Kingdom Hearts fans will soon be able to bring an end to the war between Master Xehanort and the Guardians of Light with the upcoming launch of Kingdom Hearts III. The now 16-year long series has taken many different directions regarding gameplay and story, which has placed a great deal of pressure on developer Square Enix. Fans have wondered if the combat will pull more inspiration from the spin-off entries or harken back to the format of the mainline titles, such as Kingdom Hearts II. Thankfully, I now have a better understanding of what Kingdom Hearts III will eventually deliver, as I recently had the chance to play through two stages in the upcoming game.
I’ve broken up my impressions into three different areas of focus—Sora’s overall movement, basic combat commands, and special moves—to give an in-depth explanation of Kingdom Hearts III‘s gameplay. According to series director Tetsuya Nomura, the development team used “the mainline titles as Kingdom Hearts III‘s basis for combat” and added in “what worked from the spin-off entries.” In short, the game will feature a culmination of all of the best parts of the series so far, as well as some new features.
Movement/Environment: (FlowMotion, Autorun, Toy Story/Hercules world)
I was able to visit two worlds in the preview: Toy Story and Olympus Coliseum. Both offered a different aspect of new gameplay, with the Olympus Coliseum portion being a brief boss fight and Toy Story offering more exploration. Beginning with the Hercules-themed area, Sora and his returning Disney pals, Donald and Goofy, are tasked with taking down the Rock Titan, but the enemy is high atop a cliff. This portion of the demo showed off the new autorun feature, which allows Sora to run up and sideways on walls. You can run infinitely on the wall, as long as the surface you’re on has a faint glowing indicator. Interestingly, this system seemed to be the advancement of the series’ former platforming option, FlowMotion. Unlike the format of Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream, Drop, Distance, Sora can’t continually spam the FlowMotion wall kick anymore to reach a high area. Instead, he can now use two wall kicks in a row before needing a cooldown period on the ground. I found this decision to be much more user-friendly than Dream, Drop, Distance‘s reliance on FlowMotion as a means to traverse obstacles. Being able to run along walls and use a FlowMotion kick to vault toward a group of enemies just makes more sense and feels like less of an exploit.
During the event’s panel, co-director Tai Yasue explained the Hercules area was designed to show off the new autorun option and the platforming “verticality” that will be present in different sections of the game. He also said each world will feature a unique type of level design that will give the player a new way to experience the spectacle created for the game, such as the epic fight with the Rock Titan. This idea became more apparent when I jumped into the Toy Story sections. While the Rock Titan fight featured a great deal of climbing, Galaxy Toys and Andy’s house felt more open-ended and explorable. I began in Andy’s room and was able to freely roam around his bed, dresser, and ceiling fixtures, and was then given a chance to leave out of his open window to search outdoors. Returning from Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage is the ability to slide down slopes, which felt just as smooth as it was in the last game, which I used on the roof of Andy’s house to drop down on a group of Heartless. Once I got to Galaxy Toys, there were more opportunities to scale shelves and various floors of the building, which showed off how large the areas will likely be in the final game.
According to Nomura, the portion of the Toy Story world I was able to play was only about thirty percent of what will be available in the final release of the game. Taking that estimation into consideration, it could mean each world will take longer to complete than those from previous Kingdom Hearts entries. The larger areas had me initially concerned, as I believed they would seem sparse and too open, which was one of the downsides of both Dream, Drop, Distance and Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. Thankfully, the open areas are filled with items to interact with and obstacles to climb, at least in Galaxy Toys, so it seems the development team learned from their previous misstep.
General Combat: (Combos, Magic, Shotlocks)
Arguably, the most important part of Kingdom Hearts III to get right is the combat, and at its current stage, it felt like a good balance between the mainline and spin-off games. Once again, Sora has his basic three-swing Keyblade combo that simply requires the push of the attack button, but similar to Kingdom Hearts II, he can also string in magic moves mid-combo and following a successful combo. However, the magic attacks work exactly the same as A Fragmentary Passage, with fire and blizzard being projectiles and thunder offering widespread damage. Cure was also available as the move that consumes all your MP with one use, but no other magic commands outside of those were accessible in what I played. Of course, that doesn’t mean we won’t see magic moves like gravity or reflect make a comeback at some point.
I heavily tested how stringing basic attacks with magic works here, and I can confidently report that it feels smooth for this version of Sora. Kingdom Hearts II is most well-known for allowing Sora to move extremely fast and unload different kinds of combos quickly, which gave the player a great deal of control. While Sora and his combos are a bit slower now than what we experienced in Kingdom Hearts II, he’s more responsive and easier to control than Aqua was in A Fragmentary Passage, making Kingdom Hearts III a solid middle ground between the two previous titles’ combat formats. He can still even successfully dodge out of a combo, which will likely come in handy against bosses and the more powerful enemies in the rest of the game.
Outside of the basic commands, Sora can also use Shotlocks, which are moves that can target several enemies at once. Unlike the Shotlocks from Birth by Sleep and A Fragmentary Passage, though, Sora’s are tied to whatever Keyblade he currently has equipped. I was only able to experience two of them, with one being the more standard projectiles, like Bio Barrage, and the other letting Sora dash into a group of enemies in his own version of Absolute Zero.
Special Moves: (Keyblade Transformations, Links, Attractions)
While he was slightly slower than I first hoped, I quickly realized the developers swapped out fast magic and basic attack combos for the new goodies. Perhaps the greatest addition I experienced is the ability to freely switch between Keyblades at any time in battle. You can change to another Keyblade using the left and right directional buttons on the D-pad (I played on PlayStation 4 Pro), and honestly, it opens up a whole new area of combat I wasn’t expecting. As previously revealed, Sora has access to Keyblade transformations, which are essentially the new Drive forms from Kingdom Hearts II. Each Keyblade offers two transformations that I confirmed can be accessed in tiers. For example, after a certain number of hits are strung together, the Toy Story-themed Keyblade, Infinity Badge, allows Sora to access the Hyper Hammer transformation, which turns his Keyblade into a large hammer. If you continue to land successful hits, the Hyper Hammer can then become Drill Punch with a new finisher attached to it that can be accessed with the triangle button. Having two different forms with one Keyblade was already helpful enough, but you have more control beyond those options. If Sora is using a transformation, he can still freely switch to another Keyblade and build up a combo to access a new transformation with that new Keyblade. The amazing thing is that the previous Keyblade’s transformation is still available if Sora then switches back to it. In turn, I was able to head into the Toy Story world’s boss fight with transformations on two of my Keyblades ready to go.
The ability to switch between Keyblades and retain the transformation is game-changing and seems to be the focus of combat for Kingdom Hearts III. I never found myself just mashing the attack button to get through enemies because of how helpful and addicting it was to trigger these powerful new takes on Drive forms. In particular, my favorite transformation was the Tangled-themed Keyblade’s Mirage Staff, which gives Sora similar skills to those seen in Kingdom Hearts II‘s Wisdom Drive form. Within the transformation, Sora’s dodge becomes a brief teleport that leaves behind a copy of himself and his basic attacks become projectiles. I was able to set up several Sora clones around a group of enemies, use the attack button, and watch as several Soras unloaded projectiles on Heartless.
Another step in the right direction are the Attractions, including the Mad Tea Cups and Pirate Ship. While previous trailers for the game have shown off the splashy attacks, it was unclear how we would be able to trigger them in battle. To be able to hop onto one of the large Disney-themed rides and use it against enemies, Sora has to successfully land a certain number of hits on enemies with green targets. Once activated, the Attractions’ attacks cause damage to a wide area of the field, which will come in handy against bosses. Ultimately, the feature felt like a replacement of the Reaction Command system from Kingdom Hearts II. Last up are the Links, which were previously known as Summons in past titles. The primary ability of the two I had access to, The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel and Ralph from Wreck-It-Ralph, were to cover the battlefield with traps for enemies. I had a good time planning how to use Ariel’s puddles and fountains to trap Heartless, as well as setting up explosive blocks with Ralph. Similar to the Keyblade transformations and magic attacks, Links will be another form of attack that you’ll be able to use to change up combat from situation to situation.
While the portions I was able to experience showed off a great deal of promise, there’s a chance that mechanics that I liked or didn’t think much of could change between now and the final launch of the game. However, the experience I had with the current build of Kingdom Hearts III was inarguably positive, as both a dedicated fan of the series and game reviewer. Thankfully, I now have more hope than ever that this long-awaited game could be the best Kingdom Hearts entry ever.
Of course, we’ll have to wait until the final build to know if that turns out to be true, but the announcement of the release date isn’t far off. As a final tease from Nomura during the event’s panel, it was revealed the official launch date for Kingdom Hearts III will be announced “early next month.”
Kingdom Hearts III is set to launch this year for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.