When the first Kingdom Hearts game was released on the Playstation 2 in 2002, the idea that it would become one of the most iconic video game series of all-time seemed a bit crazy. The game’s blend of Final Fantasy and Disney characters, as well as gameplay mechanics that resembled a mashup of tactical JRPG’s like Final Fantasy and hack-n-slash action games Devil May Cry, was truly original in the gaming scene of the early 2000’s. It did beg the question, though: who was this game for? Was it for kids, who just wanted to explore Disney worlds and meet their favorite characters? Or was this game for a more hardcore crowd, a group that would hone their skills with the game’s combat system and get engrossed in its lore?
Well, after seventeen years and twelve games in the main series, including that first, iconic entry, we can safely say the answer is both, and there is no better way to show this duality than the series’ latest installment. Against numerous delays and all odds, Kingdom Hearts III is finally here. The end of the Dark Seeker Saga is upon us.
After putting about 60 hours into this new adventure, I feel confident in saying it was definitely worth the wait, though it is certainly not without fault. Here are my complete thoughts on Kingdom Hearts III.
[This review contains very minor spoilers, as it discusses worlds that are visited throughout the game. It also contains some spoilers from past Kingdom Hearts entries. You have been warned.]
The story of Kingdom Hearts III picks up directly after the events of Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance, with our hero, Sora, on a mission to learn the “power of waking” in order to assemble the seven Guardians of Light for their final showdown with Master Xehanort. Now, if all that meant nothing to you, then buckle up for the rest of this game’s story, as it is not kind or accommodating to newcomers at all. This is a game where the story is very clearly constructed for dedicated fans of the series, as there is little to no recapping of past experiences or stories. In short, if you are not already a fan of the series and very familiar with its ins and outs, you will most likely be lost as you progress through this new chapter.
Now, the central hook of the series is still visiting Disney worlds and completing the stories set there, and the worlds that you visit do tell individual stories that you can experience and enjoy without knowledge of the larger plot (more on that later), which is reason enough to give this game a try if the premise interests you. The worlds you visit range from series mainstays like Olympus and The Caribbean to new and exciting additions from more modern Disney films, like Tangled’s Kingdom of Corona, Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo, and of course, Frozen’s Arendelle. But perhaps most exciting of all are the worlds from the Pixar catalogue, like Toy Story’s Toy Box and Monsters, Inc.’s Monstropolis, both of which have been long sought-after by fans of the series.
The variety of worlds selected ensures that no two feel the same, and there is plenty to love in each; fans worried about Kingdom Hearts III having the least amount of worlds in the series can rest easy knowing that this group is by far the most sprawling and diverse group the series has ever seen. Now, this is not to say that all the worlds are perfect, with some such as Arendelle falling rather flat, but even those worlds have redeeming qualities. On the whole, there is very little issue with the world selection for this entry, with plenty of new worlds and only two repeats, Olympus and the Caribbean, with both of those taking place in entirely new locales. The Disney worlds are wonderful as a whole.
What might worry fans is the story of this game and how the team at Square Enix goes about tying up a story as massive and intricate as the one woven throughout the Kingdom Hearts games. As it turns out, those worries do have some basis in reality. While the individual Disney worlds tell (mostly) satisfying standalone stories, there lies one part of the problem with the narrative choices this new entry makes. The Disney worlds that Sora visits have very minimal bearing on the overall plot of the game and Sora’s quest for the “power of waking.” Without delving into spoiler territory, it is safe to say that the pacing of this entry feels decidedly worse than previous installments, on par with the aimlessness I found in Dream Drop Distance. For awhile, Kingdom Hearts III feels similarly aimless, relying on the goodwill of the player and the excellent gameplay to keep us invested, a strategy that works for sure, but not without a bit of questioning. However, when those big story moments and plot payoffs arrive, they deliver. As a lifelong fan of the series, I was thrilled to see characters I had come to love reunite or face off in battles so epic and character beats so intimate that I was cheering in one moment and shedding tears the next. Regardless of how uneven the plot progression is, the story delivers in spades on its initial promise to provide this saga of the series with a satisfying conclusion. The resolutions and revelations found within Kingdom Hearts III almost make up for its lack of cohesion earlier in the game. Almost.
Earlier, I mentioned Kingdom Hearts III’s excellent gameplay, and that was no exaggeration. Between the options provided in both combat and exploration, the series has hands-down never felt better or more rewarding to play. Combining the fluidity of Kingdom Hearts II’s near-flawless combat with the agility of Dream Drop Distance’s “flowmotion,” combat in this game is smooth as can be. Summons also make their return, this time as “links,” as well as special team attacks as featured in Kingdom Hearts II. This new system also benefits from the added depth of Birth by Sleep’s shotlock ability, as well as revamping that game’s form changes as Keyblade transformations, many of which add completely new ways of fighting to the game, a welcome change of pace. Kingdom Hearts III deepens encounters by adding in “attractions,” which are special moves based on Disneyland rides capable of dealing massive damage and changed the tides in battle. While I found attractions to be a bit overused in combat (they felt too frequent to be special), they are certainly a treat to look at, and will likely put a grin on your face the first few times you use them. The progression of abilities in this game also feels satisfying, with players getting a steady stream of new moves and enhancements to ensure they can do battle their way.
I feel obligated to address the issue of this game’s difficulty, as it pertains to combat. At time of writing, Kingdom Hearts III does not feature a Critical mode as past entries (at least in their Final Mix versions) have. Furthermore, many hardcore fans find Proud mode in its current state to be too easy as a result of combat features such as attractions and team attacks. The issue here is not with the presence of these elements, but with the frequency. I find these criticisms to be valid, but only to a certain extent. The game, as it stands, offers the tools to make its combat easier. It also offers the tools to make it more difficult, with abilities that stop experience (XP) progression, as well as one that disables magic points (MP) recharging once it has been depleted in combat. I understand that these are not perfect solutions, and many simply crave more difficulty without having to utilize these tools. In the meantime, we can hope that Critical mode will be added, as well as an ability or setting to limit or even block attractions in order to create a more purist and challenging experience. As it stands, this game is on the easier side of the spectrum, though by no means a cakewalk at all times.
Now, combat has always been the focus of this series, and for good reason. You spend most of your playtime battling Heartless, Nobodies, and the Unversed, so you better hope the combat system is good. Of course, it’s better than good, but that is to be expected from the series at this point. What I found possibly most interesting about Kingdom Hearts III was its emphasis on exploration. As stated earlier, the worlds in this game are massive, and with treasure chests scattered about as well as new forms of collectibles such as Lucky Emblems to hunt down, the game keeps you coming back to search every world from top to bottom. Finding certain Lucky Emblems at times felt like a puzzle, and with treasure chests dropping everything from potions to ingredients necessary to synthesize powerful weapons and upgrades to your favorite Keyblades, there is definitely reason to track them all down.
The new additions to the game’s movement system help maintain an element of fun to areas even on your third or thirteenth visit. The ability to have Sora run up certain walls is exciting and gives this entry a sense of verticality that just hasn’t been present in past Kingdom Hearts games. Combine this with flowmotion movement as well as returning abilities such as double-flight and glide, and this game is simply a blast to move about in. On every subsequent visit to a world I was able to find someplace new to explore, and that’s what good exploration should do. This might be where Kingdom Hearts III excels and advances most, and it provides the series a sense of real progressions without sacrificing what made it so memorable and fun to play in the first place.
After over 60 hours of time logged, I can say that Kingdom Hearts III is not a perfect game. It is not the best game in the series, and some fans are bound to be disappointed with that. But with all the hype leading up to its release, that was absolutely inevitable. That being said, Kingdom Hearts III is an incredible game, and a worthy successor to its last numbered installment, the series’ best Kingdom Hearts II. Newcomers will be lost in its story but in love with its realized, exciting worlds and riveting combat. Veterans will find strategies to master new gameplay elements and hang on every word and plot beat as almost two decades of storytelling draws to a close while also laying an exciting groundwork for the future of the series. Kingdom Hearts III is in many ways a triumph, and the sheer number of things it does so right outnumber what it does wrong.
As someone who grew up playing and re-playing these games, to finally play the third numbered installment took me back to being a child on my living room floor, staring in awe at Sora as he battled villains from my favorite Disney movies. Kingdom Hearts III taps into those feelings, reawakening a sense of wonder, magic, and joy that is increasingly hard to come by in video games these days. It excels as both a love letter to longtime fans and a promising stepping stone towards the future of a series that has never feared change, just like Sora has never been afraid of the unknown. This game made me realize just how much longtime players have grown up right alongside Sora, how this series has grown with us. Hopefully, this installment opens the door to a new generation of fans willing to partake in one of the greatest stories gaming has to offer. Sora once said that his friends are his power, and Kingdom Hearts III finds the series still remaining very, very powerful.