Hey guys! Having reached the end of this week, it has now been just over two weeks since the release of Kingdom Hearts 3. After nearly 13 years of waiting between the second numbered entry and this most recent chapter, the question remains – how does Kingdom Hearts 3 stack up against its peers, both within its own franchise and when compared to other contemporary games? Well that’s exactly what we’ll be looking at this week. While I admit I have yet to finish the main campaign, I do currently have a total playtime of 33 hours invested in the game so far, and as such this will be less of a review, and more of a first impressions/ opinion piece on what I find good and not so good about this game so far. This is all my personal opinion and, before I go any further, I will also add a tiny disclaimer – I am a HUGE Kingdom Hearts fanboy. Any positive or negative opinions aside, I will always love this bizarre game franchise regardless, just as I have loved every game in the franchise so far, albeit in very different ways. I am going to try and avoid as many spoilers as possible but please be warned, from here on out there will be a minor spoiler warning, so if you want to experience this game with absolutely no information, then please leave now. With all of that out of the way, it’s time to dive down the otaku rabbit hole once again to see what Kingdom Hearts 3 has in store.
The game opens with our hero, Sora, back at it again, only this time he has lost a portion of his powers following the events of Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance. Obviously, then, he needs to rediscover that power, the power of waking, in order for him to restore the 7 Warriors of Light ready for their final confrontation with the 13 Darknesses and the main antagonist of the series – Xehanort. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the madness that is the Kingdom Hearts series, I can almost guarantee that what you just read made absolutely no sense. A BIG potential drawback for newcomers is the fact that this game takes for granted that its players have an in-depth understanding of the expansive lore surrounding this series, be that from having played the previous games or at least having read up on the Wikipedia summary. To circumvent the inevitable mass confusion that will come from jumping into Kingdom Hearts 3 unprepared, Square Enix have included the Memory Archives, short video summaries of the key events to have come from the previous games, which are incredibly helpful for newcomers while simultaneously providing series veterans with a trip down nostalgia lane. This is also an incredibly useful timesaver as, while this franchise is excellent and definitely worth a play through, there are very few people that have 100-200 hours of disposable time to spend catching up on what lead to this moment.
My first impression when I booted up Kingdom Hearts 3 and started my playthrough was, well… I was honestly underwhelmed. After waiting for what felt like an eternity for the newest numbered iteration of my favourite series, this just wasn’t what I had been expecting. The opening world, Olympus, was an admittedly lush world filled with diverse vistas and brimming with life, showcasing some impressively mixed weather and, to top it off, added a sense of urgency. Although this world was graphically stunning, showcasing just what the new engine was capable of and what we could expect from this game, my issues came more from the limited character movement options and the world itself, or more specifically, what it lacked.
To compare this opening to the now infamously long and drawn-out Roxas opening of Kingdom Hearts 2, the opening of Kingdom Hearts 3 goes relatively without a hitch, delivering the essential tutorials in a nice pretty package at a steady pace. However, my biggest issue is the fact that, when comparing worlds to Kingdom Hearts 2, there’s little need to re-visit these worlds after the first visit – returning more to what we would expect to see from the first Kingdom Hearts. These worlds will receive one long visit from players where they will complete the story of that world, where it can then be discarded and forgotten (unless you want to return to grind experience or synthesis materials). Additionally, these return visits can reveal that the large, overly stuffed worlds are in fact far more linear and smaller in scale than you’d be led to believe. More often than I would care to admit, I would find myself approaching a ledge that I thought would lead to a new area, only to be met with an invisible wall blocking my progress which proved incredibly frustrating. This is made all the worse when you reach a ledge with a chest, make the jump only to discover there’s an invisible wall preventing access, meaning you have to find the “correct route” to get there. Additionally, the slow, drip feed of movement abilities did irritate me at first as I found it difficult to traverse certain areas. However, that opinion has since changed. Gaining certain movement, flow-motion or jump abilities as you progress does make you feel as though you are learning through the adventure and is a slow but steady reward for your investment into the game.
Now while it may seem as though I’m being a little harsh, it’s because my expectations were so incredibly high to begin with that, when being met with something good instead of great, it was a bit of a let-down. That is ultimately a very personal opinion, however, and shouldn’t influence how you view this game.
The worlds of Kingdom Hearts 3 are a bit of a mixed bag for me. The Tangled-inspired world, Kingdom of Corona, which I had very little expectation for upon loading the game, proved to be one of the most well executed and fun worlds that I’ve played through, being both well developed, engaging and with a story that beautifully blended into Kingdom Hearts. I loved the way that the story we knew from the movie was still there in all its vibrant glory, having been only slightly tweaked to allow Sora, Donald and Goofy to fit better and provide some explanation as to why they would be there. With environments that would range from sprawling open fields filled with flowers and ponds, to dark and oppressive swamps with a feeling of foreboding, this world had it all. The final boss of this world in particular provided one of the real stand-out moments of the game so far for me, with the creation of a powerful Heartless really driving the message home of how these creatures are a by-product of the Darkness, and how terrifying the adversaries you will inevitably face can truly be.
Now, while I have praised how the developers have handled Tangled, I do feel as though this game’s approach to its world-building falls broadly into one of two camps: 1) keep everything the same as the movie, then add Heartless and Sora for some wholesome Kingdom Hearts goodness; 2) have the events act as a sequel/ alternate universe to the original tale to more seamlessly integrate the Disney and Square Enix elements. My preference, for the record, favours the second of these, as it limits the sense that Sora does not belong in a given world. The worst offender I found for Sora feeling shoehorned into the world, was Arendelle, the world inspired by the 2013 smash hit, Frozen. Many people over the years have come to realise that, when considering the first Indiana Jones movie, if the events of that movie had taken place without Indiana Jones ever being present, the events would ultimately have been the same. This is the feeling I got with Arendelle. While the events taking place are relatively entertaining, the Disney characters never interact with Sora in a way that makes him feel important to saving the day. Instead, he runs around a boring snowscape killing Heartless and briefly meets the beloved Frozen cast, before fighting a few bosses that die easily enough and leaving for the next world, without ever leaving a lasting impression on the world. While this doesn’t happen in every world, I found that the potential of some worlds was overshadowed by bad pacing or poor integration of Sora and friends into the adventure, making them feel inconsequential.
Sadly, it isn’t just Arendelle that falls victim to poor world-building and design at times. As these worlds stand alongside some truly phenomenal worlds with well executed concepts and beautiful scenery, both within Kingdom Hearts 3 and the franchise as a whole, these poorly executed worlds then stand out even more, but for all the wrong reasons. As I’ve already touched upon, I feel that the worst offender in this game is Arendelle. It has some of the most boring environments, being simply an excuse for developers to make a generic snow world, playing on the success of the movie, with little signs of the imagination and passion vital to make this world into something truly spectacular.
The fact that the only environments you visit here are snow-covered mountains, or the inside of an icy labyrinth, plays testament to this fact. Had players been given the opportunity to visit the town of Arendelle and interact with some NPCs and important characters to the story, this may have helped circumvent the overwhelming sense of boredom this world offers and counter the feeling that all parts of Arendelle blended into an indistinguishable blur. The jarring incorporation of the hit songs “Let it Go” as well as “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” also further made this world feel like more of a cash grab rather than a passionately driven portion of the game. Worst of all, when these sections started, I became truly worried that I was about to play another sing-along level, like Kingdom Hearts 2’s Atlantica. I’m truly sad to say that this world was ultimately the most disappointing moment for me so far in this game, not because it was bad, but because it was mediocre and much of its potential had been squandered.
Despite all of what I’ve said so far, this is not a bad game – not even in the slightest. As a result, I think it’s time to shift focus away from the negative aspects and instead place some focus on the elements that I find truly fantastic.
Firstly, I must give the story some definite credit. Without giving anything away, I am really enjoying the story so far, and the way that the choice of worlds plays in to the re-discovery of Sora’s power, and the importance of the Heart, be that of light or dark. The return of some of the series’ most iconic villains from throughout its history, from the first game right through to Dream Drop Distance, is delightful and keeps you wondering who is going to pop up next and is another motive to keep steering you ever forward. While the story is as convoluted as ever, if you’re a long-time Kingdom Hearts fan or even if you’re just in the mood for something endearing, this complicated story is the furthest thing from a downside and instead plays to its own strength of being charming and full of heart.
The visuals are clean, crisp and run at a constant frame rate that I have never seen dip in my 33 hours of play. The movements of Sora and pals are fluid to the extreme, which really helps maximise the overall player experience. Even in hoard battles, where the screen is filled with enemies and dynamic, flashy attacks, the frame rate is stable. Undeniably, this graphical fidelity is top notch. While I must admit, the new character models can be a little unnerving at first for long-time fans, you quickly grow accustomed to the change and it soon feels like the Kingdom Hearts we all know and love.
Now, on to my personal favourite aspect of the game – the combat and the sheer number of options that it has available. From the first world in the game, you are effectively shown just how dynamic the Kingdom Hearts 3 battle system is going to be. From having the ability to use magic and regular combos using the Keyblade alongside returning Summon abilities, you now have access to Keyblade transformations, flow motion and attraction flow. You will never be without some way to kill your enemy in style. Now, I’m aware that all those terms I just described will make absolutely no sense to the uninitiated, so here we go.
Sora can equip up to three Keyblades (the iconic weapon of choice) at any given time from his inventory, each of which can transform a set number of times. Similar to the form changes in previous games, only without the limiting form gauge, as you deal damage and rack up combos, a bar is filled which will result in the ability to perform either a super magic or a Keyblade transformation. These transformations do exactly that, changing the physical appearance of the Keyblade and therefore altering how they perform in battle. These transformations are incredibly diverse, ranging from long range arrow-guns, to hammers, magic staves and even yo-yo’s.
These transformed states, however, do come with a time limit, having a meter that slowly drains over time. Now, while it is possible to expend this gauge and then continue executing combos to initiate it again, it is often better advised to switch between Keyblades when you activate a transformation, as any transformations remain stored while that specific transformed Keyblade is not in use. This is particularly useful when you come across a tough enemy, where you can switch into a transformation and unleash hell. A personal favourite of mine is the “Ever After” Keyblade from Tangled (surprising, I know), with its ability to become a magic staff with incredible DPS and magic. Some Keyblades will even have a second transformation, meaning that you will have to build the meter twice, but some of these are really worth it for the pay-off. When in their transformed states, Keyblades will have a finisher move that will immediately end the transformation. These moves, while powerful, can either miss entirely or hit hard for some incredible additional damage. How well a Keyblade finisher will work is very much dependent on the Keyblade, but some are certainly better than others.
Flow motion and shotlocks
A new addition to the game this time is that of the focus bar. This bar is used to execute Keyblade specific, multi-hit attacks known as shotlocks. By holding R1 (on PS4), Sora will enter into a focused state. Here it’s possible to target an enemy multiple times or hit multiple enemies at once to unleash a devastating attack. These attacks can vary between Keyblades, and even within Keyblades, with approximately three variations of this attack for each Keyblade. While far from the best way to deal damage, this can help rack up the damage on bigger enemies and provide some well needed damage control in mob battles.
Flow motion itself also makes a return from Dream Drop Distance, only in watered down form. Certain items in the environment, like poles and branches, allow Sora to swing or bounce off them and execute unique attacks. While not something that will play a role in every battle, they can allow you to bring the pain and change up the combat in some interesting ways. If you see the chance, I’d definitely say it’s worth giving it a try to seeing if this style of combat is for you.
Finally, the most extravagant addition to the combat roster this time around is that of the attraction flow, where you can summon iconic Disney Park rides to use in combat. These can range from the Pirate Ship to the Thunder Mountain Railroad to the Spinning Teacups. While many of these can deal incredible damage and provide Sora with a period of invaluable invincibility, I can’t say that I ever willingly choose to switch into these, with them instead being activated by mistake. While not bad by any stretch of the imagination, they don’t suit my personal style of playing, as I feel they can slow the action to a snail’s pace. They do, however, provide some useful benefits depending on the options available, although, I wouldn’t recommend the blaster unless you personally love it, with the FPS view and boring damage-dealing options becoming a real pain when surrounded by enemies, as Sora can still take damage in this mode.
The Keyblades in this game are, quite honestly, fantastic! Upon the completion of each world, you will receive a new Keyblade to play with, each themed around the completed world and that has its own set of transformations and stats. What’s unique in this game, however, is that you could, generally speaking, use any three Keyblades acquired at any point that take your fancy, and complete the game with them. Unlike in previous games where earlier Keyblades quickly become outclassed by later Keyblades’ stats, in Kingdom Hearts 3 you can upgrade every Keyblade with synthesis materials that you have gathered as you progress, offsetting this issue entirely. The choice of Keyblades used then falls to your personal preference and how you like to play. For example, my playstyle uses a large combination of magic and Keyblade combos, meaning that a relatively balanced setup works well for me. As such, my current setup uses the magically-inclined “Ever After” (Tangled) Keyblade, the physical-focused “Happy Gear” (Monsters Inc.) and the balanced “Hunny Spout” (Winnie the Pooh). I can then switch between them at will to suit whichever situation I find myself facing. It’s the small quality of life improvements like this that truly make this game stand apart from others in the franchise. If I did have one complaint, it would be the fact that some Keyblades share some, if not all of their transformations with another Keyblade – the biggest offender being the Winnie the Pooh Keyblade and the Shooting Star Keyblade that have the same exact transformations. While not a huge issue, it is a little disappointing that every Keyblade doesn’t have their own unique selling point, but that is a very minor issue in the grand scheme of things.
Kingdom Hearts 3 has been a long time coming and honestly, it was worth the wait. A fun and immersive game, it gives long time fans the experience that they’ve been waiting for, but is likely to fall victim to its own hype, as 13 years is a long time for hype to build. While not a perfect game, providing a less than ideal jumping-in point for newcomers, there are many things for people to love here. From a personal perspective, I must say that Kingdom Hearts 3 has quickly risen to rank among my top 3 Kingdom Hearts games of all times. If for no other reason, this game is one to check out for its story, gameplay and sense of slightly darkened Disney fun. I for one cannot wat to jump back into the Disney magic and finally find out the conclusion to the Dark Seeker Saga. I have left out a lot of the joys and quirks that there are to be had in this game for spoiler reasons, but please believe me when I say that this review only scratches the surface of what’s in store for you should you decide to check out this game. With that, guys, thanks once again for joining me on this journey down the otaku rabbit hole and until next time, keep it weeby!