Combining popular Final Fantasy themes with famous Walt Disney films, the Kingdom Hearts series has captivated the gaming world since it’s original release back in 2002. There wasn’t anything quite like it at the time, and if I’m being honest, there still isn’t anything quite like watching Donald Duck face off against Final Fantasy 7’s Sephiroth set to the backdrop of Disney’s Hercules. And somehow, Square Enix and the Walt Disney Company have made this bizarre combination work, so much so that they have since released multiple titles in the last seventeen years, creating an extremely complex mythos that focuses heavily on the power of friendship, the strength of heart and the constant struggle between darkness and light.
I remember the first time I had ever seen Kingdom Hearts; it was on TV, during a commercial break where the iconic theme song “Simple and Clean” had captured my attention instantaneously. I had received Kingdom Hearts as a Christmas gift that same year, unaware of the immense impact it would have on my life. So like many other fans of the series, I, too, had walked the long journey to Kingdom Hearts III, and waited with bated breath each E3 for the possibility of a release date finally being announced.
So when Kingdom Hearts III had finally arrived in January of 2019, and I had turned the game on for the very first time, I’ll admit I got a little misty eyed.
(As a disclaimer: There will be some big spoilers from here on out.)
From start to finish, Kingdom Hearts III was an incredible ride, one that kept me laughing and occasionally crying with joy despite its bumpy mistakes. Shamelessly, the game embraces old-school fairy tale tropes and isn’t afraid to sprinkle in some of that cheesy silliness that we have all come to expect from the series, all the while wrapping it up nicely in gameplay that is ridiculously fun and exciting.
The game starts off shortly after Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance concludes, and Sora has lost all of his strength and abilities because of the Meddlesome Xehanort and his New Organization XIII. Sora, Donald and Goofy are sent out by Master Yen Sid to try and reawaken Sora’s sleeping abilities, as the strength of his heart is the key to saving several iconic characters from previous titles. All of this is being done in preparation for a coming Keyblade War, which the Meddlesome Xehanort is forcing upon the heroes in order to obtain a great power.
The gameplay in Kingdom Hearts III is one of the best things about the game, and it’s very clear that a lot of attention and focus went into making the combat and gameplay system the best as it could be. The controls are relatively solid and respond very well, I had no noticeable lag and the action buttons never really felt out of place. The only control feature I was not particularly fond of was the Command Menu, which required the use of the D-pad to utilize any extra items or abilities that hadn’t been registered to a Quick Slot. And with how intense and fast paced battles could get, sifting through menus via D-pad while trying to avoid attacks using the analog sticks felt a bit clunky and unnatural. It certainly wasn’t a deal breaker by any means, I just wish there had been an easier or smoother way to dig through potions and spells without having to either run in circles or stop mid-fight so I could reach for the D-pad.
The combat itself was very smooth, exhilarating and sometimes intense. Flashy battles were made even more over-the-top with addition of transforming Keyblades and Team Attacks that flowed together so seamlessly that it made fighting waves of Heartless really fun and exciting. Originally though, I had noticed that Kingdom Hearts III was relatively easier compared to previous titles in the series, and I found that to be a little disappointing since there was a lack of significant challenge for me. However, since the release of Critical Mode, that is no longer a factor. Critical Mode definitely added that kick of spice the original release was lacking, and forced me to play far more defensively and strategically than mindlessly mashing buttons without fear. I feel Critical Mode is a wonderful addition to the game, as it adds a variety of options for players of all kinds, allowing for many fans to enjoy Kingdom Hearts III at their preferred pace and difficulty.
The plethora of minigames and carefully placed fluffystuff was an absolute delight for me personally. Taking selfies, walking birds back to Rapunzel, shooting cannons at flying pudding-shaped Heartless; Kingdom Hearts III is filled to the brim with mindless fun activities because, well, why not? Sometimes you just need to take a break from all that serious Keyblade Master business to disappoint Remy by repeatedly crushing eggs in your hands and ruining his restaurant’s reputation. (Sorry Remy.)
One of the more bigger but much needed changes in Kingdom Hearts III was the massive overhaul to the Gummi Ship segment. I cannot tell you how utterly thrilled I was to find out that Gummi Ships were no longer on a predetermined railing system, and that I was, instead, free to chart my own course through the endless expanse of space. Customizable Gummi Ships also made a triumphant return with even more customizing options to create powerful battleships or incredible works of art. I’ve seen so many amazing creations on social media outlets, ranging from flying Final Fantasy chibis to even a Ramen shop! It was so nice to see a piece of Kingdom Hearts that had been one of the more boring parts of the series get revamped to something super enjoyable–if not a little scary when running into massive high level bosses in the middle of space!
The Disney themed worlds you visit in Kingdom Hearts III are much bigger than in previous installments, and they never feel empty despite their size. Towns are bustling with people, jungles are thick with plant-life, and shelves in the Toybox world are lined with toys and games with actual legible titles. I particularly loved how often they promoted exploration by providing small rewards like treasure chests, Hidden Mickeys and more. Naturally, being a fan of exploration, the Pirates of the Caribbean world was my favorite, and I adored having my own pirate ship and swimming through hidden tunnels and exploring dense jungle islands for treasure. I must have spent an extra hour just sailing around before I eventually got back on track to finishing the main storyline.
The graphics in this game were handled very well. The worlds were so beautiful and it was amazing to see how seamlessly Sora, Donald and Goofy blended in with the different Disney styles. Clothing aside, they never looked too weird or otherworldly like they had in previous games, especially in the Pirates of the Caribbean level, where they actually looked like they were part of the world and didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. While it was still very silly to see a realistic-cartoon Donald Duck standing among a crowd of hyper-realistic pirates, it wasn’t glaringly obvious like it had been in Kingdom Hearts II, which made it easier to watch.
And, in my personal opinion, a sombre Goofy standing in the middle of a frozen wasteland while Let It Go played in the background was probably one of the best high-definition cutscenes in the game.
While Kingdom Hearts III excelled in gameplay and graphics, I felt that the story fell a little bit short of expectations. The Keyblade War had been a major focal point in the series for several games, but it was noticeably absent in Kingdom Hearts III save for the very end. Not to say the war wasn’t mentioned at all, but there was never really a moment where I felt the looming destruction of worlds was something to be concerned over. There was never really a sense of urgency, nor did the Organization feel very threatening. Other major plot points that had been built up over the last several games were also withheld until the end, and felt a bit rushed and not given room to grow when those moments got resolved.
Not to say they didn’t lack emotional impact, cause boy howdy did the tears flow when those moments called for it, but I felt like they could have been spread out more. For instance, I would have loved to see the search for Terra be more impactful, with sightings of him sprinkled throughout the worlds and the discovery of him being “Norted” revealed a bit earlier in the game to add a more dramatic build up to when you finally face him in the Keyblade War. I would have also loved to have saved Aqua earlier as well, and have her as an optional party member among the many others who should have also had a chance to travel with Sora–namely Kairi, who really needed that on-the-job training and screen time.
Kingdom Hearts III followed much the same formula it had in past games: Travel to Disney themed worlds, search for answers, find the answers at the very end. And while this formula had worked for them to some extent in the past, for KHIII, given the stakes, it didn’t quite make much sense. Sora traveled to Disney themed worlds, searched for answers and Keyblade Wielders, and didn’t see or hear much of anything until the very end; with crucial parts for building up the war being used to explain past titles instead. I suppose it was done this way for new players coming into the series, but it made the war and villains feel a little lackluster.
Despite this, there were still some elements of the story I enjoyed quite a bit. As mentioned above, I liked a lot of the major emotional moments, especially when it involved the the trios from Birth By Sleep and 365/2 Days, all of which I had hoped would get their cheesy happy endings. And as a Union Cross player, there were some certain story beats that struck all the right heart chords and made me weep, laugh and cheer.
I just wish the overall story was worked a little bit differently, and that some characters got their long deserved screen time. Hopefully the “Final Mix” DLC coming later this year will address some of the missing elements for certain characters and add some new cutscenes that will give said characters a moment or two to shine.
Overall my experience with Kingdom Hearts III was a very positive one, despite all the hiccups along the way. Turning on the game for the first time felt like coming home after a long vacation, and seeing Sora, Donald and Goofy after all these years was like reuniting with some old friends. Like a good ol’ fashioned fairy tale, it was a long, emotional journey that kept bringing a smile to my face with how ridiculous and cheesy it got at times. And I cannot wait to see where the series goes next.
Kingdom Hearts III is available now for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.