Kingdom Hearts 3 Hands-On Preview: Digging Through the Old Toy Chest

With Kingdom Hearts III's release date likely around the corner, Square Enix brought out the game's first playable build to members of the press on Thursday. Shacknews goes hands-on to get a look at what's new, but also lament over some of what's stayed the same.

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The Kingdom Hearts fanbase has been waiting an awfully long time for the elusive Kingdom Hearts III. A full 11 years have passed since the last numbered installment in the series. The third part got its first announcement trailer at E3 three years ago. The wait has been agonizing for Kingdom Hearts fanatics, even with Square Enix starting to pump out more information on the series' third installment over the past year.

After years of waiting, Thursday finally saw Square Enix bring out something playable. While there wasn't anything new to announce, the fact that something was actually playable felt exciting. Shacknews wasn't about to pass up this opportunity, so we went hands-on with the latest playable version of Kingdom Hearts III. And after about an hour of playtime, it certainly feels like Kingdom Hearts, for better or worse.

The first demo went by fairly quickly, as Sora and company were making the long climb up Mount Olympus. This return to the world of Hercules was first revealed during last year's surprise E3 trailer, showing Sora looking to take the fight directly to Lythos the Rock Titan. This boss battle shows off one of Kingdom Hearts III's newest and most prevalent mechanics: the autorun. If Sora runs directly towards any glowing wall, he will automatically run up that wall. There's no additional button input needed, Sora will simply scale the wall with no trouble, adding a degree of verticality to the mix.

The autorun becomes a central mechanic through the entire game, allowing Sora to explore out-of-reach areas. However, it's particularly pivotal for the Mount Olympus climb. The Rock Titan will toss down massive boulders at Sora, which players can avoid by running to the side. Tilting the analog stick left or right as Sora makes his climb will cause him to sharply turn 90 degrees, avoiding incoming obstacles. The Mount Olympus climb is particularly perilous, because pieces of the environment will start to crumble and collapse as the Rock Titan's onslaught continues.

After climbing the mountain, it's time to battle the Rock Titan himself. Because he's so massive, Sora can only start by attacking his feet. After taking his legs out and causing him to collapse, Sora can start to scale the giant with another new mechanic, as he moves towards sparkling platforms around the Titan's body, Sora will scale them automatically, allowing him to reach the creature's head and strike.

The core battle mechanics for Kingdom Hearts III are mostly the same as prior games. Sora can strike quickly with his Keyblade, though now he can switch between multiple Keyblades with the D-Pad. The D-Pad also allows players to access their magic abilities and also their Link abilities, which appear to replace Summons this time around.

There were two Link abilities on display. There was Ariel, who appeared in a watery form and helped Sora create enchanted puddles that would then engulf nearby enemies. The second was Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph, who would pop up with building blocks, tasking players with building an instrument of destruction to wipe out enemies. While the Links are a fun idea, the game does a poor job of explaining how to really make the most of these abilities or even how to use them, period. I love the idea of destroying multiple foes with Ralph, but there wasn't really any direction on how to best utilize his abilities.

The Reaction Commands from Kingdom Hearts II appear to return, but they are much more frequent this time around. Many of the Reaction Commands in Kingdom Hearts III center around abilities within Sora's Keyblade, such as a massive hammer. Some of them will have Sora attack in tandem with stage-specific allies. And there are several others that are based on Disneyland theme park rides. Some of them, like the Pirate Ship, are a little difficult to figure out what's happening. However, some of them, like the Mad Tea Cups, are a pure visual spectacle, inflicting massive damage and also providing quite the light show in the process. Just remember to hit the Triangle button when the "Finish" prompt appears, otherwise these attacks won't cause nearly the level of damage they're capable of inflicting.

The other demo was much lenghthier and took Sora and his allies to the Toy Box level. This is the Toy Story level, featuring Woody and Buzz Lightyear as allies who will join Sora, Donald, and Goofy in battle.

The first thing to note is that English voiceovers were indeed in this demo. Many of the Toy Story voice actors are indeed reprising their roles, though with a respectable Tom Hanks soundalike voicing Woody. It was fun to see the opening cutscene with Hamm and Rex playing through a video game, only for Woody and Buzz to recruit them for an ambush on the invading Heartless. When Sora and company show up as toys, Rex mistakes him for a video game character named Yozora with the kind of infectuous enthusiasm that actor Wallace Shawn always brings to the role.

However, there's something a little extra in Kingdom Hearts III. To this point in the series, cutscenes would feature voiceovers, while gameplay dialogue would unfold with text boxes. This is no longer the case. Everything is fully, 100 percent voice acted. Want an innocuous chat with one of the aliens? It's fully voice acted. A meaningless one-liner from Hamm? Voice acted!

The shift to full voice acting across the board is a fairly big deal with a few gameplay ramifications. For example, I went through the toy store area feeling momentarily lost, but Buzz quickly chimed in with a voice line as I was reaching where I was supposed to go. This is a small addition, but one that's very much welcome, even if it does open the door to a lot of "Captain Obvious" dialogue.

Story-wise, the Toy Story stage is some of the best and worst elements of the Kingdom Hearts narrative. The setup works perfectly, with Woody, Buzz, Rex, and Hamm noting that strange things have been happening since the Heartless have shown up. Not only have their friends gone missing, but all of the humans have apparently disappeared, as well. That's all well and good until Sora eventually meets up with the culprit, one of the multiple Xehanorts roaming the worlds. I'll spare everyone the explanation for exactly why and how everyone has been made to disappear, but the explanation was so completely bonkers that even the most diehard Kingdom Hearts fans won't be able to help but laugh at the utter silliness of it.

The last thing to note about the Toy Story level is the ability to play as a toy robot. The Heartless have taken control of some of the toy store's robotic toys, but Sora's allowed to take control of any unoccupied robot for himself. This leads to some fun mech combat, with Sora able to throw punches or fire laser blasts from a distance. Because the robots hit so hard, it's almost funny to watch Sora's allies get totally obliterated when they foolishly try to go toe-to-toe with these things. But when it's mech-on-mech combat, this part of the level starts to feel like fun, especially because different robots have different abilities.

At this point, Kingdom Hearts III feels like a very familiar experience and whether that's a good thing or not is up for interpretation. Fans will likely appreciate that not too much has changed and that the formula is mostly intact. But given more than a decade of planning, some might not like that this essentially feels like a PlayStation 2 game with admittedly-gorgeous PlayStation 4 visuals. On top of that, a lot of the core Kingdom Hearts problems remain in place from past games. It's easy to get lost, jumping still feels like a mess, and the camera can be a nightmare at times. It's almost as if the fanbase is expected to accept that this is just what Kingdom Hearts is now and that the series can't do any better.

There's a lot to look forward to in Kingdom Hearts III. The series is as beloved as it is for a reason. But while some of the new mechanics are welcome additions, the lack of refinement in other areas of the game feel like a disappointment thus far.

However, this is just the beginning, as Square Enix is promising more for Kingdom Hearts III in the coming weeks. An official release date is being promised at some point in June, most likely during this year's E3 2018 Showcase. A new world reveal is also said to be lined up for June, so let the speculation commence. Kingdom Hearts III is expected to release later this year on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

From The Chatty
  • reply
    May 18, 2018 6:00 AM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Kingdom Hearts 3 Hands-On Preview: Digging Through the Old Toy Chest

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      May 18, 2018 7:04 AM

      I kind of figured this might be the case. I'm not sure Square releases titles often enough anymore outside of their B teams to really iterate with the rest of the industry. That being said this is still the game my wife will get a PS4 over.

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      May 18, 2018 10:48 AM

      The game is graphically amazing!

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        May 18, 2018 11:00 AM

        Finally got to the "Looks like a Pixar Movie" thing they were toting back in the PS2 days.

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      May 18, 2018 10:59 AM

      Sounds like if I haven't played since the first one then a perfect time to jump back in and get some pretty visual story telling. Is the combat more fun than FFXV? I know its different, but watching the videos I can't help but feel similarities. Seems to be on Unreal 4 instead of Luminous so maybe that helps?

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        May 18, 2018 11:02 AM

        Honestly I would pick on 2.7 or whatever the latest re-release of KH2 was. That will help you understand wtf a little better than just hoping in from KH1, unless you don't give a shit and just want to play some KH, in which case I still think it has an awesome ending even if the start is slow as hell.

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        May 18, 2018 11:10 AM

        Definitely on UE4!

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      May 18, 2018 10:54 PM

      How come you guys couldn't do audio capture yet in IGN's video of this demo they have audio???? Just asking.

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        May 22, 2018 9:15 PM

        We had our instructions from the publisher on-site regarding what could and could not be captured. I would imagine IGN had their own guidelines.