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Kingdom Hearts 3 Review -- The Wait is Finally Over

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After nearly thirteen years (or over thirteen years if you played the Japanese release), Square Enix finally released the sequel to Kingdom Hearts II and the third numeric entry in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Before I get into this review, it’s impossible to talk about Kingdom Hearts 3 without acknowledging the time it took to get here and games that came before it. Part of the issue is the peculiar numbering system the franchise has adopted. Yes, Kingdom Hearts 3 is the third numeric entry, but it is not the third game in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. And to get to the point of Kingdom Hearts 3, we needed the stories of those games (well, maybe not coded/Re:coded). My point is, we shouldn’t look at Kingdom Hearts 3 as a game that took thirteen years to arrive, we should look at it as a game that arrived seven years after Dream Drop Distance.. ..which is marginally better. Now with that out of the way..

For those who haven’t kept up with the franchise, Kingdom Hearts began as a series that combined the characters and role-playing game elements of the Final Fantasy franchise with the worlds and stories of various Disney properties. What sounds like a peculiar and impossible combination actually produced a fun and exciting game with an engaging story and a surprising amount of depth. Since its inception nearly two decades ago, the franchise has developed its own voice and identity and continues to tell the story of the enduring battle between the forces of light who wield strange key-shaped weapons, appropriately called keyblades, and those who use the ambiguously evil power of darkness. Kingdom Hearts 3 is the final piece of a story arc that began in 2002 with the original Kingdom Hearts. Following the events of 2012’s Dream Drop Distance, Sora, the franchise’s spikey-haired protagonist, and his allies set out to combat the mastermind responsible for all their prior adventures and mishaps, Xehanort. From the beginning, Xehanort’s goal has been to orchestrate a clash between light and darkness and Sora and his allies must unite seven warriors of light to stand against Xehanort’s thirteen darknesses.

Before its release, Tetsuya Nomura, the director of Kingdom Hearts III, stated that this game would not feature any Final Fantasy characters because the franchise had grown beyond its early need to rely on them. While fans might be disappointed to not see the return of reoccurring character like Cloud and Squall Leon, Nomura is not wrong. Kingdom Hearts has become its own entity that can stand on its own feet. At the same time, what is also true is that Kingdom Hearts has also grown beyond the need to rely on the stories of the game’s featured Disney worlds. Don’t get me wrong, visiting Disney worlds has always been part of the Kingdom Hearts experience and I’m not saying that part needs to be eliminated. However, I don’t believe that playing through a largely irrelevant world-centric story is needed anymore, especially when around half those stories largely retell events from their respective movies. While I enjoyed visiting places like Frozen’s Arendelle and Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo, I didn’t enjoy having to play through those stories just to get to the brief but relevant cutscene sequence at the end of each world. One of my biggest complaints against Kingdom Hearts 3 is that most of the story is crammed into the game’s final act and as a result, the game feels like it rushes to its conclusion and wastes a lot of the potential that had been built up through the previous games.

While the game’s narrative might leave long-time fans disappointed, the gameplay experience Kingdom Hearts 3 delivers is a nearly perfect evolution of the franchise, albeit with a few noticeable issues. Like its predecessors, Kingdom Hearts 3 is a third-person role-playing adventure game. Players control Sora who can attack enemies with his keyblade or hit them with magic spells. He is accompanied on his journey by Donald, who fills the role of party mage, and Goofy, the requisite tank, as well as occasional party additions like Mike and Sully in the Monsters Inc. world and Woody and Buzz in the Toy Story world. The reaction commands and form changes from Kingdom Hearts 2 have been removed, but in their place, Sora can trigger a wide variety of attacks and abilities during combat. Allies have team attacks, repeatedly casting the same spell can unlock a more powerful version of the spell, and each keyblade has its own transformation which unlocks different abilities. However, the most powerful abilities are the attractions which allow Sora to use attacks based on famous Disney rides. For instance, early on, Sora has to fight the Rock Titan from Hercules. After a certain point, Sora can summon the Big Thunder Mountain Coaster attraction and continue the battle from atop the ride. It is crazy and over-the-top, but perfectly encapsulates the tone of the franchise. Still while all these features make combat fluid and exciting, there’s no denying that all these abilities can start to feel over-powered and make the game feel too easy. Even playing on the hardest difficulty, I never felt the game really challenged me as previous Kingdom Hearts games have in the past. It would have been nice to disable some or all of these abilities as it was too easy to instinctively hit triangle whenever a prompt came up, but even consciously making an effort to not use them, I rarely found myself struggling in combat.

While the game’s combat has definitely been updated, the use of separate and worlds unfortunately highlights how other parts of the franchise have not kept up and evolved past some of the old tropes of Japanese role-playing games. Because each world is separate and undoubtedly took time to develop, most feature long stretches of linear paths. The game also features a number of long cutscenes that can take players out of the experience, especially those that focus exclusively on characters and stories in the different Disney worlds. Like I said earlier, I’m not saying the franchise needs to abandon the Disney worlds, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pull out my phone during some of those cutscenes. Because each world is so disconnected from the core story, there were times when I felt myself wanting to just rush ahead to get to the next section. The game’s final acts are also heavy on exposition and after dragging its feet for most of the game, inevitably feel rushed.

Kingdom Hearts 3 also feels like a game that is stacked full of features, some of which inevitably just work better than others. To highlight a few, the game has item synthesis, cooking, a plethora of mini-games, and there’s even a self-contained open-sea sailing feature. Oh, and as is apparently required by current gaming law, the game has a phone which lets you take pictures and selfies. While it is great to have all this variety, at times, it feels like some of these ideas just built up over the game’s long development cycle. All that said, long-time fans will be happy to hear that Kingdom Hearts 3 brings back the gummi ship and it is the best rendition the franchise has ever featured. To discover new worlds, players need to partake in a ship flying mini-game. Kingdom Hearts 3 ditches the rail-shooter style mini-game from previous entries and replaces it with a free-flying experience. Players are dumped into a large open space and can pretty much fly wherever. There are plenty of battles to fight, treasures to find, and secrets to discover while flying through space. Whereas previous gummi ship segments felt like a minor hurdle to progress the game, I found myself choosing to spend time in this iteration of the mini-game. I’m not going to lie, I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to say I spent over ten hours on the gummi ship feature alone, it is that enjoyable.

Visually, Kingdom Hearts 3 is a gorgeous game and is the best the franchise has ever looked, but that shouldn’t be too surprising given that the franchise skipped a full console generation. The first world Sora visits is Olympus, which admittedly looks a little strange. It isn’t that the world looks bad, it is just that the two-dimensional characters look somewhat off in the new graphical engine. Thankfully, this is only one of two worlds which return from previous games, and Kingdom Hearts 3 wisely abandons the other classic Disney worlds. In their place, Sora’s adventure takes players to new worlds featured in more recent films under the Disney umbrella which all featured computer animation. This has led to comparisons which not only do a great job showcasing how close Kingdom Hearts 3 gets to some of the original films, but the care that went into recreating scenes from those films. And it is not just the worlds that look beautiful. Cast a spell, use an ability, or summon an attraction and the world will fill particle effects and explosions. Kingdom Hearts 3 has its problems, but visually, it is an over-the-top and stunning experience.

Early on, I realized I couldn’t close this review the same way for long-time fans and newcomers. I’m going to be upfront, because of misdirects, retcons, and games released across different systems and platform, the Kingdom Hearts franchise can be hard enough to follow for long-time fans who have kept up all these years. If you have never played a Kingdom Hearts game, it is hard for me to recommend Kingdom Hearts 3. This game is the final piece of a convoluted multi-game story arc. As such, really enjoying Kingdom Hearts 3 requires playing through several previous games (or, at a minimum, watching a few YouTube videos). On one hand, those games are now available in easily accessible collections, but on the other, some have not aged very well. My point is, if you have never played a Kingdom Hearts game, while Kingdom Hearts 3 is a fun ride, it is not the best place to hop on.

Now, for the long-time fans, if I’m being totally honest, as another long-time fan, Kingdom Hearts 3 has been a difficult game for me to review. There is no way for me to write a review that disconnects myself from the years I spent waiting for this game. As such, I can’t help feeling that years of anticipation have inevitably skewed my ability to give an impartial evaluation of this game. Yes, I’m disappointed by the narrative approach employed, but I loved when each world finally touched the main Kingdom Hearts story. Yes, the game crawled towards its conclusion, but that conclusion brought together storylines from over a half-dozen different games. Or take the gameplay, yes the combat feels great and is incredibly satisfying, but I can’t deny that parts of the gameplay experience have not kept up and the combat often feels too easy. If you’ve played Kingdom Hearts before, yes, I strongly recommend picking up Kingdom Hearts 3. Kingdom Hearts started out as a simple story about Final Fantasy characters interacting with Disney characters. Since then, it has become something far more convoluted. And in the end, it seems apt that my feelings about Kingdom Hearts 3 are complicated and not very simple.

"May your heart be your guiding key."

All images owned by SquareEnix


  1. Draylo -
    Draylo's Avatar
    KH3 was so disappointing, I expected way more from them after all this time.