Kingdom Hearts 3 (2019)
Square Enix | Reviewed on PS4
The Bare Necessities
I’m not going to lie, I’m not the most die-hard Kingdom Hearts fan – I played Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, but didn’t play many of the DS or mobile games; however I always enjoyed the originals, and I am an absolutely rabid Disney fan (one of the main reasons I wanted to play the games in the first place) so needless to say, I was excited when Kingdom Hearts 3 was officially announced in 2013. Fast forward some years, and the game has finally dropped – supposedly a conclusion of sorts to the storyline of the main series, it had to bear the burden of tying together a lot of muddied narrative threads. If you can forgive some of the Disney references I’m about to drop, I want to evaluate how Kingdom Hearts 3 measures up. This review is not spoiler free. I wish I could have the Muses from Hercules sing my review instead, but oh well, here we go. Let’s get down to business (unfortunately, not to defeat the huns).
Zero to hero
The narrative of Kingdom Hearts 3 is exactly as convoluted and thin as you would expect from a game in this series – I’m honestly not even going to try to explain or summarize it, as I’m not sure I completely understand it myself. Darkness, something something, hearts, Organization 13, something, more darkness. A lot of darkness. But also friendship. Never underestimate the power of friendship. The game opens with Sora being told by the wizard, Yensid, that he needs to attain the Power of Waking – the reason you’ll be exploring all those Disney worlds. It’s the typical ‘train until you’re stronger’ narrative arc. And like a Disney princess with her trusty animal sidekick, Sora is of course joined by his pals Donald and Goofy. The trio is handled very well – their interactions, banter and general camaraderie is both believable and endearing. You can definitely see that these three are genuine friends that have been to the Underworld and back together. Ironically, this is probably the only relationship well-presented in the game – for a title with heart and friendship at its core, there is surprisingly little love to be found between characters. For example, near the beginning of the game, a downright bizarre cutscene plays out in Yensid’s tower, where Riku, Sora, and Kairi (among others) are reunited, apparently having not seen each other in some time. And… they barely interact at all. There is no warm-and-fuzzy reunion, no excitement – it’s like they’re acquaintances running into each other at the grocery store, rather than lifelong friends recently reunited. There are several scenes like this throughout the game, and as a fan of the series, it’s incredibly disappointing to expect these gratifying emotional payoffs and have the characters fall completely flat instead.
In fact, some of the characters in this title are handled extraordinarily poorly – Kairi in particular. While her character has never been as important as she was in the original Kingdom Hearts, she’s especially underutilized here. She’s supposedly off ‘training’ with Axel for the entirety of the game, only to show up later on in a few cutscenes to give Sora some extra motivation, and get kidnapped by the villain. Come on Kingdom Hearts, you’re better than that. I think a lot of characters that long-time fans would have enjoyed spending more time with were neglected – I don’t want to spoil too much, so I’ll leave my criticism there. I understand the difficulty in trying to share the spotlight between the huge roster of characters they’ve introduced over the span of the series; regardless it was a bit of a let down when some characters were noticeably quiet or absent. I suppose I should also mention the glaring exclusion of Final Fantasy characters – this was never an important aspect to me, so I didn’t mind, but I understand why fans were upset.
A whole new world
Kingdom Hearts 3 retains the same basic structure as 1 and 2 – there is a selection of individual Disney (and a couple original) worlds a mere Gummi Ship ride away from each other. Yes, unfortunately the Gummi Ship is still present – though the linear ‘levels’ from the old games have been replaced by a more open world area. You can hop into your ship to explore the space between these worlds – there are waypoints, a few wandering bosses, constellations to photograph – there is quite a bit to find. There are even some ‘treasure’ spheres (references to Treasure Planet, a criminally underrated movie) which I was excited to see. I found the Gummi Ship segments in this game to be a lot more enjoyable than in previous titles. Your ship is more customizable than ever, if you’re into that level of detail – I never bothered. I ain’t got time for that, but it was a cool inclusion nonetheless.
The Disney worlds included in this title are: Corona, Arendelle, the Toy Box, Monsters Incorporated, Mount Olympus, San Fransokyo, and the Caribbean. The stories contained in each world were of varying qualities – some were complete re-hashes of the movies, but missing some critical context. I found myself wondering if people who hadn’t seen the movies would be able to fully understand the plot – particularly in Corona, and with the way Hans was handled in Arendelle. The Toy Box story also ended on a strangely disappointing note, with no clear resolution. The gameplay and design quality also differs wildly – while worlds like the Toy Box I found to be designed particularly well, with fun combat, and different areas with uniquely themed designs, others were severely disappointing. Arendelle is the worst offender in my mind – not only do you spend the entirety of your time running up and down the same bland, empty, white-and-grey mountain, there is a huge filler section called the Ice Labyrinth. While not visually unappealing, it has no relevance to Frozen, and felt like a poorly contrived hurdle to delay your ascent to the top of the mountain. The party addition is also the abominable snow monster, Marshmallow, rather than being Elsa, Anna, or even Kristoff. I mean, the world is literally called Arendelle, but you can’t visit the town, or the castle. Heck, I even would have settled for the Troll Forest – anything but the desolate mountainside. A kingdom of isolation indeed.
The Monsters Inc area is similarly weak. I hope you like looking at concrete floors and metal machines – the entirety of this world is set in the factory area, and it grows stale quickly. I also found San Fransokyo to be a let-down – when you compare the game setting to the one featured in the movie, there are so many missed opportunities to add the unique flavour of the city from Big Hero 6. Instead, you get one giant square, the ‘downtown core’ populated with repeating buildings, stretches of empty streets, and little to see or do. Oh, you wanted to be able to go to the university? The cafe? Fred’s house? Anywhere with relevance to the film? Too bad, you can’t. It didn’t feel fair; but fares are for tourists, so I’ll move on.
Though traipsing through some of the duller worlds can be frustrating, the combat in Kingdom Hearts 3 is nothing if not entertaining. A slightly new (and extremely welcome) addition was the way the party is handled – in older games, you had to swap out a party member in order to add the unique Disney character from whatever world you were currently in. This resulted in one of your key members (usually Goofy for me) being underleveled, as they would receive no EXP. It was like the game was punishing you for wanting to hang out with Beast or Aladdin for a while. In this title, the Disney characters are automatically added to your party, with no members being dropped. Though your party is bigger, it’s a much better system mechanically, and ensures that you’re not grinding for EXP or having Donald or Goofy getting KO’d constantly. While retaining the same button-mashing, magic using, form changing style of Kingdom Hearts 2, this installment also adds a variety of powerful and unique ‘finishing’ moves. There are the form changes for each individual keyblade, special partner/team attacks, as well as the ‘Disney attraction’ moves. When one of these is triggered, you’re able to deal huge amounts of damage, and cover a large area with attacks based on Disney theme park rides. There is a swinging pirate ship, the iconic carousel, and a water park slide, among others. Visually stunning and fun to utilize, these attacks were fantastic additions. However, their lengthy animation run times occasionally made me choose to give them a pass.
This brings me into what is probably my biggest complaint about the combat – you’re able to build up these ‘special’ finishing attacks too quickly. As a result, the game stacks your big finishers in a small menu, visible on the left-hand side of the screen. While in combat, you may achieve your keyblade form change, a special magic attack (Thundaza, for instance), a team-attack, OR one of the Disney attractions. There is no way for you to pick which one you use – whatever was queued first will be the one that activates. So if you wanted to use your keyblade finisher (my personal favourite being the Tangled-blade-light-tower one) you might be out of luck. I often found myself irritably cancelling out of a Disney attraction move, in order to use the one I originally wanted. This seems like a rather egregious oversight (as Hades would say), to have no way of cycling through moves in order to pick the one you want – either that, or just allow one to be charged at a time. The combat has other issues, feeling ‘floaty’ and being too easy, but overall I enjoyed it – its fast-paced, fun, and the visuals are phenomenal. They did include some options to make the game more difficult, but at its foundation, it is rarely challenging.
The bosses in this game were also a major let down – no more fighting Disney villains. Instead, you’ll be fighting a bunch of Heartless that are all vaguely thematically related to the particular world you’re in. An arctic, wolf-like monster for Arendelle, for example. Though the bosses in the end game portion were much more enjoyable, the lack of recognizable villains made for disappointing boss fights. If every world had ended with a fight as cinematic and fun as the Titans from the first world, Olympus, the game would have been leagues better.
Why should I worry?
There’s a lot of excess content in Kingdom Hearts 3 – a lot. Similar to my complaints about Marvel’s Spider-Man, this title suffers from too many sidequests and additional content that is not necessarily well conceived. For example, the Gummiphone mini-games, while not unfun, left me wondering was this really necessary? The amount of time spent on including the superfluous 8-bit phone games, cooking mini-game in the bistro, and flan challenges could have been spent focused elsewhere. Again, while not all of these aspects were implemented badly, they just felt unnecessary and getting through all of them for the sake of a few trophies was a slog. I didn’t mind finding treasures, or photographing the Mickey emblems, but others I could have done without.
Playing not-candy-crush in the Hundred Acre Wood, and doing the Frozen slide dozens of times to collect all the items felt like pointless padding – a checklist that you want to grind through and then never touch again. If I have to crack one more egg (for that elusive ‘Excellent’ rating) or try the flan-slide through Thebes one more time, I’m going put my game disc in a box, put that box in another box, mail it to myself, and smash it with a hammer.
This game seems to lack (ironically) some of the heart of the original games – even through my nostalgia-tinted glasses, I couldn’t help but cringe at some of the melodramatic dialogue, and be disappointed at the lack of connection portrayed between certain characters. The friendship motif that the series is so well known for felt like it was missing from entire sections, and as a result, a lot of the dialogue felt empty, and the stakes of the narrative non-existent. It simply came across as a weak attempt to maintain a thematic thread from the rest of the series. In a way, I think it was impossible to create a satisfying conclusion to this series – there were too many years of convoluted story-telling, inconsistent character building, and frayed plot threads to possibly wrap up in a cohesive way. I did realize however, as I approached the endgame, that despite my complaints and frustrations, I wanted to know how the story ended. I wanted to see a favourite character (that they’d been teasing the whole game), and I did.
Seeing all of them together at the end was the emotional payoff that I’d been looking for throughout my time with Kingdom Hearts 3. And it was enough. Regardless of the bare bones narrative, the game was still a lot of fun to play, and I don’t regret my time spent with it. Despite all the criticism I’ve leveled at it, I still think Kingdom Hearts 3 is a solid game – I’d recommend it if you’re already a fan, or just looking for a fun, charming, nonsense game to fill some time with. Or, if you’re a big Disney fan like me, it was definitely an enjoyable experience to revisit the characters and worlds from the movies that I love. The combat is flashy and fun, the music is fantastic, and most of the worlds are brightly coloured, well designed, and visually stunning. I’m doubtful that Square Enix intended this to be the final installment of the series – it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re going to continue with the franchise (maybe KH3 triple redux 3.7 drop-distance remix?) and if they did, I would probably continue to play it. If they add a DLC option for this title, I’d probably go back for that as well. At the end of the day, I guess I’m just not ready to let it go. Alright, I’ll stop now.