How do you please an audience that’s been waiting for a game for 13 years? Half a dozen mobile, handheld, or mini-length games have been added to the Kingdom Hearts series after Kingdom Hearts II, but Kingdom Hearts III is it. The big one. The end of a trilogy. The finale everyone’s been waiting for.
Fans put a lot of pressure on a game like that to succeed, but Kingdom Hearts III puts almost as much pressure back on its fans. After almost two decades worth of complicated games, the series has raised a near-insurmountable barrier to entry. While the main menu of Kingdom Hearts III features a handful of recap videos that touch on major points of the story, the game itself doesn’t do much to ease players into its jumble of plotlines about hearts, mysterious boxes, clones, and time travel. Even fans who have done their homework and played most of the main games may have trouble keeping up, as the game unapologetically pulls on obscure plot points from the mobile game, the forgettable DS port of Re: Coded, and the B-side of Game Boy Advance card-based game Chain of Memories.
Of course, none of that matters for about 80 percent of the game, since, due to the crossover nature of the Kingdom Hearts series, you’ll spend most of your most of your time exploring various Disney worlds. Our protagonist, Sora, darts in and out of different movie-inspired lands as he tries to recover his lost powers and prevents the mysterious Real Organization XIII from interfering. It’s these worlds that are the heart of the game, as each one has been recreated with meticulous care. Entering each world is like stepping right into a movie, with styles that adapt to Pirates of the Caribbean’s live-action cinematography, Hercules’ 1990s 2D hand-drawn style, and Frozen’s modern 3D animation.
Compared to past entries in the series, each world’s levels are huge, letting Sora race all the way up the North Mountain towards Elsa’s ice palace in Arendelle or sail the ocean Assassin’s Creed Odyssey style in the Caribbean. Each one is also packed with details, like the handful of toys and games in the Toy Story–inspired world that are actually playable. There are also tons of goals to keep players busy and heading back to worlds after they’ve finished them. Sora has a new selfie camera, and he can use it to hunt down and photograph Lucky Emblems, Mickey Mouse–shaped symbols that are dotted around the game as a reference to Disney’s Hidden Mickeys in Disneyland. Shopkeepers will occasionally give out photography quests in exchange for goods. Some chests contain minigame prizes, which can be played from Sora’s phone, and every world is peppered with ingredients that can be gathered and brought back to a bistro for a cooking minigame.
If I have one complaint about the Disney worlds, it’s that a few of them are perhaps too catered to fans. Someone at Square Enix took pride in making the cutscenes match big moments in each movie shot-for-shot as closely as possible (except that Donald Duck is in the background, of course). While kind of cool, it adds up to a lot of cutscenes, and in several cases skips over major plot points in the movies to get to the big climactic scenes. If you’ve never seen the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, Frozen, or Tangled, you’re going to be hopelessly lost through most of those stories while at the same time having their biggest moments spoiled.
Of course, the worlds aren’t all about minigames and exploration. You’ll have to fight tons of invading Heartless, Nobodies, and Unversed, and combat in this game is a beast unto itself. While markedly easier than some of the past games (at least on Normal mode), Kingdom Hearts III features the most sprawling combat system in a Kingdom Hearts title yet. Elements from nearly every past game make an appearance somehow. Flowmotion? Drive forms? Triangle-based special attacks? Final Fantasy–based magic? Summons? Links? I could keep going. Add in some all-new elements, like shifting keyblade forms and the new Attraction Flow abilities (which call in rides inspired by the Disney Parks), and you have fights that offer up so many special effects at once you’ll likely never use half of them. Combat isn’t so complex that it’s overwhelming (though the camera on some of the effects whips around so fast I could see it causing nausea), but the system might have benefitted from trimming down a few abilities. On the other hand, it’s kind of cool to see Sora with 15 years and a dozen games’ worth of fighting styles under his belt.
Adding a little to the clunkiness is the game’s archaic menu system, which seems made to match the menus from Kingdom Hearts I and II as closely as possible. Score points for consistency, I suppose, but there’s no getting around the fact that some of design elements feel straight out of the early 2000s. Do we really need three separate menu sections for Equipment (where you see what items you have equipped), Items (where you use consumables instantly), and Customize (where you give consumable items to your party)? That couldn’t be done on one screen?
That’s not to say that it’s not fun, because it is. If you loved the gameplay in past Kingdom Hearts titles, there’s plenty more to love here. Gliding around the map, pulling off aerial recoveries, and using Flowmotion to kick off walls add a ton of mobility to each fight. While you won’t need any special maneuvers to beat the game on Normal mode, there’s depth there for fans to find when going after the game’s hardest challenges, and future speedruns are likely going to be a treat.
Unfortunately, there’s one overwhelming flaw in Kingdom Hearts III that left a sour taste in my mouth, and that’s the story. Kingdom Hearts III, as it stands alone, pretty much doesn’t have a story. In terms of narrative structure, there’s no rising tension, no big single plot that can be traced from start to finish. The game’s paced very oddly, with the first three-quarters of the experience spent racing through Disney worlds while the main characters change clothes and talk about where to go next. Then, all the action in the narrative is dumped into the final few hours—but all the payoff we see is for other games. In an hours-long sequence of boss battles and movie-length cutscenes, we’re hit with moment after moment of closure for events that occurred in Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II, Birth By Sleep, 358/2 Days, Dream Drop Distance, and more, with little-to-no breathing room for each event to be explored.
Worse, almost all the new plot elements that are introduced in Kingdom Hearts III get no payoff. We see characters training, but they barely get to fight. We see villains chasing a new MacGuffin, but we never find out anything about what it is (it’s left as a dangling plot thread for a future game). Somethingmajor happens right at the end of the game, but because what exactly happened takes place entirely off-screen, I couldn’t even spoil it for you if I wanted to, and that’s just left as another big cliffhanger. Instead of a resolution, we’re left with more dangling plot threads than before, and most of them seem tied to (of all things) the still-ongoing mobile game.
While I’m disappointed that a game that billed itself as a story finale would end with cliffhangers, I’m also sad that this pacing of “Disney, Disney, Disney, Disney, Disney, Disney, boss and cutscene montage” means that there’s very little original Kingdom Hearts content to explore. Original worlds like Traverse Town, The World That Never Was, and Hollow Bastion were always some of my favorite zones, but the closest thing to an original world we get here is just boss set-dressing. With them gone, it feels like the Disney elements and Kingdom Hearts story elements are completely separate entities, and there’s almost nothing from the Final Fantasy series present at all. Something like Kingdom Hearts II’s 1000 Heartless battle, where all the Final Fantasy characters teamed up with Disney ones to defeat a massive assault by the game’s original enemies, feels like a distant impossibility, a crossover that can never happen again.
While the grand sum of Kingdom Hearts III isn’t terrible—there’s still plenty of fun to be had poking around the movie-inspired worlds, flying the Gummi ship through space, and watching the melodrama play out—it’s a game that may not completely please anyone who plays it. There’s some story catharsis for hardcore Kingdom Hearts fans, but not nearly enough, especially given the logic jumps and new cliffhangers introduced. Disney fans will enjoy running around the new worlds, but could be baffled that their favorite moments have been skipped and left confused by the framing device of Kingdom Hearts’ original story. Poor Final Fantasy fans are left entirely in the dust, looking at the Moogle shopkeepers, Firaga spells, and single Cactuar joke that are their series’ only lasting contribution.
Kingdom Hearts III does a lot right, but for nearly every positive thing it gets right, there’s a negative lurking somewhere in its shadow. The game has amazing music, but at times its art style looks jarringly plastic. Combat is fluid and expansive, but only if you take it easy on the special effects and really get to learn the underlying systems. There are huge emotional story payoffs for half a dozen games, but they’re rushed one after another with little time to breathe and cramped by confusing presentation. Do these positives outweigh the negatives? Yes, overall—the game’s still fun to play, and even after finishing the story, there’s plenty more that I want to go back and explore. Is it a game that lives up to a decade of hype, though? Perhaps not. But maybe no game could.
Can any game live up to a decade of hype? Kingdom Hearts III tries, and its meticulously-recreated Disney worlds, jam-packed combat system, and wealth of minigames offer a ton for players to explore. However, the game’s bizarre pacing, an abundance of cutscenes, and an unrewarding story may leave players more bewildered than satisfied by the end.
Square Enix Business Division 3
E10+ - Everyone 10+
|Kingdom Hearts III is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One. Primary version reviewed was for PlayStation 4. Review code was provided by Square Enix for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|
Emma’s early gaming was mostly done in secret, as the only gamer in a family of normal people. She still retains skills from this dark period in her life, such as the ability to teleport instantly across the house away from the computer, and holds a gold medal in the Olympic sport of “Hide the Gameboy.” Sorry, Mom, now you know.