Kingdom Hearts III (Review)

Image result for kingdom hearts 3 wallpaper

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Available On: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
Copy obtained via girlfriend (Thanks, babe! <3)

Although there have been countless spin-offs and side stories to bridge the gap between Kingdom Hearts II (released in 2006) and this final chapter of the saga, make no mistake: this is the real game that fans of the franchise have been salivating for. However, the storylines presented and expanded upon in the spin-offs are absolutely essential for understanding Kingdom Hearts III, resulting in a grand story that acts as the culmination of over a decade’s worth of storytelling.

Admittedly, the story of Kingdom Hearts III is a little difficult to write about. Many have called this series convoluted and intimidating (an accurate assessment) and there’s really nothing in terms of slowly easing you into the narrative. This is a game that expects you to have played both of the mainline games as well as the multitude of side stories, and while there are a few short videos in the main menu that give a brief overview of their plots, those who are experiencing the franchise for the first time with this entry are going to be completely and utterly lost. As someone who has played every game in the series, I loved the sheer amount of lore dumps and discussions that take place right from the start, but can’t begin to imagine the bewilderment and frustration of someone having this as their first Kingdom Hearts experience.

To break it down to its simplest form, Kingdom Hearts III is centered around the main protagonist Sora journeying with Donald Duck and Goofy to search for a way to unlock the “power of awakening” within Sora, which will allow him to save the hearts of fellow heroes who have been tucked into a deep slumber within his own heart. If this sounds confusing, it’s probably because it is. Kingdom Hearts is a series that loves to play with the concept of a heart acting like a soul, which can lead to some of the most nonsensical and confusing story beats across any form of storytelling. At the same time, this is also where the series gets a lot of its charm and originality, so as a nerd who eats this stuff up like a delicious treat, I was greatly pleased.

To uncover the power of awakening, Sora and the gang must travel to an array of different worlds based off of Disney and Pixar properties. By mingling with the characters of said worlds and helping them with their problems, Sora seeks to gain the knowledge and experience to reach into himself and save those residing within his heart. Traveling to Disney worlds has been a core focus since the first game released in 2002, and while some much-needed improvements were made to the way worlds play out in Kingdom Hearts III, I was ultimately let down by a handful of them.

The worlds presented are gorgeously rendered and look almost indistinguishable from their film counterparts, partially due to the fact that the visual style of the game subtly shifts depending on which world you’re visiting. For example, the world based on Toy Story puts a more noticeably Pixar spin on the graphics and shrinks your party down to the size of action figures, allowing the game to play with perspective in a fun way. Likewise, the Pirates of the Caribbean world utilizes a more realistic graphics style which better matches the swashbuckling mood of that world. The scale of worlds this time around is noticeably larger than ever before. While not a full-on open-world design, some of the areas in these worlds are massive and provide plenty of room to explore and admire the insane amount of detail that has gone into making them look as close to their on-screen inspiration as possible.

Unfortunately, some of the worlds get a little too ambitious and lose some of their personality in the process. The biggest example is the New San Fransokyo world based off of Big Hero 6. It’s one of the biggest environments in the entire series, and while it does manage to completely nail the futuristic/neon aesthetic of the film, it comes at the cost of being completely lifeless. While the story for this world is engaging, exploring it is a dull slog. There are no civilians populating New San Fransokyo, no real sense of culture in the city, and once you take to the streets it can be frustrating to maneuver through the environment since all of the buildings look the same from the ground level.  The Frozen world also caused me frustration due to most of the world just being large open areas covered in snow. I won’t spoil the intricacies of all of the worlds, but it was a little disappointing to see some of them just be poor retellings of the movies they’re based on, which is a problem that has persisted throughout the entire franchise.

Narrative and scope problems aside, Kingdom Hearts III does a (mostly) great job of capturing the feel of each film it’s portraying in its world and allowing you to explore them in great depth. There’s just something magical about hanging out in Andy’s Room while “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” plays, or sliding on the rails that carry the doors in the Monsters, Inc facility with Mike and Sully. As previously stated, some of the worlds completely fumble this approach to detail and mood, but those that land it create some of the purest and most wholesome moments in the entire franchise, pulling you right back to that feeling of being a kid and watching your old Disney VHS tapes.

Another disappointing factor to the worlds in Kingdom Hearts III is the complete lack of Final Fantasy characters. The series originally started as an unlikely marriage between Disney and Final Fantasy, but those themes and characters have been featured less and less with each installment. This time around? They’re simply gone. You never run into Leon or Yuffie, you don’t get to chill with Aerith, and there isn’t another epic fight with Cloud and Sephiroth. While this might not be as big of a deal to some, I always found their presence to be a fun part of previous games and was sad to see them never once make an appearance in this game.

As far as the rest of the cast is concerned, the Disney characters are great. A lot of the people who voiced these roles in the films return to reprise their roles for the game, making it feel more authentic. This is perfect for when Sora brings up light, darkness, hearts, and friendship, all staples of the ridiculous Kingdom Hearts scripts. Hearing the characters talk about these things with the voices you’re familiar with adds an unexpected dose of humor, especially since the franchise always takes these topics so seriously.

Easily the strangest part of the game, as well as the thing that made me the most nervous, is the fact that the vast majority of the “real” plot doesn’t happen until the last five hours or so. The preceding 25-30 hours are almost solely focused on the individual stories taking place in the Disney worlds. There’s a small snippet of the main plot told between each world, but most of the story is kept under wraps until the final hours, where the pace picks up and one huge revelation and event happens after another. This made me so nervous while working through the game because I felt like nothing was happening. I became worried that the questions and desires I built up over the years were going to go unanswered, but boy was I wrong.

The Kingdom Hearts franchise has been playing with reincarnations of heart, body, and soul for years, eventually reaching a point where time travel and alternate worlds come into the fray. Add in an evil organization and a plot to destroy the world and you’ll realize just how many threads needed to be tied up with this game. Miraculously, it somehow manages to wrap up just about everything in a short amount of time without feeling sloppy and rushed. The final hours of Kingdom Hearts III are the best of the entire series. The amount of payoff and fan service for those who have been following this story for 17 years is staggering and had me in tears. If you’re a fan of the series and find yourself playing this game and wondering when the “good” stuff happens, just be patient. I promise that the final act of this game will be exactly what you’re hoping for.

That being said, the game also does a great job of setting up the next saga of Kingdom Hearts. This is definitely the final chapter of this storyline, but there’s undoubtedly going to be more games in the franchise, and if I had to bet money on it I would bet that we get another side game in the next 2-3 years and that it will be on the Nintendo Switch. The story fans have been following for so long has come to a close, but a new adventure is set up that I can’t wait to go on.

As wholly satisfying as seeing the conclusion to this story is (and let’s be honest, that’s the real allure to this game), it’s also the most fun Kingdom Hearts game to play. Kingdom Hearts III is essentially an amalgamation of every combat mechanic of the franchise (minus the awful card system from Chain of Memories). You have the classic Keyblade and magic systems, the Shotlock abilities that allow you to target multiple enemies with powerful attacks, Flowmotion moves to zip around the area, and delightful new Attraction attacks that take the form of classic Disney Land rides.

While the number of possibilities and techniques may seem overwhelming at first, you’re free to use whatever form of combat you want without feeling penalized for passing on another. If you want to mash the attack button and smack enemies around with your Keyblade, go ahead. If you want to rain down destruction with your magic (which looks vibrant and flashy in this game) then feel free to do so. If you’d like to get creative and pepper in some Flowmotion moves, or marvel at the Tea Cup Attraction technique, you can do that too. Kingdom Hearts III is the easiest of the series (which might be a huge negative to fans of the higher difficulties) but this also allows you to play however you want and be able to viably take on any threat.

As you defeat enemies and level up, Sora and pals gain new abilities that unlock special attacks, support techniques, and traversal options. Anyone who has played an RPG before will be right at home. An additional part of the leveling process that’s new to Kingdom Hearts III is the ability to upgrade your Keyblades. Enemies will occasionally drop materials which can be used to upgrade the stats of your weapons, increasing their physical or magical damage. Some upgrades even give you new abilities when that particular Keyblade is equipped, so it’s worth experimenting with this feature to get the most out of your weapons.

If at any point you decide to take a break from the story or combat, Kingdom Hearts III has plenty of fun side activities to partake in. My favorite is easily the new camera feature. Sora gets a smartphone early on that allows him to stay in touch with his allies, but it also has a nifty camera option for taking fun photos. This directly ties into a type of collectible called “Lucky Emblems” that look like Mickey Mouse heads. These are hidden all throughout the game and you can unlock special rewards for finding and photographing them. Some of the emblems are simply silhouettes on walls, but the best ones utilize the scenery in clever ways and require you to look at the environment in a different way. You can also just take selfies, because why not?

The Gummi Ship also makes a return. This is a tiny space ship made of little blocks that you ride on to travel to the different Disney worlds. You can use the standard ship that you start off with for the entire game, or you can get creative and make your own. I found the controls in the ship creator to be a little finicky, but it’s worth wrestling with the controls to customize your ship and choose things like its weapons, accelerators, and shield strength. The biggest change to the Gummi Ship this time around is that you can freely fly it around between planets and fight enemies, look for hidden blueprints, and collect more blocks to build with. 90% of this stuff is skippable, so you can just fly directly to the next planet to progress the story if you don’t feel like flying around any longer than you need to.

The other big activity is cooking, but I also think it’s the worst of the bunch. As you journey through the different worlds fighting enemies and completing stories, you’ll occasionally come across different ingredients that you can cook meals with. Unfortunately, whenever you’re in the vicinity of an ingredient your team lets you know. It’s helpful, at first, but it quickly becomes borderline infuriating to hear Donald say “There might be some ingredients around here” every 10 minutes. The actual cooking itself is pretty fun (you play a quick mini-game with the chef rat from Ratatouille), but it’s not really worth it. Successfully creating a recipe gives you a temporary boost in stats, but I never felt like there was a point where you actually need to rely on cooking to survive any combat situations.

FINAL VERDICT

While the necessity to have played the other games in the long-running franchise creates a barrier for new people to jump in with this entry, fans who have been playing this series since its inception in 2002 will be rewarded with some of the most powerful payoffs, exciting scenarios, and memorable events of the entire franchise. The majority of the worlds in this game are highly detailed and immaculately rendered versions of their film counterparts, even if a handful of them are a little too ambitious and feel weak in comparison. As far as combat is concerned, this is the easiest game in the series to date, but it also ensures that anyone can reach the ending without trouble. Kingdom Hearts III may be a little rough around the edges, but none of its flaws get in the way of it being a near perfect final chapter for this current saga.

– Zack Burrows

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