As the credit rolled onscreen, I sat in disbelief at the journey I was just on. Almost seventeen years of storytelling wrapped up in a 30-hour ride of joy, sadness, laughter, and anger - and I couldn’t believe it was over. Yet, even at the end, Kingdom Hearts 3 left even more questions than answers, prodding me to immediately load up my save and start playing it again, desperate to capture any detail I might’ve missed previously. Kingdom Hearts 3 is a game that brought out some of my favorite moments in storytelling the past few years, but it’s not without its own set of issues which do mar the overall experience in the end.
If you’ve never paid attention to Kingdom Hearts and are planning on starting with the latest installment, I urge you to watch one of the wonderful recaps on YouTube. Kingdom Hearts 3 doesn’t pick up right after the events of Kingdom Hearts 2, but rather immediately after the events of Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance - originally a portable 3DS game, though remastered for PS4 two years ago. At its most basic, Kingdom Hearts is a tale as old as time, as it were: Light versus Darkness. Main character Sora, along with Donald, Goofy, along with unique Kingdom Hearts characters as well as Disney mainstays such as Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story and Anna from Frozen, fight against Organization XIII and Master Xehanort, who are seeking to balance the side of light with darkness.”
Let’s face it, even for series diehards, the story is kind of a mess. Kingdom Hearts 3 does a decent job of catching people up to speed in some areas, but if you’re not immersed in its lore day in and out, you’ll find yourself wondering which Organization member was Marluxia and which one was Larxene. Additionally, it does have a few handy recap videos of the previous games to give a base level of knowledge, but honestly, if you’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game before, it won’t help.
That being said, actually playing Kingdom Hearts 3 is an absolute blast. The combat feels like it has one step in the past and one in the present - and that’s a great thing. Unreal Engine 4 brings a weightiness to Sora and company that grounds the combat - but that doesn’t mean you still won’t be zipping through the air from Heartless to Heartless, performing physics-defying air combos. You’ll also be able to perform team attacks, such as throwing Goofy like a heat-seeking missile at enemies, or Donald summoning Meteors to rain down fire upon a batch of Nobodies.
A new addition is the weaponized versions of classic Disney theme park rides. Using attractions such as the spinning teacups and a giant carousel, you’ll be able to inflict massive damage to enemies quickly - all while skipping the line!
Drive forms from Kingdom Hearts 2 are gone, instead, you’re given Formchanges. Honestly, this was for the better. I loved dual-wielding Keyblades in Kingdom Hearts 2, but each Keyblade you earn now has one or two separate form changes, completely altering how you fight. Frozen’s Keyblade turns into ice claws and skates, allowing you to swiftly move around the battlefield and take down enemies, while my favorite is Rapunzel’s Keyblade, which summons copies of yourself to add more DPS to combos. You can also upgrade these Keyblades with items found throughout the world, and since you can equip three at a time, you’ll find yourself swapping between them in the heat of battle, depending on the situation. Being able to upgrade the keyblades make them viable longer as opposed to just moving onto the newest one when you earn it like in previous titles.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is also absolutely beautiful. The Kingdom of Corona and Caribbean especially stand out to me as some of the more breathtaking worlds I’ve seen; and while I know the Xbox One X and PS4 Pro are a massively far cry away from Pixar’s server farms, to the uninitiated, the Toy Box and Arendelle look indiscernible from their movie counterparts. Kingdom Hearts 3’s artist really went all out to get the feel and look of each movie world right, and it paid off big time.
Stories in the Disney and Pixar worlds are pretty self-contained, but they do play into the larger narrative. However, not all of the worlds really felt like they needed to be there. Additionally, the Gummi ship segments are one area of Kingdom Hearts’ past I wish had stayed there. I get the idea - how else does Donald, Goofy and Sora get from world to world. But we’re also talking about a game where the main baddie since the original Kingdom Hearts is trying to unlock a Moon-textured heart in the sky with a sword shaped like a key - I’m sure Nomura could figure out another way.
Presentation-wise it’s not all perfect. Kingdom Hearts does suffer from some pretty outrageous frame pacing issues. It’s not too terrible on Xbox One X, where I played my entire 31-hour playthrough, but it’s still wickedly noticeable. Massive fights where there is a lot going on around you can feel sluggish at times, and large areas with a lot of geometry can slow the framerate right down, even when there isn’t anything happening on screen. The Gummi ship levels are the worst, with the controls never feeling responsive, even after switching screens to a Freesync 2 display. On base consoles, it’s even worse, as Digital Foundry points out, and while Kingdom Hearts 3 does have a locked 30 fps mode to try to smooth out the gameplay, the inconsistent frame pacing makes it feel even worse than the unlocked framerate of the other mode. It’s definitely something that needs to be worked on with patches, and if Square Enix’s work on Final Fantasy XV is an indication, they should get fixes out at some point. But it does sour the experience a lot.
A great addition has been cooking. Uncle Scrooge has created a bistro in Twilight Town who has a familiar face as a chef: Remy from Ratatouille. You can gather ingredients on your journey (though it does get kind of annoying hearing Donald and Goofy chime in with the same line over and over again when you’re nearby one) and unlock recipes to power up your party for a period of time. Eat a whole meal complete with appetizer, fish course, meat, and dessert and you’ll find some incredible bonuses such as the ability to use Blizzaga for no Magick when you’re still running around casting Blizzard. The mini-games are a bit much in my mind, especially the egg cracking one, but it’s definitely fun to try new meal combinations to see what bonus you’ll unlock next.
As someone who has followed Kingdom Hearts since it first launched PS2 in 2002, this was coming home for me. I won’t deny I’m an unabashed series fan - I look around my office and see my posters, Pixel Pals and full-size Keyblade as an indicator I might have a problem. Kingdom Hearts 3 is satisfying in the end, and while the framerate issues do hamper the overall experience, I cannot deny the childlike glee I experienced every time I booted up my Xbox the last week and a half. Watching Sora, Kairi and Riku grow up with me, experiencing their story over all of these years, and watching how Kingdom Hearts 3 unfolds, convoluted mess of a narrative that it can be, brought a grin to my face each time I played.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is a spectacle: it’s fast, frenetic combat, cinematic presentation (get popcorn - there are a whole lot of cutscenes), over the top magic effects, and larger than life characters and worlds make the whole package worth the time you put into it. Romping around with Buzz and Woody in Andy’s Room was a childhood dream of mine. Dancing with Rapunzel in the Kingdom of Corona was an early highlight I wanted to go back and do again and again.
For almost two decades Kingdom Hearts 3 has been regarded as one of gaming’s finest franchises. Sure, it’s confusing to follow, daunting for the uninitiated to wade into, and has its own fair share of issues concerning how it’s treated its spinoffs, but make no mistake: it’s a powerhouse franchise that has stood the test of time. Though far from perfect - both narratively and technically, Kingdom Hearts 3 is the culmination of that storytelling, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s fun steeped into its purest form, and it’s a journey that was well worth the wait.
- Combat is a ton of fun to play
- The varied worlds are absolutely breathtaking to explore
- Cooking is a fantastic addition
- The story is daunting and hard to follow for newcomers and casual fans alike
- Framerate issues sour an otherwise excellent presentation
- Gummi ship segments still feel like an absolute waste of time