Kingdom Hearts 3 hands-on preview: the sequel you’ve been waiting for

Kingdom Hearts 3 has arrived, and this is what we gleaned from two of its Disney-stuffed levels...

This Kingdom Hearts III preview is based on a demo build from August 2018.

It feels strange to sit down and actually play Kingdom Hearts III. While the roughly 13 years since Kingdom Hearts II’s release haven’t been devoid of Kingdom Hearts experiences, none of them have featured that magical numerical notification that screams, “This is the next Kingdom Hearts. This is the one you’ve been waiting for.”

My Kingdom Hearts III demo consisted of two worlds: one based on Toy Story and one based on Hercules. The demo began with the Hercules section, which was hardly a throwaway decision. Brendan Docherty, senior product marketing manager for Square Enix, noted that the Hercules section has been featured heavily in previous Kingdom Hearts games and invokes a feeling of returning home.

Indeed it does, but this particular area also showcased quite a few of the things that have changed since the release of Kingdom Hearts II. Perhaps the most notable, or at least the most immediate, of those changes is Sora’s enhanced agility. While Sora’s ability to run up walls and more easily navigate his environments may be new to those only familiar with Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, it’s a feature that Docherty reminds me has been “tested and honed in the handheld [Kingdom Hearts] titles.”

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As such, it hardly feels like something that the team decided to just play around with and insert into the Kingdom Hearts formula. For instance, there was a point in the demo when I needed to run up a cliff while the area boss threw boulders down at me. The sequence was rather easy to control and also did a tremendous job of selling the scope of both the boss and the area around me. While the enhanced navigation options initially presented themselves as new ways of getting around, I was told that they will also factor into the combat in various ways.

That’s not to say that the game’s combat is deprived of options in its base form. Far from it. In fact, the changes to the game’s combat are destined to become Kingdom Hearts III’s most-discussed alterations.

On a basic level, Kingdom Hearts III’s combat functions similarly to the combat seen in earlier games. You can lock-on to enemies, swing your keyblade, and utilise multi-character attacks, summons, items, and spell-like abilities. In that respect, the gang’s all here. However, it’s now easier than ever to access special attacks during combat (which vary and can be executed with the press of a button), attractions (the ability to summon various Disney rides that wield special attacks), and some more involved “Links” (or summons).

The general idea behind these new additions seems to be a desire to make Kingdom Hearts combat feel more grandiose and varied. From a sheer spectacle perspective, the additions absolutely work. There’s nothing quite like summoning a giant neon roller coaster from the sky and using it to shoot down a rock monster before it blows up in a glorious display of lights and damage. Square has also spiced up the old hack-n-slash of the previous games with more generous special abilities to help remove some of the monotony of combat from earlier instalments.

All of these additions do make Kingdom Hearts III’s combat feel lighter and even easier at times. Now that you have access to so many damage-dealing options – including multiple keyblades and the ability to temporarily upgrade your keyblade during a combat sequence – there are times when battles just breeze by in a haze of spectacular summons and effects.

Curious about whether or not these changes would affect the overall difficulty level of the final game, I asked Docherty whether or not we can expect some of the surprisingly challenging encounters from the previous games. His response was encouraging.

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“Yeah, it’s a Kingdom Hearts game,” said Docherty. “There is a lot of depth to the system. It’s not just wailing on the X button. There are some encounter-by-encounter scenarios you will have to deal with and there are some hard bosses.”

Said scenarios seemingly included a section in the Toy Story area that concluded my demo of the game. It saw me jump into a giant toy mech and take on enemy robots. This segment played out similar to a first-person shooter. I was even able to jump between mechs and utilise different abilities (even though I was able to dispatch the enemy bots without having to do so).

Truth be told, I felt that this particular section was wearing its welcome out around the time that it concluded. It didn’t really equal the spectacle and joy of the game’s more traditional battles. However, it’s worth noting that this section was just a small instance of the various special gameplay instances that will be peppered throughout the campaign. I was told that the toy store alone featured a variety of these special sections.

While it was hard to get a feel for how well all of these gameplay changes will work together over the course of the full game, it became immediately clear that the game’s exceptional presentation value is going to have an immediate impact.

In fact, it’s no stretch to call Kingdom Hearts III’s visuals the most impressive overall display of modern game technology. Perhaps that could be argued on a purely technical level, but once you factor in the colourful attacks, the torrent of particle effects, and the way that the game recreates so many iconic characters and worlds, it’s impossible to play the game and not gawk at how much is happening on screen and how great it all looks.

This magnificent recreation of so many iconic characters, worlds, and images may just be enough to draw new fans into the series. Indeed, the team may be banking on just that.

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“It’s the Disney worlds that bring a lot of people to the franchise in the first place,” said Docherty. “For a lot of people, especially with the first [Kingdom Hearts], it’s about ‘Oh I like Aladdin, I like Tarzan.’ Now we have a new era of Disney movies for fans of Tangled, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and everyone is a fan of Toy Story throughout the generations. Fans of those IPs will see the game and think ‘I want to know what’s up. What are they doing and what’re all these Disney things I love in one package?’ Hopefully, they’ll check it out and I think they’ll fall in love with the Kingdom Hearts story as well.”

But what about the continuing Kingdom Hearts story and the series’ biggest fans? While my short time with the game didn’t reveal too many details about Kingdom Hearts III’s greater plot, Docherty noted that it’s a universal story that will appeal to newcomers and hardcore fans alike. However, he noted that those who have played all of the previous games will have a much “greater grasp” of the subtleties in the story. Of course, those who wish to sample the previous games in the series before the release of Kingdom Hearts III can always play Kingdom Hearts 1.5, 2.5, and 2.8 (all available now).

As I walked away from the Kingdom Hearts III demo, I couldn’t help but wonder whether time will be this game’s biggest enemy. 13+ years of anticipation can do some funny things to someone’s expectations. Based on my time with Kingdom Hearts III, I genuinely believe that its release will come as a relief to the fans who have waited so long for this massive sequel.

Docherty had some closing words for those fans, too: “I know how much the franchise means to so many fans. We’re not going to let them down.”

Kingdom Hearts III is out now, and we’ll bring you a full review as soon as we can.