FINALLY! - Kingdom Hearts III (REVIEW)
written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
It’s here guys! The game I have waited 13 long years to play, 13 years of spin offs and remasters have led to this. Kingdom Hearts III is the culmination of what Tetsuya Nomura calls the Dark Seeker Saga. What started with the events of the first Kingdom Hearts and has been further fleshed out via the non-mainline titles between the second and third installment has found its final chapter. This is the bookend for Sora and his pals, but also this turned out to be quite a difficult game to review. It’s hard to really talk about it because the gaming landscape and myself as a person has changed so much in thirteen years. But hey now, here I am to break down what I felt about Kingdom Hearts III.
The story opens up directly following the events of Dream Drop Distance (originally released on the Nintendo 3DS) Riku has passed his Mark of Mastery exam and adventures with King Mickey to save Aqua (from Birth by Sleep) after she fell to darkness in Kingdom Hears 0.2 Birth by Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage (originally released with Kingdom Hearts 2.8). It’s revealed that Sora has lost most of his powers and he’s tasked by Master Yen Sid to rediscover what it means to be a hero. This leads our plucky protagonist to visit Hercules with Donald and Goofy in tow. It’s here that the story opens up, also giving us a bit of a self-aware joke by calling this first mission Kingdom Hearts II.9 instead of flashing the Kingdom Hearts III logo… I laughed.
As a complete package, Kingdom Hearts III does a good job of getting us up to speed. Included is a series of videos that summarize the backstory from the title screen. I’ve played pretty much every spin-off game but even I could have used a refresher. The gist of the story is that Master Xehanort is collecting members to form his true Organization XIII to act as vessels for his heart. The ultimate goal is to summon Kingdom Hearts, a power of immense proportions that he intends to use to rewrite the universe as he sees fit. While Xehanort is living out his Voldemort fantasy, Sora’s quest has us adventuring across many unique worlds based on beloved Disney properties. Best of all, we finally get worlds based on Pixar films with Toy Box (Toy Story) and Monstropolis (Monsters Inc). Both these worlds ended up being two of my favorite places to explore. The rest of the Disney worlds we can visit include Arendelle (Frozen), Kingdom of Corona (Tangled), San Fransokyo (Big Hero 6), with the return of the 100 Acre Wood (Winnie the Pooh) and The Caribbean (Pirates of the Caribbean). Several unique worlds to Kingdom Hearts also make their appearance with a stripped down Twilight Town, from Kingdom Hearts II, acting as the main hub world, much like Hollow Bastion from Kingdom Hearts II.
Most of the Disney worlds follow the story of the films; with San Fransokyo, Monstropolis, and Toy Box seemingly set apart from pre-existing stories. The most jarring world in my opinion was the Caribbean. Just like in Kingdom Hearts II, tossing “super-anime Sora” into a realistic setting still looks off. Even with the visual upgrade I couldn’t help but feel like it clashed. If Kingdom Hearts wanted to include a world with water, aside from rehashing Atlantica, they would have been better off venturing to a world based on Moana or maybe finally doing a Lilo and Stitch world. From a narrative standpoint, this world seemed to clash the most thematically… there was one part that adapted the ending of the third film At World’s End where the Black Pearl and the Flying Dutchman destroy Cutler Beckett’s ship, killing him in the process… Sora and company were still in the world and seemingly reveling in this. I feel like this goes extremely against the core themes of Kingdom Hearts all for the sake of following the story of the film it was based on. I would have been fine with them not even bringing Pirates of the Caribbean back, honestly this was the lowest point for me playing.
Overall, the story itself isn’t nearly as convoluted as people make it out to be. Whether you’ve played through all the games or experience most of the story through catching up, Kingdom Hearts III ends up feeling like a satisfying end to this saga.
On the gameplay front, there is so much that has changed from the series making Kingdom Hearts III one of the most satisfying gameplay experiences of the entire franchise. Still billed as an action RPG, how you attack ends up granting various additional moves. Focus on using your keyblade and you can activate transformations which differ depending on the keyblade, focus on magic and you can cast a higher tier of that spell. Returning from previous games are unique attacks you can pull off with your party members. A big change to this entry is in how you no longer have to substitute Donald or Goofy to have a guest party member. Some worlds give you two additional party members like Sully and Mike Wazowski in Monstropolis or just one additional like Captain Jack in the Carribean. Kingdom Hearts III also incorporated gameplay elements from some of the spin off games, you can now use flowmotion to jump off walls and grind on rails or free-fall into a more powerful attack like in Dream Drop Distance, Shotlock from Birth by Sleep also returns with more variety depending on which keyblade you have equipped. Maps are much bigger now, just wide but high. Some walls have a shine, signifying that these walls can be run along. It takes a bit of getting used to but despite being kind of overwhelming, all these additions make for an incredibly satisfying gameplay experience.
Speaking of keyblades, Sora’s signature weapons can now be upgraded and my favorite new addition is that you can equip up to three of them; switching between them with left and right on the d-pad. Of course some abilities have to go with reaction commands and drive forms from Kingdom Hearts II being left out. I did miss having the drive forms, letting Sora dual wield keyblades was one of my favorite drive forms, but alas that was omitted from Kingdom Hearts III.
Summons return, being rebranded as links Sora can call on. These links feature familiar faces like Ariel and Simba and carry with them unique gameplay culminating in a devastating finisher. The newest addition to combat is in summoning attractions. These are big situational attacks that utilize rides based on Disneyland attractions to attack with. Imagine hopping on a rollercoaster or carousel and using it to vanquish the Heartless! These were tons of fun to summon and helped keep some familiar faces in the game without having to dedicate a whole world to them.
Of course, getting between worlds means flying around in the Gummi Ship. I remember disliking this is Kingdom Hearts and enjoying it in Kingdom Hearts II. While mostly unchanged, this game mode received a substantial overhaul. Opening up the space between worlds as a place you can explore and not just an on-the-rails shoot-em-up. When you encounter enemies, you transition into a static game mode where you have to survive the onslaught, destroy as many enemy ships, or fight a boss. There are turrets and debris you can shoot while you explore, but most of the combat stays contained. I really enjoyed the Gummi Ship this time around, it had the large levels like the first game with a more exciting combat mechanic from the second game.
In the thirteen years since the release of Kingdom Hearts II, this franchise has gone to great lengths to establish their cast of characters. From Chain of Memories to Dream Drop Distance, the cast has increased exponentially beyond the original trio. What started as a melding of Final Fantasy and Disney began to lean heavier into Disney. This is further proven with the complete lack of Final Fantasy characters in Kingdom Hearts III. Even their friends from Destiny Islands; Selphie, Wakka, and Tidus were nowhere to be found. In Twilight Town, Seifer is just “away on an adventure” and even the denizens of Radiant Garden; Cloud, Aerith, Yuffie, Cid, Leon (Squall), and Tifa are never mentioned save for a comment about Cloud from Hades. I get it, Kingdom Hearts doesn’t need Final Fantasy characters to bolster the ranks, the franchise can stand on its own two feet now… but as a die hard Final Fantasy fan, it was a shame not to at least see the friends we made along the way. Personally… I would have loved to have Final Fantasy XV’s Ignis help during the cooking mini-game with Remy.
As the end of The Dark Seeker Saga, a storyline established 17-years ago, this game was a hard one to review. I wanted to be as objective as possible while still honoring how absolutely hyped up I was for this. Kingdom Hearts III was a story almost two decades in the making, a part of me feels like no amount of resolution could ever be satisfying. But looking back at everything, not just the mainline titles but also every title that beefed up the over-arching narrative. Kingdom Hearts was an experience, something that grown men have been waiting for since they were kids. It’s crazy to think that someone who was 10-years old when Kingdom Hearts came out is 27-years old today. Honestly, I was satisfied with how it ended and the epilogue genuinely surprised me. While this is the end of the Dark Seeker Saga, Xehanort seems to be just the first big bad for Sora. Tetsuya Nomura has stated that this isn’t the end for Sora, I just hope I don’t have to wait 15-years for Kingdom Hearts IV.
4.5 out of 5
A wonderful end to a new beginning?