In 2004, a little game came out known as Kingdom Hearts, a love letter between the worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy-creator Square Enix. Many games later, the journeys of its characters would create a plot so intricate you’d need a conspiracy theory-style cork board to make sense of it. At its core, the series focuses on Sora, a boy who gets separated from his friends and sets out to find them. On the way, he befriends countless Disney characters and becomes entangled in an elaborate plot between the forces of light and the powers of darkness. Kingdom Hearts 3 has been a long time coming, and now that it’s out, fans finally get the finale to Sora’s story. All the pieces are in play, and many players can probably guess how things pan out, but boy is it exciting to see the game unfold. And more important, it’s exciting to play it.
Game Name: Kingdom Hearts 3
Platform(s): PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Publisher(s): Square Enix
Developer(s): Square Enix
Release Date: 1/29/19
“Hope You Like Long Stories”
After thirteen years in between numbered titles, there were a lot of expectations going into Kingdom Hearts 3, especially for its story. It had to juggle the challenges of reminding everyone what was going on, wrapping up the many plot threads as neatly as possible, while trying to welcome possible newcomers to the series. Did it pull all of this off successfully? Not quite, but it did a damn fine job of trying. Even as a Kingdom Hearts veteran, backstory sections added to the menu that act as mini-movies helped refresh me on the series, while giving a solid crash course in the lore to any first-time players. Starting the actual game off, the intro had me smiling like a loon, and came with the funniest title screen I’ve ever seen in a game.
In general, the humor of this one is the best in the series, which was never exactly at a high point to be fair, but is worth mentioning. There’s a definite tongue-in-cheek vibe to it, as there are several meta-jokes about characters getting confused about the plot, and even a whole satire of Square Enix’s other big series, Final Fantasy. The dialogue in the series has always been hit or miss but feels more sure of itself this time around. Most of the plots of the Disney films present tied in really well with Kingdom Hearts 3, with just a couple glaring exceptions.
While many players will likely see the plot twists and ending coming from a mile away, the biggest story surprise for me is how this game actually manages to serve its characters best with less rather than more. Gone are the long-winded monologues about light and darkness (well, mostly) in favor of quieter moments between the characters. While many fan-favorite characters don’t get a lot of screen time, they at least get emotionally resonant moments that pay off. I really felt for the characters, and even for the villains who receive a sense of nuance through short dialogues. The restraint that the Kingdom Hearts 3 storyline exerts may be jarring for some, but for me, it really did feel like less is more. One exception comes in the form of new plot developments that pose more questions than answers, which make it clear that this is not the end of the series. Nonetheless, most of the questions and build-ups from prior games in the series do get their payoffs.
A Wild Ride From Start to Finish
One thing I can be certain of is that Kingdom Hearts 3 has the most fun gameplay of any of the games in the series. Combat is fluid, varied without being complex, and simply a joy to experience. Various play styles are accommodated, and abilities can be equipped or removed to favor one style over another. Combat is broken down into regular attacks, special attacks, magic spells, link summons, and attractions. Link summons consists of bringing in Disney characters to aid you, while attractions, a new addition to the series, involve using vehicles based on Disney theme park rides to help you out. In addition to getting new link summons and attractions throughout the games, players also get new keyblades, key-shaped swords used to defeat enemies. Another new addition is that of form changes, for the first time in the series, keyblades actually differ greatly from one another through special attacks that alter the weapon’s appearance such as by becoming blasters to fire lasers with or by calling a Kraken from the ocean depths. Between all the various abilities and weapons acquired throughout the game, combat never goes stale.
While the fantastic combat makes up the bulk of the gameplay, there are also minigames found in each world that players take part in throughout the story. Here, mileage varies quite a bit. Most of these games are based around the world they’re found in, and some feel like a lot of effort went into them while others seem tacked-on. The Pirates of the Caribbean ship combat is a surprise hit and makes sailing around that world’s various islands, taking down ships with realistic moves like cannon fire and not-so-realistic moves such as an aerial divebomb, an absolute blast. Meanwhile, the Tangled inspired festival dancing in Corona seems like a fun idea in theory but I found it to be a mess in practice unless Sora canonically has two left feet. Clearly, some of these games got more work put into them than others, but regardless they still only make up a fraction of gameplay.
A Whole New World (Or Several)
It wouldn’t be Kingdom Hearts without a bunch of Disney locations in it, and this one has some real highlights. Strangely enough, most of the worlds are both new to the series and on the newer side of the Disney films spectrum in general. They also include worlds from some Pixar films as well, a first for the series. While I do miss some of the classic Disney worlds and thought it’d be weird for Sora’s final adventure to have him interacting with a bunch of characters he’s never met before, it actually works more often than not. Some of the worlds do feel redundant, but overall there’s a good deal of variety.
The graphics and designs of the worlds themselves are a mixed bag. Since the vast majority of worlds are based on computer animated Disney films, the game’s first Disney world, that of Hercules, feels off. Having a cartoon-looking Hercules set in a hyper-realistic Thebes is simply jarring. Luckily the others work much better in their mediums. The following world of Toy Story looks nearly identical to its onscreen counterpart, and the rest follow suit. As for design, most of the worlds work really well and have an incredible amount of detail to them. Toy Story, in particular, is a great example, as all the toys, posters, and games in its stores have labels and detailed designs to them, several of which made me laugh (I’m looking at you, Wall Street Ninja 2). Generally, the more nature-oriented worlds are quite beautiful, but I was slightly disappointed to find that both Corona and Arendelle highlight the outskirts of the kingdom more than the kingdom itself. Pirates of the Caribbean and Big Hero 6 both have sandbox worlds, which despite being small are a nice way to switch things up and are fun to explore.
Classic Disney Tunes with a Touch of Dubstep
Kingdom Hearts has always had a fantastic soundtrack, and the third numbered entry is no exception. Once again, the game opens with a title theme from Utada Hikaru, except this time Skrillex also got to lend a hand. Personally, I find the closing song “Don’t Think Twice” would’ve made a better opening instead of “Face My Fears,” but both are great so lets not split hairs. The soundtrack of the game is stellar, and the tracks for the Disney worlds do a great shop of including snippets of their movies’ themes while still being their own pieces.
The voice acting is great, which is a feat considering that Kingdom Hearts is not known for the easiest dialogue. The cast is a healthy mix of famous actors and veteran voice artists. Ultimately the best performances come down to who decides to embrace the storyline the most. As always, Haley Joel Osment has the most fun as Sora, and a few Disney voice artists seem to really enjoy reprising their roles, with very few people phoning it in.
With expectations high and so many moving parts to juggle, Kingdom Hearts 3 had its work cut out for it. Many questions that Kingdom Hearts had been asking needed to be answered and players are treated to some of the most cathartic and emotional moments in the entire series. And at the end of the day, the game is fun. Really fun. At a couple points in my play-through I took detours from the story to battle pirates on the high seas of the Caribbean or cook meals with Remy from Ratatouille, and the game rewarded me for this. Even amidst the battle between the forces of light and darkness, Kingdom Hearts 3 still knows how to keep things simple and clean.
Kingdom Hearts 3 Review
While it doesn’t quite live up to the ridiculous levels of hype set out for it, “Kingdom Hearts 3” delivers satisfying resolutions to a long story. Most importantly, it’s an incredibly fun game with a wide variety of activities to take part in and beautiful Disney worlds to explore.