If you travelled back in time to when I was in high school, or even middle school, and told me that I would be playing “Kingdom Hearts 3” in 2019, I wouldn’t believe you. Not because I wouldn’t believe it had come out so late, but because I wouldn’t believe that it had come out at all.
Ever since “Kingdom Hearts 2” was released in 2005, fans have been eagerly awaiting the debut of the next numbered title in the massively successful crossover between Disney and Square-Enix (the video game company behind the “Kingdom Hearts” franchise”).
Finally, after a slew of additional non-numbered entries in the series, “Kingdom Hearts 3” has finally arrived. I have been a massive fan of “Kingdom Hearts” since I was five years old, and “Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix” remains my favorite video game of all time.
The plot of “Kingdom Hearts” is notoriously thorny and needs context. In the finale of the 2003 Dark Seeker Saga, “Kingdom Hearts 3” continues the journey of the Keyblade wielder Sora, opening with his new mission to regain the strength he lost following the events of “Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance” and to discover the Power of Waking, so that he might gather the Seven Guardians of Light to battle against Master Xehanort’s Thirteen Seekers of Darkness.
To accomplish this, Sora is joined by Goofy and Donald Duck as he travels to a variety of worlds based on several Disney films such as “Hercules” and “Tangled.” Not surprisingly, newcomers to the franchise might have a very difficult time keeping up with the bizarre premise. “Kingdom Hearts 3” throws you right into the midst of a finale 17 years in the making, drawing upon literally every previous entry in the massive franchise and expecting you to keep up. While the game does its best to help catch up newcomers by means of summary movies and journal entries, there is a lot to keep track of.
I was satisfied overall with this game’s plot, but there were a few glaring issues that were only made more apparent by some truly horrendous pacing. Practically every reunion, reveal, battle and character moment that fans have been anticipating for years are all shoved into the last two hours of the game. As a result, many of these events wind up feeling cramped and rushed, harming their overall impact. With that in mind, while “Kingdom Hearts 3” may be fundamentally flawed in some areas, it is still an excellent game and largely fulfilled my long-held expectations.
Players will spend most of their time controlling Sora as he travels throughout various Disney worlds, a staple of the series. From a design standpoint, most of these worlds are among the best that the series has ever had to offer, combining gorgeous graphics, large explorable areas and a surprisingly intuitive parkour system.
Not only are these worlds jam-packed with collectibles, they also possess several details and hidden secrets that make them feel in line with their cinematic counterparts. Series director Tetsuya Nomura has stated that “Kingdom Hearts 3” features the closest collaboration between the game developers and Disney content creators in the series’ history, in what proves to be a double-edged sword.
For example, the world based on “Frozen” almost certainly suffers from some creative stranglehold on Disney’s end to preserve the image of one of their most profitable brands. Players basically go through a reenactment of the hit movie, but only on the sideline, as Sora and company barely get to meaningfully interact with the film’s characters or plot.
On the other hand, the worlds based on “Toy Story” and “Monsters Inc.” are two examples of Square and Disney acting perfectly in sync. Each world features ridiculously entertaining original storylines not based on any previous film that allow the two companies’ creations to come together and bounce off each other. It’s a lot more fun to see Sora fight alongside Mike and Sully or convince Buzz and Woody that he’s not a delusional toy, than it is to simply watch everyone go through the motions of “Frozen.”
From a gameplay perspective, “Kingdom Hearts 3” is one of the most complex entries in the franchise, taking real-time action combat to a whole new level. Once again, players juggle Keyblade combos, magic, items and summons similar to the previous numbered entries in the franchise.
However, this tried and true system is now joined by modern versions of mechanics from non-numbered games, along with new endeavors. There’s a lot to keep track of throughout a battle, getting into the rhythm of alternating between these different systems, as you jump between enemies and build up increasingly flashy combos.
The new Keyblade (a type of weapon) transformation mechanic is undoubtedly my favorite addition, as it truly gives each Keyblade its own unique properties and attacks. For example, I found myself favoring the “Tangled” Keyblade for its focus on single-target magic damage, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” Keyblade for its crowd control abilities and the classic Kingdom Key for its ability to restore Sora’s old movesets from the previous two numbered entries.
Additionally, Keyblades can now have their stats upgraded, so every Keyblade can be made viable for any level of difficulty throughout the game. This is an absolute godsend for someone like me, who favors the movesets of certain Keyblades and who doesn’t want to be forced to choose a specific Keyblade because its stats are objectively better.
However, no matter how much I found myself enjoying the game’s combat, there was one aspect that was constantly nagging at me. Throughout my 25-hour playthrough of the main story, I only found myself being challenged in the last two hours when I came close to dying while battling the final boss.
The magic system seems especially overpowered, and the new Attraction Flow system, which allows Sora to summon classic Disney rides, is ridiculously useful considering how easy it is to activate it during a fight, often wiping out whole groups of enemies.
I found myself ignoring the system just to make things more interesting. Granted, I was playing on standard mode, but I’ve heard similar reports from friends who have played on proud mode, a more advanced level. Additionally, a quick session with the game’s zero XP ability enabled from the start, which keeps Sora at level one, shows that it merely turns fights into unnecessarily long slogs against bosses with massive health bars, as opposed to previous games where level-scaling turned Sora into a veritable glass cannon who shreds though bosses as easily as they kill him.
Still, I enjoyed the game. In fact, I would say that “Kingdom Hearts 3” easily ranks as the second or third best game in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. It managed to take a ridiculously complex story and bring it to a relatively satisfying conclusion, minus a few major hiccups. The combat continued to entertain and even amaze, even if the difficulty could have been turned up a bit. I can only hope that like previous games, a “Final Mix” version is soon in the works, which should alleviate some of these problems. However, even in its current state, “Kingdom Hearts 3” is a delight to play and proves that this long running series can still entertain its players.