After thirteen years, a series of spinoffs, HD revamps and everything else Square Enix has thrown at us, we have finally come to another fork in the road for one of gaming’s most beloved franchises. I say fork in the road because I don’t feel this was truly the end of an era just yet. This shouldn’t be perceived as a negative: Kingdom Hearts 3 was certainly well worth the wait, but a few pacing problems with its story and a few steps back in explorative gameplay hinder this game from being perfect.
The story starts with a bang; already a huge improvement from the second game. Set after the events of Dream Drop Distance and 0.8 A Fragmentary Passage, Sora, Donald and Goofy have set off to Hercules Coliseum in order for Sora to learn the power of waking, which is keeping him from becoming a Keyblade Master.
It all goes to pot fairly quickly when the Heartless turn up in droves and Hades unleashes the Titans. Add Maleficent and Pete to the mix in finding a mysterious black box, along with Organization 13 trying to stir up trouble, and our three warriors have their work cut out for them.
In the meantime, King Mickey and Riku are on their own mission, trying to find the missing pieces of the seven Keyblade Masters of Light, namely, the three protagonists of Birth By Sleep: Aqua, Ventus and Terra. Their journey takes them to the dark world – a familiar territory to those well-versed in KH folklore. Here we find that Aqua, the main piece of the puzzle behind where Ventus and Terra are, is in a part of this dark world not even King Mickey wants to traverse.
Each Disney world you visit follows the same structure: Our three heroes visit a world, meet the locals and a member of Organization 13 appear acting like a campier Team Rocket. You fight a small army of Heartless and/or Nobodies, take on a grand boss and then the Organization 13 member blasts off again. One Gummi Ship ride later and the process starts all over again. You would think repeating this formula eight times over would be a chore, but this is where Kingdom Hearts 3’s narrative actually pays off.
Sora, Donald and Goofy’s chemistry is, put simply, adorable. It helps make the repetitive structure much easier to enjoy, as some of the one-liners had me chuckling along. Other characters such as Flynn and Rapunzel or Buzz and Woody only add to the good-hearted nature and don’t feel out of place. When Kingdom Hearts keeps to this simple formula, you are reminded why the franchise is beloved by many. Unfortunately, anything involving Organization 13, Ansem and Xehanort is more laborious. During these moments, the cracks in the KH3 narrative began to show.
While I appreciate KH3 had some lofty ambitions to try and tie up a few loose ends in its tricky to follow plot, the end result is a mixed bag. The plot has two speeds: complete stop or too fast to keep up with. The closing hours of the game in particular bombard you with too much information to keep track of, leaving you feeling burnt out as a result.
I found that there were three main sore spots to the plot that either were not explained very well or were just plain ignored. Firstly, what in the heck happened with Namine? She was built up to be a big deal in the spin-off games, but the mystery surrounding her identity isn’t clearly revealed because she had no major role to play in Kingdom Hearts 3, which causes further confusion.
Another problem I found was with Kiri and Lea, the Nobody formerly known as Axel, who are also training to be keyblade masters. However, the game basically ignores them, only relegating them to the odd cutscene. While you could see some chemistry between Kiri and Lea, for whatever reason Square Enix didn’t explore this further, which is a bit problematic when these two characters are arguably fan favourites.
Pete and Maleficent’s quest for this black box also felt like a plotline that goes nowhere. While it’s noted that Sora knows they are up to no good, there isn’t much of a payoff for those two, no climactic boss fights to be seen. They just appear every now and then before disappearing for another 4-5 hours of game time. The roles of the villains are at best threadbare and at worst unengaging.
One huge positive about Kingdom Hearts 3 is its presentation. Each world I visited popped and fizzed with lavish colours and beautiful graphics that it was very easy to fully immerse myself into these worlds, whether that was Monstropolis or even Port Royale. Not one world made Sora, Donald or Goofy stick out like a sore thumb, which made it such a shame when you leave these worlds with there being nothing to do with the main plot having moved on.
If, however, you want to deviate from the main path for a while, Kingdom Hearts 3 has various mini games and other diversions to sink your teeth into. The Gummi Ships make a much more satisfying comeback, rather than just as filler in between worlds as there are now whole universes to fly around and explore. I have to admit, in previous KH games, I never really liked the Gummi Ships and just saw them as pointless fodder. In this installment though, I really wanted to do as much with them as possible.
With each Disney world comes mini games, high scores and trophies to master. There are the Game & Watch style mini-games; a nod towards the classic Nintendo games of the late 80s. There is also 100 Acre Wood, a world that has Candy Crush style games that will give you base ingredients. There is also, without a doubt, my favourite mini game of the bunch: the Ratatouille cook-offs, which give you series of recipes to cook that can give buffs to your party. I don’t know why I enjoyed this particular mini game, but I did sink a fair few hours into it.
Though all mini-games that are mentioned are thoroughly enjoyable in their own right and those of you who love the EXP grind will be spoiled for choice on where to go, I was left with the impression that more could have been done. Even Hercules Coliseum doesn’t have any tournaments, which really seems like a missed opportunity. You can collect the emblems hidden in each world in order to trigger the secret ending, but there’s little here to hold your attention beyond the main questline.
Fortunately, Kingdom Hearts 3’s combat is excellent. The fast-paced hack and slash style is still prevalent and to KH3’s credit, there are plenty of new features that make combat more enjoyable throughout the game’s considerable runtime. These features add various special moves to master, which include teaming up with Donald or Goofy to perform team-based moves such as launching Goofy into the air to attack your enemies below or teaming up with Donald to launch fireworks or meteors onto your foes.
The keyblades you collect have their own unique movesets dubbed ‘Formchanges’ and ‘Shotlocks’, the latter of which was carried over from Birth By Sleep and can devastate hordes in seconds. Then there are the attraction moves, which summon Disneyland rides to take down enemies in grand neon fashion. Add the link system, which summons various protagonists from other Disney properties such as The Lion King and Wreck-It Ralph, and you are spoiled for choice in how to deal with the Heartless and Nobodies that plague each world.
In my almost 30 hour run through of the game, not once did I feel bored or like the combat was repetitive. Sora can wield up to three keyblades, all of which can be upgraded so the game encourages you to mix and match as much as possible. Chaining together a few special moves to clear out a large room of enemies never gets old, especially as you learn more moves over the course of the game. Kingdom Hearts 3 boasts a solid, easy to follow and enjoyable combat system that’ll have you begging for more Heartless and Nobodies to dominate.
There is so much more I could do to describe Kingdom Hearts 3, but as a Kingdom Hearts fan, KH 3 really was worth the wait. Kingdom Hearts 3 had a huge task to undertake, to close the book on some chapters and yet keep things open for new possible ideas and characters to enter the spotlight. The ending provides some answers, but also purposely keeps questions open for another tale.
While the game does come with some problems with its plot and big empty worlds, I wouldn’t call them deal breakers, as whatever they lacked for they made up for with energy and, no pun intended, heart. If you were around for Kingdom Hearts since its humble beginnings and its messy muddlings, then you will love its third installment. It may not provide you with every answer you seek, but it will remind you of its premise to live by in life:
“Let your heart be your guiding key and you will find the light you seek.”
Despite its flaws, Kingdom Hearts 3 provides a more than fitting ending to Sora’s chapter and its presentation will leave a lasting impression on long-time fans. With careful lessons learned from its past, Kingdom Hearts’ future has never been so bright.