|System: PS4, Xbox One|
|Dev: Square Enix|
|Pub: Square Enix|
|Release: January 29, 2019|
|Players: 1 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Fantasy Violence, Alcohol Reference|
by Lucas White
Kingdom Hearts fans have been waiting for over a decade with bated breath for Kingdom Hearts 3. Which is weird, because that time waiting has also been spent playing a steady flow of other Kingdom Hearts games, each with its own retcon, twist, or significant addition to the series’ famously dense lore. Regardless of how many Nobodies you can keep track of, Kingdom Hearts 3 is here, and it doesn’t care what you have or haven’t played. It’s time to get moving and wrap this thing up. Maybe. While newcomers are going to be beyond lost, fans of Kingdom Hearts will eat this game alive, warts and all. That said, some pacing and technical issues largely keep Kingdom Hearts 3 away from that perfect score, despite how much pure-hearted video game joy it brings.
While Square Enix has released some catch up video content both within and outside of the game, Kingdom Hearts 3 itself spares little time for the player to understand what’s happening, should they not already going in. In fact, the start of the game isn’t even actually Kingdom Hearts 3, as it picks up from exactly where Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance left off. To put the level of wackiness here into perspective, Dream Drop Distance, the “new” game directly before this one, was a 3DS game. In order to fully grasp everything else, aside from Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2, you at a bare minimum need to play Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.
Just the bare minimum of Kingdom Hearts lore can be spread across five platforms. PS4 owners can play the “Story so Far” collection, but even that one breaks some games down to just cutscenes. Either way, Kingdom Hearts 3 drops you right in and assumes you know what’s happening. We hope that “play everything before the third game drops” project you started in December 2018 turned out okay. If you’re totally new, your best chance of survival is YouTube explanation videos. Good luck!
Anyway, it doesn’t take long before Sora and friends are off to the races, as Sora has lost his amazing powers, Samus Aran style. He has to get his abilities back up to snuff, while at the same time Riku and Mickey have their own mission to accomplish. While Kingdom Hearts is still Kingdom Hearts, this third title has perhaps the most coherent storytelling in the series so far. This is due, in part, to a much more solid localization compared to earlier titles, but also due to expository cutscenes spread throughout the Disney-flavored journey that are direct attempts to tie all the loose ends together.
While the writing is what it is, where Kingdom Hearts 3 really shines is jogging around the various Disney settings and bopping enemies with a collection of giant keys. This game naturally takes changes and additions made in previous Kingdom Hearts titles, smashes them all together with some additional streamlining, then adds new stuff on top of that. Verbs like “shotlock” and “flowmotion” will haunt your nightmares, but the new attraction techniques based on famous Disney theme park rides are simple and showy enough to make you forget how nothing about the game’s combat makes practical sense. That is, outside of the real MVP, which is a functioning dodge roll that finally gets it right for what feels like the first time in the series.
There are a lot of different buttons to keep track of and miniature tutorials to read, but eventually everything clicks into place. This isn’t just through determination either, as Kingdom Hearts 3 has a flow to it that encourages and allows players to bumble around with all its verbs and still obtain relative success. Even if you aren’t racking up combos and avoiding damage perfectly, all the different systems in play are designed to slide into and bounce off one another, which creates a ton of visual noise and more importantly, instant gratification to the player for hitting buttons.
Every now and then, a level-specific mechanic or two will be introduced, and these moments are emblematic of Kingdom Hearts 3’s biggest problem. It’s all very unwieldy, and with unwieldy comes uneven. Sometimes you’ll be having the time of your life in a new level, as it introduces new ways to play and an exciting new area to explore. Hopefully, not only will the level have fun with its own self-contained story based on a beloved Disney story, but you may also get a new clue or move forward in the story of Sora, Xehanort, and everyone in-between.
The problem is that not all worlds are created equal. Kingdom Hearts 3 features both returns to old worlds introduced in previous games and several new additions to the series. Some of the levels, such as the one based on Toy Story, are awesome. The sheer spectacle, combined with fun gameplay distractions and wild setpieces, can really make for a, “Wow, so this is modern Kingdom Hearts” vibe. But just as easily, another level will just be a series of enemy-filled hallways featuring Disney movie cliff notes, which can really make for a, “Oh, this sure is a nice-looking PS2 game” moment. This is compounded by frame rate instability and jank no matter which platform you’re on, as well as a nearly useless map that will steer you astray at least once while you’re concentrating on bad guys instead of navigation. You can also end up with minigame-like situations that probably sounded great on paper, but are pains in the ass in execution.
While individual levels can be a drag from a gameplay perspective, there’s no denying how incredible Kingdom Hearts 3 looks and sounds. Worlds look vibrant and alive, even when spaces are only filled with Sora’s crew and gangs of Heartless. But when you do end up in populated areas, the “Square Enix’s Disney” aesthetic roars to life in a way it never has before. These moments are few and far-between, but there’s plenty of eye candy to be had here. The music is exactly what one would expect from a new Kingdom Hearts, including a new banger from Hikaru Utada (and Skrillex).
Kingdom Hearts is one of those things people can struggle with, and there’s good reason for that. There’s a lot to take in and digest, even outside of the convoluted character dynamics threaded throughout the otherwise simple story of good versus evil. There are tons of minigames, collectibles, combat mechanics, a whole other shooter-like gameplay portion from people who worked on Einhander, and tons of overwhelming menu options. There is so much game here in Kingdom Hearts 3, and it’s all coming from the mind of an auteur with far too much power. But if you dare to take that plunge, as much of an investment as it is, there is a great adventure to be had here. So much adventure. Probably too much. After all, this isn’t really Kingdom Hearts 3. It’s more like, seven, or ten, or something. Have fun, kids.
Writing Team Lead