There was never going to be an easy, concise or simple way to review Kingdom Hearts III. In some regards, this game always sat up on a pedestal that was akin to Duke Nukem Forever, but with bigger and stranger caveats. For example, the very title Kingdom Hearts III is a weird misnomer in the eyes of both casual and hardcore fans. It denotes that the last “official” game in the series would have been Kingdom Hearts II, which came out a shocking thirteen plus years ago. But, in the meantime, there were so many other games that were apparently super, crazy important to the plot. Birthed by Sleep, 358/2, Recoded…hell, it turns out that Chain of Memories, a Gameboy Advance title, was more important than I had remembered and actually explained a LOT of why Kingdom Hearts II made no sense. So for a title that people have literally been waiting over a decade to see come to life to finally get a release, it was bound to be something memorable. But the core question remains, is it good?
For those who haven’t been aboard the Square Enix and Disney train before, Kingdom Hearts III is the final entry into a series of incredibly lore-driven, robust titles that center around a fictitious universe in which Mickey Mouse is king, people can separate their hearts from their bodies and make two brand new entities, and a massive key wielded by a kid with even bigger shoes is the savior and the apocalypse in one breath. You play Sora, the hero of most of the games, who is in the final sprint to understand more about himself, the powers of his heart, and to bring back the strength that he lost in Kingdom Hearts II. He’s aided, as always, by Goofy and Donald, who are a knight and mage, respectively, in this game. Honestly, to fully explain the story, you’d need to watch about an hour of video or read pages upon pages of concrete facts, inferred ideas and wild but plausible fan speculation to fully piece it together, and, even then, you’d be confused. It boils down to Sora is trying to find Roxas, a person(?) who was created when Sora went into a coma and lost his heart, and also trying to help his friend Riku find someone named Aqua, who is incredibly important BUT you’d know nothing about unless you played the PSP Kingdom Hearts game. Oh, and Sora is secretly being manipulated by Organization XIII, a group of evil people in black leather trench coats who are different than the Organization XIII we thought we knew, because Xehanort actually made his Heartless and Nobody by possessing the body of Terra, and now I need to stop typing because my head hurts.
This is exactly what I’m talking about in terms of a difficult review, because it’s not a standalone. You pick up Final Fantasy XV, you would certainly benefit from playing the previous games because certain series tropes would be cemented, but you by no means HAVE to. Kingdom Hearts III straight up has a separate menu option where you can watch a series of videos to get the gist of the backstory of the entire game series to this point, and, even then, it glosses over so much in an effort to not have a feature length movie be an extra before the game begins. Without having someone who is a well versed Kingdom Hearts fan/historian at your elbow as you play, I can’t imagine anyone coming in to play this game blind, because it’s overwhelmingly drenched in story, factoids and inside jokes/references that are only sometimes explained in greater detail. This might be possible for PS4 fans who can pick up the complete Kingdom Hearts previous game set for a decent deal, but, for XBox players who are coming in cold, you’re going to absolutely choke on information before you get into the game itself.
Once you get into the game itself, there’s a ton of fantastic information and gameplay happening in Kingdom Hearts III. Watching the previous footage of how the PS2 games looked and delving into the past of the Sora/Riku/Kairi/Namine/etc. story arc really let me appreciate how gorgeous the worlds, designs and upgrades of everything look. Sora’s new main outfit is superbly detailed, and, as always, his appearance and that of his companions shifts appropriately every time he travels to a new world. The cutscenes have dynamic elements that match whatever the crew is currently equipped with. The different, vastly changing scenery and areas that you get to visit and revisit are done with such exquisite attention to detail that it’s hard not to imagine Disney’s Imagineers being present at every iteration and prototype of the worlds, confirming and reconfirming authenticity. Coming in at a surprisingly modest 39.1 GB of downloaded space, the game is wonderfully optimized, allowing the segue between many cutscenes and the actual action to go seamlessly.
The combat of Kingdom Hearts III has also evolved a bit, while still staying true to the frantic, 360 degrees of real-time brutishness that the Playstation titles brought forward (no cards here, thank God). You still have to contend with the peculiar, arrow based menu with a single confirm key, leading to a bit of a mixup in when you need to cast magic or use an item, and then acting confused why not you’re not hitting anything until you realize you’re still floating on the “item” portion. The game still has the powered up, combo-driven attacks that incorporate Donald, Goofy and whomever else is helping you out in each world, plus Keyblade-specific specialty attacks (I seriously love the twin crossbow, omnidirectional shooting), but there’s this over-the-top Disney addition. I can never tell what the catalyst is, but, every so often, you summon an amusement park attraction. It starts with the giant, swinging viking ship, and moves on to things like blasting bumper cars, carousels, river-rafting bumper boats and, in one early boss fight, the train from Big Thunder Mountain. These are fun, and can do some ridiculous damage, but they also take out a lot of the combat concentration due to their absurdity. Then again, they also help when you’ve been fighting close to fifty Heartless over several waves and you just want to finish so you can go find Anna or Rapunzel or Woody or whoever.
Right. Disney Worlds. There’s a bit of retreading that happens in your galaxy exploration in the Gummi Ship (yes, that’s back, and so is the space flight epidemic), but most of it is pretty new, taking advantage of IPs that I hadn’t even considered. Some of them are done incredibly well and have a good amount of cohesion to both what the story is asking and what feels organic to the game’s style and play. Visiting the Kingdom of Corona lead to some great times through the forest, where pathways and glades naturally guided you, but also allowed for exploration and finding of secrets and goodies. Visiting Arendelle lead to serious frustration and confusion, as I felt like I kept doubling back and ending up exactly where I started. The maps, which you MUST make a point to pick up and find before going too deeply into an area, give you a general idea of where you are and where to go, but it’s not particularly big or detailed, so, when the world isn’t giving you good signposts, you end up wasting your life in loops. I almost didn’t make it out of Olympus for this very reason, and it mostly got better afterwards.
Then there’s the matter of the kitchen sink. It feels like there was so much pressure on Kingdom Hearts III to be everything that it had to include EVERYTHING. There’s combat and exploration, sure, par for the course. You still level up through beating things up, and you have to pick and choose the abilities you want active based on the equipment you’re wearing and the style of fighting and gameplay that suits you best. Sidequests abound, especially if you’re one who likes to go back and continually retread ground to make sure you have all the secrets unlocked. You get this smartphone from Chip and Dale (you know, the kingdom scientists) that plays mini games (which you occasionally get) but also takes photos, which you frigging need in order to unlock the true ending of the game. And the Dream Eaters from the 3DS game are back, and you can help raise them and they are an additional attack that sometimes crop up, but, at the five or six hour mark (wherein the game is STILL JUST STARTING), I was already drowning in details, so those little guys got pushed aside. Plus there’s crafting, which involves finding stuff and having Remy cook it for you through a mercifully short mini game to give you boosts in fights. Space chests that you blast open with well-timed laser unlocks. The ability to build your ship to look like almost anything, including a dog on a skateboard. There’s a ton of stuff under the hood, waiting, BEGGING for you to dive into it. If you have the patience.
The problem is, and I mean this sincerely, Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t always want to be a game. For a lot of the time that you’re playing it, you’re a participant in a movie. You fight for three minutes, then get a three to five minute expositional cutscene. Everytime you arrive at a new world, be it San Fansokyo or Monsteropolis, you gotta buckle in and have a sizeable chunk of the actual movie’s plot explained to Sora, because, hey, it’s his first time here. Every choice that’s made feels like it comes with the added baggage of then hearing what Donald, Goofy, Flynn Rider, Axel, Kairi, Uncle Scrooge, Kenan Thompson or any other people in earshot have to say. While the game isn’t staggering in size for where you can go (this isn’t a Kingdom Hearts Greatest Hits), every travel comes with needing to then hear about it, and what other people are doing during this time, and then what might also be happening in another world that’s not technically connected to this point. Of the thirty plus hours I put into my non-exhaustive play, I would wager that close to a third of it, maybe more, was putting down my controller and listening. My screen automatically dimmed at one point because I was so sedentary. These were the times where it stopped being “come along and play” and turned into “shut up and watch.” I didn’t care skip over a single scene for fear of becoming even more lost than I already was. Having to discuss with my wife about things I might have missed and then confirming she was confused as well just broke my little head sometimes.
I wouldn’t expect someone to read the seventh Harry Potter book or watch the sixth season of Lost without understanding what came before it, but it just feels different with Kingdom Hearts III. It feels like I was punished, in some regards, for only being a “good” fan and not an obsessed one. This is a title that is promising the end to this saga, and hinting at a new storyline in the same universe in the future, and that does make me feel a lot better. As much as I complain about the pacing and the story, it was such a relief to have waited this long and have the game be legitimately good. The music was so spot on, and I’m grateful they could get Utada Hikaru back for a third song. This review feels like something that may simply float along on the wind, because the fans who were already drawn in by the previous games were going to buy it, regardless of how good the product was. Thankfully, it is good. It’s fun, the combat is hilarious, the bosses are appropriately challenging, and putting the difficulty on hard removes the crutch of Donald’s auto-healing making you a God. I’m so glad that I’ve finally gotten a chance to play it, and, hopefully, we can now move on to a new saga with a new focal point in the future. After all, there’s still so much more to see in Kingdom Hearts.
Kingdom Hearts III is available now from leading retailers including Argos.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kingdom Hearts III Review
User Review( votes)
The final installment to this leg of Kingdom Hearts rewards long-time fans, bewilders newcomers, and affirms that video games and Disney are a fantastic recipe.
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