*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*
Is it possible to love half a game? Or to half-love a game? Because I think that might describe my feelings for Kingdom Hearts 3. I honestly can’t remember the last time a game had me grinning from ear to ear and feeling like a kid on Christmas one minute, and then leave me aggravated and annoyed like an adult at the DMV the next. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me feel so emotionally polarized.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is the long-awaited “third” installment in the main Kingdom Hearts series, arriving thirteen years after Kingdom Hearts 2. Of course, considering how every handheld “spinoff” entry in the series that was supposedly intended to whet the appetite of fans in the interim between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3 are all part of the main story, Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t really Kingdom Hearts 3 at all. It’s more like Kingdom Hearts 9. And that kind of takes away a little something from the long-awaited experience.
Even from the game’s opening moments, it doesn’t feel like the thirteen-years in the making trilogy capper it should be, but just another random episode in a series. In fact, if it weren’t for the game’s final stage (which somehow simultaneously rushes plot resolutions and drags things out at the same time), you’d probably never even think Kingdom Hearts 3 was serving as the end to the storyline that began with the series’ first entry.
Kingdom Hearts is, of course, Square-Enix’s crossover franchise which sees original characters created by Final Fantasy alumni Tetsuya Nomura travel across the different worlds of classic Disney films. The series also used to boast the occasional Final Fantasy character, but that aspect has been dropped almost entirely for this ‘third’ entry (sans for the Moogle shop, and a few cameos via constellations in the stars. No, not even Sephiroth returns as a super boss).
It’s the Disney half of the game which is the half I love. As a particular fan of Disney’s recent animated films and those of the Pixar brand, Kingdom Hearts 3 is especially enticing in this regard, as Disney’s recent animated output and Pixar films are what Kingdom Hearts 3 really emphasizes this time around with its Disney-themed worlds.
There are seven primary Disney worlds featured in Kingdom Hearts 3 (plus the traditional, optional Winnie the Pooh world, which focuses on mini-games), five of which fall into the modern Disney and Pixar categories: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Tangled, Frozen and Big Hero 6. The additional two Disney worlds are based on Hercules (which has been present in all three ‘main’ Kingdom Hearts titles) and Pirates of the Caribbean (specifically At World’s End, a movie I actually very much enjoy despite its general reception). Additionally, the game’s best side quest involves Sora and company seeking out ingredients and making new recipes for Remy from Ratatouille.
Even though it’s a smaller lineup of Disney worlds than some of the previous games, Square was clearly aiming for quality over quantity. And in that sense, they nailed it. This is the best lineup of Disney films the series has represented. And it’s within this Disney fan service that Kingdom Hearts 3 is at its very best.
There’s an inescapable delight every time you enter a new Disney world and Sora, Donald and Goofy interact with characters and events from the films. Many of these characters even have their original voice actors from their respective movies (the cast of Frozen, Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, James Woods as Hades, and the perennial John Ratzenberger as Hamm are particular highlights). Of course, this also means when a character doesn’t have their original actor, it does kind of stick out like a sore thumb (I’m looking your way, Pirates of the Caribbean world).
If you’re a Disney fan – particularly a fan of modern Disney, such as myself – it’s impossible not to have a smile beaming across your face during many of the game’s Disney-centric moments. Naturally, seeing Frozen’s Let It Go recreated for the game stands out as my favorite, but you also get the lantern scene from Tangled, get to ride on the endless door conveyor belt from Monsters, Inc., and fly around San Fransokyo atop of Baymax. It’s moments like this when Kingdom Hearts 3’s many flaws wash away and you can simply bask in the charm of the Disney worlds.
With that said, the game often bungles what should be easy fan service. In both the Tangled and Pirates of the Caribbean worlds, their unique party members (Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Tangled, Jack Sparrow in Pirates) seem to repeatedly leave your party at every other turn, leaving them feeling underutilized (particularly in Tangled’s case, as Rapunzel no longer joins you if you revisit the stage after its story is done).
In perhaps the game’s most dumbfounding (or hilarious) creative hiccup, the Frozen world doesn’t see Elsa or Anna join Sora’s party, but Marshmallow the snowman (geez, they couldn’t even make it Olaf). Some might say they were trying to do something unexpected, but that seems like the wrong place to do it. Wouldn’t getting an unexpected party member in a returning world like Hercules or Pirates make more sense? They have access to the most popular animated film in history, and don’t fully utilize the main characters? Is it a joke? Especially seeing as Rapunzel – who barely seems to join your team at all – is the only female party member you get in the game, it makes Elsa and Anna’s omission even more baffling still.
Another disappointment with the utilization of the Disney brands is in the boss fights. In past Kingdom Hearts titles, you would at least battle against a fair amount of Disney villains. In Kingdom Hearts 3 there are only three boss fights against Disney characters: The Titans in the Hercules world, Marshmallow in Frozen (they’re certainly getting a lot of mileage out of Marshmallow, it seems), and Davy Jones in Pirates. You can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have added a few more.
The non-Disney half of the equation is as clunky as ever. What’s even worse is how the game seems to reinforce the idea that the Disney stuff isn’t important, and only Tetsuya Nomura’s characters actually mean anything in the grand scheme of the Kingdom Hearts mythos. Nomura’s original creations simply don’t have any of the likability of the Disney characters with whom they often share the screen.
Even after all these years, Sora remains the atypical “anime boy doofus” character you’ve probably seen a thousand times over in other sources. The villainous Organization XIII consists of one-note, entirely interchangeable bad guys (with the game almost self-awarely reinforcing this when the Organization starts swapping out some members for other characters). Sora’s love interest, Kairi, still amounts to little more than a damsel in distress. Riku is the archetypal ‘rival’ who flirted with the dark side. There are other Keyblade wielders thrown into the mix without any real purpose to be in the story at this point. There are clones of characters. Clones of clones. Characters who aren’t clones but look exactly like other characters. There are even characters who share the same name as other characters!
Yes, it’s sad to admit that instead of learning from past mistakes, Nomura has instead doubled-down on them (whether through stubborn arrogance or blissful ignorance, I’m not sure). Instead of developing the core set of main characters, Nomura just kept adding more and more players throughout the series. This has left his original characters with about as much depth as a shallow puddle.
As stated, the Disney element has also suffered from this abundance of characters, with the different Disney casts being shoved to the side as the game constantly reminds us how unimportant they are. In one telling moment, an Organization XIII member discovers that the Dead Man’s Chest from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is not the macguffin he’s after, and immediately disregards it. Yep, that key item from the second and third Pirates movies is merely scoffed at by just another one of the original villains. It almost feels like Kingdom Hearts is now embarrassed of its crossover element at times.
The plot of the game and its characters would feel infinitely smoother if it made the Disney characters feel important to the narrative. Organization XIII alone would be a far more memorable villain group if some Disney and Final Fantasy villains were in its ranks (seeing as they’re established characters, you wouldn’t have to take time with introductions and getting to learn their personalities, thus leaving room to flesh out the original characters that are present). It seems like it should be obvious. You have a big crossover with Disney and Final Fantasy, why not make those aspects of this mythology feel like they mean something? But one is (admittedly delicious) dressing, and the other is barely existent anymore.
Suffice to say, the narrative of Kingdom Hearts 3 is a bit of a mess, with its only real charm stemming from the Disney characters and moments it borrows. But how is Kingdom Hearts 3 as a game?
For the most part, it’s pretty fun. The gameplay is primarily separated into two halves. The first half sees players control Sora, with Donald and Goofy serving as permanent teammates, and each Disney world coming with one or two teammates of their own (for a nice change, you no longer have to swap Donald or Goofy out of the party to make room for the new guys). The gameplay is predominantly a hack-N-slash RPG, with Sora and company hacking away at hordes of Heartless and Nobodies. The D-pad cycles through quick menus, allowing you to use items, cast spells and other such actions. In terms of control, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels a lot like its predecessors, which means it’s quick to get into if you’re familiar with the series, but also means some of the controls feel stuck in the PS2 era.
Sora’s jumps still feel a bit clunky, and cycling through those “quick menus” may not be as quick as one might hope once you start unlocking more abilities and options. If you found the combat of the past games to be a little repetitive, you may find that to be the case here as well. But there are a few new additions to the gameplay that may win you over.
Some may lament that Sora can no longer change into different forms like in Kingdom Hearts 2, but there’s been a fair trade in that the different Keyblades you acquire can change forms instead. By chaining together combos, your currently equipped Keyblade can temporarily transform into a new weapon, giving Sora new moves, altering spells, and boasting a powerful finisher.
Other abilities can be utilized by performing combos as well. Do enough moves when standing next to a teammate, and you can perform a special move with them. Chain together enough spells, and you can perform more powerful versions of said spells. And in one of Kingdom Hearts 3’s best new additions, defeating certain marked enemies during a combo will allow you to summon an “Attraction.” As the name implies, Attractions are vehicles based on Disneyland rides that work like transformations for all three main heroes.
The only issue I have with these different abilities is that they’re all used by pressing the same button (Triangle on PS4). You can cycle through the temporary abilities you currently have available (L2 on PS4), but in the heat of battle it can get confusing and you’ll often use a different ability than the one you wanted. But they do help keep combat fresh.
The other half of the gameplay are the Gummi Ship sections, and this is where Kingdom Hearts 3 has greatly improved on its predecessors.
Players travel between worlds aboard their Gummi Ships (and can do so freely, should they so choose). Whereas past entries placed the Gummi Ships in fixed rail stages that, frankly, weren’t very good, Kingdom Hearts 3 instead boasts three different sandbox worlds set in outer space.
Players are free to fly about the galaxy at their leisure, can fight enemies and bosses, and find hidden treasures. Most treasures consist of more Gummi Ship parts, as players can create their own vessels, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts style. The more you do in space, the stronger your Gummi Ship becomes, and the more options you have available when creating new ships.
For a nice change of pace for the series, the Gummi Ship sections actually feel like a worthy and complimentary alternative to the main game. I found myself willingly spending entire play sessions just in the Gummi Ship portion of things.
In addition, there are more than a few side quests in Kingdom Hearts 3 that will keep players occupied outside of the main story. Along with helping Remmy create fine cuisine, the Disney themed stages all host a myriad of Hidden Mickeys (referred to as “Lucky Emblems” in the game). By taking photographs of these Lucky Emblems, the player can unlock secret items and abilities (naturally, the camera can also just be used to goof off as well). And a number of worlds feature their own mini-games where the player can once again unlock bonuses and earn high scores.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is a beautiful game to look at. As usual, Square-Enix provides some of the cleanest looking cut scenes in gaming. But the real visual delight of the game is how accurately the developers have captured the look and feel of each different Disney world and the styles unique to them.
Perhaps Kingdom Hearts 3’s most consistently great element is its music. Once again composed by Yoko Shinomura, Kingdom Hearts 3 combines her unmistakeable style with renditions of classic Disney themes in addition to original compositions. Even when other aspects of the game seem to be pushing the Disney element to the sidelines, Shinomura’s terrific score brings it to the forefront, while also creating its own identity.
In the end, it’s hard to say that Kingdom Hearts 3 lived up to the thirteen year buildup. And if you weren’t a fan before, it may leave you wondering what all the fuss was about to begin with. The story aims for emotion but never resonates, due to the lack of substance in the characters (an obvious product of the fact that there’s just too damn many of them). The gameplay is fun, but lacks polish in a number of areas. And despite the franchise’s biggest selling point being its status as a Disney crossover, Kingdom Hearts 3 often comes across as dumbfounded as to how to make that crossover mean anything.
Yet, despite all the complaints, I’m still happy I played it. The gameplay is solid enough in its own right, complimented by the vastly improved Gummi Ship segments. Best of all are the Disney worlds themselves. Though they could have (and should have) been better implemented, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a persistent glee in my heart simply by running through these worlds, meeting the characters, and seeing iconic scenes recreated. Some might say I’m just a Disney fan who fell for Nomura’s bait and switch. But hey, when the bait is this enticing, can you blame me?
But seriously, next time have Elsa join my team.