Kingdom Hearts 3 Review
Some of my fondest childhood gaming memories are of being wowed by the first Kingdom Hearts and its recreation of Disney worlds I knew from my favorite animated movies and shows. But even viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of 17 years worth of nostalgia, those memories pale in comparison to Kingdom Hearts 3’s colorful, varied combat and huge, lovingly detailed levels. Square Enix’s long-awaited conclusion to its beloved action-RPG trilogy is so satisfying in its gameplay evolutions that it makes me feel like a kid again, even if its story resolutions don’t think far outside the toy box.
This new set of movie-quality Disney worlds are almost all delights to explore. The sheer amount of treasures to collect and hidden Mickey emblems to discover really highlights the scale and detail of each world. They also introduce some fun gameplay options, including the chance to control toy mechs and even pilot your own ship on the high seas.
But the worlds’ storytelling feels lackluster in light of the technical improvements the franchise has made. An attempt to satisfy both the Disney stories and the overarching plot causes some unfortunate stagnant pacing, with Disney plots playing out with slow dialogue and Sora, Donald, and Goofy occasionally questioning why they’re even visiting some of the included worlds at their outset. There’s obviously a lot of plot to balance, though, and after waiting years for this conclusion Kingdom Hearts 3 is so consistently fun to play and heartwarming in its ultimate resolutions that its impressive leaps forward stand brightly above its missteps.
Sora to avoids Kingdom Hearts 2’s notorious mistake of a long, slow prologue.
A hero losing his powers is the most common trope in RPG sequels, but here Sora’s loss is smartly tied to his fight against the forces of darkness, building off one of the most significant personal struggles Sora went through in the previous games. That creates a strong impetus for Sora to avoid Kingdom Hearts 2’s notorious mistake of a long, slow prologue and jump right into the action of Hercules’ world. Sora’s first moments in Thebes and Olympus offer a satisfying sense of urgency and forward momentum – Thebes is under attack by the Titans, giving him a credible fight from the outset, and he enters the world so gung-ho about reclaiming what he’s lost in order to finally take on the big bad, Xehanort.
That urgency does waver as the story continues past Mount Olympus, as a couple of the world-specific stories take too much of the spotlight or, in the case of the Toy Story plotline, feel devoid of real stakes. I’m absolutely used to the Disney worlds’ stories superseding the overall plot as they have in previous games, but in a game with so much looming story driving it, it can feel distracting to spend so much time away from real momentum in Sora, Riku, and Xehanort’s various endeavors.
I didn’t expect to fall so deeply in love with the combat.
Part of what helps the pace overcome these issues, not just in the early moments but all the way through the about 27-hour story, is the wide array of combat options that mixes moves from past Kingdom Hearts games (with some modern revisions) and some exciting ones that are entirely new. After following the series for so long, I expected to be emotionally invested in Kingdom Hearts 3’s story, but I didn’t expect to fall so deeply in love with the real-time action combat. Smacking Heartless, Nobodies, and Unversed around with Sora’s keyblade is the main method of mayhem, but new elements help make battles into spectacles that keep them varied and fresh even several worlds into the adventure.
It’s a little complex at first, but there’s a rhythm to nailing down each individual aspect and using them in conjunction with one another, to bombastic effect. The new summoning system, called Attraction Flow, is a particular favorite of mine because it allows you to call in Disney park-like rides into the midst of battle. Watching a river raft cause water to cascade across the battlefield and damage all the enemies in its wake, or a massive pirate ship as it swings back and forth with dangerous momentum and sends Heartless flying is not only a crowd-control savior but an astonishing light show that would leave Disneyland Main Street employees jealous.
Each of Sora’s keyblades can transform, too, and they’re a constant thrill to test out. There are some repeated powers among them — two different keyblades have a dual-pistol transformation, for example – but the options allowed me to tailor my combat to suit any particular scenario. If I needed to box in enemies, the Tangled keyblade allowed me to create Sora duplicates who attack an enemy from multiple sides, but if too many enemies were crowding me, Toy Story’s keyblade hammer transformation offered great area-of-effect attacks. On the other hand, Sora’s ability to stay mobile and spin on columns or ride a railing mid-battle, which is pulled in from Dream Drop Distance on 3DS, is far less elegant because I often found it frustrating to get Sora to actually stick to a pillar.
Keyblade transformations are a blast to test out.
Sora’s wide array of fun and quick finisher abilities return, though I found myself guarding less than I ever have before because of how many offensive options I had at any time. Instead, a new set of summons that includes elemental-specific attacks like a fire-roaring Simba or a water fountain-creating Ariel help diversify combat, as do the varied tactics of different Heartless and Nobodies, and team-up moves with party members. It’s consistently fun to turn fights into ballets of sparks and shouting Disney characters, even if all these options occasionally make the difficulty a little easier than I would have liked (though of course there is a Proud mode that definitely tested my mettle a bit more).
Whole New Worlds
The assortment of Disney locations to fight in and explore in Kingdom Hearts 3 is made up of seven stunning recreations and expansions of beloved worlds. As a lifelong Disney fan, I couldn’t help but feel sad about not seeing classic Disney settings like Aladdin and Snow White, but Square Enix’s more modern choices — Monsters, Inc., Big Hero 6, and Pirates of the Caribbean among them — are nevertheless gorgeous delights. Playing on PlayStation 4 Pro or Xbox One X, there is some impressive parity with the 3D animated films, and it’s all backed by beautiful orchestral takes on the movies’ classic themes, a staple of the franchise that I continue to love. Seriously, I audibly “wow”’ed at the realm of the gods in Hercules’ Mount Olympus and the rolling hills of Tangled’s Corona. I wanted to scour every inch to not just collect treasure but see all the little details the developers have snuck into the worlds, like toys based on Final Fantasy summons in Toy Story or the Flynn Rider “Wanted” posters dotting Corona’s treeline.
It’s when Square Enix takes liberty with the source material that it produces the most interesting worlds. The toy store setting of the Toy Story world, for example, captures the essence of exploring the world from the point of view of a toy, and it’s so expansive that a single floor of the store feels as vast as entire worlds in the previous entries of the series. Each section of the store has its own look, and I couldn’t resist spending some extra time just running around scanning the names of fake toys and video games.
While Pirates of the Caribbean fell in my standing as the movie franchise went on, it unexpectedly became my favorite world in Kingdom Hearts 3. It functions like a mini Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag map — Sora can explore the high seas on his ship, engage in ship battles, and explore islands for loot. It’s definitely a streamlined version of Ubisoft’s fantastic pirate experiences, with a limited number of actions and upgrade options, but it works well and stays true to the spirit of collecting that’s been intrinsic to the series since its start.
The great Pirates of the Caribbean world plays like a mini-Assassin’s Creed.
That well-executed gameplay gimmick is an example of Square Enix’s approach to each world, which are variably successful. Toy Story’s giga mechs, which transform the generally third-person action into a first-person mech battle, are simple in comparison to the ship gameplay, but serve as another nice twist in the combat pacing, keeping things varied from level to level. Frozen’s inclusion of downhill sledding is less successful, however. The controls are a bit floaty, and the challenge in lining up jumps or turns isn’t nearly as satisfying as simply running through the world of Arendelle.
“Exploring the worlds of Frozen and Tangled felt relatively mundane.
Yet all those gimmicks help to showcase how geographically interesting each world is. The toy store is fascinating for its variety, while getting to run around the streets of Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo let me explore the intriguing aesthetic of one of my favorite fictional cities. Next to that interesting environment, exploring the worlds of Frozen and Tangled often felt too mundane in their similarity to reality and became repetitive as a result. They’re definitely pretty worlds, but running through the same snowy peaks and grassy hills, respectively, not only gets boring after a while but can even be confusing if you make a wrong turn because of a lack of distinctive landmarks.
The quality of the storytelling in each world is similarly hit or miss. I often loved the worlds that presented new stories most — while often light on plot, worlds like Monsters, Inc. and Big Hero 6 allowed me to see new shades of characters I love. By contrast, while Toy Story takes a risk with an original story set between the films and in a new location and uses only some of the cast, its pacing is so glacial, with stakes set up that get lost in how light the tone of the world is and a resolution that is quite anticlimactic.
The storytelling approach to the Disney worlds is one of the oddest aspects of Kingdom Hearts 3 for me, reflecting on the series as a whole. As much as the world design has often smartly evolved, its storytelling hasn’t as consistently. With visual fidelity so close to the original films, it is stranger now more than ever to see a CliffsNotes version of the movies’ stories retold with less punchy dialogue and key scenes missing. Yes, this has been how Kingdom Hearts worlds often play out, and seeing Sora, Donald, and Goofy interact with Flynn Rider or Olaf is definitely silly and delightful. But as the tech has improved, that gap in storytelling compared to these beloved films is more glaring than ever.
I actually enjoyed the Gummi Ship for the first time in the entire Kingdom Hearts series.
Linking the worlds together is a wonderfully revamped Gummi Ship system, which I actually enjoyed for the first time in the entire Kingdom Hearts series. It’s still not nearly as thrilling as the ground combat, and battles do revert to an on-rails system, but the way it’s set in a series of open, explorable star systems and gives so much more control over the ship makes these sections a more palatable interstitial. There’s little challenge to it, but I enjoyed how pleasant flying around, unlocking giant treasure spheres, and hunting clusters of asteroids for loot could be.
Dive Into the Heart
Kingdom Hearts 3’s story is meant to serve as a culmination of everything that’s happened in the series so far – which is a lot. I’m pleasantly surprised by how well it wraps up this story of the power of friendship and the bonds we make with one another, but I didn’t find it particularly surprising. With so many years having passed between games, I – and the rest of the Kingdom Hearts fan community – have had so long to think about how events might transpire that I was able to easily call some of the story twists from a mile away.
That lessens the impact of it all just a bit, but not enough to stop me from having a dopey grin on my face as long-awaited moments played out on screen. Even knowing where everything could and should go, it’s cathartic to finally see it happen. The final five hours of Kingdom Hearts 3 were pretty much everything I could have hoped for, from touching character moments to tough battles and fantastical environments.
There’s definitely a bit of sluggishness before you get to that point — characters are peppered into each Disney world and small updates about the overarching story are provided, but the real confrontations and character-shifting moments don’t factor into Sora’s journey until it’s nearly complete. I’m used to that by now in this series, and the intermittent character cameos often intrigued me, but after the fifth or sixth mid-world story tease I wished the same considerations that went into making the gameplay flow so well were applied to the storytelling.
Kingdom Hearts 3’s long endgame is satisfying, but not surprising.
After completing the Disney side of it all, Kingdom Hearts 3 culminates in hours of end-game resolution with massive battles that really tested my skills with the combat system. Previous boss battles littered across the worlds are often fun in their sheer scale but relatively easy, with enemies acting more as damage sponges that tested my endurance rather than my abilities. This section is the real payoff. All of these battles hold such weight for the franchise, satisfying on both narrative and gameplay levels, and often lead to confrontations, reunions, and other dramatic moments fanfiction writers dream of.
Throughout the adventure, Kingdom Hearts 3 admirably tries to sum up the events leading to this and, I think, for the most part succeeds in giving you the basic details you need if you were to try to jump in without first marathoning the previous games. But much of the nuance of the characters’ backstories will likely be lost to newcomers, as Kingdom Hearts 3 tackles the larger questions of identity and what it means to be whole as a person with heavy reference to previous Kingdom Hearts games. Playing through those experiences — sometimes multiple times, thanks to all those re-releases — embedded certain dynamics and personalities in my love of the series. It’s not that difficult to get a sense of the good and bad guys’ goals here, but the deeper levels of their relationships often lead to some of the most touching moments as the story concludes.