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SummaryThird time's the key
The Good* Combat and abilities are flashy and satisfying to use
* Great variety in worlds and mechanics
* Amazing visuals, music, and voice acting
* Concludes most prior storylines
The Bad* Severe lack of difficulty.
* Story can be confusing if you're not extremely familiar with prior games
* Lots and lots of cutscenes
* Side content is a bit insubstantial
The Bottom LineThere are some games which hold such a special place in your memory that they become a permanent part of your life. Kingdom Hearts was one of those games. When I first played it as a grade-schooler, it was a breakthrough moment for what video games could achieve, at least in my limited view of the gaming world at the time. Not only did it introduce me to one of my now favorite genres, the action-RPG, its scale and production value were simply unlike anything I had ever experienced at that point in my life. The series, while still largely enjoyable, would never again achieve that level for me, but that’s mostly because Kingdom Hearts was such a transformative experience that no follow-up could ever possibly replicate.
Indeed, the series has held a special place in the hearts of many gamers worldwide. And now, in 2019, we finally recieve the conclusion to the story that many of us have been waiting well over half of our lives to see completed. Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t just another game, its an event decades in the making.
Needless to say, much like games with legendary development times such as Duke Nukem Forever, The Last Guardian, and Square Enix’s own Final Fantasy XV, looking at this game objectively is going to be impossible for most gamers. if you’re new to the series, this is a mess of a game with some mildly fiddly mechanics and an impenetrable story. For those of us who grew up with the series, it is a spectacular spectacle that manages to evoke feelings all too rare in today’s era of market-tested, microtransaction-filled blockbusters: joy and wonder. While it incorporates mechanics and story features from the handheld spinoffs Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance, It also feels as if the series never took the long break that it did on console. In other words, its just about everything you could want from a new Kingdom Hearts game, and all that entails.
Kingdom Hearts 3 takes place after the events of the 2012 3DS title Dream Drop Distance, with Sora having lost some of his powers due to an encounter with the series’ big bad Xehanort. Xehanort is busy re-gathering his army of thirteen darknesses to start a new Keyblade War. On the side of light, Yen Sid tasks Sora with discovering his inner “power of waking”, which he can use to revive the heart of Roxas which lays dormant inside of his. Meanwhile, Riku and Mickey set out on a journey to find the lost Keyblade Wielders Aqua, Ventus, and Terra from 2010’s Birth by Sleep, while Kairi trains with Merlin to learn how to use her Keyblade. Basically, the plot’s a bunch of nonsense about friendship, hearts, light, darkness, and keys, but its exactly the kind of nonsense I love from thie series. That’s not to say there aren’t some great character moments. I’m a big fan of the game’s themes of unity and redemption, and how even the hearts completely consumed by darkness can be turned towards the light. Fans will be happy to know that most of the storylines set up in previous games are closed here, though the game does start setting up some new storylines for future games, so its not entirely the definitive conclusion some may have hoped for.
Much like fellow decades-in-the-making conclusion Metal Gear Solid 4, Kingdom Hearts 3 can’t help but come across as indulgent in its storytelling. The game took me 28 hours to finish, but I felt like roughly a third of that time was spent simply watching cutscenes. The beginning and end portions of the game are especially cutscene-heavy, and even certain worlds such as Frozen have a tendency to drag on with their storytelling. The pacing of the game isn’t going to be for everyone’s taste, and while I feel Kingdom Hearts has earned the right to a little self-indulgence after such a long wait, some players won’t be so thrilled with how much they get to actually “play”.
Compared to the earlier games, the worlds visited in Kingdom Hearts 3 are heavily skewed toward the modern Disney era, with their newer CGI blockbusters such as Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Tangled represented here. Also for the first time in the series, we have worlds based on Pixar films: Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. Sadly, Star Wars and Marvel failed to make the cut for this game though they were reportedly not off the table according to the developers. I know that longtime Disney fans will complain, but considering we’ve had multiple games with “classic” worlds already, it only makes sense to focus more on the newer stuff now.
The thing that really makes Kingdom Hearts 3 work is its sheer variety. You’re never in the same place or doing the same things for very long, and the game is always changing up the mechanics at nearly every turn. One moment, you’re racing up Mount Olympus to stop a Titan, the next you’re piloting a mech alongside Woody and Buzz, and that’s just the first few hours. KH3 never stops giving you these just plain awesome moments, so much so that it transcends whatever issues those mechanics have and just becomes about taking in the sheer joy of it all. The world design is generally a nice compromise between the more exploratory areas of Kingdom Hearts and the linearity of Kingdom Hearts 2, though it does lean more toward the latter. Still, the most linear sections tend to also be the fastest paced, so it gives the maps a great sense of forward momentum. There is also a far greater use of verticality in these maps thanks to the Flowmotion system taken from Dream Drop Distance, which lets Sora run up certain walls and spin around poles, among other things. This is put to great use in the Big Hero 6 world in particular, as it is full of tall buildings and objects you can air-step towards, creating an almost flight-like feeling.
I’ve always been a fan of the flighty character-action battle system of Kingdom Hearts, and this version of it is one of the series’ best. Combining platforming with hack-and-slash combat mechanics, Kingdom Hearts’ combat provides a joyful experience not seen in more “serious” action games. Sora moves quickly, and targeting enemies is incredibly easy both with auto-targeting and lock-on modes. Blocking is a bit finicky to pull off due to the fact that it is the same button as dodging and can’t be held with most keyblades, but since I’m a dodge-heavy player this works to my advantage.
The biggest new addition to the series is keyblade transformations. Essentially, hitting enemies will fill up a meter, which causes the keyblade you are using to transform into a new weapon. You can continue to hit enemies with the new weapon for a second transformation, or use a timed finisher. Many of these transformations cause the keyblade to become a spear, a hammer, or a shield. It’s great to see more flexibility in playstyles being offered with the weapons, and you can have up to three keyblades equipped at any time, allowing you to swap between which set of keyblade forms you really need.
Kingdom Hearts 3 has a significant emphasis on ranged combat. Some of the keyblade transformations offer weapons which can be shot, and all keyblade forms contain shotlocks, which are taken from Birth By Sleep and allow for devastating attacks or heals from afar. Magic is more powerful and viable thanks to regenerating MP and a reduced spell pool.
Other new mechanics are Attraction Flows and Team Attacks. Attraction Flows activate when certain enemies are attacked. When used, these spawn in various attractions inspired by Disneyland rides. These provide devastating effects on the battlefield, and can be used to launch strong attacks while under danger or waiting for MP to regenerate. Team Attacks happen randomly and occur with one or more of your teammates.
The biggest issue with the combat system, and possibly the game as a whole is its difficulty. Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about KH3 agrees that the game is just way too easy. It’s certainly a combination of newer games designed to be easier along with the growth of my personal gaming skill over the years. Sora has so many options during battle that its hard not to feel overpowered. My exhaustive overview of the new mechanics only scratches the surface in terms of Sora’s capabilities, especially when you take returning things from older games into account. He’s come a long, long way from when we saw him as a budding little Keyblade wielder. Either way, its a bit disappointing that a game so committed to being basically everything we know and love about Kingdom Hearts isn’t willing to go that extra mile and bring back at least some of the difficulty of the original. On Proud mode, the game’s hardest setting, the game’s difficulty currently sits somewhere between Kingdom Hearts 2 and Kingdom Hearts’ Standard difficulty modes, which simply won’t be enough for the fans who play Kingdom Hearts 2 on Critical. In some ways, this might be a good thing, as it means you’re less likely to get stuck on a particular boss along the way. Still, after tearing through the entire game, including the final boss, with surprisingly little effort, some challenge would have been welcome. You can disable leveling to make the later battles more demanding, but this is a cheap and potentially unbalanced way of playing the game unless you’re a masochist. There’s a possibility in the future that new difficulty modes will get patched in much in the same manner as previous titles.
Despite the difficulty, combat is generally a blast in Kingdom Hearts 3. It offers so many systems, transformations, spells, and summons to play with that its difficult to be bored for too long. I love how certain systems interact with each other. For example, when casting Blizzard, an ice path forms behind the spell, which can then be ridden on with FlowMotion, making for extremely fast movement. Finding these little nuances kept the game fresh throughout its runtime, and things only got better as I discovered more about how the mechanics worked. It’s a bit of a shame that the game never really pushes you to explore its depth, but the potential is at least there for future updates.
Kingdom Hearts is famous for having minigames and side modes, and Kingdom Hearts 3 is no exception. Some worlds have side-games which are played as part of the story but can be repeated afterwards for better scores. There are many hidden Mickey symbols hidden throughout the worlds, and you can take pictures of them to earn new synthesis materials and blueprints. There are also numerous LCD-style minigames to unlock, but these are extremely boring and I can’t imagine anyone buying a full-priced console game actually enjoying these games.
You also have a bistro you can visit at any time. Throughout the journey, you’ll be collecting ingredients, which you can then turn into meals at the bistro through playing various cooking minigames with Remy from Ratatouille. Cooking more new meals on the menu will increase the restaurant’s star rating, which can give you access to more powerful meals. Meals can be eaten to receive temporary buffs for a period of time. The cooking minigames felt just a bit too short to be satisfying, and I rarely used this mechanic since the combat was so easy, but its still a fascinating addition nonetheless, and completely optional for the most part.
Graphically, Kindom Hearts 3 continues the series tradition of having absolutely stunning visuals. Running on Unreal Engine 4 gives Kingdom Hearts 3 a more CGI, plasticine look compared to the originals. However, this works incredibly well thanks to the fact that a majority of the worlds are based on CGI films as opposed to hand-drawn animation. This means that, more often than not, the in-game visuals are virtually indistinguishable from their film counterparts. Sure, you might occasionally see some minor antialiasing or polygon issues here and there, particularly with hair, but in general the look of the game feels authentic and spot-on to the source material. The original worlds are just as surreal and inventive as you’d hope, with the final world being a highlight in particular. The game’s performance can be a bit rough at times, particularly during the gummi ship sections, but its mostly forgivable since framerate drops aren’t too frequent or jarring. It is admirable to see a AAA release from a major publisher actually attempt to run at 60 fps on consoles, and it hits the target enough of the time that this is appreciated.
Musically, Kingdom Hearts 3 is again, excellent. The soundtrack is stirring, cinematic, and full of catchy, memorable melodies. Many of the original tunes are back in remixed form, and it is so great to hear them all again. The music brings a sense of epic scale and momentum to the game’s storyline. My only issue was that there were a few music choices that I felt were off in some of the Disney worlds. For example, I was surprised at the lack of jazz in Monstropolis. And really, did we have to see the full “Let it Go” song from Frozen recreated in the game’s engine? Regardless, Kingdom Hearts is still a fantastic treat for the ears.
Voice acting is pretty solid. Most of the original cast members from the movies return to voice their characters, and those who are different do a good enough job that you can forget its not them for the time they are onscreen. The guy voicing Mike Wazowski in particular did an awesome job sounding just like Billy Crystal. The cast of original Kingdom Hearts characters returns as well, and it is amusing hearing how much the cast has changed given how much time has passed between games. There is more voiced dialog in this than in any other Kingdom Hearts game, and minor lines which would have shown up in text bubbles are now voiced as well. I’ve heard some people say that the voice direction is stilted and cheesy, but honestly as a fan, I wouldn’t have it any other way since the early games were like that as well.
It is very hard to really judge Kingdom Hearts 3. Once the high of finally playing this nearly mythical adventure finally wears off, what exactly are we left with? It’s not exactly the longest game in the series, nor does it offer a ton of substantial side content. The game is far too easy for its own good, and it desperately needs some sort of DLC or patch to bring some challenging content. Yet it also manages to be a thrilling, joyous ride full of that intangible Disney magic. From start to finish, the game is rarely boring or dull, and there’s more than enough variety to keep things interesting throughout. In fact, it might be the most consistently entertaining game in the series, the result of years of refining and experimenting with this crazy formula.
Kingdom Hearts was a game that was all about nostalgia: nostalgia for Disney films, and nostalgia for classic Final Fantasy and Square Enix games. Yet Kingdom Hearts has had such longevity as a series that it now evokes nostalgia in all of the gamers who grew up with it. This game brought me back to those feelings of playing Kingdom Hearts for the first time, and that’s not easy to do.