Before we begin detailing my experience with the much-anticipated Kingdom Hearts III, I feel it necessary to disclose this is the same demo previewed in last month’s Santa Monica press event; in other words, we once again dive into the new Toy Story world and a Rock Titan boss fight from Hercules. However, I’ve heard word this demo already implemented improvements following the previous version; having not played the original demo in question, I can only take reports such as “it’s much less floaty” and “it ends earlier” at their word, so I suggest you search elsewhere if you’re looking for such comparisons. For those not familiar with said demo, however, you’ve come to the right place.
As we approached the end of the line, the Square-Enix rep informed us we’d only have 20 minutes to play — a downgrade from Tuesday’s half-hour of play, undoubtedly due to their new “group” system of lines. It was recommended we try out the Rock Titan boss fight first, then play as much Toy Story as we could; however, we were also told we could skip the Toy Story cinematics if we so wished. Perfect for me: I’d already watched the relevant Toy Story cutscenes online, so I could just skip those and get right to the juicy gameplay. Could I complete both in 20 minutes? Even better, what if I did so by going against the rep’s recommendation and dove into Toy Story first?
Not that could you blame me for taking that risk: Kingdom Hearts fans have been begging for Pixar representation in this Disney JRPG crossover since the series’ inception sixteen years ago — me included — and there was no way I wasn’t watching the debut of Pixar’s flagship franchise to the end. My journey began in Andy’s bedroom, where original protagonist Sora and his globetrotting comrades Donald and Goofy were shrunk into walking, talking toys. Teaming up with Woody and Buzz Lightyear to rescue Andy and the other missing toys from a nefarious cloaked fiend, we cleared the room of Heartless, battled our way down the roof into the streets, and engaged in giant robot action at Tri-County Area’s biggest toy store: Galaxy Toys.
Right away, I noticed Kingdom Hearts‘ innate button-mashing addiction in combat was retained: Sora’s Keyblade has never been better, spewing thunderbolts on the move and transforming into rocket hammers and clamping yo-yos of death. Said transformations are exclusive to various Keyblades — the hammer and yo-yos for the Toy Story and Monsters Inc.-themed blades, respectively — which can be switched mid-battle to suit your needs (a Tangled Keyblade was available as well, but I was far too taken with the Pixar weapons to experiment). Furthermore, colorful apparitions of Disneyland rides such as the gyrating Pirate Ship and the spinning Mad Tea Cups could be summoned to pound your foes, and I especially had fun with the crushing girth of the former.
More than that, though, the world was alive: Sora could walk along walls and experiment with the leftover toys of Andy’s room (a spinning globe!) or Molly’s trampoline to hop back on the roof. The lack of NPCs and “lived-in” activity alongside boxed-in environments has been a long-standing complaint for Kingdom Hearts, and given what we’ve seen of what lies within Galaxy Toys and the seamless open design of the new Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End world, it looks like Kingdom Hearts III will finally deliver on satisfying exploration and world design. (Sadly, as inviting as Andy’s hometown looked, only his front-yard and the main street can be traversed).
The true stars, however, were the Gigas robots of Galaxy Toys — upon freeing them from Heartless control, Sora can hop in and operate it from first-person view. Glorious robot beatdowns ensue, with Sora shooting lasers at hapless Heartless crawling along the store floor and slamming and punching your away through a crowd of Heartless Gigas monstrosities. While your Gigas can be shut down, the same naturally goes for the Heartless robots, so you can abandon your malfunctioning ride and hop into a new one. It’s fast, furious and beyond satisfying, and I had a big, stupid grin the whole time. Already, I can’t wait to fool around with it some more.
Saying goodbye to Woody afterwards, I quickly made my way over to Olympus from 1997’s Hercules, where a familiar foe in the Rock Titan was waiting. Previous impressions described this encounter as being clunky and annoying, but I found myself rather taken with this titanic battle. As a brewing storm and incoming boulders pour down upon Sora’s ascent of the Rock Titan’s mountain lair, he’ll fight through incoming Heartless impeding his progress and summon the Big Magic Mountain train ride to finish off Hades’ servant. While some had raised concerns the train looked slow and boring, you still had to block the incoming punches and rocks thrown your while attacking, so it made for a compelling finisher. All in all, it was a fight to show off the flashy tricks Kingdom Hearts III has up its sleeves as opposed to a challenging cutthroat duel, but I’m certain we’ll witness such battles as well.
If anything, my only gripes hailed from the Toy Story section; for instance, many of the Keyblade transformations, Attraction Flows and D-Link Summons instantly place the Triangle-button finishers at the very top of the in-game menu, so the natural inclination to select the top option can prematurely end your shiny new moves (poor Ariel from The Little Mermaid left as quickly as she was called). Furthermore, the Wreck-It Ralph link summon feels rather unintuitive: his purpose in constructing cannon-mounted blocks isn’t immediately apparent, perhaps to the extent of being unfaithful to the source material (why is he building things? He’s supposed to break things; it’s literally in his name!).
Still, that’s hardly enough to smother my excitement for Kingdom Hearts III, even if my biggest disappointment lies within America’s greatest treasure in Billy Crystal not reprising his role as my lord and savior Mike Wazowski. What matters is that Kingdom Hearts III is finally approaching with a solid release date (January 29th, 2019 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) and looks equipped with everything it needs to knock it out of the park. Only over half-a-year to go!