At this point, calling the third instalment in the Kingdom Hearts franchise ‘highly anticipated’ would be a gross understatement. Considering that the last main entry, Kingdom Hearts II, was released way back in 2005, many long-time fans have probably relegated the franchise to the back of their minds. Alas, the third primary game in the series is here, but with all this time in development, does Kingdom Hearts III deliver and warrant returning to the franchise and seeing what Sora and the gang have been up to?
So, the Kingdom Hearts story is a bit of a divisive topic. On the one hand, the Final Fantasy X Disney mash-up is highly entertaining and has all the heart and charm we’ve come to expect from those respective licenses. On the other hand, due to the plot building up for such a long period of time (and as a result of potentially too many spin-offs), the narrative has become quite elaborate, to put it mildly. At the very least, it’s overly complex and difficult to keep track of, at worst it’s a convoluted mess that may deter more casual fans from picking it up at all. Fortunately, if the story leaves you feeling deliriously overwhelmed, the gameplay and character interactions will distract and enthusiastically entertain you.
From the outset, the environments and punch of the cutscenes are both impressive – although it’s clearly an animated and somewhat cartoony style, the visual aspects of the game are well-executed and draw you into the universe. The movement through said environments is equally impressive, and quite fun because of the speed and level of interaction possible, which has dramatically increased from prior games. A lot has been added to Sora’s repertoire of movement abilities, so rather than most worlds feeling like you have limited freedom, you can wall-run or ‘airstep’ your way all over the brilliantly realised obstacles you encounter.
Upon initially getting through the first few hours, what will likely stand out most to older fans is the substantial increase in the tempo and speed of combat. In Kingdom Hearts I and II, powerful attacks and fast movement were usually worked for or reserved for specific contexts, but that’s been flipped on its head this time around. Spectacular, colourful team-based and solo attacks are run of the mill and there’s almost an excessive variety of them available, to the point where keeping track is difficult. It’s also clear that Sora and his team have powered up significantly, since very few of the enemies feel like a genuine challenge.
The two previous games had combat systems which felt more refined but were definitely less visually-extravagant than the eye-catching set-pieces that KH III offers. But, the tradeoff for the rich entertainment value and high-powered combat is feeling like you’re a bit of a spectator to a button-mashing storm rather than truly beating the opponents with your own skill. That being said, the variety of keyblades and different attacks available mean that the combat is unlikely to get formulaic or monotonous at any point, which was a slight issue in previous games after around the halfway point. One could even argue that the barrier to entry for navigating the combat system has been lowered slightly – making the game more accessible, although fans of highly technical combat systems might miss a bit of the old Kingdom Hearts difficulty.
Other aspects of Kingdom Hearts’ gameplay all remain or have been improved on; you still fly between worlds with the Gummiship through space-environments (with a revised and better navigating style), equipment and weapon options are expanded (most notably Sora can equip up to three keyblades and swap between them on-the-fly), and the list of abilities Sora can acquire through leveling up have also been increased substantially. It’s quite evident in almost all areas of the game that it was under development for the better part of a decade, as everything from movement to combat, and sidequests has been improved and expanded.
The only potentially negative feature of the game arrives when one is treated to the (admittedly well-rendered and attractive) cutscenes that litter each new world. As someone who has played the previous two main entries as well as the PSP’s Birth By Sleep, it’s odd to feel invested and familiar with a franchise, but rather lost when it comes to the finer details of the narrative and direction of the plot. This can be solved quite easily by looking up any number of Kingdom Hearts synopsis videos available on YouTube, but it shouldn’t really be necessary to go to those lengths. For KH enthusiasts, it won’t be anything more than a minor hurdle, but it could be a deterrent to newcomers – particularly since many players attracted to KH 3 may not even have been born when KH II was released back in 2005.
So – as an established fan of the series and someone attempting to be objective about rating the quality of Kingdom Hearts III, would I recommend it? Definitely, but with one or two caveats. It’s a brilliantly made game on a technical level, despite one or two environmental glitches that weren’t particularly bothersome. The gameplay is solid, the combat is enjoyable albeit a little busy, the worlds are entertaining to explore, and being treated to a greatest hits of Disney characters and experiencing memorable stories puts a smile on one’s face.
Unfortunately, none of those facts address the reality that Kingdom Hearts III is being released one and a half decades after it’s last main entry, and that some of the fanbase has potentially moved on. For dedicated fans, its worth getting back into the franchise and familiarising yourself with past entries, because it will make KH III that much more enjoyable upon its conclusion. For casual gamers, if you’re an RPG fan and need something to sink your teeth into, the Kingdom Hearts franchise is difficult to beat, but gamers unfamiliar with the series will struggle to follow the narrative despite playing a brilliantly made game.
Whether its pieces are looked individually or as a collective, each aspect of Kingdom Hearts III is impressively designed and executed. The first game set an exceptionally high bar for what an action RPG could be, and it’s no exaggeration to say that trend continues and is brought to new heights in KH III. By its own immense standards, some minor gripes could be leveled at the story or elements of the combat, but what the game gets right significantly outweighs any shaky pieces that leave something to be desired. The wait was long, but it’s difficult to say that it wasn’t well worth it in the end.