go unrecognized by even those who’ve played all the console games. Confirmed by the press release material alongside the trailer, this girl is named Strelitzia, but she’s not as brand new to the story as Square Enix would suggest.
Strelitzia has in fact served as one of the various loose threads left behind from Kingdom Hearts Union X, the mobile game that has increasingly become more and more important to tying together the various stories going on in the franchise. Most players are familiar with the cinematic version of some of the game’s events included in complications titled Back Cover (we’ll get to that shortly), but Strelitzia doesn’t appear there. Instead, her story begins where the Keyblade Masters of that section end. She was selected as one of their replacements, but then murdered before the original Keyblade War.
That murder becomes the primary story motivation for one of the other successors – her brother Lauriam. He survives the events of Union X and makes it into the current Kingdom Hearts timeline as Marluxia, a member of Organization XIII who lost their memory of the ancient times. He seems to have regained those memories upon his defeat in KH3. Union X revealed this, as well as learning at the last moment that his sister may not have died, or at least suggest she still has a place in the story, setting her up for an encounter with Sora here in Kingdom Heart IV.
That’s not the only tie to Union X in the story. Appearing before the title screen and implied to be speaking over the action is the ancient Master of Masters. He’s likely the “Lost Master” referred to in the new arc title that KH4 is kicking off, given that he’s been working in the shadows of both the mobile titles and in the secret ending of KH3 and Re:Mind. So far, media like Back Cover has implied this unnamed Master to be something of the architect of the series events, watching from the sidelines. Quadratum seems to be where he’s been doing that from but his true agenda remains just as shrouded as his face.
Seen alongside him is yet another black cloaked figure – this could be long annoying villain Xigbar, who was revealed to actually be the body-hopping apprentice of the Master tasked to survive hundreds of years in order to see the events of Kingdom Hearts come to pass. However, having one more mystery character running around brings to mind who isn’t here.
Where is everyone else?
Kingdom Hearts famously has a massive cast and almost none of them make an appearance. Most notably is the absence of a surprising new character, Yozora, who shares a name with the Secret Ending of KH3 and serves as the DLC’s final boss challenge. That encounter (and its different endings) seem to either be non-canon or have a different placement relative to where we find Sora in the trailer here.
Melody of Memory concludes with Riku also departing for Quadratum, but it is over a year later from KH3’s ending at that point. Meanwhile, Strelitzia tells Sora in this trailer that he’s only been there for seven days. The obvious answer is that the trailer takes place prior to Melody of Memory but this series has no problems with breaking the space-time continuum into pieces for any reason it wants. MoM also shows us that Sora’s other friends were out looking for clues to his location, but were recalled once it was clear to them where he ended up. This puts the final scene of the trailer into a curious perspective.
Donald and Goofy seem to be on their own, visiting the underworld of Disney’s Hercules looking for Hades of all characters. This doesn’t seem to be specifically linked to a quest for Sora, and it would be curious to make an event like this needed for a reveal trailer if it only showed us what the two were doing during MoM. The last time we saw Hades was in a conversation with fellow Disney villain Maleficent regarding a mysterious box being hunted by Xigbar on behalf of the Master of Masters. There’s a possibility that’s what they’re now on the trail of.
Most of Sora’s other friends are in much better places than when Kingdom Hearts III started, save for Kairi. She’s continuing her own Keyblade training after getting used as a pawn in KH3‘s game’s climax, hopefully with Nomura planning a redemption tour for his treatment of her over the years. It’s even possible that much like they did with Sora, Donald and Goofy will help protect her through this training and that’s why they’ve yet again returned to Olympus.
Finally, there is again the threads of Union X, which culminated with several characters leaping ahead to various points in time. Not all of them have been accounted for yet, though at least one will continue his story in the next mobile game announced alongside Kingdom Hearts IV. Now that Strelitzia is confirmed alive and directly in contact with Sora, the other Keyblade warriors she was supposed to fight alongside – or at least her brother – will likely be in pursuit. These characters have been built up for a long time, and at this point it’ll be worth your time to check out a recap like this one here from YouTuber damo279 to be ready for what Nomura does next with them.
What is the point of all this?
Casual observers might be wondering why there even will be another adventure with Sora. Kingdom Hearts III was indeed a conclusion for most of the major plot pieces that had been in build up since the very beginning, but clearly there are plenty of places to take the story.
What’s most enticing is that for the first time since the lead up to Kingdom Hearts II, there isn’t actually a clear direction for the story to head towards. As convoluted and expansive as the franchise can be at times, the trajectory from KH2 through to KH3 was a straightforward one: get Sora to a point to where he could defeat series antagonist Xehanort, and heal the damage the man had done along the way.
While the series as a whole still can’t seem to fully quit Xehanort (both the mobile titles announced in the same video have at least something to do with him), his place as the driving conflict of the franchise is over. Many of the characters who were unfortunate enough to cross him have either reached some closure or have been queued up for new stories going forward. Kingdom Hearts IV should give the franchise a chance to trim the fat, especially since we won’t be doing any more expansive amount of tie-ins across multiple console platforms and decades.
When is Kingdom Hearts IV Going To Happen?
Which brings things to the natural question: when should we expect to actually see this game? This trailer is clearly an announcement of development, so while it was very good to see some sort of gameplay concept, it’s unlikely that Kingdom Hearts IV has been in actual production for very long. That said, the vertical slice of developers Square Enix has for Kingdom Hearts was increased following the release of KH3, so this could have been in the pipeline sooner than expected. For his part, Tetsuya Nomura has just had another project release, Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin, so that likely now frees him up to focus on KH4 and related projects going forward.
Even if all the stars were aligned, it would seem unlikely to expect KH4 to release in 2023. The announcement did not even include target platforms, almost as if Square Enix was daring a console manufacturer to make a bid for exclusivity. The trailer is also much more graphically potent than other Kingdom Hearts games, suggesting that the game will likely be taking advantage of more top-of-the-line technology – another likely reason to not commit to platforms yet.
The game could use Square Enix’s proprietary Luminous engine, but Nomura’s first use of that engine ended up with him moving on to other projects. Luminous has had known issues with development in the past, with the next big game using it, Forspoken, having to be delayed recently to give developers more time to fine tune. Kingdom Hearts III was actually supposed to use Luminous as well but was swapped to Unreal Engine 4, which Nomura said in interviews was a decision made by executives, not the development team. However, Forspoken is still coming out in 2022 as of this writing, so while Unreal 4 or the recently released 5 is very likely, it also seems that Square Enix has worked out a lot of Luminous’ issues.
Update 4/12/2022: Turns out the answer is in the middle. According to a Famitsu article translated by VGC, KH4 will be using Unreal Engine 5. However, Sunday’s trailer was produced in Unreal Engine 4.
The real takeaway from this is that there’s clearly a reason Square Enix made no promises, so we’ll be waiting a good while to see what secrets lie in the Lost Master Arc. If this trailer is any indication, there will be plenty to chew on while we wait.