With a 13-year gap since the release of the last mainline Kingdom Hearts game, it’s safe to say that we’ve had quite the wait for Kingdom Hearts 3.
Has it been worth it? Probably, but Kingdom Hearts 3 doesn’t quite live up to expectations; after so much time that was always going to be a tall order. That’s not to say that Kingdom Hearts 3 is unsatisfying. It’s a huge game with a lot going on; so much that it’s almost too difficult to compact my thoughts on the game into any cohesive structure. I have a lot of them: some positive, some negative. There’s a lot to love about Kingdom Hearts 3, but it is also disappointing in many ways – not just as the latest release of a much-loved franchise, but as a modern representation of an age-old genre.
When the franchise started with Kingdom Hearts in 2002, it was revolutionary: the much-loved Final Fantasy franchise smashed together with Disney properties? It was ludicrous, but magical. It appealed to hardcore fans of Square’s popular JRPG series, and it also appealed to younger gamers thanks to Disney’s involvement. A new generation of JRPG players was born from Kingdom Hearts as a result. And 17 years later, each and every one of us has eagerly scrambled to see what the beloved series looks like in the modern age.
And what does Kingdom Hearts look like as a game in 2019? It looks very much like Kingdom Hearts always has, for better or worse. Visually, it’s better than anything we could have imagined when playing the original PS2 release. But when you pick up that controller and take control of Sora for the first time, you’re instantly transported back in time. Perhaps movement is a little smoother, a little more refined, but there’s no denying this is very much Kingdom Hearts.
One thing that is missing, though, is Kingdom Hearts’ Final Fantasy roots. Sure, they’re there, if you look hard enough. In the game’s opening segment a reference is made to Cloud, and you might spot the odd Cactuar or Moogle, but any real, meaningful reference to the franchise that once made up half of Kingdom Hearts is hard to find. Aside from the characters’ cutesy, Anime stylings, with their spiky hair and large, expressive eyes – a reminder of the series’ developers – this is now very much a Disney property. It’s not so much a deal breaker, but perhaps a sad reminder of the passing of time. Despite Final Fantasy XV‘s successful release in 2016, Final Fantasy just isn’t as relevant as it once was. It can’t sell a game in the same way a timeless Disney-Pixar franchise can.
But let’s focus on what Kingdom Hearts 3 is, rather than what it isn’t. Above anything else, it’s an absolute tour de force of audiovisual mastery. No matter what you think of its gameplay or story, there’s no denying that Kingdom Hearts 3 looks (and sounds) absolutely stunning. This is where the game’s development time has gone, and I daresay it’s (mostly) been worth it. Few games exist that are as polished as this.
Each world is beautiful in its own right, doing justice to the Disney franchise it belongs to. Cutscenes from Toy Box – the world inhabited by Woody, Buzz Lightyear and their friends – really could be taken from a Toy Story movie. Characters are pixel-perfect, and locations are beautifully designed. Coming face-to-face with Buzz, or Sully and Mike in the Monsters, Inc. themed world, creates a sense of wonder and nostalgic yearning like nothing else. But the world that stands out most is The Caribbean, based on The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. It’s well and truly in uncanny valley territory; the only reminder that the near-perfect recreations of Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, Captain Barbossa et al aren’t quite real is their disappointing voice acting.
Thrown into a “real” world rather than a cartoon or CGI franchise, Sora, Donald and Goofy stick out like a sore thumb, but even their character models here have a realistic quality that’s missing from the rest of the game. Character models are animated with finesse, and environments are brought to life with a crystal-clear clarity that makes you want to stand back in awe, simply admiring the hustle and bustle going on around you. More than any other world, The Caribbean highlights just how far the Kingdom Hearts franchise has come, even if its gameplay still feels stuck in the past.
While most of Kingdom Hearts 3‘s worlds are rather linear – there’s an awful lot of running down corridors and travelling in straight lines – The Caribbean feels more open. There’s a truly impressive sense of scale here more than any of the game’s other worlds. Sailing the open sea reveals several small islands to be explored, complete with underwater caverns et al. Back on the main port, there’s a busy town to explore. Delicately detailed buildings give way to an impressive fortress and cell block, all joined together with intricate pathways, waterways and bridges. It’s an area that feels truly lived in; it’s just a shame there isn’t a great deal to do there.
And here lies the biggest problem with Kingdom Hearts 3: underneath its dazzling beauty and beautifully-rendered cutscenes, its gameplay is rather vapid. If you’re not sitting through an extended cutscene (which there are a lot of), you’re simply running from one Heartless battle to another. Combat is fun – for a while – but alone, it’s not enough to make Kingdom Hearts 3 as absorbing to play as it should be.
At its very basic level, combat feels very much like it has done since the first Kingdom Hearts. A basic attack is dealt by bashing the ‘attack’ button, and magic can be dealt by navigating the short menu (or pressing a shortcut button). As always, Donald and Goofy – and typically the new friends you meet in each world – accompany you in battle, acting autonomously (but how helpful they actually are remains up for debate). But the introduction of ‘attractions’ and ‘formchanges’ makes combat a very different – and slightly insane – beast.
Once Sora has performed a number of standard attacks, a status bar will fill up, allowing him to ‘formchange’ his Keyblade. Exactly what form it takes will depend on the Keyblade you’re using. Receiving a new one after completing each world, each Keyblade has unique formchanges that will focus on either strength, magic or defence. One turns Sora’s hands into giant claws, for example, able to perform faster and more devastating attacks. Another replaces his Keyblade with a set of duelling pistols, allowing for ranged attacks.
Supplementing formchanges are a number of ‘attractions’. Triggering at various intervals, you’re able to initiate a number of powerful attacks based on theme park rides. There’s the Pirate Ship, where you summon a giant ship that swings back and forth, doing damage to any enemies in its path, or the Magic Carousel, that causes a wave of powerful damage in its surrounding area. My favourite, though, is Blaster Blaze, placing you in a dodgem-like carriage equipped with a blaster and turning combat briefly into a light gun game. These, combined with formchanges – and a return of team attacks where Sora joins forces with Donald and Goofy – mean that combat is always completely crazy. But despite being a spectacle of light and action, you’re mostly only going to be pressing the same ‘attack’ button, no matter what form your attack takes. It rarely feels challenging playing on ‘normal’ difficulty; other than the odd block, lock-on or item use, you’ll be hammering the same one button time and time again.
You’ll at least get reprieve to rest your aching thumb during the game’s numerous extended cutscenes, but expect a lot of combat. It makes up the vast majority of Kingdom Hearts 3‘s gameplay, and when you realise that, fighting endless groups of Heartless soon loses its shine. After about fifteen hours with the game, I largely gave up fighting randomly spawning enemies, choosing to run straight through them. It’s a valid tactic, but it’ll still only be a matter of minutes before you reach the next story-imposed fight.
Every world adds its own little wrinkle to the gameplay: for instance, in Toy Box, you can enter toy mechs to fight in. And in Arendelle – Frozen‘s world – you’ll do a lot of mountain climbing and sledging down mountains. But none of these ever feel enough. Each provides a brief diversion, but you’ll still find yourself running in a straight line, with little else to do than wait for the next cutscene or fight to kick in.
It speaks volumes that the most involved gameplay segment is in The Caribbean, about 20 hours into the game, where you need to search an open area for white crabs. The bemoaned fetch quest; but for once it provided a welcome relief from a monotonous loop of corridors, cutscenes and combat.
Thinking back to the first Kingdom Hearts, gameplay felt much more involved. Sure, areas weren’t as vast – worlds were built on a much smaller scale thanks to the technological limitations of 2002 – but almost felt more alive; more varied in their content. There was light puzzle solving – drinking the potions to shrink and grow in Wonderland, for example – and plenty of platforming – hopping across giant flowers and mushrooms to reach new areas. There was a lot of combat here too, but it felt more of an accompaniment to the gameplay rather than the main event.
Historically, RPGs have relied on a great story, and combat has always been important – but so has varied gameplay. Exploration, puzzle solving and branching questlines feel like a staple of the genre, but Kingdom Hearts 3 feels almost barren when it comes to those elements. There are chests to go hunting for, and ‘lucky emblems’ to find, but it’s pretty barebones. How nice it would’ve been to have picked up a sidequest or two while exploring the many islands of the Caribbean.
I’ve barely mentioned Kingdom Hearts 3‘s story – and for good reason. It’s a franchise well known for its impenetrable narrative, and if furrowing your brow while your eyes glaze over is a look you like to achieve, you’re in luck. Most of Kingdom Hearts 3‘s overarching dialogue washed over me. I’ve not played every one of the spin-off games in the series, but I’ve played enough to have some knowledge of who’s-who, but I was still lost. It rarely matters; the smaller details of the stories in each world are enjoyably engaging even if the larger plot runs over your head. When it boils down to it, Kingdom Hearts is a classic tale of good versus evil, the importance of friendship, and the power of the heart. That’s all you need to know.
I’ve groaned and grumbled my way through many parts of Kingdom Hearts 3, but as a whole, it’s hard not to sit back and reflect on what an achievement it is. Even despite its downfalls – its repetitive gameplay loop, its dense narrative and its lack of worthwhile adventuring – there’s something that makes Kingdom Hearts 3 difficult to resist. It’s probably the impossibly high levels of polish that leave me aching for more; there’s no denying that this is one of the most beautiful games of this generation. And even though its combat-heavy gameplay isn’t quite enough in isolation, set against the rich backdrop that each of Kingdom Hearts 3‘s worlds provides, it will still somehow manage to draw me back in for a long time.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is available on PS4 and Xbox One. We reviewed the Xbox One version.