Spoiler Warning: This story contains spoilers for Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts 2, and that's about it. Tread carefully!
Usually when I think of Kingdom Hearts, the first world that pops in my mind isn't a Disney-themed world. It's not the belly of Monstro the whale from Pinocchio, nor is it the Tim Burton drenched Halloweentown of The Nightmare Before Christmas. It's Hollow Bastion, the towering Heartless-infested former home for all the familiar Final Fantasy acquaintances you've met along the way.
When Hollow Bastion first comes into view, Sora's about to be abandoned. The giant castle of Hollow Bastion looms in the distance, twisting around itself to make for a striking silhouette. Sora is on its outskirts, left to jump across weird floating ice islands to get to it, surrounded by a wall of upwards pouring waterfalls as if Moses strolled through to part the sea for the castle's entrance. After a short battle at the entrance of Hollow Bastion, Sora loses his trusty keyblade to its intended owner: His frenemy Riku who has fallen to the dark side on the same intent of saving their mutual friend Kairi. Goofy and Donald bounce from your party along with it. With this, Sora's left alone without his familiar friends and his keyhole-locking weapon. Even with newfound buddy Beast from Beauty and the Beast at his side, he's trapped in a strange place sapped of the vibrance of the Disney worlds before it.
From the haunting, piano-pounding music to the intimidating Heartless that greet you at its gates, Hollow Bastion is unlike any other world in Kingdom Hearts. It's where the sinister underbelly that's been bubbling beneath Kingdom Hearts' cheery surface manifests for the first time; no longer resigned to angsty cutscenes of Disney villains circling around a naive and impressionable Riku or weighty boss battles. In Hollow Bastion, the evil and danger is palpable for the first time. As if shit just got real. (Because, truthfully, it has.)
"My Friends Are My Power!"
When people ask me what it is that draws me to Kingdom Hearts, I recall the ridiculous but assured "My friends are my power!" line that Sora spits at Riku. It happens moments before a boss battle, one that calls back to an optional fight in the beginning of the game where Riku and Sora swing wooden swords at one another on their home of Destiny Islands. Riku's tough, and he's always had a reputation of being better than Sora at everything. (It's probably because he's taller, bratty, and has better hair.) In this battle though, their wood is traded for steel; their kid-like play replaced with magical abilities and fierceness. Their intentions are the same—they want to find Kairi's heart to save her from her comatose state—but they've fallen on opposite sides, good and evil, in the process.
It all happens in the walls of Hollow Bastion. In the context of the daunting lore for Kingdom Hearts, the eerie castle of Hollow Bastion stands above where Radiant Garden once stood. In the past, as we learn in detail in Kingdom Hearts 2, Ansem the Wise ruled it. Since his fall, it's become a cesspool for all things evil. The ragtag team of Disney villains led by Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty have made it their headquarters. Ansem, now the Seeker of Darkness (the primary villain of Kingdom Hearts before things get way complicated starting with the spin-off Chain of Memories), dwells there too, even possessing Riku to regain a physical presence that he lost long ago from growing infatuated with darkness. Ansem's research of the Heartless, we learn, is what plunged Radiant Garden into turmoil in the first place, turning it into Hollow Bastion.
It's a grim world compared to the other worlds in Kingdom Hearts, a stark detour on the happy-go-lucky Disney Greatest Hits road trip. The darkness is always present in Kingdom Hearts; in battles, in cutscenes, in the shadows of worlds. But things are never quite as gloomy as they are at the start, when Sora, Riku, and Kairi's home of Destiny Islands is swallowed when a mysterious storm appears. Even with darkness threatening other Disney worlds, they never lose their cheeriness. The Alice in Wonderland world's theme music is still bubbly; even the original world of Traverse Town maintains its relaxing vibe. It's upon the arrival of Hollow Bastion where this tone noticeably shifts.
On the outside and in the grand entrance, Hollow Bastion feels like a regular old castle. It's deeper within where that changes. In the basement, pipes and other industrial-looking intricacies wind through it. As Sora rides upwards in the castle in elevator lifts (driven by mysterious blue lights), you experience the scale of Hollow Bastion for the first time. In one lift ride, you see golden pipes twisting around its edge, with steam billowing out the top of it. It's a strikingly designed castle, the more you explore it: Part Disney fever dream, part steampunk, part Final Fantasy.
It all come to a head with the relationship between Riku and Sora, two lifelong acquaintances who have fallen on opposite sides of a conflict. Riku's a familiar figure too, like that one shitty friend you love and loathe in equal measure. Later in the level, they battle again, only this time Riku's not Riku. He's fully possessed by the villain Ansem, who tells him that Kairi's lost heart "rests within" Sora. After the battle, Ansem-Riku evaporates and Sora, left with Kairi, gives Goofy and Donald a silly grin before impaling himself with the keyblade. Kairi's heart returns to her, as do the other Disney princesses "of heart" that have been abducted over the course of the story, such as the Beast's conquest Belle. Kairi awakens just in time to see Sora dissipate into darkness. A non-Riku form Ansem returns to say that the keyhole for Hollow Bastion, which needed the princesses to have their hearts in tact (which Kairi did not until Sora stabbed himself), is complete and Kairi is no longer needed. Ghost Riku intervenes to stall him, letting Kairi, Goofy, and Donald escape.
It's when Kingdom Hearts pans back to Sora when things get interesting. In a short sequence, Sora's suddenly a Heartless. Hilariously he's evolved into a puny shadow Heartless, the weakest enemy you typically face. As a Shadow, you waddle across Hollow Bastion again. You leap off edges, slowly but surely making your way back to the entrance hall of the castle where everything began. It's a sweet sequence, as after Kairi recognizes that the Heartless is Sora, he's able to be restored to his former self with just a hug. Even without sealing the keyhole on the first visit, Hollow Bastion feels like it's come full circle. Sora experiences hardship, has some revelations, "saves" Kairi, loses his keyblade and gets it back again in a whirlwind series of events. Kingdom Hearts hits its peak in Hollow Bastion.
It's a lot of plot that happens in a short timespan. Up to this point, most worlds have just given small cameos of Riku and the rest of the villains' whereabouts, aside from Neverland. Each world follows a similar structure: sealing its keyhole after beating some big boss and making friends with its inhabitants along the way. They're entire plots in miniature, with small clues and other moments moving the overarching story along. Sora's always missing Kairi and wondering what's up with Riku, while Donald and Goofy are on the hunt for King Mickey. They're driven by the loss of friendships, while gaining more friendships along the journey. They're also not supposed to meddle with its characters too much—though of course, the party's bad with the whole "no meddling" part.
An Impossible Crossover
Long before Kingdom Hearts began development, it was allegedly pitched loosely by producer Shinji Hashimoto in an elevator to a Disney executive, which Square Enix (then SquareSoft) once shared a building with. Revisiting it for the first time in 2018 since its PlayStation 3 remaster, and before that playing its original PlayStation 2 release endlessly, it's hard to fathom such a crossover coming together today. Director Tetsuya Nomura even told us during E3 2018 that working with modern Disney properties has been notably harder compared to past games.
In today's era, Disney owns pretty much everything. Hell, Wolverine was held back from appearing in Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite because Fox (though very recently bought out by Disney) owned the X-Men license. (And Disney owns Marvel, if you can keep up with the acquisitions.) Today, Kingdom Hearts feels like a relic of impossibility. When my mom and I heard about it back in the early 2000s, it seemed too good to be true: a batshit mash-up of her interests (Final Fantasy) and mine (Disney). Miraculously the crossover worked, going so far to nearly brush off the Final Fantasy throwbacks that were so prominent in the first Kingdom Hearts for the upcoming third numbered entry in the series.
What's made Kingdom Hearts stay so strong in the minds of many, whether they grew up with the game like me or not, is the weirdness of it all. If pitched today, it's hard to imagine it happening. And yet, Kingdom Hearts crystallized at an opportune time: Final Fantasy and Disney both had huge success in the late 1990s thanks to the PlayStation and Disney's Renaissance Era. Both properties were at their peak, and surprisingly, worked quite well when Frankenstein'd together.
Hollow Bastion is where it comes together. Its central castle has minor resemblances to Beast's Castle from Beauty and the Beast and the castle from Sleeping Beauty. It's a mechanical fortress too, as if the power plant in Midgar was suddenly doused in gold and pastel shades of pink and twisted like a strand of DNA with a castle. Beyond the tranquil paradise of Destiny Islands and the homey Traverse Town, Hollow Bastion is where Final Fantasy and Disney join to form an original world unlike each property's own. It's where both sensibilities collide.
It's a multi-tiered fortress, divided into numerous sections. Contrary to most worlds' horizontal layout, Hollow Bastion embraces verticality. Sora can climb high using magical lifts, and once he reaches a certain level, can even drop down below by walking off a ledge. In some cases, this leads to frustration in combat if Sora's pushed off by an enemy or a bad combo; but in other situations, it's a handy solution to slow navigation. Unlike most worlds' minimal, largely horizontal rooms to explore, Hollow Bastion is instead dense and layered, with its grand hallways and secretive nooks often rewarding you with treasure chests.
In college, I was taught about the art of the elevator pitch: Condensing the hook of a story in a short few sentences, basically for the length of an elevator ride. Thinking back to producer Hashimoto's alleged pitch to a Disney executive way back when, I can't help but wonder what was in it. Was it a Predator-esque meeting of minds with them saying, "Let's bring Final Fantasy and Disney together for an action-RPG," with biceps flexing and hands clasped? Was it a more casual chat? Was it focused on the heart at the center of its earnest story of friendship?
In the elevator pitch in my mind, I'd say that Hollow Bastion is the embodiment of Kingdom Hearts' ambitious concept. It's Disney. It's Final Fantasy. It's original. It's everything coming together for one cohesive, substantial level. It's the world that's burned most into my mind, even if I don't think Kingdom Hearts' overall action holds up too well. But I think it's significant that when I think of it, the first thing that pops in my mind is the silhouette of Hollow Bastion, its ever-crescendoing music, the battles against Riku, Sora fumbling around its grounds as a Heartless before being revived by Kairi, and so on. Kingdom Hearts is at its best around its first visit to Hollow Bastion, showing that sometimes friendship saves the day and overcomes darkness. And sometimes mixing unlikely properties can make video game magic.