It’s been a little over thirteen years since we last saw a mainline entry in the Kingdom Hearts series, and in that time, video games have evolved considerably, breaking new ground both in terms of gameplay and storytelling. In some ways, the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts III falls just shy of modern gaming standards, suffering from some of the same pitfalls as the predecessors it stays so faithful to. But the game boasts some successful improvements as well and ultimately is an enchanting, jaw-droppingly pretty, pitch-perfect follow-up whose strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.
Story has always been a primary focus for Kingdom Hearts, and if you loved the storytelling in the first two games, you’re in luck, because stylistically, things remain largely the same. The overarching tale is epic; Sora, Donald and Goofy’s journey is continued seamlessly from prior instalments, which is very impressive considering the main franchise’s extended layoff.
Many gamers enjoyed the story from the first two games, but after thirteen years, it feels like storytelling in games has become more refined and humanistic than what Kingdom Hearts III offers, especially in the AAA tier. The story revolves around the grand struggle between warriors of light (Sora et al, Riku, Aqua, Axel, King Mickey, etc) dark (Organization XIII, Xehonort, Maleficent, Ansem and the like), and a handful of characters who teeter on the line between good and evil. It’s full of grand themes of love, loss, hope, failure, and friendship, and there’s no questioning the sincerity with which the story is told – the writers seem to truly care about the characters and themes they’re juggling.
But a juggling act of this magnitude is near impossible to pull off – there are just far too many characters (many of whom look VERY similar and have more than one name), ideas, symbolism, metaphors, plot developments, references and tonal shifts to tell an elegant, focused story that’s easy to understand. Cutscenes are insanely exposition-heavy, which make the plot feel increasingly convoluted and head-spinningly difficult to wrap one’s head around, let alone connect with emotionally. There are points throughout the story where certain characters forget why they’re forgetting another character’s name, and you might find yourself forgetting why they were forgetting why they were so forgetful. This does cause brain aches at times, it must be said.
There are moments throughout the main story that are effective and emotional, particularly the ones revolving around the tragically lost Roxas and the irresistibly adorable Kairi, and the voice acting is quite nice across the board (Haley Joel Osment reprises his role as Sora, which greatly adds to the cohesion of the main games). But the dialogue too often sounds completely forced and unnatural to the point where characters literally spell out the themes of the story as if talking directly to the player (“Hurting is part of caring!”). There’s no nuance to speak of in the storytelling, which is a shame considering how far video games have come on that front.
The game’s story does have its highlights. What alleviates the clunky writing in the main story are the self-contained side stories you experience in the game’s varied assortment of Disney-based worlds, each brimming with classic characters we know and love. Since these world-specific missions are based on the movies, they feel as simple, organic, easy to understand, and emotional as the source material. Yes, some of the ham-fisted writing sounds odd coming out of these well-known characters’ mouths, but in large part, Buzz Lightyear sounds like Buzz Lightyear, Baymax sounds like Baymax, and it’s genuinely heartwarming to spend time with these folks once again. This is one of the great joys of Kingdom Hearts.
One of the greatest joys of the series, of course, is visiting these different worlds. Aside from Monsters Inc.’s Monstropolis, which feels decidedly less inspired than the rest, each world is dazzling in its own way and offers eye-popping set pieces and heartfelt character moments. San Fransokyo (Big Hero 6) and The Caribbean (Pirates of the Caribbean) are particularly eye-popping, with the latter offering an expansive, open sea to conquer and the former an opportunity to explore one of the most inventive, jaw-droppingly cool fictional worlds Disney has ever brought to life. The size of these two worlds may seem overwhelming at first, but then the childhood glee quickly kicks in. You can traipse around these gigantic environments at your leisure, which brings with it a sense of freedom and excitement that’s not unlike stepping into Disneyland for the first time. This a sensation that only Kingdom Hearts can offer in the gaming sphere.
Twilight Town returns and offers a nice hit of nostalgia for longtime fans. And two of Disney’s biggest hits in the past ten years, Tangled and Frozen, are represented as well. Wandering around the forest as Rapunzel experiences the outside world for the first time is surprisingly poignant, and the developers found an absolutely hilarious way to incorporate Sora and the gang into Elsa’s famous “Let It Go” solo performance (Donald has a line here that is sure to have you in stitches).
Toy Story’s Toy Box world is perhaps the most indulgently fun and nostalgic of all. There is loads of fun to be had piloting toy mech suits, battling in ball pits, and rolling around Andy’s room on the famous Pixar ball. It’s easy to while away hours running amok beside Woody, Buzz and their chums, and the experiences that players have in this world are sure to last long in the memory.
Sora, Donald, and Goofy also return to Olympus to help out their old buddy Hercules, and the ensuing race up the side of Mount Olympus as the two-headed Mountain King titan hurls boulders down at you is one of the most epic gaming moments in recent memory. Stunning is the right word.
The scale and detail of the different worlds are staggering and that speaks to the game’s visuals, which are breathtakingly pleasing pretty much throughout. Each of the worlds mimics the art style of its respective movie to near perfection, and the animation is truly a thing to behold. The animation of Flynn Rider from Tangled, whose facial expressions capture precisely the character’s signature charm and shiftiness, is particularly impressive. The graphics are top-notch and they’re at their most impressive when you notice the details, like the rendering of natural light on the ocean, the way Rapunzel bunches up her hair, or the particle effects that fill the screen as you swing and slash your magic-infused keyblade.
The core gameplay feels essentially the same as it’s always felt in the series. Chaotic action RPG battles see you using a variety of keyblades, attacks, special attacks, magic spells, items, and summons to obliterate hordes of heartless alongside Donald and Goofy, who specialise in magic and defence, respectively. You can learn a plethora of additional abilities, from combo extenders to aerial dashes to magic boosters. The RPG elements are robust and rewarding, and, in general, battles are a lot of fun, especially when you pull out one of the coolest summons (Wreck-It Ralph is a highlight) or one of the dazzling, Disneyland ride-inspired team attacks (some of which come with their own fun little combat mechanics).
The one big issue with combat is the camera, which is surprising since so many fans have complained about it in the past. At times, it’s difficult to orient the view-point exactly where you need it during combat and targeting enemies can become frustrating. On many occasions, for instance, Sora will lunge at a random offscreen enemy instead of the one you were actually aiming for. These issues definitely weren’t bothersome enough to ruin the experience, but constantly attempt to shift the camera will peeve some players.
Traversal has seen a big expansion this time around, with Sora now able to run up certain vertical surfaces and warp from special anchor points to cover ground and reach new heights in the blink of an eye, along with a host of other abilities, of which there are too many to list here. The game is also absolutely packed with a variety of mini-games, each with their own control setup. The Gummi Ship inter-planetary shooter sections return, there’s a puzzle game in Hundred Acre Wood, you can cook meals with Remy from Ratatouille, snowboard down a mountain, and explore underwater caves in the Caribbean.
There’s a huge amount of content here, but moving Sora around never feels pleasurable because there’s no sense of weight or inertia involved. Even combat and traversal feel weightless and touchy, not to the point where you ever feel out of control, but there isn’t that sense of tactility and impact that makes action RPGs like Monster Hunter and Zelda feel so satisfying to play. This is a minor gripe about a game that generally controls quite adequately, but for a sequel to be this late and to come out of such a long production cycle, you might have expected extra layers of polish, especially in aspects of the game that have been problematic in the past.
Kingdom Hearts III is a wonderfully rich experience that will no doubt thrill fans who have been waiting for over a decade to play it, which is a huge victory for Square Enix. There’s so much to do that, even after the game’s 30-ish hour main story, you’ll have probably a dozen or so more hours of content to play. There are retro-style mini-games to collect for your “gummi phone,” an Ultima Weapon to quest after, a pirate ship to captain a la Assassin’s Creed, and plenty more. Some aspects of Kingdom Hearts III feel dated or unrefined, and the storytelling can be nauseatingly expository at times, but it’s hard not to recommend a game that’s so engaging, unique, dense with content and delightfully nostalgic.
Kingdom Hearts III is out now on PS4 and Xbox One.