Fret not, dear Kingdom Hearts fans. I’ll tell you right off the bat that Kingdom Hearts 3 is worth the ride. Hell, it’s kinda, sorta worth the wait even.
As a series milked so hard and so dry it wouldn’t even make a decent cheeseburger at this point, Kingdom Hearts was due for punctuation. The baker’s dozen side adventures and preambles began to feel like run-on sentences (almost literally for some). Everything began to feel meaningless and floaty. And the plot points – crispy Mickey christ the number of plot points!
Every game for the past…ever has been a lead-up to this. As I said in my Kingdom Hearts 2.8 HD review, that was clearly the main point to so much of the content coming out: set the shelf for III. As easy as it was to roll eyes with the synchronization of a Vegas kickline, there were brief glimpses of the magic that made the first game feel so damn special.
From a helicopter’s view, the story of Kingdom Hearts 3 is porous if I’m being generous. There ultimately was too much bloat and too damn many plot points and people and races and faces and ice cream flavors to keep track of it all. A basic tenet of storytelling in an audio/visual hybrid format is to try to stick to what matters only in the sense that it moves your story along. Square Enix skipped that lesson.
For sure, Kingdom hearts has always been a series about characters first and what’s actually happening second. That’s why you had to go through worlds multiple times in multiple games. Disney and Square characters together, the teams thought, were just too good to waste on story. Then everything would be shoved into bookends for what’s actually plot-related. This created some nice characters moments that were shot in the thigh by a thousand awkward or mistimed ones. Still, the previous stories delivered when it counted more times than not.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is, story-wise, 3 games stapled together. There is so very little connective tissue that the whole thing reminds me of a last-second science project I did in high school once, praying the teacher wouldn’t touch it.
Kingdom Hearts 2.9 is a thing (called it) and included. I couldn’t tell you why it was labeled as such but for the fact that it’s a real gut-buster…? After that initial world, you’ll cross into the 7-or-so Disney themed worlds of whimsy and magic that you can see in movie form just as well. It becomes pretty obvious which celebrities came to play, but some fairly impressive sound-alikes keep everything on the rails for the most part.
My first large gripe with Kingdom Hearts 3 starts right here, which is apparently the entrance to a Disney theme park. Look, none of the KH games exactly hid their love for Disney. Every one of them paid respect and homage to the imagination of those worlds, but the two main counteracts to feeling overwhelmed by one property are gone. Square Enix characters are all but absent, and as I said, there is seriously so little reason for Sora to be flying to these worlds that it’d be laughable if it wasn’t so blatant. He is tasked with finding the power of awakening on his journey while others tackle the issue head-on, and not moments later, told that his number one quality is finding his power in the moment he needs it most. Then…why-why not send him to tackle the problem head-on again?
So to fill-up a game’s worth of content, Sora hits fast-forward on stories such as Tangled, Pirates 3, and Frozen. But don’t you worry, they stop to sing those Frozen songs you know by heart. None of the other ones, none of the other properties even. Just Frozen, and just those two songs. These feeds into the fact that your amazing special attacks are all modeled after theme park rides (such as those found here). Disney, while popular and glam to see in this setting, ain’t the only reason so many people flock to this here show, guys and girls.
The disconnect becomes increasingly distracting as the game goes on and you slowly realize how little these worlds actually matter. Even bullet points in the script are either erased or overlooked by a wide margin. The whole construction just stinks of further padding while my impatient-ass wanted to get to the destination I knew was waiting with a drawn keyblade.
That long road leading to Kingdom Hearts 3 has included Sora, Riku, and Kairi at the center of it all. Their hearts have endured many hardships but their powers have grown with their friendships, cementing them as the beating pulse of the series. So, in an effort to avoid as many spoilers as possible, I’d like to just say that Kairi is underutilized to an infuriating degree that I can’t imagine any fan of her being happy to witness. That is all.
Kingdom Hearts 3 has about 8-10 hours near the end where I was completely into everything that was happening. It was exactly the story I wanted told in a mostly caring way, despite character bloat. Those hours felt like the best I’ve had with this series to date because of the staging and sense of struggle. Each hour, in essence, saved my love for this game beyond the stellar gameplay. Through that lense I’m not sure if another game has ever taken quite the same route to becoming a firm “keeper” in my mind.
Does anyone out there remember Peter Molyneux? Specifically, circa Fable 2 Peter Molyneux? While he’s not so much relevant to Kingdom Hearts 3 in any way, I was reminded of this particular promise (about 3:40 is the relevant part) he made wherein he said that the entire combat system of Fable 2 would be based off of a single button. His overall message, underneath the rest of the showmanship, seems to be that simplicity is where you can find the connective tissue between those that need a quick fix of game and those ready for the 40+ hour adventure.
I’ve been thinking about Molyneux’s approach as it relates to Sora’s combat system. You swing with one button, dode, with another, jump with another, and use special moves with the final. Everything feels separated into even, available cubbies with you in the middle. Despite the surface simplicity, you can make Sora, Donald, goofy, and the temporary allies do some pretty incredible feats, which is where the face button partitioning seems like a master stroke.
As much as I love having as many controls as The Phantom Pain does, Kingdom Hearts 3 shows another way of doing combat in a bombastic framework. Sora’s combos steadily increase and take flight as the game goes on, your abilities making it so that he’ll never touch the ground if you don’t want to. It feels like the controls of 0.2 were inflated and given to more systems and special moves. Sora glides and responds, forecasting every encounter to be one where you’ll use the entire arena to your benefit.
Every fight, and sometimes more than once per, you’ll have access to these massive special attacks. About a quarter of them will involve your teammates showing off their power, another quarter will be Attraction Flows, and the other half will be form changes. Attraction Flows are, words unminced, blatantly obvious nods to many of the rides and attractions you’d find in a Disney theme park and distractingly so. It’s one Disney logo away from being a constant advertisement for the brand – you know what, just see my earlier comments about how unbalanced this entry feels on the property side. It is telling to me that in my 8-10 golden hours, I didn’t want to have the visuals and scene feel cheapened by unleashing another seated VR blaster ride.
Anywhoooo focusing on the light again, the teammate attacks are devastating when used correctly. You can have multiple queued up at once and can choose the appropriate approach with a fairly generous timer to work with. These abud mega spells that appear periodically and Shotlock as a room-clearing projectile group…AND the Link summons that bring in even more franchises. Kingdom Hearts 3 gives you the absolute most chances to attack. Seriously, it’s a lot. Sora has never felt so dangerous and so capable all at once.
On the other side, the enemies have their peaks and valleys. Anyone that’s played a Kingdom Hearts game knows what the standard Heartless/Nobody looks like. So to have them still play as large a role as they do is a bit of a downer. There are opportunities for them to spice up their homogeneity that create much more engaging, visually-striking encounters at least. Boss fights are also massive successes with their scale and variation. These arenas also show you the creativity of the team, once again cementing to me how emotionless the Disney portions feel compared to the original creations at play.
Whoops, I accidentally summed up my feelings on Kingdom Hearts 3 a paragraph early…hm. Well, consider this an epilogue, then. That’s a fitting end for this series that can never really seem to show an interest in just sticking within its own skin or boundaries for very long. An epilogue leaves this review open to sequels, after all. And never forget, dearly beloved, that you’ve known from the beginning that Kingdom Hearts 3 is worth the trip for those sweet 10 hours on top of consistent gameplay boons. That doesn’t make it perfect or even close to hidden with Disney’s intentions to continue their universal takeover, but it doesn’t have to be. Kingdom Hearts 3 is enough. After 15 years, that’s more than enough.
Kingdom Hearts 3 Score: