14 Years In The Making
When Kingdom Hearts 2 came out back in 2005, I was 16 years old and in college. Skip forward 14 years past one marriage, two kids and one subsequent break-up later it feels like a lifetime ago since this franchise first launched back on PS2. For many people, it almost seems unfathomable that the long-awaited third chapter in this franchise has finally come out. Now that the hype and excitement around the game has died down somewhat, how does the game fare in comparison to the others?
With numerous prequels, sequels and time travelling shenanigans, trying to make sense of Kingdom Heart’s convoluted story requires 40 minute YouTube videos and reading through a slew of recaps just to get to the point of understanding the basics of what’s happening. While there are some recap videos here, they’re basic at best and don’t do an awfully great job on explaining everything. I won’t divulge the main plot at work here but the jist of it revolves around you leveling up to battle the evil clone twins Xehanort and Xemnas from wreaking havoc on the world and plunging everything into darkness.
Of course there is a lot more than that here including Mickey and Riku searching for a long-forgotten warrior while Axel and Kairi train to become Keyblade wielders in a secret forest. All of this while tackling time travelling, a big Keyblade war and Organisation XIII. Given the last time a fully fledged action-RPG Kingdom Hearts game came out was 2005, it’s best to take the story with a pinch of salt. The ending does go someway to try to wrap everything up but whether you’ll care enough to stick it out through to that point really depends on how invested and determined you are to try to make sense of it all.
The writing and dialogue are still as cheesy and expository laden as it’s ever been but really, it’s the gameplay that this series has become known for over the years and with that in mind, Kingdom Hearts does really well to bring that nostalgic feel back to the franchise.
The worlds look great and visually, everything in Kingdom Hearts III is amazing to look at
I mentioned last year about Ni No Kuni II’s combat system and whether you like or loathe that game, there’s no denying the fighting there was tightly refined and managed to perfectly balance combat with magic and summonings. Given the lengthy development time of Kingdom Hearts III, it’s surprising then that the combat doesn’t quite match up to that game’s standards, at least when it comes to challenging and responsive fighting.
The fights themselves are relatively straight forward and continue to rely heavily on chaining together moves by hitting X repeatedly. This in turn allows you to string moves together to hit enemies, with square used to dodge or block attacks. Chaining together enough moves opens up the ability to hit triangle and“form change” your key blade into a more powerful version of itself.
While this alone would be fine, the added inclusion of special moves, combo attacks with Goofy and Donald, “magic ride” attacks and Links (summons) means you’ll spend a lot of time hitting triangle and watching animations play out as you chain together special after special. The camera swings wildly during these segments too and at times it can be difficult to make sense of where you are on the battlefield.
To make matters worse, once combat ends these special moves continue to count down and if you’ve got a few chained up, expect to wait for up to 40 seconds for these to drain before engaging with anything. Given triangle is also used to trigger save points, accidently spawning a lengthy magic carousel segmentoutside combat is hilarious and also incredibly irritating.
Until very late on in the game, combat is depressingly easy too, even on proud mode. There is the ability to turn on Zero XP mode which keeps you at the same level but given the inclusion of all these special moves, you could theoretically make it through the first 5 worlds or so without much hassle.
The Gummi ship is back and this time on an open-world map
As you journey through the levels, you unlock more keyblades and the ability to upgrade each of these helps with the feeling of progression as you battle through the 8 iconic Disney Worlds on offer. The same RPG systems from before return too, with each subsequent level giving you an extra ability. These abilities have their own points allocated to them which subsequently fills up your AP meter. Extra accessories and armor help too and finding the right set-up for your character is crucial, especially during the latter parts of the game.
The worlds themselves are the real star of the show though and everything in this game is dripping in visual splendor. Travelling through The Colosseum with Hercules or running through the beautiful Kingdom of Corona with Rapunzel brings that nostalgia flooding right back in. There’s been some real care and attention put into crafting these worlds and despite Twilight Town’s disappointingly short inclusion here, the rest of the worlds range from an hour to 4 hours to complete.
The beautiful lighting, level and enemy design in these worlds all combine to make for a really convincing and thoroughly enjoyable romp through some of Disney’s most iconic worlds. After finishing these levels, the story really kicks into gear and from here on out, Kingdom Hearts focuses on wrapping everything up and trying to explain its own complicated story.
When you’re finished with the final boss, each world plays host to a smattering of collectibles too. Your usual array of treasure chests make a welcome return to the series along with the new inclusion of Lucky Emblems. These are essentially iconic Mickey ears hidden around the environment which you take pictures of. While some are easy to find, others are more ingeniously hidden, making use of the objects inside the environment and requiring you to really line up your shots with the newly acquired gummiphone.
Combat often devolves back to a plethora of special moves
In a bid to make the game more relevant to this era, the Gummiphone is your go-to place for all things Kingdom Hearts. From here you can take part in Classic Kingdom games which are unlocked through big chests hidden in each world. There’s also cooking mini-games, individual challenges to each world and a whole load of photo missions as well.
The Gummi ship’s back this time around too and while some lamented its inclusion in the previous games, I personally really enjoyed these little on-rail shooter moments and they helped to break the game up.
In Kingdom Hearts III, you fly to different worlds in an open world with the ability to level up your gummi ship along the way. This allows you to buy more parts and kit out your ship with more powerful weapons and faster speed. It’s quite important you do this too, especially late on when some compulsory boss fights will test your patience and accuracy in big ways if you haven’t taken the time to do this.
Meeting all the various Disney and Pixar characters remains the highlight of the series
If there’s one thing the game lacks this year, it’s the inclusion of Final Fantasy’s influence. While the game has always leaned heavily toward the Disney side of things, the moody inclusion of Final Fantasy balanced things out nicely but the lack of any meaningful characters or worlds is a bit disappointing here. Given how important some of these characters have been to prior events in the series, the decision to remove them completely is a questionable one at best.
If I’m being brutally honest, Kingdom Hearts III was never going to live up to its hype. Not really. After 14 years of speculating, waiting and deliberating over Square Enix’s long-awaited sequel, Kingdom Hearts is everything you’d expect from a game like this, released 5 years too late. The various gameplay beats, combat structure and stop/start nature of the game’s gameplay and cut scenes feel both dated and out-of-place here.
Don’t get me wrong, the game is great fun and I’ve sunk over 35 hours into this one, trying to collect every treasure and secret beyond the final boss. It’s a lot of fun and the game has that nostalgic charm that makes you really feel like you’re playing through a proper Kingdom Hearts game. It’s just such a shame that the game doesn’t do enough to justify 14 years of waiting. It’s a good game, no doubt about it, but it’s also one riddled with problems.
If you can forget about the story and take to the gameplay, flaws and all, you’re sure to have a blast but if you go in expecting a game of the year contender, you may be left a little disappointed.