This review contains no major spoilers for Kingdom Hearts III. It does contain spoilers for previous entries in the series.
Kingdom Hearts III is a difficult game to review. It does a lot of things right, from its excellent gameplay to its breadth of content. It also stumbles here and there, with some strange narrative choices and lack of Final Fantasy. It’s a great game overall, but it’s easy to see that it could have been something greater.
Kingdom Hearts III
Developer: Square Enix
Platforms: PS4 (reviewed) and Xbox One
It’s finally here: the beginning of the end of Kingdom Hearts. Or the end of the beginning? Though the third numbered entry in the series ends the long-running Xehanort saga, it certainly isn’t the end of Kingdom Hearts as a franchise. This is one of the many reasons that Kingdom Hearts III is so difficult to review. As both the culmination of a 17 year-old franchise and a springboard for the next half of the franchise, Kingdom Hearts III has a lot to deal with. It’s certainly not perfect, but Kingdom Hearts III is an incredibly fun and surprisingly accessible game.
Kingdom Hearts III picks up directly after Dream Drop Distance. Sora, alongside Donald and Goofy, is off to Olympus Coliseum to regain the strength he lost during his Mark of Mastery exam. Riku and Mickey are searching the Realm of Darkness for Aqua, Lea and Kairi are training as Keyblade wielders, and Xehanort is entering the final phase of his plans to summon Kingdom Hearts. There are lots of things happening from the moment Kingdom Hearts III starts to the moment its secret ending is finished, which is exciting for fans and likely rather intimidating for newcomers.
But it doesn’t need to be, as Kingdom Hearts III actually does a good job at introducing players to the series. There’s a large “chronicle” section on the title screen that sums up the events of the entire series thus far. Obviously it’s no substitute for actually playing the necessary games, but it makes the story thus far easy to understand. For a series that is notorious for its convoluted and inaccessible storyline, Kingdom Hearts III makes a commendable effort to catch new players up.
“The last world and its follow-up area are full of exciting battles and character drama, giving us some of the best scenes in the entire franchise.“
The story of Kingdom Hearts III has its highs and lows, and ends up feeling a bit inconsistent. Visiting the game’s numerous Disney worlds provides a great deal of depth for some unexpected characters, with Monstropolis standing out as a series benchmark for mixing Disney stories with the story and characters of Kingdom Hearts. Two of the six Disney worlds, on the other hand, have very little in the way of story integration, leaving nearly a third of the game with a stilted feeling. The last world and its follow-up area are full of exciting battles and character drama, giving us some of the best scenes in the entire franchise. The ending is difficult to judge, however, as part of it feels like a random twist that serves only to set up the next game’s plot. It’s a story full of satisfying moments peppered with confusing head-scratchers, especially at the very end.
The absence of any Final Fantasy characters does make parts of the story feel uneven, which is disappointing. The same can’t be said for the six Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts III, which clearly show a great deal of passion on the part of the developers. From the stories to the music and visuals, each world drips with details from the films. No world is a better example of this than the Toy Box, based on Toy Story. As strange as it sounds, the Toy Box’s story perfectly emulates the heartfelt and genuine sense of friendship and fun that the Toy Story films center around. Woody, Buzz, Rex, and Ham are all perfect interpretations of their characters from the films, even when they’re put in the ridiculous story of Kingdom Hearts. The Caribbean, based on Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3, is another stand-out world. It’s especially worth praising because the way Pirates of the Caribbean was handled in Kingdom Hearts II was fairly mediocre, so seeing it become an exciting open-world pirate adventure game was incredibly rewarding.
The one world that stands out as a low-point would have to be Arendelle, the world based on Frozen. I’m not sure if it was added late into development or not, but it feels half-baked and rushed. You spend most of your time climbing and re-climbing one mountain after being thrown off of it, and finding your way out of an ice maze; all the while enduring shoehorned-in musical numbers and tedious minigames. This world also has Sora standing awkwardly on the sidelines of the movie’s plot, which makes the entire world feel pretty pointless. It’s a shame, because every other world is at least enjoyable, and at best, amazing, so Arendelle serves as a frustrating speedbump in an otherwise exciting romp through Disney worlds.
Kingdom Hearts III boasts what I consider to be the most fun gameplay in the series, as it takes the flashy and stylish combat from Kingdom Hearts II and combines it with the varied command styles of Birth by Sleep. Sora’s Keyblades can now transform into entirely different weapons, which change gameplay immensely. One moment you’re swinging around a Keyblade, the next it’s a ground-shattering hammer or two far-reaching laser yo-yos. The variety is astounding, and makes each new Keyblade an exciting multi-layered gift to unpack. Throw in the ability to upgrade Keyblades throughout the course of the game, and you have the most refined and enjoyable combat system in the series so far.
“Hearing the Gummiship song blasting while Sora rides the Magic Teacups can really take the wind out of the final few battles, so I wish they were disabled during major story battles.“
The one downside to gameplay is the Attraction system, which lets you use attacks based on Disney World rides. The idea itself is great, and the attacks can be incredibly fun to use here and there, but they’re handed out way too frequently for how insanely powerful they are. Attractions occupy the triangle/Y button when available, and Kingdom Hearts III hands out Attractions whenever it physically can. This means that you may accidentally use an Attraction when you try to use a Keyblade transformation or certain magic attacks, which wastes time and can kill the mood. Hearing the Gummiship song blasting while Sora rides the Magic Teacups can really take the wind out of the final few battles, so I wish they were disabled during major story battles.
Speaking of Gummiships, the Gummiship system in Kingdom Hearts III is shockingly better than in previous games. In the first Kingdom Hearts, Gummiship segments were boring, occasionally obnoxious segments that stood in the way of new worlds, while Kingdom Hearts II made them into more tolerable Starfox-lite stages. Kingdom Hearts III throws the past to the wind and lets you roam huge chunks of space in your customizable Gummiship, where you can find all sorts of treasures and secrets. I wouldn’t mind keeping this Gummiship system in any future games, as it’s probably as fun as Gummiship travelling can get.
Visually, Kingdom Hearts III is a wonder to behold. Maybe it’s because nearly all of the chosen Disney worlds are based on 3D-animated films and a live-action movie, but the characters and worlds in Kingdom Hearts III look remarkably identical to their source material. Sora’s different outfits and costumes are excellently designed as well, as they often manage to make Sora look as though he fits right into each world’s different art style. One weird visual choice is loading screens with fake Instagram-esque social media posts from the point of view of each main character. It’s a strange feature that doesn’t feel like it fits into Kingdom Hearts at all, especially when posts say in-universe things like “#thanknamine” or “#realmofdarkness”. It isn’t a major fault, but it feels completely unfitting.
Finally we have the music, which is as stellar as always. Kingdom Hearts is known for its fantastic music, and Kingdom Hearts III is no exception. Remixed takes on classic Kingdom Hearts tracks are a nostalgic joy to listen to, while many of the new songs could easily be considered as good as the series other iconic tracks. Some of the voice-acting is wonky (Master Xehanort’s replacement falls unfortunately short of the late Leonard Nimoy), while others are pitch-perfect.
The Final Word
Kingdom Hearts III is a great game that was in many ways worth the wait. It makes some frustrating choices in its story, but it’s so fun to play that it’s a bit easier to forgive these missteps. The reverence Kingdom Hearts III shows for its Disney worlds and the story’s more satisfying moments will give both newcomers and longtime fans something to talk about until the next installment, which will certainly arrive by 2030.
MonsterVine Review Score: 4 out of 5 – Good