STAFF REVIEW of Kingdom Hearts III (Xbox One)

Sunday, February 17, 2019.
by Adam Dileva

Kingdom Hearts III Box art To say that the Kingdom Hearts series has a fiercely loyal and patient fan base is putting it lightly. With just over a dozen games in the series, fans have been waiting a long time to finally get some closure since the series began back in 2002. Announced back in 2005, Kingdom Hearts III has been one of the most anticipated sequels, and only short glimpses of it were shown before its release.

If you have not been following the series over the past 17 years or so, its premise revolves around your typical light versus dark, good versus evil and friendship, but what made the series so special in the beginning was its blend of Square Enix games, like Final Fantasy, mashed up alongside Disney franchises. Collaborations aren’t uncommon, but this was one of the first major titles done with this much quality and creativity with such a massive brand behind it.

Not only has Kingdom Hearts III been a long time coming, and teased, the wait is finally over, and it almost feels surreal to finally be playing something fans, like myself, have been waiting well over a decade for. Given that this installment is on current generation consoles, the graphical prowess that it harnesses now is unlike anything seen in the series previously, and it’s apparent once you start to experience some of the flashy mechanics like attractions, but more on that shortly.

Sora, fighting alongside Donald and Goofy, are on a journey to save their friends, revolving around a friendship theme, which is very fitting for a Disney based title. Sora will need to overcome the darkness with light and the power he holds within his heart. You are tasked with stopping Master Xehanort, and the Heartless swarms, that are trying to bring darkness upon the world.

If you’ve played previous installments of the long running series, you’ll encounter many familiar faces such as Organization XIII, Riku, Aqua, Roxas, King Mickey, as well as dozens and dozens more. Sora must learn the “power of waking” to save his friends, so he will set across many different worlds in search of not only what that is, but how to obtain it. The Heartless of course will be around every corner trying to thwart their plans, so you’ll be forced to fight, almost constantly.

Normally I would delve feet first into the plot to give you an idea of what you can expect, without spoilers of course, but the storytelling in the Kingdom Hearts series has become so convoluted and confusing that I would struggle to explain it well and coherently. Before even playing Kingdom Hearts III, I had to watch a recap video of what’s happened to this point to try and explain it all, and even though there is a section in the main menu that does give you the basic back story of everything that’s happened to this point, it doesn’t do a great job of detailing it in simple terms for newcomers to the series.

While I’ve been a fan from the beginning, I’ve missed the odd game or two in the series, and I still was confused from the onset, so I can only imagine someone new to the series trying and figure out what’s going on, why Sora has multiple “hearts”, which version Xehanort is from which timeline, what a Keyblade is, and more. I would actually categorize Kingdom Hearts storytelling and narrative structure just as confusing, if not more, than the Metal Gear series. It’s A LOT to take in and it is terribly confusing, an aspect I think that really holds it back in certain ways. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy my time with it, as things eventually came together by the time the credits rolled, but that was with me paying fierce attention and making notes as I went along, something I don’t see many others doing when they're simply trying to enjoy the experience.

Sora and company will travel to numerous Disney and Pixar worlds in search of answers. You’ll travel to the worlds of Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Frozen, Winnie the Pooh, Big Hero 6, Pirates of the Caribbean and more. I don’t want to give away all of Kingdom Hearts III’s secrets, but the one massive draw that I truly loved about the series initially was the inclusion of Square Enix’s worlds and characters from their Final Fantasy series. For some reason they are completely lacking in this long awaited sequel. There is a quick blurb about that universe in a cutscene early on, but that is it. I’m not sure why this focus has changed so dramatically, but the whole experience is purely a Disney focused one. The quality and overall narrative is there in droves, but I don’t understand why the lack of this other portion of world and characters has been completely ignored this time around, which let me down.

As you explore each world, you battle numerous types of Heartless and Nameless enemies. Combat has evolved since the last outing with Sora, feeling much more fluid, exponentially flashier and beautiful. Now, Sora is able to equip up to three different Keyblades as he unlocks them from completing each Disney reel, and he is able to swap on the fly mid-combat. Each Keyblade (essentially your sword) has its own attributes, stats and abilities, so you can create a combination to suit your playstyle. I preferred the melee heavy attacks, so I went with the more physical based Keyblades, though a more magic based approach can be used should you wish.

As you land hits and combinations, you’ll unlock abilities that can be used in combat for a brief while. For example, when I fill and unleash my combo meter with my Monsters Inc Keyblade, it transforms my weapon into dual yo-yo’s with spikes around the rim, allowing me to do more area based attacks at once. Other Keyblades each have their own transformations and unique abilities, so make sure to test with each one, as having the ability to shoot enemies from a distance can come in quite handy, allowing you to combat any situation.

Combat feels very smooth and fluid for the most part. At times the camera will become confused with certain angles and walls if you use the lock-on feature for enemies. That being said, for the most part you’ll eventually have no problem juggling enemies in the air, dashing from one foe to another taking down swarms of Heartless at once. This is where your skills come into play. As you level, you’ll earn more skill points, allowing you to equip more abilities at once. Each ability has a different cost, so you’ll need to decide which one you want to equip to suit your playstyle.

I equipped every air ability, allowing me to dash and air combo with ease, and eventually I was able to free-fly and increase my speed. However, you may prefer to boost your Fire, Ice, Water, or other magical abilities if you prefer to play with magic based attacks instead. Goofy, Donald, and your quest partner from the corresponding world you’re in, will also need their own abilities equipped, so you can have your main magic user, Donald, use a boost to his curative magic, or boost to his damaging magic instead, it’s up to you.

Magic has an interesting mechanic too, and doesn’t rely on the overused mana based system found in so many RPG games. Sora has a set amount of magic in a bar, and you can cast as much as you want until it’s empty. Once it’s empty it will slowly refill over time, allowing you to cast again once it’s full. It’s great to either save as a backup for emergency heals, or shoot Heartless from afar with lock-on magic attacks like Fire, Blizzard and more.

Attractions are hands down the most visually appealing combat moves you can perform throughout your time in Kingdom Hearts III. Here you’ll essentially ride a Disney themed attraction you’d see right out of Disneyland Park, and it is used as a super move of sorts. Teacups, Bumper Car Blasters, Water Ride, Train Roller-coaster and more are just a few of the attractions you’ll use along your journey. These are an absolute spectacle to witness, as it’s super bright and colorful, much like a lit up ride at a night. The fact that you ride these interactive attractions alongside your closest friends makes it hard not to smile at every time you perform them.

There is also gear you can equip, but it’s quite basic, and it is essentially just your armor and accessories. There’s no multiple slots for arms, legs and other pieces, though you can eventually wear multiples as you progress in your adventure. What I found really interesting was that gear generally only has slight improvements as you earn, and find, upgrades. Sure, you become more powerful as you upgrade, but it was never a substantial difference that I could tell, as that was more based on my Keyblade of choice and its abilities.

As you progress, find chests and defeat enemies, you’ll acquire pieces needed for synthesizing, which is essentially a crafting mechanic. Defeat hordes of Heartless, bosses, and find secrets chests to net yourself the required components, allowing you to not only craft new and unique powerful items, but also allow you to improve your Keyblades by upgrading their damage. Returning to the series is the Gummi Ship, a small spacecraft that you’ll pilot in space to get from one Disney world to the next. Here you can explore space, blast meteors and even take on swarms of Heartless in minigame sidescrolling-like battles. As you unlock and earn new parts for your ship, you’ll be able to upgrade and design your own Gummi Ship to your liking. You’re not forced to really focus on this aspect of gameplay, but I found myself spending hours in my Gummi Ship, adding more turrets and finding crazy designs people have made online. I went for a purely offensive design, but again, you can design and spec it however you wish.

There’s a lot going on with Kingdom Hearts III, not just mechanically, but narratively as well. It’s difficult to take it all in at once if you haven't been following the series closely up to this point, that doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible for you and other new comers. Even if you’re unable to make any sense of the vastly convoluted plot, you’re still able to enjoy the combat and seeing Sora and friends get included into the Disney worlds.

The only noticeable oddity I found in nearly every world is that many of the iconic voice actors aren’t used and reprising their roles. For example, Woody and Buzz aren’t voiced by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, but instead people that sound similar, or doing an impression of their performances (to be fair, Woody is voiced by his brother, but it’s still not quite the same). I get there’s a budget, or maybe the actors didn’t want to take part in the game, but when a character has such an iconic voice, it’s impossible to not notice when it simply sounds off, not bad by any means, just different. There are others that did reprise their roles though, and they sound just as great as they did in the movies themselves, so it’s a mixed bag. The soundtrack though is exactly what you’d expect for each respective world, with the iconic music faded into the background as you play.

So, has the decade long wait for this anticipated sequel lived up to all the hype? It’s hard to say. I did enjoy my 30 hours with it by the time the credits rolled, and can easily go back for another 50+ hours for bonus stuff should I desire in the future. It’s such an odd feeling to finally have some closure and finality to the series I’ve been enjoying for almost two decades, but it’s finally time to say goodbye to this chapter of Kingdom Hearts and await to see what comes next, hopefully with a much shorter wait this time around and a much more concise way of storytelling.

Overall: 9.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.5 / 10
Sound: 8.8 / 10


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