Reviewed on Xbox One X
It has been nearly 17 years since the release of the first Kingdom Hearts. For fans of the series, myself included, it’s been a long journey. Since 2002, Kingdom Hearts has branched out across 14 games playable on nearly as many platforms. Throughout all of this, the series has still retained its popularity and following, along with its unique themes and identity. It’s as strong as it has ever been with its third—but actually fourteenth—entry.
Upon booting up KH3, you’re greeted with a lovingly edited opening cinematic—the first of two. This first one stays true to the series’ roots, playing through key moments of the series in their original form. It’s a great reminder of prior events for those who have played every game in the series. For the rest, there’s a recap theatre that should be able to fill you in just enough to make the events of this installment make even a lick of sense.
From the get-go, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels like a celebration of a nearly two-decade-long series. The classic calming title screen returns in a simpler fashion than, say, Kingdom Hearts X Union Cross. Instead of being filled to the brim with characters, a simple white background encompasses the menus with a lone figure. It’s series protagonist Sora on his lonesome, his back to the player. When you finally start the game, a lavish CG cutscene plays—it may be one of the series’ best.
Out of every adjective known to man, I think the word “lavish” describes Kingdom Hearts 3 the best. Well, that and “schizophrenic”. It’s a game that always makes sure you can appreciate some form of spectacle, even if performing that spectacle doesn’t make any sense. One moment you’re informed by Maleficent and Pete that Sora is weaker than he’s ever been before. Five minutes later, you’re summoning a pirate ship without any explanation. Before you ask, no, Sora couldn’t do that before.
Mechanics and features that are included within the gameplay also abide by the same characteristic; they always feel like they’re for show, never so much for practicality. Dream Drop Distance’s Flowmotion mechanic returns, allowing you to bounce around environmental objects to chain intricate combos. It’s an integral mechanic that makes combat flow more fluidly, but it is under-utilized. Unlike in DDD, which featured tight environments designed wholly around that mechanic, 3’s arenas are far more open making full use of this mechanic rather rare.
For the first full Kingdom Hearts game to be released on a home console since 2005, Kingdom Hearts 3 takes full advantage of its more powerful abode. Environments are huge and multi-layered; Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo is a huge urban sprawl that requires the use of the new wall-running ability to scale its gigantic skyscrapers. The huge increase in visual fidelity over the last full game in the series is certainly extraordinary, too.
That doesn’t mean that combat particularly feels like a game designed this generation, despite how beautiful it may look. It’s certainly fun, but there’s a clear sense of clumsiness when trying to pull off specific actions—similar to combat in Final Fantasy XV. Dodging and blocking all feel less fluid than other combat opportunities in Sora’s repertoire. Once the air recovery and glide are unlocked—the latter of which is quite late in the game—everything becomes more freeform. It just takes a while to get there.
The standout aspect of Kingdom Hearts 3’s combat systems isn’t its flashy flowmotion combat or its Disneyland Attractions special moves, but its implementation of the series’ signature weapons—keyblades.
While the standard iconic Kingdom Key keyblade will only grant you some basic combos and a triggerable second form, other keyblades are far more versatile in their movesets. For example, the keyblade you unlock after beating the Tangled world allows you to attack from afar. An ultimate move allows you to summon Rapunzel’s castle to shoot beams of light in an AOE attack. The Toy Story keyblade (Favourite Deputy) transforms into a hammer or a drill—both options are great.
When everything comes together, Kingdom Hearts 3’s combat is the ultimate video game power fantasy. There is still skill to pulling off perfect blocks and parries, some bosses may even provide an intriguing degree of challenge, but it never fails in making you feel like a God as you layeth the smacketh down on your foes.
Then there’s the narrative, a factor that many will undoubtedly be torn over. For Kingdom Hearts purists, it’s a great conclusion to a great franchise. It brings enough closure for the franchise’s current arc while also maintaining a degree of hope. Emotional gut-punches are here and accounted for, although many of the game’s more tearful moments are also ones of happiness. It’s definitely a game that’s been made with the intention of pleasing hardcore fans.
For those who have never played a KH game, a lot of the moments here either won’t make sense or will not affect you in any way. There’s still fun to be had—running through the numerous Disney/Pixar worlds is a blast for everyone—but it won’t affect you the way it will affect series purists. The fact that most of the major Kingdom Hearts story is delegated to the ending portion of the game doesn’t help with this.
As a critic and a fan, it’s a hard game to score. It’s a fantastic, enjoyable and emotional rollercoaster for those who know it. For those who have no idea what’s going on in the story, it’s like watching Twin Peaks: The Return without experiencing the first two seasons—exciting and fun, but utterly confusing.
Kingdom Hearts 3 does a great job of bringing the series to home consoles properly for the first same in fourteen years. It’s beautiful and engaging, but it’s not without its problems. It’s a game that I love, one that made me tear up more times than I’d like to admit. Kingdom Hearts 3 is finally here, but it ever-so-slightly misses the mark. However, after all’s said and done, after worlds have been explored, friends have been made, and keyblades have been wielded – I’m so, so glad it’s here.