Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Rating: E for Everyone
After fourteen long years of prequels, semi-sequels, decimal game titles, and introductions of the same character multiple times, the true sequel to Kingdom Hearts II finally arrived! Fans everywhere were breaking down at that magnificent rendition of “Dearly Beloved” during the reveal and sat stunned in disbelief as the words “Kingdom Hearts III” slowly appeared on their screens. If you have been keeping up with other articles I’ve written on the story of Kingdom Hearts, both parts one and two, you are well aware of the complexity of the main story and how confusing of a mess it is. Tetsuya Nomura, the director of the series, claims that this game will tidy up the Dark Seeker Saga and finish off the battles against Xehanort and the heartless.
Originally announced at E3 2013, Kingdom Hearts III has taken at least five years to make. With the release of Kingdom 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue in 2017, gamers were able to see Kingdom Hearts with a new engine in a small adventure Aqua takes through the realm of darkness. This was a sort of demo for the third game, as it uses the same exact engine and showed off a smoot flow of battles and more usage of reaction commands. It was delayed several times, and when it was given the release date of January 29, 2019, everyone had just about lost hope. But true fans never forgot their childhood—the first Kingdom Hearts came out in 2002; the majority of fans actually were children when this series began.
Violence: Kingdom Hearts‘ violent content has always been cartoony and very much like that seen in a Disney film. Sora, and whoever else you happen to be playing as, will simply smack their enemies until they disappear in a black, smokey mist. Enemies drop items, munny orbs, or health orbs. When someone dies, they simply disappear. There is no blood or gore in the game. Even in an instance when in the Caribbean, scenes that would definitely show blood or gore are shown in a way that censors any questionable content.
Spiritual Content: Kingdom Hearts‘ main themes have to do with people’s souls and hearts. This is the first of the series that deals with a sort of heaven or afterlife of sorts. The games in general have always said that when people lose their hearts, they simply disappear. But Kingdom Hearts III seems to rectify this.
Positive themes: Main themes of love and friendship permeate the series, which is what draws people in the most. Togetherness, loyalty to friends, sacrificing oneself for friends, and remembering good times are all repeated foundations of the main story. Sora and others say that their friends are their power. While a thematic element, it rings true for those of us who believe that Christ has saved us from our sins. The power of fellowship and church is real, as it helps us lean on one another and tackle all of life’s inevitable problems. Isolation means certain failure while camaraderie is a surefire solution to any seemingly insurmountable complication. Many of us wish we had friends like Sora—a bit daft, but more loyal than a golden retriever.
Kingdom Hearts III. I still can’t believe it! When I first opened the box it came in, I felt like a child on Christmas morning, a feeling I had not felt in, quite literally, years. Opening the case, inserting the disk, watching the intro movie, seeing the transition to the menu screen—all moments I took in one at a time. I do not know how long I sat there looking at the menu screen, showing a picture of Sora with a paopu fruit in his hand. Fast forward to finishing the game, watching the ending, and after taking it all in, I can look at the quality of Kingdom Hearts III. Is it a good game? Is it what fans hoped for? Or did this sequel take too long to make?
A Little Less Confusing…A Little More Nostalgia
A good conclusion to a beloved series has got to have a good story, and Kingdom Hearts III delivers it exceptionally well. As with most Kingdom Hearts games, the story mainly happens at the beginning and at the end, with a few cutscenes that continue the plot throughout the adventure, but nothing major. Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep handled story well, with big story plots happening during the traversal of Disney worlds. The classic formula is as follows: Sora, Donald and Goofy must head out to worlds to accomplish a mission (sealing keyholes, unlocking keyholes, etc). They learn lessons from Disney characters along the way, but frequently return to main worlds that are important to plot progression. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance seemed to change this formula, putting story at the beginnings and at the ends, making traversal of Disney worlds only good for, well, Disney’s sake. Story is mainly at beginning and end with short semi-important cutscenes here and there throughout the middle. Kingdom Hearts III does this and it’s disappointing. There is still a good story here, but 75% of the game is visiting Disney worlds. Without spoiling too much, I just wish there was more pause in going from one Disney world to another.
On top of this, the villains that we love to hate, Maleficent and Pete, play very small roles in the story, which is disappointing, since the trailers show them more involved than they really are. Actually, the trailers show about 90% of their presence throughout the game, which is a betrayal. The main villains in this game are Xehanort and his many selves. But it would have been better with a dynamic like we had in Kingdom Hearts II, with the nobodies and heartless attacking on all fronts. This game felt more like a reunion of familiar faces—like Nomura was saying “the gang’s all here!”
I could sense Nomura’s agreement with fans on how confusing the story is as confusion is portrayed frequently in various characters throughout the game. Various enemies and allies will make comments about the plot, not necessarily breaking the fourth wall; they offer more of a commentary on the events unfolding around them. One character in particular, Axel, frequently asks what is going on and wonders why hardly anyone else is not as surprised as he is. Axel is all of us.
My favorite part of Kingdom Hearts III, and perhaps the best part about the game in general, is the incredible ending it has and the feelings it was able to muster in me again. It was quite a triumphant, amazing, and bittersweet end to a series that needed to be concluded. Honestly, if I had to come up with an ending to this Dark Seeker Saga, I would not know what to do, but Nomura pulls it off. Those feelings you felt as a kid will come rushing back—I guarantee it.
In all Kingdom Hearts games, you have your feelings messed with (either that or you just won’t see what the big deal is), your rear handed to you a dozen million times, and your favorite Disney characters ruined forever. All right, maybe not so much that last part, but the voiceovers have always been terrible in the series. It is no lie that they are still terrible in Kingdom Hearts III, but I have come to expect this, so it does not bother me. My only gripe is with Frozen. Why so much Frozen? While it is incredible that they got the entire original cast to reprise their roles, it mostly felt like Disney filler to me.
One final gripe I have about the story is the severe lack of Final Fantasy characters—and I mean severe as in none. Actually, quite possibly the only Final Fantasy character is the Moogle who assists you with synthesis. Other than this, where’s Leon? Where’s Cloud, Yuffie, Aerith, Cid, and Tifa? While there is DLC planned for the game, there should at least be a few scenes seeing old friends again. This was a disappointment.
Reaction Commands to Spare
Combat and keyblade play have been refined, combining all of the elements in past games that were widely popular with fans. But plenty of new things including attractions, keyblade forms, ally abilities, magic reaction commands and summons change up the fighting experience quite a bit. Perhaps the most combat-changing mechanic is the increased use of reaction commands.
Attractions are now a part of combat, which are simply Disney Park attractions turned into actual combat mechanics. Among these whimsical sequences are a pirate ship that rocks back and forth, the Big Thunder Mountain train, a carousel, and Mad Hatter’s Tea Cups to name a few. They become available if Sora attacks an enemy with a green circle around it. If he hits that enemy in time, an attraction reaction command shows up on his combat menu. These attraction attacks are great for dealing damage in a very cinematic and flashy way, but can become very redundant and boring. Luckily, the player can sort through the different reaction commands available without having to use all of them to get to one they do want to use.
All keyblades have a form that is unlocked after hitting enemies enough times. The keyblade’s form can then be activated via a reaction command and Sora’s attack form will change. Certain keyblades will change into shields, claws, or even spears. My favorite keyblade was the one received after clearing Monstropolis. These forms are much fun and add a fresh dynamic to battling heartless. Sora can also equip three keyblades at one time, switching instantaneously to one of these three in the middle of battle. This is greatly welcomed, as before one would have to wait until a battle is over before equipping a different keyblade.
Summons return to combat with some familiar faces. Ariel, Stitch, and Simba all return, with the addition of new characters, like Wreck-it Ralph. The summons system is much better: there is still a time limit to how long it lasts, but one can also end the summons at any time by performing the ultimate attack that’s always available. Summons can now be added to the quick menu along with magic spells and healing items. This is a lovely tweak to the customization system and encourages more use of summons, since before, one would be forced to navigate to the summons menu during combat. This tweak saves much time.
Magic makes a lovely return and, like other Kingdom hearts games, will continue to upgrade throughout the game. Fire will eventually reach Firaga, Blizzard to Blizagga, and so on. Some keyblades allow for a free casting of expert magic while fighting, which shows up as a reaction command. I do wish that magic was more necessary for fighting as there are only a few enemies that require casting a certain type of magic to defeat them. Overall, magic in Kingdom Hearts III is fun to use and makes encounters easier when used well.
The last of the reaction commands include ally abilities. When running around all of the different worlds, Sora will meet friends who can aid him in battle with a reaction command that will become available after a bit. In Toy Box, Woody, Buzz, and Sora all hop on a toy rocket and fly around the battle area, doing damage to enemies in the way. In Kingdom of Corona, Sora, Donald, and Goofy grab onto Rapunzel’s hair as Rapunzel and Flynn swing them around the map, dealing damage to all foes caught in the wake. There are even more attacks like these in each world. Even Donald and Goofy have their own reaction commands that help Sora during his battles. I really enjoy the addition of these attacks as they add even more combat reaction commands on top of keyblade forms, attractions, summons, and magic. With all of this variety, it’s difficult to get bored with fighting heartless. During my playthrough, when I became bored with combat, I tried something new and it stayed fresh. My advice: don’t stick to any specific way of fighting! There are plenty of ways to fight the darkness.
Classic abilities like block, dodge roll, combo plus, leaf bracer, second chance, and others all return in Kingdom Hearts III. Some are acquired at later levels while some are available at the beginning of the game. Abilities, it seems, aren’t too important anymore, as Sora seems to have a different fight style with different keyblades and forms. The developers probably assumed it would be far too many moves to list them in abilities, so only abilities like block and dodge roll are listed. Other important abilities can be switched on and off, like damage control and treasure magnet. But abilities no longer have the same importance as they once did in the first and second entries. I welcome this, as I never really cared too much for abilities before anyway except for the ones I mentioned above. I’ve always disliked having to navigate through all of the abilities to find what I wanted. This new system takes some of that annoyance away.
Collectibles have always been a token mechanic in Kingdom Hearts games. Treasure chests riddle the different worlds again and Jiminy has a gounral that keeps record of how many Sora has collected and how many there are. But Jiminy’s hounral is now a smartphone, because technology! Sora can also collect mobile games for the smartphone, cleverly called the “gummiphone,” which are basically just a callback to those old Mr. Game-and-Watch games from the 1980’s. Also hidden throughout the worlds are mickey emblems, which are just mickey mouse shaped objects or symbols. There are ninety of these in all. I am not typically a connoisseur of collectibles, but I usually do when it comes to Kingdom Hearts. Therefore, I enjoy running around searching for these elusive emblems and chests.
To add on to an already thick game, keyblades can be upgraded with synthesizing materials. Yes, that’s right, you can finally use the Kingdom Key the entire game without having to deal with its weak power. All keyblades can be upgraded and some even gain more perks as they level up. Synthesis returns, allowing Sora to mix materials found in treasure chests and enemy drops to create healing items or stronger gear. Sora, Donald, and Goofy can all equip armor and accessories, which aid in increasing strength, magic, resistance, and AP points. Material can also be combined to create the Ultima Weapon, the strongest keyblade in the game. When in the synthesis menu, some may notice that the Moogle that helps Sora with synthesis gives him photo missions. He must take pictures of certain objects for prizes from the Moogle.
Seemingly following the fad of recent games containing cameras to enable environment capture and selfie-taking, Sora now also has a camera he can use to take selfies and take pictures of other characters as well. This is also how Sora must capture the different Mickey emblems scattered abroad. I like the camera addition, as it’s fun to see different characters interact with getting their picture taken. It’s also fun finding Disney easter eggs throughout the worlds.
Gummi ship travel has been changed to free reign in space. It’s very different from previous games that made gummi travel very linear and reduced it to missions and single-track routes. Now, players can fly around in space, avoiding obstacles, fighting enemy ships, and finding treasure spheres. There is much to do in space, but for those who have never liked gummi ship travel (like me), all things can be avoided and the player can always head straight to the next world with little resistance. Despite my dislike of gummis, like in the previous games, ships can be built and customized in the gummi garage. I also do find the open space travel curious and I have yet to sit down and spend some time just flying around in space searching for treasure spheres and elusive enemies.
With the large edition of reaction commands, keyblade forms, summons, attractions, and ally commands, I cannot help but feel that the combat can sometimes be too easy. I like to take my time when playing Kingdom Hearts games, so I always play on proud mode. Yes, even on the hardest mode, combat still feels like a breeze. The only times I died were during boss fights, during which I would simply change my approach and usually win within the next few attempts. All I had to do was take advantage of nearly every reaction command that appeared on my command list. This made battles easier and, frankly, a bit disappointing. The ease is largely due to simply having too many options. While they keep the combat fresh, they also hurt the game’s difficulty. Combat is not balanced, but still makes for good fun.
Sora’s a Pirate
Sora’s new adventure is now powered by the fantastic Unreal Engine 4, a feature we got a preview of in A Fragmentary Passage, Aqua’s short trip through the realm of darkness. The graphics seem to flow and environments are so much more lively and vivid than they once did in older Kingdom Hearts games. Before, backgrounds in worlds looked like wallpaper and the land was not interactive much. Now, there are pots and boxes Sora can break to reveal items and certain landscapes will trigger a small interaction with Sora. Along with more lively worlds comes the addition of people. Finally! The different settings used to feel empty, especially when these worlds are known to have plenty of people in them. I am reminded of a desolate Agrabah, which is supposed to be a busy and loud marketplace. Instead, it was populated only by the main characters and felt so empty. It’s a relief to have people where there should be.
Sora, Donald, and Goofy’s outfits change when visiting a few of the worlds, some including Toy Box and Monstropolis. These designs are awesome, my favorite being Toy Box, as Sora and friends end up looking like actual toys. Caribbean Sora looks awesome as well, donning a long trench coat and pirate hat, very appropriate clothing for fighting pirates. I am delightfully surprised at the world and gameplay of the Caribbean in general, as the environments feel comparable to that of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. It’s almost humorous when seeing cartoony heartless appear in such realistic surroundings.
There are a few instances that the graphics look a bit patchy and could use some fixing. Because the camera gets an up-close shot of Sora and other characters, every imperfection can be seen, exposing random pixels and animation sticking out from their faces or clothes. All games aren’t perfect, but these flaws are bit too noticeable.
Despite these small defects, the worlds are generally very beautiful. I already mentioned the Caribbean, but Kingdom of Corona and Arendelle are also worlds that have wonderful environments. While Kingdom of Corona is mostly forest and Arendelle is mostly mountainous snow, it is all still very alluring and I was tempted more than once to stop and look at my surroundings, just to check out all of the different details.
But despite some worlds having beauty, others are a disappointment. Twilight Town has been cut down dramatically, which seems unnecessary to me. I was also left wishing for more non-Disney worlds, like Radiant Garden. When I was finally finished traversing all worlds, it felt short to me. Kingdom Hearts III only has nine worlds. Compare that to Kingdom Hearts II which has twelve worlds and one must ask why so few? Sure, the worlds are indeed bigger, but is that really so difficult to add a few more? I assume more will be added via DLC, but only time will tell.
A Touching End
I mentioned above how much I loved the new rendition of Dearly Beloved. The music of Kingdom Hearts is great and has always been. Kingdom Hearts III is no exception. Once again, there are both field themes and battle themes in each world, adding some pep to Sora’s step as he bounds around. One of my favorite battle themes is the one in Toy Box. The composer, Yoko Shimomura, has remained the composer across the entire series, and for good reason. He’s come up with all of the character’s themes, including Sora’s Main Theme, widely popular and recognized among fans. Some themes from Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 have been reorchestrated and when heard, bring a rush of nostalgia from the old games.
After beating the game, I could not help but feel a little disappointed. Yes, it had a good, triumphant ending, but I was left wanting more. I am not sure if that is because it is a mediocre game or because I’m too much of a fan simply wanting more Kingdom Hearts. I believe our expectations may have simply been too high, as Square Enix cannot hope to please everyone. I am happy that we even got the game itself. Kingdom Hearts III was always going to be an ambitious project, especially if it involved the conclusion and resolution of nine different storylines. While a bit disappointed, I still enjoyed myself, I still cried, I still felt all of the feels, and I will probably play through it again.
The Bottom Line
While it has several problems, Kingdom Hearts III is pure fan service and is an overall great game. I do not recommend it for those unfamiliar with the series, for even if you watch or read a summary of the story, it will not mean as much.