One of the most famous designers in gaming opens up about the eagerly anticipated sequel to the bestselling Square Enix / Disney crossover role-playing game.
If the name Tetsuya Nomura isn’t familiar to you, then the characters he’s created for some of Square Enix’s finest games most certainly will be. After all, this is the man who brought the world the utterly memorable likes of Cloud Strife and Sephiroth for Final Fantasy VII, Sora for Kingdom Hearts, and Yuna and Tidus for Final Fantasy X.
Sat in a Square Enix meeting room that’s physically shaking from the booming bass sound being pumped out in the game preview theatre situated directly above it, Nomura-san is in characteristically shy form. Dressed in what appears to be an understated real-life spin on his own characters’ trademark outfits (long black shorts, big chain), he conducts the entire interview with his eyes hidden beneath the peak of his baseball cap.
Contrary to appearances and a few prior warnings regarding his general demeanour, however, Nomura-san is chatty and personable, laughing frequently and delivering lengthy answers about his latest projects. In this instalment, he tells us about Kingdom Hearts II, the follow-up to 2002′s unique collaboration between Square Enix and Disney.
Can you give us a little background on Kingdom Hearts II’s story?
Nomura: Kingdom Hearts II takes place a year after the ending of the original, and at the very beginning of the game – which I can’t go into detail at this time – there is actually going to be some sort of mystery. Just think of a typical sequel, but with something that’s going to be very unexpected [happening] at the beginning.
It still follows the story of Sora and his friends. In the original, you were trying to defeat the Heartless, but there is a third group in KHII. Nomura: The new enemies are called the Nobodies. Story-wise, the theme of Kingdom Hearts is based on the heart; how deep we can get [into it] is going to be revealed more in Kingdom Hearts II. [The original] Kingdom Hearts was the light-hearted version, but [KHII] gets deeper and darker into the heart, and I can definitely say that it gets a little more serious. It’s about determination and finding your lost friends.
Is it hard to keep the storyline serious when you’re dealing with characters like Donald Duck and Goofy?
Nomura: Surprisingly there weren’t many challenges with getting Donald, Goofy, or any of the other Disney characters that aren’t usually dark and serious, to become that way. The storyline gets very serious, but they maintain their own characteristics and, because of that, their personalities will shine. We are committed to maintaining that, not just with Donald and Goofy, but with the other Disney characters too.
What new characters from the Disney universe appear in Kingdom Hearts II? We’ve heard talk of a Pirates of the Caribbean world, for example.
Nomura: Well, the most recent announcements made at the show are the inclusion of Mulan and yes, we also showed Pirates of the Caribbean in the trailer. There are also worlds that were in the original, such as Hercules. In the original, it took place above ground, but this time, we’re actually taking you to the other side of the Hercules world.
Nomura: Right, exactly. So there are worlds that we are going to revisit, but they are not exactly where we left them off in the original Kingdom Hearts. Another good example would be the characters from Beauty and the Beast, who appeared in the original, but now they actually have their own world. Even though you’ve seen them in the original, we’re going to make use of them in different ways.
What is the process for choosing these worlds? Do you get direction from Disney, or is it something that you come up with yourself?
Nomura: We actually don’t get any suggestions from the Disney side of the project – it’s pretty much all us. In this case, we come down to a number of worlds we wanted to include in the universe, and then I go out and list which worlds I think would be a perfect fit. Then I take that and propose them to everyone on my team. Usually, there isn’t any opposition. Once the team has made a decision, we take the proposal over to Disney. There have been worlds that have been rejected. In that case, I think of other scenarios and worlds that would fit. Then it’s just a repeat of that process until we get down to the final list.
What are the criteria for what fits?
Nomura: One basic rule that I go by is that, among all the Disney worlds that exist, I try not to pick worlds that have a similar feel or look to them, for example, The Jungle Book and Tarzan. Visually, they might look a little similar. What I usually do is break down the Disney worlds that are available from all those that are out there, and categorise them. For example, maybe one world takes place near an ocean or water-based environment, one world will take place in modern days, and another world takes place in a natural environment, like woods or a forest. From that, I would list the worlds that might fit into the Kingdom Hearts story.
The combat system seems a lot more fluid than that seen in the first game. Does Sora retain all of the moves he learned from his first adventure?
Nomura: We’re not re-using anything from the original, so everything is brand new and has been remade completely from scratch. You won’t see any duplicate movements from Sora in Kingdom Hearts II.
From the original, Sora has managed to learn how to kill enemies using a Keyblade and has travelled to so many worlds. If I were to compare his overall movement and attitude towards defeating enemies [to the original Kingdom Hearts], he’s matured a little bit. With that [in mind], the movements have been developed into a form that’s a little cooler and not like a little kid learning how to use a toy.
Nomura: Maybe that’s an expression that I can use: Sora has ‘levelled up’ in terms of how he uses his weapon, and the experience that he has after travelling to so many worlds is shown in his movements in Kingdom Hearts II.
We also see that King Mickey makes a more prominent appearance in the game. Will he become a member of your party at any point?
Nomura: Well obviously, King Mickey is going to be one special character. Within the Disney world, he can’t be treated the same as everyone else. Even though Sora travels with Donald and Goofy throughout the Kingdom Hearts universe, and they may seem special because they’re simply just travelling with him, King Mickey is going to have his own reason why he is here in this universe. So, he won’t be taken the same way as Donald and Goofy, nor as the characters in the individual worlds. There’s going to be some sort of special hook, not only as to how he makes his appearance, but also as to where he is positioned within the storyline.
How have you seen the audience for RPGs change, and how have you reacted to that with Kingdom Hearts, particularly with regard to appealing to both Eastern and Western audiences?
Nomura: Generally speaking, I think that the RPG audience in Japan tends to favour the ‘command’ style, which is not very action-based. A whole lot of RPGs tend to be developed that way, so it was hard for me to try to do the opposite, which would be the action-oriented RPG that the US and European countries would probably favour.
My ideal situation, even when developing Final Fantasy games – which are all command based – I always have in mind, “How can I make this a little more action-oriented, but without going too far with the action?” It’s almost like having that perfect balance of blending the two. This was actually something that I’ve always wanted to experiment with; it was my ideal situation that if I could blend the two, and still maintain the command style without tipping over into full action.
I still consider Kingdom Hearts to be an RPG, although I wouldn’t necessarily categorise it as a full-action RPG. Seeing that the fans’ reactions after putting out the original Kingdom Hearts has been very positive, I now know that it works and I’m very happy and satisfied with the experiment that I took on.