How does one go about reviewing something like Kingdom Hearts III, a sequel that has been over a decade in the making? A long wait for a sequel isn't unprecedented in gaming. Games like Beyond Good & Evil and Psychonauts have taken many years to get to a sequel. Mega Man Legends may never complete its trilogy. PC players are still clinging to hope for Half-Life 3. When a game like Kingdom Hearts 3 comes around, with over a decade of fan anticipation attached, there are elevated expectations. It's not enough for it to be a good game or even a good game for the series. There has to be a sense that it was worth the extended wait.
That's why it brings a great feeling of joy to say that the wait was absolutely worth it. Kingdom Hearts III shines far greater than its predecessors, not just because of how it concludes its epic saga. It's because of just how much Square Enix has refined the game's formula to make it a complete blast to play at every turn.
Light clashes with darkness
To say the Kingdom Hearts story has become convoluted would be putting it mildly. There's been so much said about the complicated nature of the overarching plot across not only the two main games, but all of the spin-offs, that mocking it has practically become schtick. One of the biggest challenges for Kingdom Hearts III is attempting to make sense of everything, tying together all of the characters, plot points, twists and turns, and various events from the sequels. Amazingly, the game manages to make sense of the story.
I had long since given up on the Kingdom Hearts storyline making any kind of sense. However, KH3 offers up fairly detailed recaps that explain who everyone is, what their characters are, what role they play in the story, and how they relate to the bigger picture. If a character isn't featured in a recap, they're introduced in short order and explain who they are in enough detail that casual players can recognize where they belong. The best part is, it's all done in a much shorter period than the Kingdom Hearts II prologue. Remember the three-hour slog that kicked off KH2? That's out the window. Kingdom Hearts 3 takes far less time to get players into the story and off to their first Disney-based world.
The Disney worlds prove to be more than fan service and window dressing. Each individual world featured in this game serves a purpose towards the greater plot. Each world contains at least one element that helps push Xehanort towards his ultimate goal. For example, one might wonder where something like Toy Story would fit into the grander scheme, but it's made clear over the course of the stage and it's a plot point that plays out throughout the game.
There's been enough said about how the story starts, but it's the story's ending that deserves unending praise. Square Enix has been extra cautious in hiding story details, even going so far as to block out the final 15-20 percent of the game from the PlayStation 4's Share features. There's a good reason for that. This is a battle on a grand scale, incorporating every major player in the series to this point. The biggest villains from the previous games are all back, leading to an epic clash in a familiar setting that I won't spoil here. All of it culminates with a final sequence filled with action, emotion, and even heartbreak.
For a story that was this long in the making, it easily could have been a letdown. But outside of a few dangling plot points, Kingdom Hearts III's story ended in the best way possible.
The keys to combat
For a story with such high stakes, it's not enough for Kingdom Hearts to bring back its original combat style. Fortunately, the combat for the third game is refined and perfected to the point that it makes the older games feel plodding by comparison. Kingdom Herats III embraces the chaotic nature of its combat and stands on the border of going full Dynasty Warriors.
One thing to note is that the events of Dream Drop Distance leave Sora underpowered, providing a satisfying explanation for why he suddenly needs to re-learn a vast majority of his skills. Having said that, Kingdom Hearts III does an amazing job of conveying a great sense of power. Partly with Sora's magic, but mostly with his Keyblade and the manic stuff he's able to do with it. Sora's Keyblade strikes far more fluidly than it did in past games, going from enemy to enemy without missing a beat. Players are rewarded for high combos and quick strikes with more powerful Formchanges and Attractions, which can deal high damage and take out multitudes of enemies at a time.
As powerful as KH3 makes players feel, it doesn't fall into the trap of being too easy. It's easy to get carried away performing drawn-out combos and not realize that the enemies are dishing out their own punishment, so careless players get punished for not watching their HP bar. The end game is particularly unforgiving to those who haven't balanced defensive fighting with all-out offense.
Many past mechanics from the games also make returns, including Birth By Sleep's Focus Gauge and Dream Drop Distance's Flowmotion. It not only adds great variety by allowing players to mix up their play styles, but it's also another continuiuty nod to the various games that came before this one.
But by far, the most satisfying aspect of Kingdom Hearts III isn't Sora. It's Donald and Goofy. It's more than them being far more fleshed out characters, who speak and converse with Sora regularly. They're more useful in combat than they've ever been in the past. They more than hold their weight in battle and will frequently prompt Sora to team up with them for tandem attacks, which hit like a ton of bricks. These two have come a long way from the anchors that constantly needed healing or reviving. They are now valuable members of the party, making it feel like they've also come a long way in the past 15 years. The power of friendship isn't lip service here. It's key to survival.
Setting course for adventure
While action-RPG combat makes up the core of the Kingdom Hearts III experience, Square Enix went to great lengths to try and mix up the experiences of each world. Several worlds will follow the traditional Kingdom Hearts formula of exploring each world and taking out Heartless and/or Nobodies. But occasionally, worlds will add their own unique elements to create something different, often to great results.
For example, the Frozen world of Arendelle will throw players into a frozen dungeon and challenge them to navigate a maze filled with danger. The Toy Story world of Toy Box will put players inside giant mechs and use their powers to take out legions of Heartless and go toe-to-toe with other killer robots. The Big Hero 6 world of San Fransokyo has a full-blown monster fight in the middle of the city, further feeding that world's superhero atmosphere.
But it's the Pirates of the Caribbean world that deserves the most praise. What felt like a by-the-numbers addition to Kingdom Hearts II, the Pirates world makes a complete turnaround in KH3. Players engage in naval battles against armadas of Heartless ships, where they'll level up their vessel along with their characters. And one Heartless battle in particular will challenge players to take to the skies, riding airborne Heartless to try and take out a full-grown buzzard that's looking to sink the Black Pearl.
It's easy to get lost in what KH3 has to offer. Unfortunately, it's also easy to get lost, period. The biggest weakness of these worlds is that there's no real waypoint system of any kind to point players in the right direction. After lengthy battles, it can be easy to get turned around, so players won't discover they've accidentally backtracked and gone in the wrong direction until they're back at the start. Any kind of visible indicator of which direction to go would have helped immensely. This becomes particularly irritating in San Fransokyo, where getting lost in the big city becomes a big issue.
When it comes to talking about wide open spaces and exploration, it's worth mentioning that the Gummi Ship sequences are back. And while putting together a quality ship is simpler than it has been in recent games, Square's changes don't quite bear fruit here. Rather than go with on-rails sequences, players are thrown into a more open cosmos that can be difficult to navigate. There are a lot of treasures to discover and random encounters that can offer up Gummi Ship pieces, but like the two numbered Kingdom Hearts games before it, the Gummi Ship sequences ultimately feel inconsequential and feel like unneeded filler.
Voices for the voiceless
Kingdom Hearts III is filled with characters and it was great to hear that everything is fully voice acted. There are no more text boxes. If you talk to a character, they will speak. This can lead to some awkward line delivery, so it's not a perfect system. But it's fun to hear actual dialogue from previously silent characters, like Donald's nephews.
There is one notably silent character and that's Remy from Ratatouille. Referred to as "Little Chef," Remy introduces cooking to the Kingdom Hearts world, with Sora and Remy prompted to cook dishes for Uncle Scrooge's bistro that double as meals that up player stats temporarily. This takes players into one of the bigger weaknesses for the series as a whole: rhythm games. Players are given prompts to hit buttons or flick the analog sticks, but the process proves to be an unforgiving one and one wrong move leads to wasted ingredients. And despite hearing Donald and Goofy constantly say, "This is a good place to find some ingredients," certain ingredients are hard to come by.
Rhythm elements are often unwelcome when they pop up in KH3 and while they don't pop up often, they'll appear just enough to bring the game down a peg. Certain events that require precision timing doesn't prove to be this game's strong suit.
My friends are my power
Kingdom Hearts III feels like the series' peak in many ways. It's not just that a majority of elements from the past games have returned. It's that they all feel greatly improved. And sprinkled into the gripping climax of a struggle between light and darkness, it all adds up to an incredible experience. It's an absolute treat for Kingdom Hearts fans, but those who go into this game completely fresh won't be left in the dark. Even the most casual of players can appreciate the scope of this fight and the scale of this war.
I entered Kingdom Hearts III with a sense of cautious optimism. With the game under development for so long and with delays coming year after year, there was sense that Square Enix ultimately wouldn't be able to live up to the years of hype. After all, Kingdom Hearts II wans't a perfect game by any stretch, so surely Kingdom Hearts III would fall into that same field of "mediocre-to-good." I'm happy to say I was wrong. Kingdom Hearts III is an absolute triumph, conquering the darkness that plagued the series' past and standing firmly in the light. It's not just a great Kingdom Hearts game, it may very well be a game that gets revisited in December.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 digital copy provided by the publisher. Kingdom Hearts III is available now on the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live Marketplace for $59.99. The game is rated E10+.
Kingdom Hearts 3
- Concludes the Xehanort storyline in epic fashion
- Helpfully recaps the story for newcomers or anyone who may be lost
- Fluid combat that makes players feel powerful
- Large-scale battles, including a doozy near the end
- Variety of ways to fight, including several mechanics returning from spin-offs
- Many Disney worlds contain at least one sequence that's cool and different
- AI allies are much more helpful than they were in the past
- Visuals are a complete upgrade from any previous game in the series
- Every line is voice acted
- Voice acting lines can sometimes sound wooden
- Gummi Ship sequences still feel like filler
- Rhythm sequences feel rough
- Not a lot of side content
- It's okay, Rutger Hauer. At least you tried.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Kingdom Hearts 3 review: The brightest light