Too Little Too Late, But Still Really Great
Kingdom Hearts has always been near and dear to my heart (no pun intended). I found myself drawn into the series with the release of the very first game (it was actually the reason why I got a PlayStation 2), and have been happily following it ever since. And, yes, I was one of those people who just couldn’t wait to dig into Kingdom Hearts III… for a long time, anyway. But 13 years is a long wait, you know? I mean, yeah, we got plenty of spin-offs in the meanwhile (all of which I played), but I can only excitedly await a game’s release for so long. After a while, I just kind of accepted that it would come out when it would come out, and forgot about it.
But hey, it looks like that time is finally upon us. It’s been one heck of a wait, but Kingdom Hearts III is finally here. However, now that it’s finally come into existence, there’s just one question on everyone’s mind — did it live up to the hype? If you ask me, the answer to that question is that no, it didn’t. At least, not for a game over a decade in the making. Now, before you get mad, just hold on for a second. The game isn’t bad. It’s good. Great, even. Heck, I’m giving it a near-perfect score. Speaking as an objective reviewer as possible, Kingdom Hearts III does a lot, and I mean a lot, of things right. But, speaking as a Kingdom Hearts fan, there’s plenty to be desired — and it’s that desire for what’s missing that’s left me more confused than ever (though still quite happy overall).
Taking place immediately after the events of Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance, Kingdom Hearts 3 follows Sora who, after nearly falling into the darkness and coming out with almost none of his original powers in tact, finds himself embarking on a new journey to regain his lost strength and prepare for the final battle with Xehanort. Of course, as with almost everything in Kingdom Hearts, re-gaining lost power will take more than a simple training session (although I guess it kind of works that way for other people, huh?). In order to get back — and perhaps even surpass — where he originally was, Sora will once again have to travel throughout space and time, visiting worlds both old and new, and re-learn what it means to be truly strong.
When it comes to my actual opinion on KH3‘s story, I’m not entirely sure where to start. Not because I don’t have any opinions — you can bet that I have plenty — but because I don’t want to spoil anything. In the spirit of trying to remain as ambiguous as possible, the easiest way for me to describe KH3‘s story would be to say that, while it was enjoyable, felt like it had some serious pacing issues — especially toward the end. Rather than continuing down an ever-darkening narrative path, KH3 seemed, at times, to revert to the blissful, straightforward, and semi-unaware roots that it had established within the first Kingdom Hearts. Sure, things are a lot more complex in KH3 than in KH1, but there wasn’t as much oomph as I would have liked. The macabre subtleties of games like Kingdom Hearts II and 358/2 Days, which have long since been the dominant narrative overtones, were replaced with what can only be described as an urgency to finally finish the story. While this wouldn’t be a big deal were this a much younger series, Kingdom Hearts has been around for quite some time. It’s also a series that thrives on being cryptic. The fact that it decided to abandon this narrative mysteriousness in its 13th hour isn’t something that I necessarily blame Nomura for, but it did leave me feeling somewhat unsatisfied at the game’s end.
Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. Metaphorically speaking, anyway. Despite not having handled certain elements of the story in the way that I, as well as many others, would have preferred, Kingdom Hearts III did come through in quite a few ways. It was great seeing Sora grow stronger throughout his journey, and the maturation of his relationship with both Riku and Kairi were some of my favorite moments in the game. KH3 also did an excellent job with answering certain questions thanks in part to both its narrative setup and the addition of a new, and very important, world. And that secret movie at the end? Man, did that ever have me reeling. So, no, the story wasn’t perfect. But it was enjoyable, and the bad most definitely outweighed the good.
The core of Kingdom Hearts III features the same kind of exploration-based gameplay that the series has come to be known for, and I would be lying if I said that this wasn’t one of the areas in which the game shines the most. While Kingdom Hearts as a series has always done nicely with its many Disney-inspired worlds (as well as its own original ones!), the worlds in Kingdom Hearts III are, well, worlds apart from those of its predecessors. Not to bash the rest of the series (because I very much love each and every KH game), but these worlds finally feel like worlds, as opposed to world-themed 3D platforming segments. They’re unique, vibrant, and wonderfully robust, and each feel vastly different from one another. They’re loads of fun to explore, and absolutely gorgeous to boot. And, best of all, they manage to come across as being as great as they do without sacrificing any of the high-quality action/platforming RPG gameplay that the series has always had.
An increased terrain complexity and larger overall maps are certainly at the core of the enhancements given to each of these worlds, but the fact that almost all of them possess unique gimmicks helps as well. The most notable example of this, of course, is The Caribbean, which literally has you sailing around in your own pirate ship in a way that feels oddly reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker (an experience which is extremely satisfying), but it’s definitely not the only world featuring something unique. From Arendelle’s dungeon segment (which once again seems to borrow from The Legend of Zelda), to the Toy Box’s pilotable Gigas mechs, to the sandbox-y feeling of San Fansokyo (my personal favorite world!), KH3‘s setup all but ensures that there’s a little something for everyone.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel as though something was missing from the experience — uniquely Kingdom Hearts content. My biggest compliant along this line is the fact that there weren’t any major towns to explore. Sure, you’ve got Twilight Town, but it’s not the whole Twilight Town. It’s just a small fraction of it, and you don’t even stick around for that long. As weird as it sounds, the lack of a fully fleshed out “town world” feels strangely alienating. Yes, the Disney worlds are all great this time around (except for the 100 Acre Wood, which is literally about 30 minutes long), but I wanted something original. And speaking of originality, do you remember KH2‘s The World That Never Was? Remember how much fun it was to explore a final world as strange and intimidating as that one? Yeah, well, you’re out of luck this time around. It’s cool in its own right, sure, but it’s just so… small. The last world is supposed to be the grand finale, and this one still is, but it’s not a finale worth waiting 13 years for.
Slashin’ and Bashin’, Jumpin’ and Bumpin’
Not one to be bested by its own exploration mechanics, Kingdom Hearts III has also gotten a significant upgrade in the combat department. Fine-tuning what was shown off within 2017’s Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep 0.2 -A fragmentary passage-, KH3‘s combat is almost certainly the smoothest in the series yet. Controls feel incredibly fluid, allowing players to easily switch from offense to defense on the fly (especially after picking up a few special skills down the road!), and re-occurrence of Flowmotion (albeit a much tamer version than KH3D), Shotlocks, and the ability to move while casting magic makes pulling off combos something that even newbies can do with relative ease.
Kingdom Hearts 0.2‘s Situations Commands are also back in a very big way. Functioning as an all-encompassing special, Situation Commands are unique skills that Sora can use during combat. By attacking opponents in various ways, Sora can fill up the Situation Command gauge which, depending upon which attacks Sora used, which allies are present, and even what world the player is in, will unlock a limited-time Situation Command for the player to make use of. Unlike with previous games, Situation Commands can pretty much be anything. Style changes? Check. Ultra-powerful magic spells? Check. Team attacks? Check. The ability to summon Disney World rides? Check. If there’s something super-cool that can be done during combat, it’s going to be via a situation command. Unfortunately, their vast power and ready availability do end up making one of the easiest in the series yet, but they’re way too much fun to not make use of.
Goody Goody Gummi Drops
While gummi ships may not be at the heart of Kingdom Hearts (hah!), I feel like what Kingdom Hearts 3 has done to gummi ship segments warrants its own section in this review. Abandoning the arcade-like gameplay featured within the first two Kingdom Hearts games, KH3 goes full-on space adventure this time around. Traveling form world to world is no longer a matter of automatically flying along a pre-determined track; players are now able to freely fly around various sections of the Ocean Between. On one hand, this means that you can near-effortlessly travel from world to world if you want to, skipping all but a handful of battles. But trust me, you don’t want to.
Despite technically being a mere segue from one world to the next, the Ocean Between has so much optional content jam-packed into it that it could almost be considered to be a game itself (which seems to be a running theme with this game). Whether you’re aiming to hunt each and every area’s fleet and boss battles, or just looking to aimlessly float around, collecting munny and gummi parts while you do so, or want to go for broke and do it all, Kingdom Hearts 3 once again does its utmost to make itself appealing to its player base as possible. While I personally don’t see it as a negative, I’m aware that some people are less-than-happy about the decision to exclude the larger courses present within the first two games in favor of setting up a multitude of Space Invader-like segments. To those of you feeling that way, I won’t fight you; those segments were a lot of fun, and it’s definitely a bummer that they aren’t in this game. But, while we did lose a few things, KH3 ultimately gave us so much more — a net gain as far as I’m concerned.
The End (Just Kidding, It’s Totally Not)
Speaking as the nit-picky Kingdom Hearts fan that I am, Kingdom Hearts isn’t perfect. And, if you’re as into the series as I am, you’ll be able to see what I’m talking about for yourself.However, from an objective standpoint, all of my issues are fairly tame. Kingdom Hearts III is a phenomenal action/RPG experience filled to the brim with content, and it won’t take long for anyone who decides to sit down with it to see that. It’s not perfect, no. But it’s really, really good — and it has me very excited to see what the next chapter in this series has in store for us.
FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One ; Publisher: Square Enix ; Developer: Square Enix ; Players: 1 ; Released: January 29, 2019; ESRB: E10+ for Ages 10+ ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Kingdom Hearts 3 purchased by the reviewer.