Reviewing Kingdom Hearts 3 is one behemoth of a task. In part, because it’s the first mainline game released since 2005, but also because of what the series means to me, personally. Gleefully running around Destiny Islands attempting to build a raft to other worlds is safely among my first memories of video gaming, and a few years later, my brother and I eagerly delved back into the series to face off against the fearsome Organisation XIII. So, does Kingdom Hearts 3 have enough to meet my expectations? Or have my rose-tinted goggles made this an impossible task?
I’d like to start off by describing the story of Kingdom Hearts, but as many of you will know, that’s about as easy as describing the intricacies of Game Of Thrones to someone just starting: There’s a lot to cover, it’s complicated and I don’t have the time to go through it (and I’m sure I don’t have enough writing space). In the universe of Kingdom Hearts, there exists an elite force of Keyblade wielders – weapons that possess the ability to unlock hearts – and you play as Sora, who following events of the previous twelve titles, is tasked with learning the ‘power of waking’ needed to wake the lost guardians of light.
To acquire this power and learn more about the missing keyblade wielders, Sora, along with his lovable sidekicks Donald and Goofy, must venture across a multitude of Disney inspired worlds defeating swarms of heartless, nobodies and the Organisation XIII – a league of powerful individuals with power over darkness.
Even describing the starting point of Kingdom Hearts 3 in the briefest way possible took some time, and this is an example of how the series can be off-putting to newcomers to the series – It’s the equivalent to starting a new TV show 7 seasons in and Kingdom Hearts 3 does very little explain it’s universe, mechanics and characters to those who haven’t already delved into the series.
Not to say that it doesn’t attempt it. You can watch mini-storybook like recaps of the previous games, but these are only unlocked once you’ve watched the opening cutscene, which would contain a plethora of spoilers to someone looking to catch-up. Of course, this didn’t impact my playthrough, but I can see this being off-putting to people looking to enjoy some simple JRPG fun with some of their beloved Disney characters.
On the topic of the worlds, one of the biggest criticisms I had for previous Kingdom Hearts games was that their worlds tended to be a little vacant. You could still explore through mystical and whimsical worlds, but they never truly felt alive. Well, Kingdom Hearts completely changes this.
For starters, each world is huge. The first world, for example, has you travelling from the war-torn Thebes all the way up to the Realm of Gods – literally having you ascend to heaven from Earth – and it does so with spectacular beauty. Not only is each world expansive, but they feature life in the form of NPCs. A foreign concept to previous Kingdom Hearts titles, but one that makes the worlds truly feel lived in – now there’s some actual threat to the heartless invading worlds as you can see that citizens and characters are in danger, and so you instantly feel more part of each world.
As of writing this piece, I’ve just finished The Caribbean, and so far each world has offered more life and character than we’ve seen in a Kingdom Hearts game for a long time. The characters and worlds are so well developed that I can connect and engage with their individual stories a lot more than I had in other games. I felt actual sadness at the end of the Tangled world, enjoyed getting involved in Donald, Goofy and Sora’s shenanigans and felt true awe when standing atop Mount Olympus – Kingdom Hearts has taken full advantage of its Disney library and has managed to encapsulate the childlike wonderment of their big-screen counterparts.
This childlike depiction of the game’s worlds is perfectly contrasted by Kingdom Hearts’ war between the forces of light and dark: Sora vs Xehanort, the Guardians of Light vs Organisation XIII. Unlike with Dream Drop Distance, when a shadowy figure appears to taunt Sora, you feel some tension, some fear and like there’s more going on than you know – they don’t just show up to taunt you, but they actually offer something to the player and to the story. At this point, the Kingdom Hearts series has so many heroes and villains and I was worried that their appearances would be forced and disconnected. But, the game succeeds in introducing each character slowly and giving the player enough time to take in what’s happened, before introducing something new.
Okay, enough about the plot and the worlds, how does the gameplay stand up? Well, I’m happy to report that Kingdom Hearts 3 builds upon the series strengths, and irons out its weaknesses.
The Kingdom Hearts series has had many, many variations in its gameplay: The mainline games feature the standard ‘hack-n-slash’ gameplay that forms the core mechanics throughout, but we’ve also seen the series experiment with a pokemon-like system (Dream Drop Distance), a less than successful card mechanic (Chain of Memories) and more traditional mobile mechanics (Unchained χ). The Birth By Sleep games introduced a more developed ‘form change’ mechanic that has the player change move-sets depending on the weapons and spells used in combat.
Seems like a lot of ways to play, right? Well, Kingdom Hearts 3 manages to pick the strongest elements of each style and combine them in a way that feels smooth and more akin to the mainline Kingdom Hearts games. The core combat gameplay is still present but is now complemented with unique form changes for each keyblade used – this varies from the ability to shoot honey cannons, to smash enemies with giant hammers. Sora has retained the ‘Flowmotion’ gameplay from his time in the dream worlds, allowing him to interact with the environment to propel him across worlds or to engage in more exciting combat pieces.
You can combine your movesets with the characters you meet throughout the worlds – for example, in the Toy Box world, you’re given a move that allows you to ride around on a rocket with Woody and Buzz Lightyear that finishes in a spectacular fireworks display, in reference to the ending of Toy Story 1. While moves such as these have been present in past titles, Kingdom Hearts 3 makes them much more into set pieces – focusing much more on the source material, giving us finishing moves that show more creativity and energy than we’ve seen before.
So far, Kingdom Hearts 3 has given me more than I could’ve wished for in a third instalment – after the long 12-year wait, it manages to build upon the nostalgia and joy I’d had playing two, while also presenting much needed improvements and worlds to explore. It’s a beautifully put together game that only strengths what has been built up in the previous games.
The only downside I can think of, for newer players at least, is that it’s very much a game bogged down by its own past – there’s no handholding plot-wise as Kingdom Hearts 3 expects you to have knowledge of the previous twelve or so titles. But, if you go in expecting to be at least a little bit lost you’ll find Kingdom Hearts 3 to be an incredibly enjoyable game.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*