Release Date: January 25, 2019Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBODeveloper: Square EnixPublisher: Square EnixGenre: Action RPG
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 are as charming as ever; and their journey is continued seamlessly from prior installments (very impressive considering the main franchise’s extended layoff).
I remember quite enjoying the story from the first two games, but after thirteen years, I feel 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 and co., 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 for me to wrap my 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 I found myself forgetting why they were forgetting why they were so forgetful. This hurt my brain.
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.
The other great joy of the series, of course, is visiting the 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 pillage, and the former an opportunity to explore one of the most inventive, jaw-droppingly cool fictional worlds Disney has ever created. The size of these two worlds was overwhelming for me at first, but then I was struck with a shock of childhood glee as I realized I could traipse around these gigantic environments at my leisure. The sense of freedom and excitement kinda feels like stepping into Disneyland for the first time, which is a sensation that’s truly unique and amazing and one that only Kingdom Hearts offers.
Twilight town returns and offers a nice hit of nostalgia for longtime fans. 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 gang into Elsa’s famous “Let It Go” solo performance (Donald has a line here that had me cracking up for a good couple of minutes).
Toy Story’s Toy Box world is perhaps the most indulgently fun and nostalgic of all. I had way too much fun piloting toy mech suits, battling heartless in ball pits, and rolling around Andy’s room on the famous Pixar ball for my own good. I spent hours running amok beside Woody, Buzz, and the gang, and I’ll never forget it.
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, memorable gaming moments I’ve experienced in a while. Stunning.
The scale and detail of the different worlds are staggering and speaks to the game’s visuals, which are breathtakingly pretty. Each of the worlds mimics the art style of its respective movie to near perfection, and the animation is truly a thing to behold. I was oddly wowed by the animation of the lovable liar Flynn Rider from Tangled, whose facial expressions capture precisely the character’s signature charm and shiftiness. The graphics are top-notch and are most impressive when you notice the details, like the rendering of natural light in the Caribbean, 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 specialize in magic and defense, 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 super cool summons (Wreck-It Ralph was my favorite) or one of the dazzling, Disneyland ride-inspired team attacks (from the Matterhorn to the swinging pirate ship to the Mad Tea Cups, they just don’t get old and will surely put a smile on your face).
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 camera exactly where you need it during combat and targeting enemies can be annoying. On many occasions, an enemy would be right in front of me, I’d go to attack them, but instead, Sora would lunge at some other offscreen grunt as the enemy I wanted to attack bashed me from behind. These issues definitely weren’t bothersome enough to ruin the experience, but the fact that I felt like I was constantly trying to wrangle the camera always sort of needled at me.
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 crapload of content here, but the problem is that, while all of these different activities control adequately, 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 come out of such a long production cycle, I did expect 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.
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor. Read more of his work here.