In this business of journalism, specifically video game reviews, the main mission for most outlets is getting their thoughts out as fast as possible. While that’s something we try to do here, as well, I couldn’t do it with Kingdom Hearts III. After 13 years of waiting for this game, there was no way I could play, digest my emotions, and put them into thought in a matter of days. So, it’s a little late, but enjoy my comprehensive (non-spoiler) review of Kingdom Hearts III.
Familiar Storytelling in Vibrant New Settings
For 16 years, Square Enix and Disney have worked tirelessly to share a unique take on the age-old story of Light vs Dark. It was called Kingdom Hearts and it found a way to mesh the worlds of Disney characters and Final Fantasy installments to tell this story.
In it, our protagonists, Sora, Donald, and Goofy and the various “good guys” in Disney and Final Fantasy properties represented the light, while the KH Original characters of Ansem, Xemnas, Xehanort, and Organization XIII, Disney villains, and a cameo appearance by Sephiroth represented the dark. Each game took us to different realms to experience new stories (though they were a rehash of the animated movies) and iconic characters, all while exposing how the darkness was taking control, once a world was completed. In Kingdom Hearts III, that was more of the same. Some of the worlds and the characters were new, but the pacing wasn’t.
Kingdom Hearts III takes place right after the events of Dream Drop Distance. Riku is now a Keyblade Master, Kairi and Lea (Axel) are training to become Keyblade wielders, and Sora has lost all of his powers, after his encounter with Xehanort. With the impending battle between Darkness and Light just around the corner, Master Yen Sid has employed Riku and King Mickey to find the missing Keyblade wielders and Sora to unlock the “Power of Waking”. This pursuit leads Sora to several different, vibrant worlds, including a Thebes/Olympus under siege (Hercules), a return to Twilight Town, Toy Story, Kingdom of Corona (Tangled), Monstropolis (Monsters Inc), Frozen, San Fransokyo (Big Hero 6), Pirates of the Caribbean, just to name a few.
As previously suggested, Kingdom Hearts III takes a familiar approach to storytelling. They’ll open with a little bit of intrigue as to what Organization XIII is up to, then switch to the main plot of the Disney storyline. Once that world is finished, then they’ll shed a little more light to the Organization’s master plan. It’s a bit routine, but it’s not cumbersome, by any means. It allows the story to continue to flow.
The stories within the Disney realms are decent original short stories, with some reprisals of their cinematic counterparts. For Tangled, instead of just Flynn and Rapunzel going solo to the Kingdom of Corona for the light festival, Sora, Donald, and Goofy are Flynn’s sidekicks and help Rapunzel fight off the standard baddies known as the Heartless and Nobodies. Outside of the KH insertion, the whole thing is pretty much the same as the animated movie. Although, there is a pretty massive continuity error that I couldn’t quite understand. More on that later.
The worlds that tell different stories, though, are Toy Story, Monsters Inc., and Hercules, just to name a few. In these we’re able to fight attacking Titans, have an almost heartbreaking moment with Andy’s Toys, and help Sully and Mike Wazowski save Boo. Outside of the non-stop action of Hercules (which is strangely labeled under Kingdom Hearts 2.9), the rest of the original stories were just ok, but lacked a well-thought out purpose. For example, in the Toy Story world, young Xehanort explains that they created a copy of the Toy Story world and kidnapped toys to see if plastic toys could have hearts. When the big bads are defeated and world is completed, the toys don’t go back home. They’re just stuck in this copycat world and seem fine with it. That’s a loose-end that just bothered me.
The best parts of the story are when the game follows the main storyline, which is that of the Keyblade Wielders vs the Organization & the army of Xehanorts. Compared to the other games, there is more intrigue, heart, and action than the others. It’s enough to keep you yearning for more, in an effort to understand what is unraveling before your eyes.
While the pattern of the story may stayed the same, the combat, mechanics, and overall gameplay has changed drastically.
Evolution of Mechanics Taken to the Pinnacle
Since it debuted, all those years ago, Square Enix and series director Tetsuya Nomura have tried to expand and progress the combat mechanics with each installment. Kingdom Hearts I was mainly a hack-and-slash game that incorporated some magic elements. Kingdom Hearts II advanced the combat mechanics by allowing gamers to power-up with Sora in several different ways that would change his appearance and his fighting style. They also included a delegated button system to help defeat bosses. Even the handheld games developed different combat styles like the *shudder* card...style…
Kingdom Hearts III takes everything it learned, throughout the years, and meshes it into this giant melting pot of combat styles that make for a fantastic experience. There is still the hack-and-slash elements from the 1st game, with an added flair of new combos, and the power-ups from Kingdom Hearts II have been given integrated into the different keyblades you wield. When you get enough hits with a certain keyblade, you can enact the keyblade’s special ability to transform the keyblade into anything from crossbow-like blasters to a massive hammer and, subsequently, the appearance of Sora’s clothes.
The effect doesn’t last long, but it occurs often enough that it makes most battles pretty easy to win. Another addition to the combat mechanics are the team powers that can be anything from Donald and Sora shooting firecrackers at enemies, to Sora chucking Goofy shield first at a group of enemies, to everyone getting behind Goofy’s shield for the ultimate defense, to teaming with Disney characters to perform special moves, to even summoning a massive Disney attraction (like the mad tea cups, carousel, splash run, etc.). The list just goes on and on. It’s so easy, in fact, that I played the entire game on the hardest difficulty and barely had any trouble with the enemies. They all make the game exciting and fun to play, but my one criticism is that when we get multiple moves and powers queued up, we should be able to easily select which one we want to use, not use them by the order they were acquired.
Another system that’s consistently been improved upon are the Gummi Ships and the travel between worlds. In Kingdom Hearts I, it was lacking in a lot of places. You couldn’t do much and it somewhat seemed like an afterthought. In KHII is when it really started picking up, as you could actually fly and fire, albeit, in a linear capacity. In KHIII, flying around on the Gummi is an open-world free travel environment, where you can collect materials necessary to upgrade and fight powerful heartless fortresses and ships.
The best part of the new mechanics, though, is the ability to upgrade keyblades. That’s not something that Kingdom Hearts has needed for a while. In previous games, the moment you got a new keyblade, the Kingdom Key was tossed to the side, unless you were a 12 year old Matt Malliaros who didn’t know you could switch out keyblades and beat the whole game using the Kingdom Key (Somehow I felt both embarrassed and like a badass when I learned the truth). Nevertheless, this ability to upgrade keyblades, make them more powerful, and switch between any three, gives relevance to each keyblade.
Rough Voice Acting Highlights the Lows
One of the biggest news stories about Kingdom Hearts III was that they had brought back a lot of the original voice actors to reprise their iconic Disney roles. While that’s an amazing get, considering how the previous games used talented voice actors that could mimic the source material, it doesn’t change the fact that most scenes either had a dry delivery or poor pacing.
For the original actors, the dry delivery wasn’t their problem. They did an exceptional job of reprising their roles. It was just the pacing that was way off, almost like everyone needed a good 3-4 seconds to react. That’s mainly a director/development issue.
What really takes you out of each scene, though, are the other characters voiced by other voice actors, who seemed as if they were just reading from a script. Characters like Riku, whom I absolutely loved in previous installments, just seemed bored and lethargic, when he’s supposed to be an absolute badass. It could be that the English voice actors were directed to use a certain, more dry inflection, but it wasn’t the right direction.
Another low point of Kingdom Hearts III is how inconsistent the graphics are. From world to world, the graphics either improve or degrade, so you never know if you’re going to need to pick up your jaw off the floor or shrug your shoulders. Worlds like Tangled, Frozen, and Big Hero 6 absolutely stun, while Hollow Bastion, Monsters Inc. and Twilight Town are just alright.
My last lowlight has to do with continuity. I suggested earlier about an issue I had with Tangled and it had to do with Flynn’s bag. When Rapunzel escapes her tower, she leaves his satchel. Her “Mother” finds the satchel, and the tiara inside, and subsequently freaks out. So, how is it that when we’re at the Kingdom of Corona, watching the lights, that suddenly Rapunzel has Flynn’s bag? Then, when Flynn takes his bag and leaves, how is it that Rapunzel puts on the tiara to realize she’s the lost princess? It all just took me out of the game and the impactful moments. Future developers, please remember continuity. I know it’s hard when you’re dealing with multiple stories but it’s a necessary evil.
16 Years in the Making and It Was Worth the Wait
Downsides and critiques aside, I’m just so overjoyed that we get to experience this game, after all this time. It took way too long to make, but it’s not hard to see why. Nomura and his team wanted this game, if it is indeed the end, to be the most entertaining, action-packed conclusion ever, and in my estimation it succeeds.
The level of attention to detail is just astounding. They knew that most KH fans either hadn’t played the handheld Kingdom Hearts games or it had been so long they didn’t remember so they included a lot of flashbacks to remind/show gamers what happened between Kingdom Hearts II’s release and Kingdom Hearts III. It became the perfect refresher and emotion pull to get you excited for what’s about to go down.
Plus, when you got into the game, you learned that there were so many new and interesting side games from collecting ingredients and cooking with the chef from Ratatouille to using a Gummiphone to take pics of the world for ingredients, social media, and finding Lucky Emblems, which are important to unlocking the secret ending for the game. Remember to get 90 if you’re playing on Easy, 60 for Normal, and 30 for Proud.
The bottom line is, Kingdom Hearts III has its flaws, but it’s a game you shouldn’t miss out on for the world. It’s an amazing experience to participate in each of these Disney worlds and uncover the mysteries of the evil Organization XIII. If you’re a fan of the series, you don’t need me to tell you to buy it. If you’re on the fence, it’s a must-buy for me, unless you’re one of those rare few that don’t like Disney properties. In any case, the Kingdom Hearts series has been something special, and Kingdom Hearts III is a memorable way to show appreciation for the fans with one more amazing ride.