Kingdom Hearts III has a big job. Square Enix’s Disney crossover spectacular — which comes out on January 29 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One — has to tie up almost 17 years worth of complicated (and, yes, convoluted) plot threads. It also has to live up to almost 13 years of anticipation. Kingdom Hearts II came out in the U.S. back in 2006, and we’ve since had nothing but portable game spinoffs and compilation packages.
I love Disney and video games. I specifically love Final Fantasy, Square Enix’s premier franchise that inspired much of Kingdom Heart’s action-RPG mechanics and non-Disney aesthetics. So, yeah, Kingdom Hearts is perfect for me.
But I worried that the series had gotten too bloated and confusing to deliver a fulfilling Kingdom Hearts III. To understand what is going on with this series, you’ll need to have not only have played Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, but Chain of Memories, Birth by Sleep, 358/2 Day, Re: Coded, and Dream Drop Distance. What had started as a simple story about a boy traveling through Disney worlds on a quest to find his friends has turned into a complicated and self-retconning plot that includes time travel, clones, and sketchy rules about the permanence (or lack of it) of death.
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I worried that all of that stuff would overshadow the series’ charm. And while the story remains unapologetic nonsense, it doesn’t bury the charming Disney side of the Kingdom Hearts equation.
What you’ll like
Fast-paced, exhilarating action
Past all of the Disney cameos and confusing plot threads, Kingdom Hearts III is an action-RPG. You fight enemies in real time with weapons and magic, all while leveling up and learning new skills. The Kingdom Hearts series has long been my favorite take on this kind of gameplay. The combat is fast-paced while still feeling meaningful, as you juggle between making physical and magical attacks depending on your situation. The progression is quick and generous with rewards.
Kingdom Hearts III plays much like its predecessors, but everything is faster and more over-the-top. Even mundane fights can turn into a visual spectacle, as you dash from enemy to enemy while unleashing acrobatic, magical attacks that look like some kind of strange mix between Final Fantasy and Cirque du Soleil. And if that sounds like nonsense, I’m just trying to say that everything — the spells, the animations, and more — are as flashy as you’ve ever seen in any game.
Incredible Disney worlds
Going to levels based on Disney movies is the core of the Kingdom Hearts experience. Kingdom Hearts III focuses on Pixar classics Toy Story and Monsters Inc. and Disney’s own recent computer animated hits Tangled, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. It’s incredible how much these video game levels look like the movies that inspire them. Sometimes the Square Enix designers re-create entire scenes from the original films, and you can barely tell the difference.
It’s also impressive how the three heroes — Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy — blend into these worlds. For some, their physical appearance will change drastically. In Monsters Inc., each character has a new, monstrous look.
The most impressive transformation happens in a world based on Pirates of the Caribbean. Sure, the trio are decked out in pirate gear, but they also look more realistic. Sora’s skin has more detail, the lighting is more natural, and Donald’s individual feathers even stand out more. This makes seeing Goofy standing next Captain Jack Sparrow look natural, not jarring.
That Pirates of the Caribbean level is also great example of just how creative these worlds are. Most of them focus on a series of fights and cutscenes, but many have interesting features. The Pirates level takes place in an open world that you can explore with your own pirate ship. It’s like a Kingdom Hearts take on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag — complete with ship combat — and it’s awesome.
Donald and Goofy
When I first heard about Kingdom Hearts, the notion that Donald and Goofy would permanent members of your adventuring party is what sold me. It’s just so silly and incredible. I love seeing Donald Duck as some powerful wizard, all while retaining his normal cartoon characteristics.
But as the series has gone on, Donald and Goofy took a backseat. They were always there, but sequels and spinoffs focused more on new characters. Kingdom Hearts II even sidelined them before its final boss. I knew that Donald and Goofy were returning as party members in Kingdom Hearts III, but I feared that outside of combat, you’d barely know they were there.
Kingdom Hearts III does right by the Disney duo. It gives them more story recognition and more standout moments than other game in the series. Donald and Goofy are my favorite parts of the franchise, and it made me happy to see them treated so well here.
What you won’t like
Kingdom Hearts III almost drowns in its excesses, specifically its story and combat. In regards to the plot, the baggage is unfortunate but predictable. Kingdom Hearts lore has gotten so confusing that you need to spend hours watching fan-made video explanations or reading wiki pages just to have an idea of what is going on. I’ve played every Kingdom Hearts game, but even I had to refresh myself with online resources several times. Even then, some things just don’t make sense, and the narrative isn’t above throwing out lazy tropes like time travel as an excuse to do whatever it wants.
The story is garbage.
Still, I have to admit, I devour it. It’s like fast food. Of course it’s garbage, but it still tastes good going down. There’s no nutritional value, but I don’t care. The story isn’t about much of anything, other than that having friends is good or something. But I’ve playing these games for so long, I can’t help but have an emotional attachment to these characters and their plights, no matter how dumb they are. And for all the story’s faults, Kingdom Hearts III does tie up just about every loose end. It has a satisfying conclusion that rewards fans like me that had the patience to try and keep up with this weird narrative.
The combat excesses are harder to forgive. Like I said, the fights are fun and flashy, but Kingdom Hearts III has too many special moves that happen so frequently that they feel anything but special. You can summon magic theme park rides, turn your weapons into stronger forms like giant rocket launchers, or team up with Donald, Goofy, and other party members for group attacks. The combat system has so much of this flash.
These things either become available at random or are so easy to unlock that you’ll get access to them without even trying to. Thankfully, you’re not forced to use any of these moves. You’ll simply have the option to use any of them for a limited time. At first, I used every one that became available, but that became tiring. Summoning a magical pirate ship to attack my enemies is cool the first few times, but it soon felt unsatisfying. It’s like playing Final Fantasy VII, where you get a Limit Break every other turn. You don’t earn it, so it doesn’t matter how cool it looks, it’s not special.
Kingdom Hearts III should have reined all of these special moves in, either by making them trigger way less often or by making using them actually cost something. I got so tired of them that I often would ignore them, even when I knew that they’d probably be a more efficient way to beat a fight. I’d rather focus on the traditional combat.
Kingdom Hearts III often can’t help itself. It feels pressure to be the most Kingdom Hearts game ever, and it is … for good and bad.
But if you love Kingdom Hearts like I do, than you’ll like this. So much of what I adore in this game comes in smaller details, like how you can use a camera to take pictures of Hidden Mickeys (just like what Disney theme park fans have been doing for years) and earn items, or how a major cooking component of the game centers around Remy from the fantastic Pixar film Ratatouille.
The Disney side is still the best side of Kingdom Hearts, and Kingdom Hearts III nails that part. But even it’s story, as ridiculous as it is, gives fans emotional moments and satisfaction. I wouldn’t say it’s better than Kingdom Hearts or Kingdom Hearts II, but Kingdom Hearts III is magical enough to resonate with this big Disney geek.
Kingdom Hearts III comes out on January 29 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Square Enix gave us codes of both versions for this review. The reviewer played the PS4 version.