This is part of my Kingdom Hearts III special. This is the Standard Mode (aka minor spoilers) version. This review is made for those of you who fall into any or all of the following categories:
- You’ve played several of the KH games.
- You are playing KH3 or plan to in the near future.
- You’ve watched later or final trailers.
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.
Kingdom Hearts III kicks off right after the short game 0.2 (often called the Kingdom Hearts III tech demo), the ending of which is set right after Dream Drop Distance. If you’re lost already, strap in, because things get even more muddied from here. If you can though, play both of those just before KHIII. Those alone (but particularly 0.2) are tightly bound to this game’s setup and provide a good tonal base for progressing through this game. In some ways, I think that is more of a trilogy than the trio of Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, and Kingdom Hearts III.
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 surprises 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. In fact, before you even open the menu for the first time, you choose what kind of Sora you want to play as. It’s a nice way to add some variety upon replays, but more importantly, you don’t have to wait to get some of the must-have battle abilities like defending against attacks or using offensive magic.
The game does a fairly good job of introducing the mechanics, and the abilities are more clearly labeled and organized than ever before. AP is also much less of an issue if you’ve run into those problems 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. Synthesis (aside from the ultimate weapons) seemed easier than ever thanks to having ways to get Lucky Strike early and some good, easily repeatable postgame farming spots. Unfortunately, most of the items you create are lackluster; you can find a majority of the goods in shops or in treasure chests.
As for those abilities in combat, KHIII is still a button masher. It’s very easy to power your way through, particularly since KHIII does not have a Critical Mode.
The cornerstone of battling is the situation commands, a much-improved spin on the Birth By Sleep battle system. Whack things fast enough with your Keyblade, and you can (but don’t have to!) use a completely different fighting style for a short period of time. Use two-handed guns, magical staffs, even fly around in a chariot as a finisher. You can have up to three Keyblades available, allowing you to switch playstyles in mid-battle, and you are able to save their special attacks for later. Meanwhile, spam magic enough, and it’s a possibility you’ll cast the next tier spell for free, and you all three levels of magic will be available in your arsenal eventually. Team up with your allies to unleash Limit-like attacks, but at no MP cost.
Enemies will swarm you a la 0.2, but Sora has a ton of options to keep things in his favor. Perhaps a little too many. Besides the above, he still has more abilities in his arsenal. Sacrifice your MP to call upon an ally’s powers. Hone in on enemies and unleash a special attack (Shotlock) from the Focus gauge that changes depending on your Keyblade. Attack marked enemies and you can summon an Attraction. I thought Attractions would be reserved for key fights, but you end up having the option to use them in almost every battle — sometimes multiple times. Although it’s a heck of a lot of fun to destroy Heartless by guiding a river raft ride over them.
It was also an interesting spin to have access to all three levels of magic. The base effect is the same, but the highest tiers have a bigger area of effect and, of course, a higher MP cost. So you can choose to place some lower-level spells in your shortcut in exchange for more casts. That makes for some interesting decisions and helps adds some strategy to the game outside of “get good”.
Having trouble? There’s also the option of eating food to give you temporary boost to your stats. You can also buy an item for a one-time rescue, but you can only possess one of these coins at a time.
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. I’m so proud of you, Donald! In some ways, they were actually better than me. I found Lock-On to be near useless in this game, as enemies would often be off-camera or would just vanish. Donald and Goofy’s AI, however, would know where they are, 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. 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 also goes back to the whole story issue: because the whole game is building toward a Keyblade War of seven lights versus thirteen darknesses, 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). Think Hallow Bastion in KH or the The World That Never Was fights in KHII. Here, though, it’s almost 100% Heartless Bosses until the very end, and they’re pretty forgettable. I’ll remember the fun of fighting, but not who I was fighting against.
Now, the much ballyhooed Keyblade War battles look and feel rather cool, but they are a stop-and-start affair, so they lost some impact for me.
I do hope that either a Critical Mode is released or there is someway to refight more powerful versions of these opponents a la the Data Battles of Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix. This would force a lot of players to rely more on learning patterns and defending rather than powering through. Outside of the couple gimmick battles, I only died once in the maingame. In my opinion, the Toy Story world is probably the most difficult level… if you fight normally. Sora can jump into robot toys that makes things easier or, depending on your opinion, more manageable. Otherwise, despite Olympus returning, the Coliseum does not. It makes no sense. I figured one of the reasons Olympus was a good choice to be the one returning world was because of the Coliseum — and it would have made a perfect way for Square Enix to add some fights via DLC. I know that Square Enix is reconsidering their DLC approach after the Final Fantasy XV scenario, but still. There are some bonus battles postgame that mostly exist to give this game’s secret reports and make it easier to collect the last few Synthesis materials, but there’s only a single Superboss, and he’s not very tough.
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 for once you aren’t forced to choose who to bench. Again, even though enemies show up in mobs, this means Sora has a party of five at points, and with all of Sora’s action abilities, the game is too easy.
The areas themselves also feature a good mix of handholding and free exploration. You don’t have to worry about falling to the bottom of Hallow Bastion (KH), but places aren’t just long tunnels either (KHII). Sora can climb walls, fall from heights with a dramatic slash, and eventually even teleport to far-off distances at points. You will need all these if you want to find all the treasures and hidden Mickeys. If you miss a jump or do an incorrect fast travel technique, you can just try again without having to go too far back. Still, there are some tricky areas to navigate (like in Toy Box), 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. The Pirates of the Caribbean world in particular is a wide-open area with plenty of areas to discover both above and below the surface.
While The Caribbean was full of adventure, Arendelle I felt was the most poorly designed. You know the ice palace she creates? Yeah, we don’t even go there but some dumb ripoff that makes no sense. Don’t even get to visit to actual Arendelle or Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and Sauna. Pooh’s world was an incredible waste of time for the design team, and it should have been skipped or had more of the minigames located here instead of so many out there in the main game. (More on that later.)
Either way, what was a major disappointment was the low number of worlds, especially not visiting Radiant Garden. Thanks to Chip and Dale’s new invention, Sora can check in with some people there, but not any of the Final Fantasy characters (who have been some of Sora’s biggest allies). Not having any Final Fantasy characters has been a common complaint to the game, and for me, it’s not so much the lack of Square Enix crossovers as not seeing Leon, Yuffie, Cid, and Aerith. Considering they were going around trying to gather Ansem’s data and fix their home, I find it almost egregious they wouldn’t have been clued in or whatever. It feels like Sora should have swung by to check on things. 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 be 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, it appears like the mobile game is going to be very important to 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, especially Hayden Panettiere as Kairi since she voiced her in some games with very few lines. (She says she wasn’t contacted, which leaves the question as to why.) I’m sure we’ll never know for sure, but most of the replacement cast does a good job, like Rapunzel’s voice actress. 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.
Most of you are probably aware already of the Gummi Ship portions, which are required to reach new worlds. I do admit the Gummi Ship is probably the best it has ever been thanks to a large explorable 3D world, but here’s the issue: lots of the Trophies/Achievements require you to play the Gummi Ship and all the other minigames available. Classic Kingdom, which was previewed in the mobile game, would have been enough. But taking photos, cooking, fake video games… it’s too much. Where are all the combat Trophies proving your fighting prowess? Of course, can’t have these without some more Superbosses, but hey, just dance and sled your way to 100% instead. I ended up spending time on things I thought would be required for completion (like upgrading Keyblades), but it turns out they weren’t required. 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. 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.