End of an era.
My journey into Kingdom Hearts was probably different from most fans my age. I was gifted the original Kingdom Hearts when I was in high school and played a portion of it. No matter how hard I tried, I always got stuck at the same part. Eventually, it was lost among the shores of time. Nearly 17 years later, Kingdom Hearts III arrived. When the eventual release date was announced, I quickly scooped up the Story so Far edition of the series and promptly rolled through every Kingdom Hearts game (I finished the last movie on the collection at the end of December). Needless to say, I understood why the series was beloved by many, and I joined the eager waiting game. Fortunately, my wait for Kingdom Hearts III was only about 25 days long. So was the decade of waiting worth it? Could Square-Enix pull out another solid title like Final Fantasy XV?
The answer to that question is complicated. I can easily say that I was prepared for Kingdom Hearts III with the entire saga fresh in my mind. The opening of the game takes place shortly after Dream Drop Distance, with Riku and Mickey rescuing Sora from his slumber. The elder Xehanort is back, and this time he’s at the head of Organization XIII. Knowing all of this, the Master Yen Syd sends Sora, along with Goofy and Donald, out into the worlds of Disney again in hopes of finding a means to figure out how to use his awakening powers and maybe free the hearts trapped inside him in the process.
And so entails, like just about every game in the Kingdom Hearts series, a strange trip to each Disney World. In each, we’re greeted with brief exposition and an introduction into each world’s hero. Series long time worlds return, like Olympus, and others, like the Toybox or Monstropolis, are first time entrants. Each world also continues a stream of plot that decidedly leads to the final ocean of narrative. Because the scope of Kingdom Hearts III is so massive, the game itself felt trapped in a tiny collection of set pieces.
What do I mean by that? If you take a look at each Kingdom Hearts game, you’ll notice a few similar trends. There are always two sets of villains. Maleficent heads out the Disney villains and picks up her sidekick Pete in the process. She essentially heads the Disney conglomerate of villains and spends this game looking for an elusive black box. The second set of villains are from the Kingdom Hearts side of business. In game one, it was Ansem and the Heartless. In Kingdom Hearts 2, it was Xemnas and Organization XIII. In the various side story games, it is a collection of Xehanort and the Organization members. In Kingdom Hearts III, every major villain from every previous entry was present, and each felt like he/she was assigned to his/her own world.
In a game that’s 100 hours, this wouldn’t be a problem. But Kingdom Hearts III might last you 30-40 hours, and much of that might be exploration of worlds. What this means is that each villain gets little development. They’re just the bad guys or gals. Organization XIII is back with two lines of reasoning as to why, and the members who were defeated in Kingdom Hearts 2 and have returned to the ‘light side’ find themselves with even less development. Axel and Kairi spend the entire game training, which is an entirely missed opportunity to explore one of the most interesting characters in the series (Axel/Lea).
Did I mention that Square-Enix and Disney decided they no longer required the aid of Final Fantasy characters? That’s right; Square-Enix reportedly felt they didn’t need to include Final Fantasy favorites or longtime Kingdom Hearts characters because they believed they had already created a cast of memorable characters. To this point, I can agree. The Birth By Sleep trio is wonderful, and Organization XIII and the Nobodies are such great ideas. But in Kingdom Hearts III, no character gets his/her fair due. Without spoiling any really important things, there are some characters who could have had really enlightening development central to the story who are left with maybe 20 minutes of game time (Vexen, for example).
Getting past the careless character development, I also believed that the worlds in Kingdom Hearts didn’t feel right. They felt smaller, somehow, than each world in previous entries. Maybe they were, or maybe it was because the worlds had less zoning and more open space. Either way, the excitement of Kingdom Hearts III faded by the time I finished the Toybox world. Until I reached the end of the game and left the Disney worlds far behind, I was going through the motions to complete this game. Maybe, should there be a new Kingdom Hearts game in the future, we’ll ditch the Disney worlds and create Kingdom Hearts ones. Mickey and the main Disney cast can stay, of course, but why not? There would be little stifling oversight and, hopefully, free creativity.
If there is a place where Kingdom Hearts III shines, however, it would be in its combat system. Drawing upon elements of just about every game that came before, Kingdom Hearts III felt like a complete experience on the gameplay front. You could feel the thought and passion that went into creating the battle system. Each keyblade has its own powers and transformations, allowing you to strategize your situations appropriately (Sora could equip three at a time and cycle through them during battle). Flo-motion was back but in acceptable amounts. The link system was improved upon, and boss battles weren’t as frustrating as previous entries (though still required skill to conquer). Ironically, the worst addition to the established system came in the newly introduced form of attraction attacks. Sora, on occasion, is given the opportunity to unleash an attraction attack, where he summons carnival type rides to damage enemies. They’re useful, for sure, but I felt like they wasted more time than anything, especially late in the game or during my platinum trophy cleanup, where I was already high enough level to slap through enemies.
Visually, Kingdom Hearts III is a relatively attractive game. It shines, in particular, during its Pirates of the Caribbean segment. I’ve read a lot of reviews lambasting its performance on PS4, Xbox One, and the PS4 Pro, stating its Pro performance as devastating. If that’s true, I can’t say. I read a similar report suggesting I turn my 4K mode off on the PS4 and let it run at a native 1080p, where it shows the best performance of the aforementioned consoles. It worked, as I have yet to experience any noticeable framerate issues. Built on the Unreal 4 engine, Kingdom Hearts III is both shiny and, unusually, wet looking, though the overall aesthetics are an addition to the game rather than a hindrance.
But all imperfections become noticeable when a weak soundtrack derails your experience. Don’t get me wrong, Kingdom Hearts III has some jamming tunes and beautiful melodies. Some of the Disney songs come through well, and the Frozen scenes, particularly the “Let is Go” re-enactment, were fabulous. Still, by the time I finished the Toybox world, I wanted to scream. The sound direction does NOT have a friend in me, no matter how many thousands of times it loops. Voice acting, on the other side of the sound coin, was terrific. Most of the voice talent reprised their roles with a few exceptions, and the great Rutger Hauer replaced the irreplaceable Leonard Nemoy as Xehanort. Overall, voice acting saved the day, though it’s always jarring when some of the Disney characters are not played by their original actors (Pirates of the Caribbean and Monsters, Inc., I’m looking at you). I think the ratio to disney:original actors was at about 50%, which, I suppose, isn’t terrible.
Kingdom Hearts III, when it comes down to it, is not a bad game. I thoroughly enjoyed the ending, when the focus shifted to Kingdom Hearts. The combat is challenging enough to be rewarding, and it’s enjoyable while the difficulty lasts. The Gummi ship pieces are actually decent, so there’s no complaints there, either. For the length of development time, however, Kingdom Hearts III feels incomplete. Worlds felt cut short and characters were never developed enough. Something just didn’t feel right until the end of the game, and that never actually resolved the issues with the first half; it just made the conclusion enjoyable. From a series that I’ve enjoyed so much, Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t show the same polish as its predecessors. I wanted to fall in love with this game like I did Birth by Sleep or Chains of Memory, but Kingdom Hearts III never let itself get past itself. The game is still worth playing, especially for longtime fans, but the experience does not live up to the Kingdom Hearts name.