We did it. It’s finally here. After years of waiting, years of wishing, Kingdom Hearts III is finally here. It’s hard to believe that a crossover between Final Fantasy and Disney properties would culminate into such a phenomenon. Starting in 2002, the franchise has produced several spin-offs, prequels and the like, and the one game people have desired most is a reality. Does Kingdom Hearts III live up to the hype that fans have had since 2006’s Kingdom Hearts II? Well the answer to that is about as complicated as the story of the series.
Kingdom Hearts III is the finale to a story that has been built up just as much as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Focused on stopping Master Xehanort from creating the legendary χ-Blade and opening up Kingdom Hearts, Sora seeks to gather all the warriors of light. Some of those warriors, they already have, but working with his friends, they aim to reclaim those they’ve also lost along the way. To do this, Sora is also tasked with discovering the “Power of Waking”. What this basically comes down to is visiting various Disney worlds to learn a lesson from their own plot lines.
The story is incredibly convoluted, but if you’re up to the task, there is a lot of lore to take in. We don’t wish to spoil it, so it’s best to discover it for yourself. Even if it’s overwhelming, the story is told in a way that is still entertaining, having a certain charm that has held up throughout the series. Some of that charm comes from the brilliant recreations of the Disney scenarios. Each world acts as its own story that feels self-contained, but also connected at the same time. Given that there are several Disney plots to follow, pacing does become an issue at some points.
There will be some slow moments, and even more moments where information is fed to you through a series of cutscenes. The game never really keeps a consistent pace, and this can be problematic in certain moments. Monstropolis, the world from Monsters Inc., is a good example. When moving through that world, cutscenes were so stop-and-go, it got rather irritating. Sometimes I just want to explore an area without having to worry about walking into a cutscene, which may actually block me off from the area I was exploring for a bit. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s pretty jarring to the pace of the game.
Speaking of inconsistency, one of the other issues that is pretty blatant is the use of the game’s budget. Never before have I seen a game that was so indecisive with how to spend the budget. Some characters are basically limited to pantomime acting, as they are left without voice actors. Others seemed completely cut from the game due to not being important enough to the plot (some particular fan favorites included). On the opposite side, you’ll have fully pre-rendered cutscenes where they almost perfectly reanimate the entire “Let It Go” sequence from Frozen. This happens more often than I would almost think possible.
Despite the inconsistent use of budget, that isn’t to say its not impressive. The game is gorgeously detailed and has great touches of animation. This is especially noticeable in worlds like The Caribbean, where Jack Sparrow and various other characters are modeled and textured to great detail. The Toy Story world even does well to make the simplistic looking toys have the most minute details. The cutscene lip syncing is also some of the most spot-on that you’ll ever find in games. Even the little details of Sora’s keyblades animating differently when they appear in his hand.
That isn’t to say the animation is always perfect. There are some moments where some animations are just missing frames entirely, usually during gameplay segments. Rapunzel may swing Sora across a chasm with her hair, only for the landing to be oddly stiff due to missing frames. There are other moments like this, but they’re incredibly easy to notice. It’s also worth mentioning that the game often uses old footage from the previous games. This was fine back when they released, but when they show up here, there’s an immediate clash of art direction. Those old visuals don’t really mesh well with the beautiful looking Unreal Engine 4 visuals. It’s especially apparent in the beginning of the game when there are literally hundreds of screens showing old footage.
Animation and visuals is one thing, but the voice cast is another area to discuss. On one hand, there are some incredibly stellar performances done in the game. The main cast for the most part does exceptionally well, including stand out performances from Haley Joel Osment and David Gallagher. Some of the Disney sound-alikes are also incredibly solid. Sadly, some of the actors have been replaced, and though Rutger Hauer does an alright job, I’ll always miss Leonard Nimoy’s performance as Master Xehanort, may he rest in peace. I also have to say, hearing more of Alyson Stoner’s Kairi, she feels a little less cheerful than when Hayden Panettiere had the role (who sadly wasn’t approached to return). Stoner isn’t bad, but it’s a pretty obvious difference.
It’s also worth mentioning that while all the music is excellent, there was an unusual omission. In Kingdom Hearts II, when fighting in Port Royal, the infamous Hans Zimmer and Klaus Bedelt song “He’s a Pirate” would play. In Kingdom Hearts III, it’s replaced by a completely different song. While I can only guess this is related to budget and licensing, it’s still unusual that they removed it. Utada Hikaru does great as usual, though now with a second song that collaborates with Skrillex, which oddly fits. The sound design itself will feel familiar to fans of the franchise, which may or may not be a good thing depending on perspective.
Anyway, enough about the budget and presentation. How does the game actually play? Well luckily, that is one of the strongest points of Kingdom Hearts III. Combat is a huge improvement to the game, still using a real-time menu system. Using a combination of mechanics from previous games, Kingdom Hearts III has a deep system that feels very rewarding. It’s going to be familiar enough to fans but also accessible to newcomers, which is the best part.
First of all, Keyblades can perform what is called a “Formchange”. Similar to the forms from Kingdom Hearts II and the Command Styles from Birth by Sleep, Sora’s keyblades can all transform into new weapon types. One moment, Sora will have his trusty keyblade, and the next, he’ll be wielding a spear or dual pistols. Some keyblades transform more than once, and they showcase traditional weapons as well as more zany options like yo-yos. It goes an extra step by being able to equip multiple keyblades at once, allowing for players to switch between different styles seamlessly.
The Shotlock system from Birth by Sleep also returns. Each keyblade and formchange weapon has a different shotlock, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. This allows a player to slow down time and target multiple enemies (or one enemy multiple times) with a powerful focus attack. Other series staples return like magic, links (summons), and unison attacks return as well, some with their own unique changes. It’s also worth mentioning that you’ll no longer have to switch out party members. Parties can hold up to five members now, so you’ll never have to choose between Donald and Goofy ever again.
One of the newest features to combat is the Attraction Flow commands. Every so often, an enemy on the field will be highlighted by a green target ring. All it takes is a single hit to activate an Attraction Flow, which allows Sora and friends to summon a ride based attack to combat enemies. Carousels, river rapids, spinning tea cups, they’re all fun ideas that make combat unique but also interesting. Each one ends with a powerful finisher that makes for good crowd control.
Traversal also takes a lot of elements from Dream Drop Distance. Adding Flow-motion abilities, Sora can now defy gravity, perform stylish attacks, and grind any rail. He’ll even find ways to defy logic in some cases, which just adds to the ridiculous nature that is Kingdom Hearts. This makes combat and general movement very fluid, allowing for multiple ways to tackle a situation. It’s definitely needed too, as the worlds are bigger and more expansive than ever before.
Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t have a lot of worlds like Kingdom Hearts II. Despite this, it does well with what it has and gives large areas with a lot of vertical movement. Now that Sora can run up walls with flow motion, many areas provide walls to do this. Scaling skyscrapers in San Fransokyo or free falling from the top of Mt. Olympus just feels right in Kingdom Hearts III. Even having the ability to sail the high seas in The Caribbean with many islands to explore adds some solid content. That being said, it was a bold choice to do another water-based world after Atlantica in the first game.
While formchanging is a big improvement to the weapon system, another is the upgrade system. Previous games would have players simply change their keyblade to a stronger one. Kingdom Hearts III gives players the ability to upgrade the keyblade they want. Want to stick with the keyblade from Tangled because of it’s formchange abilities? Maybe you just like to use the defensive shield of the Hercules keyblade? Either way, you can keep them through the game without worry by simply upgrading them. Synthesizing also returns, though it’s a little easier now.
The game has some new minigames to offer as well. First up is the Classic Kingdom, a series of games for Sora’s new Gummiphone. These games star Sora and Mickey in classic cartoon style games based on old handheld games. They’re a fun distraction, but nothing I would spend too much time in. Remy from Ratatouille makes his debut in Kingdom Hearts by adding cooking minigames to the mix as well. With four different cooking styles, these games require a certain precision that makes them encourage perfection.
Perhaps the most disappointing minigames are the ones found in the Hundred Acre Wood. It may as well be called “Rabbit’s Howse”, as this world is only one spot, featuring three minigames that all play almost identically. While the Bubble Bobble inspired games are fun, it just makes the world feel a little tacked on. A player can do everything there is to do there in less than 30 minutes, and that’s unfortunate. Even so, the minigames make for good resources for various cooking ingredients, which players will discover throughout their journey.
The series takes the chance to bring back the good ol’ Gummi Ship sequences from the first and second games. What they changed with the third game is now you can fly freely across the galaxy. Linear stages are completely gone and now players can roam free. Heartless can be encountered, which causes a short battle sequence in a shooting gallery style. There will also be treasure orbs scattered across the galaxy that offer an interesting puzzle sequence as well. While it hurts the pacing slightly, the new Gummi Ship sequence is a solid evolution from the previous versions.
Another new feature to the game is the Gummi phone. As mentioned earlier, players can collect Classic Kingdom games for the phone, but there’s more. While the phone replaces Jiminy’s journal, collecting records and information, it also has a nifty camera. Players can use this to take pictures all over the game, even taking selfies of Sora. It also offers a fun scavenger hunt for Lucky Emblems. Lucky Emblems are Mickey Mouse shaped marks and objects placed all over the game. All it takes is taking a picture of it while it’s properly in frame and you’re on your way. Collect enough and you’ll unlock the secret movie for the game.
Speaking of the ending, while I don’t want to spoil it, it’s certainly an interesting direction. It ties up and opens all sorts of plot threads, all while continuing the convoluted narrative. Some moments will surprise you, and others will make you shake your head in disapproval. It’s presented well enough, but let’s just say it’s an ending worthy of the series. Fans that have played through every game will feel a sense of satisfaction, especially if you followed the plot closely. Others will likely have trouble wrapping their head around everything. For those in the latter category, it may be best to just turn your brain off and enjoy the Disney ride.
Kingdom Hearts III is a lot of things. One thing it definitely is not is a bad game. It’s a solid entry to the series and can even bring about some strong emotions for those attached to the characters. It even has some nice self-aware moments that has fun with the fans that have stuck with the series this whole time. It’ll be interesting to see what comes next in this series, and while it wasn’t a perfect conclusion, it was still a fun one. If you’re a fan of this series, you’ll definitely want to see how this story ends. If you’re not a newcomer, you’ll have a lot of studying to do, but you’ll likely still have a good time.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10