This is part of my Kingdom Hearts III special. This is the Beginner Mode (aka spoiler-free) version. This review is made for those of you who fall into any or all of the following categories:
- You’ve never played a KH game.
- You’ve casually played one or two KH games a while back.
- You just don’t want to be spoiled.
If you belong in this group, I hope you will read on!
Kingdom Hearts III, perhaps more than any of its other siblings, is a bit of misnomer. It is titled as the third game in the series, but depending on how you count them, it’s closer — or is — the tenth. But unlike other Square Enix (Japan) flagship series Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, each Kingdom Hearts does not exist in a vacuum. The games all build upon the existing mythos and expand it in its own way.
Ways that, as many players argue, ruin the series more than help it. Although I won’t go deep into that, there’s little doubt that the abundance of games since 2005/6’s Kingdom Hearts II has made Kingdom Hearts III difficult for newcomers to understand. Which perhaps is a bit ironic considering the gameplay is probably the most newbie-friendly.
As you probably know by now, Sora, a former ordinary teenager, now can use a legendary weapon called the Keyblade, which is meant to protect the world. Yet after failing a test, Sora is tasked with finding the power to help fight against an upcoming war of legends. He teams up with his dear friends Donald Duck and Goofy as they visit several worlds and interacts with the residents (who are from other Disney properties).
I had checked out of keeping up with all the KHIII-related news a while back, as I wanted as much of the game to be a surprise to me as possible. But one of the first shocks I got was when I opened the menu. Sora, Donald, and Goofy (SDG) are given many abilities right out of the gate. Most openings to RPGs boil down to just attacking with maybe one special or magic-related ability, but Kingdom Hearts III gives players many options from the beginning. The game does a fairly good job of introducing the mechanics, and the abilities are more clearly labeled and organized than ever before. For those concerned about low level runs, relatively few abilities are learned during level up. Lots are given after key fights, and whatever you’re missing can be given via equipment, which you can buy, find, or synthesize.
As for those abilities in combat, KHIII is still a button masher. It’s very easy to power your way through, particularly since KHIII only has three levels of difficulty versus four in most other games. Even though tons of enemies can and probably will appear together, Sora has a ton of options to keep things in his favor. Perhaps a little too many. Keep up the pressure, and you can get some free (and devastating) attacks. One particular option I thought would be reserved for some major battles, but you can use them in almost every regular fight, and even multiple times. Another gives you a way to store special attacks for later use, and it is possible to get a temporary boost to your stats or a once-per-battle rescue. Although it is easy to lose control of Sora and let him go on a combo frenzy, all the different techniques are pretty flashy and cool to use. You can steer Sora to fit your type of playstyle (attack, magic, defensive), but no matter which you choose, it’s just so much fun. There are even a few times where it’s a gimmick (alternative) type battle instead of the regular combat, which adds some variety. Somewhat ironically, those were often the toughest parts of the game.
In addition, Donald and Goofy are also surprisingly tough and smart. Donald in particular has gone from being extra squishy to a surprisingly sturdy mage. In some ways, they were actually better than me. I had a heck of a time tracking enemies, either because they wouldn’t be in range to lock on to them or them wandering in some out-of-the-way area. I would know enemies are still around, but I couldn’t find them. Donald and Goofy’s AI, however, would, and using the default AI for them meant they never let up. Plenty of times I would just follow their lead in trying to nail down those annoying opponents that I had a hard time finding. Plus, they seemed to manage their MP really well. I never felt like they were dead weight even with tons of enemies in almost every battle. It really feels like Sora, Donald, and Goofy are a well-rounded team.
This next part goes back to the whole story issue: because of the way the main conflict is set up here, battles against humans/humanoids are very rare. Some of the most rewarding, rich battles in the series have been against a single person rather than than the ones against the monster(s). I’ll remember the fun of fighting, but not who I was fighting against.
The much ballyhooed battles are a stop-and-start affair, so they lost some impact for me despite looking and feeling rather cool. I do hope that either a Critical Mode is released or there is someway to refight more powerful versions of these opponents. This would force a lot of players to rely more on learning patterns and defending rather than powering through. One of the first worlds I found to be the most difficult… if you fight normally. There’s a special gimmick in the world that makes things easier or, depending on your opinion, more manageable. Otherwise, there’s some bonus battles but only one Superboss in regards to postgame content.
Going back to the story, despite the big bads all hiding out until the endgame, it was nice to see some of them creating discord throughout the worlds SDG visit. Some of the lands feature a rehash of the original movie they’re based on while others are more or less sequels. It was a good mix, and the trio all add their own charm to the worlds as well with their optimism and good-natured ribbing. Some of the characters there will join you, and you may be surprised by your teams no matter if you’re a KH veteran or new player.
The areas themselves also feature a good mix of handholding and free exploration. There’s a collectible hunt and some very well-hidden treasures for those who want to go adventuring. Donald and Goofy also chime in and offer tips. For those not good at exploring or platforming, the game doesn’t punish players for a badly-timed jump or anything. You can try again without having to go too far back. Still, there are some tricky areas to navigate, and it is easy to get lost at a couple of points. Usually just doubling back to the previous save point and retracing your steps will make you realize there’s a wall or something you missed that you can climb.
One world in particular I felt was poorly designed because of the lack of unique areas to visit. It even had a poor ripoff of a particular place in the movie, and I don’t know why we weren’t allowed to visit the original. (Its inclusion also makes no sense.) Another one was short and pretty much pointless. What was a major disappointment was the low number of worlds, especially not including one that has been key to the entire series. The worlds here are larger than before, but the number of them was on the low side. The locations themselves might have been bigger, but the journey feels a little short. Again, part of the reason is that so much is reserved for lategame.
One or two more worlds would have helped in another way: spread out some of the cutscenes a little. It’s a good idea to make sure you have some free time after finishing a world, as it can be a while before you can do anything again. There are always going to some interruptions as SDG go through a world, but the lengthy breaks between being able to just beat up some enemies can be very annoying. Yes, cutscenes can be skipped, but don’t go skipping the non-Disney world ones. There is a lot to take in thanks to some complicated plot points, especially if you haven’t played through every game in the series. KHIII tries to explain the current situation and new revelations, but even I was left confused as points. While much is wrapped up here, if you haven’t played a certain Kingdom Hearts game yet, this confusion seems like it’s only going to get worse in the next installment.
And trust me, there will be a next installment. I mean, I figured whatever new entry probably wouldn’t take nearly as long as KHIII considering all the time invested into making the graphics and battle system. But the ending… it’s something alright. It’s less of an excitement toward the next game and more like we’ve waited all this time to get Kingdom Hearts III and are already back in waiting mode.
So in that way, KHIII is a disappointment. Might as well go play the other games since this leaves some big questions. However, be aware that as time goes on, it’s going to be really hard to avoid having the ending ruined. This is especially so since there’s going to be a lot of conversations about certain key characters. Expect some very strong feelings about their decisions, motivations, and fates, so if you want to like to get into debates, Kingdom Hearts III is the game for you.
Graphics-wise, the game looks amazing. KHIII feels like you’ve landed in these movies. I do imagine that standard PS4s and Xboxes will be pushed to their limits at points, as even I experienced a slowdown on PS4 Pro. A glitch too. On the other hand, the game has a few beautiful surprises in store for you. As for the voice acting, Sora’s voice actor gives his best recent performance, although I’m sure the advancements in technology and Sora getting out of his KH/KHII mode also helps. Most of the cast returns, although there were a few glaring omissions. I mean, death is one thing, but I am curious why certain voice actors either passed or were passed over. I’m sure we’ll never know for sure, but most of the replacement cast does a good job. Part of it is that the script is better than some other games, bringing the Disney charm without being too cheesy. It also helps that Sora isn’t kept out of the loop for the entire game, even being pretty chill about things that I thought would get a big reaction.
I myself had some big reactions… to the minigames.
A few are fun and just need to be played once (after finding them) to get the Platinum trophy/Achievements, but way too many require mastering the minigames. I ended up wasting a lot of time on things I thought would be part of completion, like 100% the journal in the pre-Trophy era. Instead, though, it’s minigames — particularly flying the spaceship, which is required to get to new worlds — that requires your time investment. You are forced to play some of these during the game; a couple require success to pass. I do admit the Gummi Ship is probably the best it has ever been thanks to a large explorable 3D world, but I think a lot of gamers will find at least one of the minigames bleeping annoying. Me, I think I spent over three, almost four hours on a particular one, plus the others also required many tries. My example may be a bit extreme, but more time should be spent actually fighting in an action RPG than playing minigames.
Most reviews with a score are placing this in the 80s/B range. That’s pretty much on par with how I would rate Kingdom Hearts III. It’s a lot of fun overall with a lot of enthusiastic spirit. However, the reliance on players knowing several games worth of content and a lack of fighting at points (including postgame) muddies the experience. Some good (and reasonably priced) DLC would be nice to add some solid battles.
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