Kingdom Hearts III is out. That’s a sentence that I sometimes seriously doubted I’d ever get to type. I’ve been a fan of the series since I played the first few games on a PlayStation 2 borrowed from an early school friend, and now even college is well behind me. It’s been a long wait, and that’s built up a lot of expectations.
I wish I could give the full game a fair review now, because I’m not the only person who’s waited just as long for the series finale to release. Unfortunately, while EGM was given an early copy, we received it after the review embargo had passed and only a few days before launch, which isn’t nearly enough time to finish a game of this scale. So, until my full review is ready to go, here are some thoughts I have after playing through the game’s first 18 hours.
I’ll try not to spoil any of the story below, but, obviously, there will be spoilers for systems in the game and some of the Disney worlds included.
The first thing that struck me upon turning the game on wasn’t how much it had changed, but how much it hadn’t. The general menus and UI, the message that popped up when the game was loading, the little keyblade icons, and the various screens to equip Sora’s abilities and gear all felt straight out of the first Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. The lack of evolution surprised me more than any new design would have.
On one hand, this menu design establishes consistency between some of the past games and Kingdom Hearts III (ignoring that other games, like 358/2 Days‘ insane Tetris-like inventory system, did something completely different). On the other hand, it’s weird to be clicking through menus and systems that feel like they were designed in 2001. Do we really need three separate sections of the menu for Equipment (where you can see what your characters are holding), Items (where you can see and use items like potions and food instantly), and Customize (where you can assign items and spells to Sora to use in battle later)? Why is there a Stats section when character stats are always visible just to the side? I feel like menu design has evolved past this.
However, Kingdom Hearts III is on current consoles, and that’s allowed the game world to expand quite a bit—some old-fashioned menus and gameplay elements notwithstanding. The worlds, compared to past games, are huge. Flowmotion is back, and the added movement lets Sora race up steep vertical cliffsides, dive off of tall towers, and explore the countryside on the way to his goal. Kingdom Hearts III is still far from an open world experience, but now there are usually two or more paths you can take from Point A to Point B, and you’ll be able to cross huge sections of the landscape without hitting a loading screen.
The new graphics have also led to a slight shift in art style, and I’m not the biggest fan. The worlds themselves—at least, the ones I’ve seen—look great, as if pulled straight out of their respective movies. The Kingdom of Corona, for example, really felt like an expansion of the world we saw in Tangled. However, I can’t say as much for the character designs. Some character faces have turned more from “cartoon” to “hyper-detailed anime pretty boy,” and it’s jarring when the rest of the world stays cartoon-like. On the complete opposite side, some models, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, seem weirdly unfinished. It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly the problem is—Is it the texture? The lighting? A low polygon count?—but it feels more like looking at a Mickey Mouse toy than a living, breathing figure in the world. When models like that stand next to the super-anime ones in a beautifully rendered version of a movie world, the overall visual effect is jarring. The good news is that this mostly affects cutscenes (though there are plenty of those); actual gameplay, with Sora running around the worlds and fighting off Heartless, Nobodies, and Unversed, looks fine most of the time.
The worlds themselves are also really fun to play through. Some introduce new gimmicks, like giant toy mech battles in the Toy Story universe. While this means you’ll be learning a new control scheme every few minutes, most of them are pretty simple in the end, and small surprises—like finding a playable Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots game or a minigame where you form a teetering stack of Heartless—help make each world distinct. And, of course, every world is enhanced by Yoko Shimomura’s music, which makes each encounter a hundred times more epic.
In the actual fights, there’s a lot going on. Maybe too much. The base of combat is still built around your regular Keyblade combo attacks and magic. However, there are also all those flashy attacks from Kingdom Hearts II that pop up based on the environment or the positions of your party members. Then, there are new Link attacks, which work kind of like old summons but with a minigame, Keyblade transformation forms that grant new abilities to your base weapon, modified versions of Drive forms that transform Sora himself (and can trigger his Rage Form if overused), and Flowmotion attacks that are triggered by vaulting off walls or pillars in the environment. Finally, Kingdom Hearts III adds Attraction Flow attacks, which summon rides from the Disney theme parks to do massively powerful damage. Like I said, it’s a lot.
There’s nothing forcing you to use any of the abilities—you have control over which keyblade and Flowmotion powers Sora has equipped, and you can ignore the Links and special prompts—but if you do choose to use them, you’ll have something-or-other happening about every five seconds, and often multiple things at the same time. If you get easily motion sick, it may be wise to abstain from some of the special abilities, as the camera zooming in and out on Sora transforming or snapping to follow a party member yanking Sora into the air means that there’s always a lot of chaos. Unleashing ability after ability doesn’t make for the most tactical combat, but it’s flashy, puts a decent dent into the health bar of any enemy you’re fighting, and offers a break from swinging your keyblade.
Finally, there’s the story, which I’m hesitant to discuss having not finished it. However, the parts I’ve played so far have shown that this is a game that really requires fans to do their homework if they want to have any idea what’s going on. There’s no singular event as confusing as the introduction to Kingdom Hearts II was for people who skipped Chain of Memories (at least you’re playing as Sora from the start this time!), but instead, there are half a dozen different plot threads from various games that pop up across the different worlds. While the game offers recap videos you can watch in the main menu, they’re badly explained in the actual narrative.
As a non-spoilery example, I keep thinking of one scene from Kingdom Hearts II. Halfway through that game, Sora and his friends have just started learning about Organization XIII and its leader, Xemnas. When Xemnas finally shows his face, Donald Duck points at him and exclaims, “It’s the guy who’s NOT Ansem!” While true, this is just about the worst possible way to positively identify someone. Most of the story in Kingdom Hearts III is written the same way. You can tell what’s going on in each individual story thread if you’ve done your homework on the past games, and can read behind the lines of everyone being mysterious or mistaken. If you haven’t, the game is not going to do a thing to try and clear it up. (I promise this isn’t just a plug for my series explaining the Kingdom Hearts story so far, but… really, I’m a huge Kingdom Hearts fan and I wrote the dang guide and the Kingdom Hearts III story is still doing its best to be obscure.) I’m hoping the game picks up some narrative momentum of its own later on, because so far, the first near-twenty hours of play have all been building off of points from previous games in the series.
Complaints on (and hopes for) the original story aside, I know that there’s a huge section of Kingdom Hearts fans who play mostly for the Disney worlds. There, things are better. It’s fun to get a peek at a Monstropolis recovering just after the events of Monsters, Inc., or to see how the Kingdom Hearts villains conspire with Mother Gothel to pull off the events of Tangled. As stated before, the worlds look great, the music is fantastic, and jumping through these worlds will be just as fun for huge Disney fans as it was in past games. So far, though, I haven’t spotted much for Final Fantasy fans. I’m sure Sephiroth is out there (somehow, he always is), but I haven’t seen much beyond the Moogle shopkeepers, a Cactuar joke, and a nod to Dissidia yet. Maybe it’s in the second half of the game.