A lot of stuff can happen in thirteen years. Heck, that’s about the average lifespan of the typical family dog. That also happens to be the amount of time fans have waited for the release of Kingdom Hearts III after Kingdom Hearts II.
Think about it.
If you were 15 years old when you finished the second game back when it came out, you would be 28 years old now. And if you were age 15 when you first played the original Kingdom Hearts in 2002, you’d be about 32 or 31 right now. That’s right, the kids who got into the series when it first came out could very well have kids of their own now (in fact, that’s the case with a family member that I gifted the first KH game to as a birthday present).
This puts Kingdom Hearts 3 in an interesting spot. One of the trickier things that the game has to deal with is the fact that it basically caters to three different audiences. You have folks like me who were in their 20s when the first game came out. You have those young kids and teens I just mentioned who have since gotten older. Then you have today’s crop of younger kids and teens for whom this is likely their first game in the series.
Like Sorcerer’s Apprentice Mickey suddenly facing a multiplying horde of brooms in Fantasia, I could just see Tetsuya Nomura and his merry band of Kingdom Hearts imagineers mulling how to deal with such an expansive and diverse audience. Apparently, their solution proved to be a simple one. Just make Kingdom Hearts 3, well, a Kingdom Hearts game.
Not to say that this game doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The first thing I noticed was just how visually stunning it is. Remember when cutscenes for games like Final Fantasy 8 were pre-rendered and looked way, way better than the actual character models and environs in the game itself? Well, the regular character models and environs in KH3 put those old cutscenes to even more shame than Cersei Lannister walking through the streets of King’s Landing at the end of Game of Thrones’ fifth season. Heck, I remember Pixar investing an insane amount of money on technology to create and render the visuals for the first Toy Story. Now you have debates on the Internet on whether Kingdom Hearts III’s Toy Story scenes are better than the original movie’s or not.
Kingdom Hearts III, to its credit, boasts visuals that are crisp, vivid and punchy. The fact that it runs on a $300 console makes you realize just how far technology has come. I’m not just talking about the 8-bit days of yore. I’m also talking about the previous-gen PS3’s cell processor and “Emotion Engine,” which Sony hyped to the moon at the time. Back then, I wasn’t that impressed by the visuals of the first batch of games for the PS4 and Xbox One — at least when compared to the changing of the guard from previous console generations. I still remember being wowed by the jump from 8-bit to 16-bit and then the transition to the Saturn, PS1 and Dreamcast. The shift from the PS3 and 360 to the PS4 and Xbox One, on the other hand, didn’t seem like it was as big a leap visually. As current-gen systems reach the tail end of their life, however, games like KH3 show just how much performance developers can squeeze out of the machines. Console performance still is not on the level of a tricked-out PC. But it is mighty impressive for a $300 box (well, $400 in my case with the PS4 Pro).
Kingdom Hearts III also does a great job in unifying a smorgasbord of disparate art styles into a cohesive whole. From a world dominated by simpler shapes and childish designs such as Toy Story to the grittier, more realistic style of Pirates of the Caribbean, KH3 incorporates a wide palette of distinctive and — at times — incoherent or disjointed art styles. And yet it manages to make them all work together. These include impressive attention to detail, which you notice when looking up close. I thought Hercules’ design was a bit “meh” at first. Then the camera zoomed in during a cut scene and I could see the textures on his clothes. Even as I laugh sometimes about the preponderance of zippers in this game’s original clothing, I can’t help but be impressed with the level of detail present in KH3.
Besides the little things, Kingdom Hearts 3 handles the big stuff with aplomb as well. From giant boulders raining down as you scale Olympus’ walls to big fights that can be literally and figuratively described as titanic, the production values for KH3 are top notch. Boss battles in the game are like an event, and the use of over-the-top, colorful special attacks that have an almost Disney ride feel make it feel like you’re taking part in an interactive parade at the Magic Kingdom.
The game also doesn’t tie down its battles to one plane. Kingdom Hearts III loves to make use of all the real estate it can provide, whether it be by land or sea, sky or even space. You’re encouraged to use the environment to zip around or alternate between attacking on the ground or shooting up in the air, giving battles a larger sense of scale and freedom.
While Kingdom Heart III’s ambition works well with its visuals, however, it can get a bit convoluted when applied to its combat. There are just so many things going on as well as mechanics you have to keep track of, that it can be a slog to familiarize yourself with everything at first. These include timed inputs, Flowmotion movement, melee, magic switching, link attacks, Keyblade form changes and all sorts of other stuff in between. So much so that it’s easy to get confused and lose track of the action, especially when you’ve got a cornucopia of colors and other stimulus competing on the screen. Having shortcuts help but I literally had to load up the tutorial after taking a break for a few days to review other games, just so I can remember how to do everything again. I also wish you had the option to remap buttons. I’m so used to jumping with the PS4’s X button in other games so I always go through an adjustment phase when switching back to KH3.
Even when you get a hang of the mechanics, however, there’s still what I consider the biggest issue with the game’s combat: its lack of precision. This especially can be a problem when fighting multiple foes on tiered surfaces where you can fall. It feels great when things are working the way you want to and you’re hitting exactly what you want to hit and heading where you want to go. Sometimes, though, I’ll lock-on to an airborne enemy, proceed to home in on it, but it flies off the edge and you end up falling several levels below after you dispatch it. I’ve had this happen a few times after activating a special attack, only to have the attack time out as I try to return to get back up to the mob I was originally fighting. The combat also feels a bit floaty for me. I can play a game like Bayonetta with pinpoint precision, for example, and pretty much have my brain go on autopilot while deftly switching between attacking, dodging and counters and be exactly where I want to be. In KH3, I’ll try to Flowmotion off a pole to pounce on an enemy and half of the time, I end up not quite doing what I wanted to do.
Interestingly, what I enjoyed a lot with the combat are the shooting mechanics or sequences. I especially loved stuff like the Blaster Blaze shooting cart special, the Big Magic Mountain special attack and the Panzer Dragoon-esque sequence during the Pirates of the Caribbean segment of the game. I even liked the Gummi Ship shooting portions, which combine mechanics from Star Fox, Galaga and a few other games. These just felt simple and to the point, and I could cut loose without having to worry about a lack of precision or flying off the edge.
The other major part of Kingdom Heart’s three-legged stool is its story. As the KH title that’s supposed to provide closure for this particular story arc, the story is probably one of the most anticipated parts of the game from hardcore fans. What happened to Aqua? What’s Ventus’ fate? These are all questions that fans who have stuck with the series have wanted answers to for a long time. For folks who fell in love with the game’s various protagonists, you can even say that its resolution is something personal.
The good news is that Kingdom Hearts III will finally provide those answers. The bad news? If you’re a newcomer or someone who played the first two games but didn’t keep track of the numerous side games such as Birth By Sleep or Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, it’s like being dropped off in a foreign country where people don’t speak your language. That’s because these side games include some chunky and important exposition that is not present in the first two mainline games. There’s just so much narrative bulk to keep track of that it’s easy to feel lost. Heck, even if you played those other games, so much time has passed that it’s easy to lose track of what happened. Instead of dumping the entire plot on players right from the start, Kingdom Hearts III decides to go the slow and steady route. Honestly, it’s likely the best course of action as the series’ plot has transformed into a Gordian Knot at this point, to the point that it feels like a long journey without a map at times. Eventually, though, you start to recognize the route and you’ll make it to your final destination.
Is the payoff worth it? For longtime fans, I’d say it is. Even if you’re new to the series, I believe it’s still a journey worth taking. The Kingdom Hearts series is one of those rare occurrences that required plenty of things to happen at the right time and the right place in order for it to exist. Who knows if we’ll ever see a crossover with the sheer size and scope of this one, especially with a Disney cast? I wish it had more Square Enix characters, to be honest. But it remains a testament to the grand ambition of the minds behind it and their unyielding determination to see it through even after all these years.
Ultimately, despite its convoluted story, Kingdom Hearts III is the tale of a boy and his friends out on a grand adventure to save the people they care about. While there are certainly plenty of action-adventure games out there, there aren’t many games like this one. In that sense, it’s almost akin to playing a slice of video game history. Who knows? Perhaps 13 years from now, it’s one most folks will look back on fondly as well.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is no small world after all, featuring a ton of Disney characters and areas for you to connect with. Figuring out the story can be like wrapping your arms around a giant boulder festooned with tons of zippers. The floaty combat also can be a bit slippery to get an adequate handle on at times. It’s stunning visuals, wonderful sound and epic grand scale, however, make this a magic carpet ride you’ll want to get on board with, whether you’re young or young at heart.