This review will not spoil any plot that hasn’t already been revealed in the trailers. There may be other mechanics that are considered spoilers, so be advised.
It’s been thirteen years since Kingdom Hearts II dropped on the PlayStation 2. That was a game that for many, including myself, was absolutely groundbreaking. It did everything that its predecessor did better, and added some more elements to make a perfect game. The stakes were truly up for the third installment, yet what nobody knew was how long it was going to take. Instead, Square Enix and Disney Interactive put out an incredible amount of side games, even having the nerve to release one entitled Kingdom Hearts HD II.8: Final Chapter Prologue. When this title was announced, my patience turned into annoyance, and I sincerely thought the companies were toying with us. What was e next, I wondered? Thankfully, it actually was the third “main series” installment to the Kingdom Hearts franchise, and here we are. Edging twenty years since the first installment’s release, we are now at the endgame of this saga.
The story behind Kingdom Hearts is one very much in the vein of good versus evil, but there’s been so many twists and turns that it has gotten quite confusing over the years. The basic gist is that an old man named Xheanort, whose appearance just screams “villain,” is trying to find a perfect balance between light and dark to conquer Kingdom Hearts and recreate the universe as he pleases. Throughout the story, many incarnations of Xehanort appear, from his normal one to his “Ansem” form to his “Xemnas” form, and more. With this comes the summoning of the Heartless, beings formed when a heart becomes void of emotion; the Nobodies, strong-willed people who lost their heart; and the Unversed, beings that are spawned by negative emotions. Our heroes are faced with the task of fighting these beings and trying to foil Xehanort’s plans, and all of this comes to a conclusion with Kingdom Hearts III. This, of course, is an incredibly simplified version of the story behind the games, and all of this is coming from someone who’s only played the main series games and a small part of Aqua’s story in Birth by Sleep. Most of my knowledge of the story comes from watching videos that try their best to explain the huge timeline with this series, and I suggest that you get an understanding of the story outside of the “main series” games before going into this one, because it will certainly make-or-break the cinematics for you.
Playing through this game made me realize how far behind I was with gaming outside of the Nintendo Switch. I knew video games were starting to become a lot more cinematic, but Kingdom Hearts III is more than I could have ever expected. I felt like for every ten minutes of gameplay, there were thirty minutes of cutscenes. Even as someone who gets some level of entertainment out of the story (whether or not for the reasons the developers had intended), this gets to be a bit much for me--especially in the Frozen world, where they pretty much just paste in scenes from the movie and add Sora, Donald, and Goofy. I would just watch the movie if I wanted to see those scenes at full capacity. It feels more like the developers flexing the Unreal Engine than a meaningful addition to the story. That said, the game certainly looks nice. It’s not the best looking game on the planet, but as someone whose been pretty much playing nothing but Nintendo for the last decade, that isn’t a huge worry of mine.
The controls are absolutely phenomenal. One of my biggest troubles with the first installment in the series (the PlayStation 2 version) were the clunky, messy controls. Kingdom Hearts II improved on that with some of the best controls for the time. Kingdom Hearts III managed to take it up a further notch, with Sora responding the second I push down on a button. Especially when you begin to level up and are allowed more space in actions, the controls are fair. I also love how there are “Attraction” attacks now, which pay homage to the Disney parks around the world. As someone who had grown up going to these parks, it was a nice nostalgic touch. It is actually quite hard to die in KH3, at least compared to the other three that I have played, as the game gives you multiple chances to win in battle. If I die or fail, it is usually my fault, though it can sometimes be blamed on the one thing Kingdom Hearts never seems to address: the camera. I really don’t understand how the team never got around to fixing it. It was more forgivable in the earlier entries, but now we are two systems ahead and the camera is still incredibly clunky and unresponsive.
I had completely forgotten about the Gummi Ship sections from previous “main series” games. These are your ways of getting to new worlds, and while never a favorite part of previous games, I did have fun with them in Kingdom Hearts II. In III, these are the sections in which the game accesses its most “open-world” segments, but honestly, I’m not a fan of them at all. I wish the worlds you visit felt as open as this, but these segments feel too open for something most players aren’t going to spend much time with. It gets especially confusing when you are trying to get to a world, because the world you're trying to get to is marked with a yellow flag, whereas the world you didn’t plan on going to has a green spot on it. I had to embark on the Gummi Ship a few times because I was confused as to how it worked. I literally spent no time in the space section if I didn’t have to. The boss battles to get into three of the worlds were also annoying--I wish they were simply updated version of the Kingdom Hearts II battles, because those made an already great game incredibly fun.
Outside of the overwhelming amount of cinematics I mentioned in Frozen and Tangled, I had no problem with any of the worlds. Some, like Toy Story, introduce new actions to the game that enhance the experience, but that specific world does begin to drag a bit because of it. My favorite of the Disney worlds has to be Big Hero 6. It’s fast-paced and action-filled, which, given the source content, makes sense. But goddamn is it exhilarating--Baymax’s special attack alone gets my blood pumping. My biggest complaint is that there are only seven Disney worlds, compared to how many worlds previous games offer. Consequently, Kingdom Hearts III feels a little emptier; but given the climax the game offers, I mostly understand.
The music of Kingdom Hearts always captivated me, through not typically that belonging to the Disney worlds. The music made for the game itself has always been top-notch, and it’s no different here: some of the boss themes are beautiful. It’s just the Disney worlds that tend to feel pretty half-assed. The music does its job adequately, but I never feel the urge to listen to these tracks outside of where they appear in the game. It’s a shame, given that Disney’s brand is partly built on matching music to visuals, but at least the original content sounds as great as ever.
After completing the seven Disney worlds is one longest epilogues to a game I’ve ever seen. It will definitely get Kingdom Hearts fans emotional. Some argue that this ending is clunky, but given how long it is, it is able to flesh out every last detail to make sure this arc in the Kingdom Hearts series has a breathtaking conclusion, while also setting things up for the beginning to the next arc. Even I got a bit teary-eyed myself, which is crazy, considering how unseriously I take the story. It’s also worth collecting the lucky emblems throughout the game (another appreciable addition to the game that started in the Disney parks) to get the secret ending that’ll give you even more insight into the “new” saga than the regular ending.
Kingdom Hearts III is not my favorite entry in the Kingdom Hearts series. While it definitely has its advantages, it isn’t the masterpiece that was Kingdom Hearts II. That’s fine. Given all the games that have come out between the two “main entry” games, it was apparent that this wasn’t going to be a longer game or some masterful improvement on preceding titles. What the game does for the series, in terms of closing off its first saga and how it plays, is more than enough. It is a wonderful game full of the imagination that I expect and love from the series, and it makes sure to tie up every one of its predecessors’ loose ends for a finale worth the thirteen years. It had given me the spark I need to play the other Kingdom Hearts entries, and then return to this one later down the line.
VERDICT: It took thirteen years, but Kingdom Hearts III starts gaming in 2019 off on a very high note.