Kingdom Hearts III Review #1 – Long, Grandiose…But Just a Bit Short

Title: Kingdom Hearts 3 Release Date: January 29, 2019 Rating: E10+ (E for Everyone ages 10 and older) Developer: Square Enix Producer: Square Enix Platforms: Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One   Review Run: 33 hours 23 minutes on Proud Mode (All Worlds + Secret Ending)   Fourteen years. Five side titles across multiple consoles. A…

Title: Kingdom Hearts 3

Release Date: January 29, 2019

Rating: E10+ (E for Everyone ages 10 and older)

Developer: Square Enix

Producer: Square Enix

Platforms: Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One

 

Review Run: 33 hours 23 minutes on Proud Mode (All Worlds + Secret Ending)

 

Fourteen years. Five side titles across multiple consoles. A story so convoluted but simple enough it takes various resources to boil down the story into something understandable. A game that has seen its development marred by setbacks and announced several times in various conferences. A major IP for two media giants that has seen a director come and go, and a new one finish it.  As both a blessing and curse, a game that’s never forgotten and very often discussed. Kingdom Hearts III, the final entry into the “Dark Seeker Saga” of the franchise, finally released. The wait is finally over.

They can’t believe it’s finally out either.

Games like these, they come out to insurmountable expectations that often kill its lifespan before they hit the shelves. Persistence in patience often breeds the highest of expectations from those tired of waiting to see the game they have wanted for so long finally come out. The fanbase is older, wizened, different, to where perspectives shift and franchises change in priority and development. Pairing that with the clinging hope and optimism of our nostalgic youthful perspectives helps the game live up to the storied development, or that nostalgia turns into cynicism and anger. It is hard to not think of the troubled development of Duke Nukem Forever and compare it to Kingdom Hearts III. Ask fans of the series, and most would tell you that Kingdom Hearts III was merely a dream, much like one of the prevalent themes within the franchise.

It feels weird, foreign almost, to say I played and completed Kingdom Hearts III. Over thirty hours, ten worlds, Pride Mode, and one secret epilogue video later and the fourteen-year wait is done. The adventures of the three half pints and their friends surrounding them was over. With that, earnestly reviewing Kingdom Hearts III feels as difficult as the game trying to live up to its expectations.

In fact, to put it simply, my perspective on this game is constantly changing, and I’ve edited this at least three times in hopes I can figure out where my opinion truly lies. Maybe the best way to put it is like this; I both loved, and disliked, Kingdom Hearts III. Where it succeeded on various fronts, such as the combat mechanics and the authenticity to its worlds, it failed on many others, such as the paper-thin story plot and lack of reason/motivation for exploration. Where there are endless combos at your arsenal to wield in combat, and it’s nice to see some familiar faces, the game feels incredibly underwhelming in terms of difficulty and lacks a balance between Disney and Final Fantasy. It’s a game of contrast between fantastic moments, and spectacular failure.

Kingdom Hearts III is a game rich with grand battle spectacle that feels flashy and fleshed out. Pairing Sora’s ability to use multiple keychains by switching them out during battle, and each keyblade having their own special forms that have their own unique combat style, makes battles interesting and exciting. The newly implemented flowmotion (utilizing various parts of the environment to bolster attacks), being able to use items and magic midair, and the new “Attractions” and “Allies” summons are powerful and a spectacle to behold. It is a game rich and deep in combat, injecting new life into the combat while also keeping the aspects that make it Kingdom Hearts.

The game also looks incredible both in the cutscenes and game play. Worlds are rich and vibrant in color, nearly retaining all their look and feel in game. Characters look richly detailed, to the point where the different art styles still seemingly work together well. Every cutscene kept me glued to my seat and my eyes to the monitor in admiration. Comparing the look of the game now all the way back to the first, it is hard not to enjoy series’ evolution.

Yet, where the game begins sputtering is in the writing. While the series has never been known for its storytelling, Kingdom Hearts III feels like it suffers from it. The game recycles tropes that have been explored multiple times across various side titles that make the plot feel very thin. The game also suffers from the many cutscenes interspersed throughout the game containing an exorbitant amount of expository dialogue that feel stilted and non-organic in growth. All the worlds feel disconnected to the actual story, unable to find the balance between retelling its original storyline infused with Kingdom Heart’s.

However, what I have always loved about Kingdom Hearts as a franchise, is its love for the themes that truly matter to me. Friendship is something we can all lean on for strength and support; no matter the difficulty an obstacle in front of us is, we can take it on knowing we have those ready to catch us when we fall to help us back on our feet. Hope and faith are some of the strongest weapons we have in overcoming the darkness of our lives, lighting our way through it. That through thick and thin, through our toughest times, the memories and love for those closest to us can get us through it all.

Kingdom Hearts III is a game that both lives up to and fails to live up to expectations. One that feels both satisfying but empty in one breath. One that I only recommend to those ardent fans of the series and want to see how it ends. I feel like, buried underneath its development hell and rushed out production, has a good game that needed (sadly) more time to truly grow and develop. Otherwise, I am unsure it should be played by anyone outside of those who are ready to end this series (kidding, saga. We know there’s going to be more Kingdom Hearts in the future).

 

The Battle of Dark and Light comes to a head

Before starting: if you have not played any of the side titles of Kingdom Hearts, then you are going to be missing out on some important plot threads. They are not completely necessary, but they will bolster your understanding of what is going on in the story for Kingdom Hearts III. I recommend specifically playing Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, and Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance as the two recommended.

At the beginning of Kingdom Hearts III, players are treated to seeing a whole new world where mountains are crafted from buildings on top of buildings in an endless sea. From there, the scene cuts to two young boys sitting on a windowsill playing a game of chess. They are reflecting on both a major event they are currently going through and the game being played. It is as much about the mind games being played as it is about the strategy being implemented. Although the significance is unknown of this scene, over time it will become known. Players will see this scene continue on throughout until the very end of the game.

In Kingdom Hearts III, Sora finds out he is literally back to square one in his quest to becoming a Keyblade Master. Having lost his powers in his epic battle with Xehanort, as well as failed his Mark of Mastery Exam in Dream Drop Distance, Sora must reignite his power of Wakening. No one knows how this can be done, yet Sora has to trust his heart to lead him on his journey to getting his strength back. This means traveling to various worlds to not only help against their struggles, but to also find ways to uncover Sora’s dormant power. As per the usual course, Donald and Goofy will be there every step of the way in aiding Sora’s journey.

Meanwhile, Riku and Mickey are continuing their quest of searching for Aqua, one of the former Keyblade Masters, in the Realm of Darkness. Kairi and Lea (originally known as Axel as a member of the original Organization XIII) are on an island where time does not exist for training as Keyblade Wielders. Meanwhile, all the Xehanorts (past, present, and future) once working towards their own separate goals, are now working together to gather a new Organization XIII to unify their goal. They are also following Sora’s journey, nudging him towards the path leading up to their goals with cryptic hints and messages. All the while the Heartless decide on settling into the background, watching and waiting for their moment to strike while looking for a mysterious black box. Everyone is racing towards the inevitable showdown between the light and dark that has been hinted as the endgame since the very first Kingdom Hearts game. The sense of urgency has never been as palpable as it is now.

Kingdom Hearts III, for all intents and purposes, is a game set up to fail due to everything it has to accomplish. Not only does it have to be able to tell its own storyline; it has the unappealing responsibility of weaving together all the various storylines told throughout the many other Kingdom Hearts titles. The end result? Kingdom Hearts III feels disconnected, disjointed, and paper thin in its storytelling. All of the worlds feel forced into the story, pigeon-holed into finding ways to retell their movie’s storyline and finding ways to mix Sora’s journey into the story. Stories end up feeling contrived and unnecessary, only to justify having the worlds inclusion into the game. Or, some stories seem to ignore Sora’s story for the most part, including him in exposition-heavy scenes to find a way to bridge the gap between the game and the world.

Caught in between World to World are equally exposition-heavy dialogue scenes either by the main antagonists Xehanorts and the new Organization XIII members, Riku and Mickey’s adventures finding Aqua, Maleficent and Pete’s quest, or Riku and Lea’s conversations. The scenes feel like they drag on, having a single point of purpose that feels stretched thin and made longer for the sake of extending the play time of the journey. They explain as much as possible while also accomplishing the feat of still remaining confusing. New plot threads are introduced while old ones are resolved, with some of the new threads being thrown to the side for the sake of concluding the trilogy.

The plethora of new worlds proves as much as a hinderance to the game as it is a beloved feature.

What makes all this hard to invest into is the stilted dialogue and the tropes that come along with them. Sora has amnesia and does not seem to remember most of his previous adventures, he has to learn to trust his heart show him the way again, he has to learn how to wield his power again…these are all tropes and themes done before and executed far better than here in Kingdom Hearts III. At this point in the series, it leaves a player wondering what is the point in being put through the same story beats over and over again? There are lines that are badly written, and the actors not knowing how to deliver those lines, such as the probably infamous line of “I know hurt,” echoed by Sora, or “That’s a good memory,” by Mickey. A lot of the dynamics we have all grown to known and would assume were growing with us feel just as stuck in place as before. It is as if we are watching a shell of a franchise using the ghosts of its pasts to keep up its momentum.

Yet, where Kingdom Hearts III stumbles in the big story beats it more than makes up for it in the small moments shared between characters. It is in the way character dynamics are explored, particularly between Sora, Donald, Goofy, Kairi, and Lea, do we see organic genuine moments. Players can see and feel the strong bond forged by all these characters from the first game to now, injecting the dialogue between characters with life. It also gives players who have had little to no time in the spotlight some of it in Kingdom Hearts III, giving characters more characterization than just being in the background. Relationships either hinted at (see: Kairi) are given time to be explored, resulting in a heartstring-pulling, gut-punching bittersweet ending.

Even our main villain Xehanort and his Organization XIII are given just enough screen time to be fleshed out, resulting in characters who feel complex enough to get away from being one-note, one-dimensional props. In the end, what lifts Kingdom Hearts III from being hampered down by its writing is how personal it feels thanks to the profoundly loud, small moments shared between the cast members. It makes the journey with Sora feel worth it.

It’s the little things that matter, but they’re too little too late.

 

Fighting the Heartless, Unversed, and Nobodies hasn’t been so easy – no, really, it’s easy 

Kingdom Hearts III is a game boasting one of the most solid action-RPG battle systems I have experienced in a while, injecting an already solid combat system with slightly new mechanics to create a rich combat experience. Fights ebb and flow in endless combination possibilities thanks in the large part to the new mechanics introduced into the game. The problem? The devs clearly made this game incredibly easy, taking away the significant depth the fighting system has going.

One of the best new mechanics introduced in Kingdom Hearts III is Sora’s ability to utilize three Keyblades in battle, this new mechanic alone adding hundreds of strategy possibilities to combat. For example, if players want to create a balanced experience of magic and strength, players can then do a Keyblade emphasizing strength over magic, a Keyblade with equal balance, and one with magic emphasis over strength. Even better, Sora can switch Keyblades midbattle depending on the flow of battle and types of enemies he’s facing. This adds even more strategy to a combat system rich with strategic possibilities. Keyblades also have their own special forms and moves that are unlocked based on the number of hits landed in battle. These special forms contain attribute enhancers like speed, strength, or magic as well as unique combination movesets. Learning how to utilize these Keyblades makes the combat excitingly fun.

Flowmotion, one of the new mechanics introduced into the game, also does a good job of enhancing an already rich combat system. In battle, Sora is able to interact with certain parts of the environments to land unique attacks that lead into long, chaining combos. For example, Sora can use the dodge mechanic to begin twirling around a pole, spinning in a circle that pulls in enemies near him to lead into a five-hit combo that can lead into his base aerial combat moveset. Another one can be using the dodge command to land onto a wall to charge at enemies with a four hit combo before leading into either his aerial or ground moveset. At first, I was ready to consider Flowmotion an addition unnecessary to combat. Yet, as the game progressed on, I started to see how much more depth the combat system gained from it.

Summons and special moves were also given a slight upgrade in Kingdom Hearts III. Just like the Keyblades individual forms, depending on the number of hits landed consecutively on enemies results in special moves being available for Sora to use during battle. Some of these range from moves like Donald and Sora summoning a barrage of fireworks at multiple enemies, to all three characters getting behind Goofy’s shield and charging at a single enemy to deal high damage. There are other special moves that are given to players if they hit an enemy with a green marker on them that are known as ‘Attractions’. ‘Attraction’ moves are a grand spectacle of their own, each one being an attacked designed in the vain of Disneyland rides from Astro Blasters to Grizzly River Run.

Yes, you read that right, Disneyland rides are attacks in Kingdom Hearts III.

At least they don’t have long lines.

Players can stack special attacks on top of each other in order to use them in a chain of combos due to each move having a certain amount of time before it cannot be used until it is earned again. Learning how and when to use these moves can be the make-or-break of getting out of major battles.

Summon spirits, Disney characters who do not have a world for their universe but have big name recognition, deadly forces that can quickly turn the tide of battle with proper timing. These characters each have a unique style matching their characters and can deal high damage in a short amount of time. Finishing moves, if landed correctly, are devastatingly powerful and can take out many enemies at once. Pairing that with the summoning bringing Sora back to full health, and it is a safe way to ensure Sora’s survival in battle when the going is rough.

Yet, the biggest improvement Kingdom Hearts III must be one of the smallest changes possible; the ability to use items and magic midair. I cannot stress enough how many times there were moments where it was a close call in battles where I would have been at the ‘Game Over’ screen had it not been for this new ability. Sora also does not stop in place to cast his magic either, he continues his movement while casting at the same time. Changes like these can make or break a game, and Kingdom Hearts III goes in the right direction with this.

You can use magic more limitlessly here, and that’s for the better.

Finally, what bolsters the rich depth of the combat system is the difficulty level players start the game on. I started my playthrough on Proud Mode, and I feel like I got the most optimal experience possible with gameplay. Fights were tense, chaotic, and had me on the edge of my seat. I felt like I had to learn timing and patience quickly in terms of chaining special moves, summons and magic in order to get through each battle.

Kingdom Hearts III also introduces a lot of other game variants that never reach excellence, but they are not terrible either. The Classic Kingdom games that are unlocked and playable through the ‘Pause’ menu screen are a great way to take a break from the main game and harken back to the classic ‘Game and Watch’ era of video games. The various mini games introduced in each world, like ‘Dancing’ in the Kingdom of Corona, or the Bubble Bobble-like games in the 100 Acre Woods, or cooking with Remy in Little Chef Bistro in Twilight Town. All of these games are a nice reprieve, but none stand out above the rest.

If there are issues with Kingdom Hearts III gameplay, it would be found in the exploration of the worlds that seem to vary in size, shape, and scope along with their objectives specific to their world. A lot of the worlds feel empty and lifeless, even with the NPCs that are in the background. This takes away from wanting to explore the worlds to see what secrets they hide as if pushing the players to only keep moving forward through the plot. The world specific objects begin feeling tedious and tiring, as if tacked on to extend gameplay rather than provide anything substantive to the story. One world in particular, Arendelle, had me so bored I actually had to put down the controller and took a nap. Some of the worlds were a little fun to explore, like Toy Story’s Toy Box or Monstropolis, but some felt like their potential was wasted like San Fransokyo or The Caribbean.

Last, but not least, is discussing collectibles, which I felt almost took away from the experience in this game. Depending on the difficulty players are on in their playthrough, the less they have to collect of the hidden mickeys (aka ‘lucky emblems’) in order to unlock the secret movie when the game is over. Players can find these scattered in multiple places in all of the worlds, and upon finding them, take pictures of them on their Gummiphone (the iPhone of the series). If players go through Kingdom Hearts III on easy mode, they have to collect ninety of these for the secret ending, on normal sixty, and on Proud mode thirty. Considering how tedious finding these were, I am glad to have played it on Proud mode to only have to find thirty.

Ingredients are food items that can be found in each world to create dishes that provide temporary boosts in battle. For me personally, I never used these items and hardly spent any time cooking them because they felt minimal in their enhancements to overall battle. Same as synthesizing.

 

Disney and Square Enix have never looked so Beautiful

Kingdom Hearts III is a beautiful game in the sequences where it is complete and is frustrating to watch in the moments it is not. Characters look and feel like their movie respective counterparts thanks in large part to Disney providing the digital assets AND Square Enix being able to get most of the original voice actors back to reprise their roles when needed. The game also does a tremendous job of recreating the big defining moments for most of the franchises shown off in the game; for example, “Let it Go” looks just as good in Kingdom Hearts III as it does in the movie. Square Enix also does a great job and ensuring that, although there are various art styles at work in the game, that they all work together to look seamless.

The soundtrack to this game is also well done and fits the game perfectly, and it is always a welcoming feeling to hear Utada Hikaru singing the opening and ending for this game like she has for the others.

 

Conflicting Viewpoints

Overall, from an unbiased standpoint it’s hard to recommend Kingdom Hearts III as a must buy, or even a game to purchase if on sale. Part of that is due to how much knowledge players need beforehand of the lore in order to truly get the best experience out of the game, but part of it is also because it feels like a game that was rushed out due to how long it took to be developed. The writing is sloppy, paper thin, unorganized and frustratingly exposition heavy. Dialogue feels stilted, awkward, cringy and unnatural. Tropes and themes are recycled that have been thoroughly explored so much in other titles that it is criminal how they were utilized again. The worlds feel like they were put into the game for marketing and less inclusive into the story. They are grand spectacles to behold but offer little-to-nothing in terms of experience.

Yet, the saving grace of this game are the small moments of characterization between characters like Sora, Donald, and Goofy or Lea and Kairi. These moments provide players glimpses of characterization not seen in any previous iterations and gives more reason to care for them than just having them as part of the background. It culminates in a heartbreakingly bittersweet conclusion that, in the end, makes the journey feel worth going through. Kingdom Hearts III feels like a personal journey, one that even with the nostalgic lense taken off. It is not a terrible game, nor a great game, just a game saddled by the baggage of fourteen years of development hell.

The combat is also rich and boisterous, providing new mechanics and tweaks to previous existing mechanics that make it the second best in the series behind Kingdom Heart II. Players have infinite strategies available at their disposal to create powerful, damaging combos thanks in large part to the Flowmotion, ability to switch Keyblades, and Summoning. I have to recommend playing Proud Mode for this game, as the difficulty is embarrassingly easy and provides very little challenge. This is the best way to give yourself any sort of depth in terms of battles — particularly in the boss battles.

Even as a fan of the series, I don’t think I can genuinely recommend this game unless if you’re just trying to finish the story with Sora. For better or worse, Kingdom Hearts III is the game fans get, one that I wish I could adore wholeheartedly by find myself stuck at a crossroad. It’s a game that fails more than succeeds, hindered by the ghosts of its pasts and Disney’s desire to make this game as accessible as possible.