In what will no doubt be humorous to long-time fans of the series thanks to the number’s prevalence to the plot, it has been 13 years since Kingdom Hearts II released, with fans eagerly awaiting the next numerical instalment ever since. This long-awaited video game is by no means the third in the series though – heavens, no. In fact, it’s actually the twelfth.
Often described as a blend of Disney and Final Fantasy – although there are very few Final Fantasy connections this time round – Kingdom Hearts is an action-RPG series from Square Enix that begun on the PlayStation 2, with entries releasing on the PlayStation Portable, Nintendo 3DS, and even mobile.
To call these non-numerical entries in the series ‘spin-offs’ would be incorrect, as they all follow the same central plot, adding essential characters and lore to the story that carries over into the ‘main titles’.
In fact, Kingdom Hearts III kicks off immediately where Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue left off (yes, those are their real names), with protagonist Sora tasked by Fantasia’s Master Yen Sid to discover ‘the power of waking’ and search for the new seven Guardians of Light, with his loyal friends Donald Duck and Goofy by his side.
While those unfamiliar to the series will no doubt enjoy this game for the action-packed epic that it is, a prior personal attachment is almost required to understand and deeply care for its story and many, many characters.
The series is infamous for its overly convoluted plot, and newcomers are unfortunately unlikely to find much solace with that here. Playing this as your first in the series would be like jumping into Game of Thrones from season 5 – you may enjoy it, but you sure as heck won’t understand it.
The included ‘Memory Archive’ videos, which briefly explain the plot so far in 5 short chapters, act as a great recap for fans, but frankly aren’t going to help newcomers very much. In a way, that’s surprising and respectable – Kingdom Hearts III primarily caters for the fans in a way that most big-budget games don’t.
As such, I feel it’s important to briefly touch upon my personal history with the Kingdom Hearts series. Kingdom Hearts and its first numbered sequel were my favourite video games growing up, and were immensely important during my school years. Bonding over it literally helped form life-long friendships, and it was for the longest time my absolute favourite piece of media ever, to the point of having quotes from the game stuck to notes on my wall.
I consider interviewing series creator Tetsuya Nomura to be both my professional and personal greatest achievement, and have a cabinet full of Kingdom Hearts merchandise on display in my home. I am irrefutably a fan, and the prime target audience for this new sequel.
That’s not to say my intense personal bond with the series has led me to blindly love it; the tangled plot has disillusioned even me at times, and the incessant, not-so-subtle themes of light, darkness, hearts, and friendship feel considerably dafter in my adult years. I definitely groaned at least once or twice during Kingdom Hearts III’s many cut-scenes (seriously, there’s almost as many cut-scenes as there is gameplay, so prepare yourself for that).
No spoilers, of course, but suffice to say that if you are a fan, Kingdom Hearts III is everything you’ve been waiting for. The ‘Dark Seekers’ arc is wrapped up in a wholly satisfying way, with the kind of epic final act that you’ve been dreaming of for more than a decade. I’m not embarrassed to admit that a tear may have been shed.
Set across eight primary worlds based on Disney properties such as Frozen, Big Hero 6, Toy Story, and Pirates of the Caribbean, there are fewer worlds than in previous instalments, but each is considerably larger and wonderfully varied.
In what was a breath of fresh air for me, most of these locations are still linear experiences that focus on the game’s core combat mechanics, as opposed to following the open-world trend of modern gaming. The notable exception is the Pirates of the Caribbean world, which has you traversing an open sea aboard a ship. While I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this world at all, I was surprised by how entertaining the nautical combat was, and the story can be followed linearly if you have no interest in exploring for treasure.
Some other worlds include their own unique gameplay mechanics that deviate from the norm too; Toy Story’s world lets you climb aboard giant mech suits to fight in, and the Winnie the Pooh realm returns in a similar fashion to previous titles, playing as a selection of frankly tedious mini-games. At no point did I fully comprehend or enjoy Rabbit’s puzzles games, but hey, I managed to get through them without much hassle. There’s also a selection of ‘Game & Watch’-like mini-games, but they’re equally as passable.
Kingdom Hearts III frequently attempts to dip its toes into other genres, which sadly rarely produces positive results. The biggest perpetrator is the Gummi Ship segments, which is how you travel between new worlds. Flying around in the sort-of empty open-world of space isn’t particularly fun, and while some attempts have been made to spruce up this long-standing part of the series, it’s still Kingdom Hearts III’s weakest area. Its complete omission would not have felt amiss, but it gratefully doesn’t take up much of your playtime.
Thankfully, the bulk of Kingdom Hearts III’s gameplay is an absolute marvel. Combat is truly a sight to behold, with a vast array of abilities at your grasp that makes Kingdom Hearts III a truly unique experience unlike any other action game. Alongside the obvious attack, block, and magic attacks, team attack prompts will show up during combat that let you initiate powerful, dazzling attacks with your teammates. There are also Attraction prompt attacks – neon-drenched, eye-catching displays based on Disney theme park rides like the Pirate Ship, Mad Tea Cups, and Magic Carousel.
Then there’s Formchanges, which are powerful, spectacular finishing moves that differ depending on the Keyblade weapon you have equipped. As you can equip three at a time and switch between them on the fly, this adds another layer of depth to your combat possibilities.
Shotlock commands let you lock on to multiple enemies and unleash a torrent of projectiles. The Link command lets you summon characters like Simba and Wreck-it-Ralph to unleash devastating attacks. The sheer number of techniques at your disposal is frankly astonishing, and they’re all colourful, hugely entertaining displays that make combat a constant joy.
Animations are stunning, with some cut-scenes virtually indistinguishable from the movies they’re representing. Frozen’s world includes a complete rendition of ‘Let it Go’ which appears to be practically identical to the film, and the photorealistic graphics in the Pirates of the Caribbean world are absolutely incredible.
Like previous entries, some of the worlds resemble the story of their source material, even down to copying the jokes verbatim at times, which can make the character development of Disney characters a bit lacklustre. Fighting alongside Hercules, Mike & Sully, and even the snow monster from Frozen never gets old though, especially as each comes with their own dazzling team attacks.
Enemy variety with the wide range of Heartless, Nobody, and Unversed monsters is an absolutely joyous romp. With new, thematic enemies and bosses found in each world, they’re one of the finest, most enjoyable elements of the game, perfectly complimenting the fantastic combat mechanics. While some critters are returning foes, the majority are brand new, including possessed action figure enemies with toy-like joint movements, massive towers made of Shadow Heartless, bull-like enemies that rush at you in hordes, and more.
Likewise, it’d be criminal not to mention the killer soundtrack, which is some of the best work from composer Yoko Shimomura’s library to date. It’s a truly masterful work of memorable, catchy, beautiful symphonies that will doubtless find its place in future round-ups of the best video game soundtracks. New themes are phenomenal and hearing classic themes reproduced with a full, authentic orchestral sound is sublime.
Kingdom Hearts III is an experience that’s been worth waiting for, with this entry serving as one of the series’ finest moments. Although the tangled storyline and horde of characters may be unapproachable to newcomers, the colourful, mind-boggling variation of the weapons and attacks in your arsenal is a truly dazzling spectacle, and undeniably fun for the duration of this 30-40 hour long epic.
For long-time fans, this is a grand send off that completes the current story, with a particularly memorable finale that gives those fans exactly what they’ve been waiting for. With a killer soundtrack and an amazing array of enemies and worlds to boot, this could be 2019’s first must-play hit.
Platform: PS4, Xbox One
A PlayStation 4 copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes, and was played on a standard PS4 console.