Editor’s Note: This review does contain spoilers for Kingdom Hearts III. You have been warned!
Kingdom Hearts III somehow makes you feel like have you never left the world of Kingdom Hearts. The many worlds, characters, and gameplay feel better than they ever have before and regardless if you have played every game in the series, or just a few, you will certainly enjoy this game. That being said the game holds no hands when it comes to story. This may seem like a negative for new players, but for long time fans like myself I wouldn’t want anything less. This review will especially focus on gameplay and story. Though I have to warn you, story will take priority. So without making you wait another ten years, here is our review for Kingdom Hearts III.
Let’s start the review like each game starts; the music. When you think of Kingdom Hearts you may not think music at first. However these themes are as important to the game as the story or characters. Songs like “Simple and Clean”, “Sanctuary”, and “Dearly Beloved” are songs that will be recognized by fans almost instantly. Kingdom Hearts III keeps this trend going. Songwriter and singer Hikaru Utada is back to perform the opening cinematic “Face My Fears’’ with the help of dubstep artist Skrillex. This combination may seem to be odd, but the two have created a theme that has not only lived up to the expectation of the previous songs, but surpassed it. This isn’t the only song by Utada. “Don’t Think Twice” is the closing theme and is something much slower. Both songs capture the feeling of the game better than words can say.
The great soundtrack doesn’t stop there. Yoko Shimomura has also returned for the score and has completely out done herself. From “Dearly Beloved” to the orchestra version of “Don’t Think Twice” each composition gives you a sense of peace and and comfort like being with an old friend. While exploring each Disney world you will also be introduced to a recognizable theme from the movie with a Kingdom Hearts twist. Songs like “You Got a Friend in Me” and “Here in the 100 Acre Wood” pair perfectly with exploring each world. However, when a threat presents itself, the music transitions perfectly into an original piece for combat in each world. I’ve heard multiple times that a great soundtrack is one you don’t notice. This is true, however when you stop to listen, it will sometimes stop you in your tracks.
Without question this is the best Kingdom Hearts has ever felt. From its link attacks to standard melee combat. Square-Enix has somehow blended the easy to jump in combat that its predecessors had with an ever dynamic battle system. For fans of the series, all of your favorites are there, smash ‘X’ for standard attacks and use the magic tab or quick commands for spells like fire. However, the battle system from Birth By Sleep is here as well. Hold down “R1” for a trigger system, or when your attacks are chained together press “Δ” to switch modes. It’s a surprisingly well balanced system. At no point did I feel like any battle was easy nor did I feel like I was getting my lunch served to me.
With each new Keyblade acquired a new attack transformation is unlocked. For the Frozen themed Keyblade Sora skates around as if on ice to attack, while the Tangled themed Keyblade allows you to float on Rapunzel’s magic. Unlike previous games, where I picked Keyblades based upon stats, I used all Keyblades with a healthy balance. It also helps that you can now equip three Keyblades at a time and move between them on the fly. This is not the only new additions to the combat formula. There are also special moves called Disney attractions. These super attacks are their own mini-game during an active battle. There’s a merry-go-round where you need to hit “X” as circles of light pulse past the base of the ride, or a swinging pirate ship in which you increase attack power by pressing “X” at the peak of each swing.
The ability list, a feature that has been in every Kingdom Hearts game, also returns. In past games this felt more like a skill tree when I had to pick and choose what abilities I had with a limited amount of AP. However, in Kingdom Hearts III it felt like more of an abilities list where I could access most, if not all of them, just by evening up. This gave me the sense of being powerful when in past games it felt like a bag of equipment that happened to be a high jump and glide.
The combat in Kingdom Hearts III has been the most fun I’ve had in the entire series. Blocking, dodging, casting spells, combos, and potions are as important as they ever where but with a greater emphasis on “Sora is a keyblade wielder and nothing can stop him” kind of way. The strength he lost in Dream Drop Distance may need to be required, but he’s not a child anymore and he is showing it. Nevertheless, it doesn’t outshine the story. Non-story sections are as much of a chore as they used to be, although I still find myself trying to get through them as fast as possible to see what happens next in the story.
The majority of the other Kingdom Hearts games resemble a 2D flat aesthetic to blend in with their cartoon counterparts. However, with the introduction of Kingdom Hearts: Backcover and the cinematic intros to other games, we see Sora and his friends in full 3D realistic models. I’m pleased that this look is maintained in Kingdom Hearts III. From Frozen to Big Hero 6 we see Sora, Donald, and Goofy looking amazing. Square Enix have outdone themselves here. Even small details such as Sora’s hair moving in the wind as he jumps or glides, to the visual weight of the keyblades striking a hit. I never experienced any framerate drops or texture breaks during my playthrough either. This is even more impressive when we see hundreds of enemies on screen, each moving independently of each other while attacking simultaneously.
When visiting the world of Pirates of the Caribbean somehow Sora, Donald, and Goofy all look at home next to their realistic counterparts. Pirates in Kingdom Hearts II was a large gripe of mine. I hated how they looked and the voices were off on most of the characters. Yet this is remedied in Kingdom Hearts III. Not only do they look amazing but they sound perfect. If Sora, Donald, or Goofy aren’t in a scene, it’s hard to tell the difference between a Pirates of the Caribbean film or game. That’s not to say there isn’t improvements to be made, but the difference from past to present is night and day.
For as good as Sora looks in a realistic settings like Pirates of the Caribbean, he looks even better in a world of monsters. While in Monstropolis Sora is covered in fur to blend in with the locals of this world. From cutscenes to in game combat we can see the fur moving to the movements of each attack. The same kind of care is on every character such as the blackcoat’s of Organization XIII and the plastic faces of the characters of Toy Story. There is not one scene in this game that I wasn’t impressed with in terms of visuals.
Ultimately, I am amazed that Nomura has been able to increase the visual fidelity and make these characters appear more lifelike, while also making the aesthetic as timeless as ever. A lot of inspiration was pulled from Disney movies, yet Nomura has proven again that he has an eye that would feel right at home inside of any Disney studio.
The story of Kingdom Hearts is nothing to take lightly, as you can see from our previous editorial series: The Road to Kingdom Hearts III: The Story So Far. Kingdom Hearts III is no exception. With the vast majority of the story using plot points from previous games mixed with a new story for this game for new players to follow. The game does its best to explain past events without wasting the time of players who have played the other games. Multiple times I laughed to myself when Sora would over explain something just to remind players who each character was. This is to be expected, however. The original Kingdom Hearts was released over 13 years ago, so some refresher course was needed. Although this is what veterans of the series want, this has become a story for us, not for those who didn’t care to catch-up or play the other games. This may sound slightly cruel, and I’m sorry. However, this story has become a part of us, and you have to work like we did for it to become a part of you too, but the conclusion will be worth it.
I’ve been fighting with myself to include spoilers or not in this review and as much as I want you to experience this for yourself I feel I cannot express the emotional weight this game brings without explaining what exactly happened. That being said, after experiencing this entire game I’ve discovered what is highly important to me isn’t important to the plot as a whole. Characters like Ventus, who is undoubtedly my favorite character, has very little impact on the plot outside of being a quest goal. Nevertheless these are spoilers and I want to warn you before they start.
The emotional strings Tetsuya Nomura pulls with Kingdom Hearts III are nine games long. From the connection I personally feel to Ventus to the hatred I feel for Breig all of this comes to the forefront. We see Aqua fall to Darkness and get saved by Sora. Her emotional breakdown when she discovers she’s actually back in the Realm of Light will bring anyone with a connection to these games to tears. However for these heart clenching moments there are also light hearted ones. The joy on Sora’s face when Captain Jack Sparrow calls him a pirate is priceless. I’ve found myself smiling at moments in the game during worlds that the movies counterpart don’t even pull the same emotion from me. During the “Let it Go” sequence I had a newfound appreciation for. I’ve always enjoyed the song, and l enjoy what it signifies in the movie. However this time I viewed it as how Kairi must be feeling. A newly empowered Keyblade Wielder. There is even a point before the final showdown where Sora tells Kairi “I’ll protect you” and she turns to him and replied “No. this time, I protect you”. This is so powerful to me. She’s always been a damsel Sora can chase and now she’s fighting back. She’s strong and we now know it.
Kingdom Hearts III has taken it time getting here, but I’m glad it did. Not only did games like Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance to exist but also because it’s just made the taste so much sweeter. From gameplay to story Kingdom Hearts has hit all of the right cords for me and from what I went in wanting it has delivered. I’ve gone from laughing to cry back to laugh crying at this game and not many games can pull that emotion from me.
With everything that has happened, from my first experience with Kingdom Hearts to the conclusion of Kingdom Hearts III, there has been nothing but emotions. Angry at not knowing a detail, glee ofer seeing characters I love be reunited, sadness from when they are ripped apart from another, and confusion at every corner. I love Kingdom Hearts and I hope that shows through. I was worried that after the Epilogue and secret ending dropped that my feelings on this game world change. I was right, they did change but only for the better. This game isn’t over. I’m aware this may make some angry, but for me it’s like finding out a childhood friend isn’t moving after all. Kingdom Hearts will hopefully be what Final Fantasy is to so many others: a game that never ends.