Review: Alexa Ray Corriea’s Kingdom Hearts II

If writing a thoughtful, thorough, stimulating nonfiction book about a video game sounds like a challenge, then choosing Kingdom Hearts II as the subject of such a book must be performing that task on Expert mode. The Kingdom Hearts series of games consists of several more spin-offs and prequels (e.g., Kingdom Hearts 358/2 DaysKingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep, etc.) than “core” titles. To learn the complicated lore seems almost impossible. Not only is there a great quantity of games and characters therein, but their stories are mysterious, confusing, and vague, even intentionally so. As quoted in this new title from Boss Fight Books, director Tetsuya Nomura has stated, “Whether it’s game, anime, or manga, there should be a place where you can speculate things. I feel that way, so I wanted to make a game that gives space for your imagination. That’s why I don’t like revealing everything and saying, ‘This is the answer.’” So how does one write the book on one game in a series whose creator takes pride in weaving intricate narratives that are full to bursting with the unexplained?

Despite this high degree of difficulty, Kingdom Hearts II  author Alexa Ray Corriea describes the game in such a lucid way that even a neophyte will understand and appreciate her summaries of the plot and analysis of the characters. While a lesser writer might have gotten bogged down in the minutiae of the game’s many worlds, mechanics, and supporting cast, Corriea deftly distills the sprawling story into just the essential details that the reader need know in order to grasp the context surrounding her deep dives into the game’s finer points. Readers who haven’t played Kingdom Hearts II (and even those who have, who can be forgiven for forgetting some things in the twelve years since this game’s release) will receive a helpful primer on its heroes and villains (and all the shades of gray in between), but a modest one in service of what’s really important here: Corriea’s dissection of the game’s strengths and weaknesses.

While similar titles might take the reader chronologically through a game’s story, Kingdom Hearts II emphasizes theme and subject matter in the organization of its ideas. Each chapter reads like a standalone essay in which Corriea examines a new aspect of the game, or the game as a whole from a new angle. In “Gone Girl,” she looks at the game through a feminist lens, magnifying the shortcomings of the one-dimensional female “lead,” Kairi, while elevating the virtues of the more complex Naminé. In “Bad Romances and Rad Bromances,” Corriea challenges the perceived significance of the romance between Kairi and protagonist Sora, while making a persuasive case that the much more important relationship is the homosocial one between Sora and best friend Riku. In “Riku and Redemption, or, What Doesn’t Kill You,” she uses the subplot of the tortured anti-hero to tackle universal questions about what makes a good person and the dichotomy of light and darkness in all of us.

Beyond the profundity of these close readings of Kingdom Hearts II, Corriea also grabs the reader by revealing her personal attachment to the game series. In the prologue, she describes her relationship with her younger brothers, Raymond, who underwent many treatments for achondroplasia throughout childhood, and Jake, who was unexpectedly born ten years after her. The first Kingdom Hearts game united these three siblings, disparate in age, as she writes: “When the game ended, we all cried, watching Riku shut himself behind the large white door to the dark realm and watching Sora float away into the surrounding blackness. We talked about how the game made us realize we would always be okay if we had each other’s backs.” In the chapter about learning from Riku, Corriea also pays tribute to her own best friend, saying, “Christilynn and I were inseparable in the little fantasy worlds we built for ourselves, and we dove into Kingdom Hearts with gusto.” These moments of insight into the author’s life help to raise the emotional stakes for readers, as we come to see the game as not only a cultural artifact but also a formative experience.

Much like the Kingdom Hearts games themselves, Corriea’s Kingdom Hearts II finds power in hybridity, blending personal essay with intellectual critique. Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is how it honors its subject without being precious about it. The author does not allow nostalgia to cloud her judgment. Instead, she casts an unflinching gaze at the flaws in Kingdom Hearts II, especially in the chapter that covers the game’s notorious first few hours of playing as new character Roxas. Corriea scrutinizes this section of the game and its infamy early on in her book, thus setting a precedent that she will fairly assess the game’s shortcomings rather than merely singing its praises. With anticipation and hype for Kingdom Hearts III currently escalating, now is the perfect moment to reflect on the franchise’s history, and Corriea’s Kingdom Hearts II provides that backward look with both well-earned pathos and scholarly rigor.