I was quite late in getting a PlayStation 2 – back then having to rely on birthdays or Christmas to even attempt at asking for a new games console – so whilst others state that it has been nearly 17 years in the waiting for the final chapter of Kingdom Hearts from the first release, for me, it is only 15 years.
Back then, I didn’t have my finger on the pulse in terms of upcoming game releases, the majority of my purchases being what was available on the shelves of Woolworths. I remember Kingdom Hearts instantly grabbing my attention because it had the Squaresoft logo next to the inimitable Disney logo. A Disney game made by the same developers of the Final Fantasy games that helped me elongate the lifecycle of my PSone way past the first few years of the PlayStation 2?! Count me in! Whenever I get my new console that is.
By the time I got around to finally buying Kingdom Hearts some 18+ months later, the game had gone Platinum and the name on the front had changed to Square Enix. But still, I couldn’t wait to get home and play it.
Fast forward those 15 years later and I am still full of that childish excitement with the release of Kingdom Hearts III. The only difference being that now, instead of inserting a disc and getting straight on with it, I watch a virtual bar go from left to right telling me my download is complete.
Kingdom Hearts III is an action RPG that acts as a conclusion to Sora’s journey to stop Xehanort and his Organization XIII from bringing about a second Keyblade War and shroud the world in darkness. It’s a familiar plot in terms of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, and yet Kingdom Hearts is a highly original premise. What started as a crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy IPs has since taken on it’s own identity; the Disney side of the venture still remains in full effect, but sadly this time around there are hardly any Final Fantasy references at all, and only Moogles appear as the shopkeeper from the Final Fantasy roster.
Sora – accompanied by his two ‘half-pints’ Donald Duck and Goofy – must find the “power to awaken” lost hearts, as Sora’s body contains the hearts of other protagonists, and he needs to gather seven Keyblade wielders to prepare for the final showdown. This journey will take him through famous Disney – and now Pixar – worlds in the same setup that has been found before with the numbered entries in the series. Some worlds are returning, like the Pirates of the Caribbean world or 100 Acre Wood, but many are making their first appearance: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Frozen, Tangled and Big Hero 6.
Newcomers should fear not though, as despite Kingdom Hearts’ long and intense plot, the game does a fairly good job at welcoming in those new to the series. There are catch-up videos available from the main menu to get you up to speed and the overall game is relatively plot-lite until the last third, giving you enough time to get fully versed whilst still enjoying the game. Most character introductions are done with someone else exclaiming their name, so you are never really left wondering who’s who.
Kingdom Hearts III starts like many other JRPGs; a lovely looking opening cinematic interspersed with in-game cutscenes accompanied by some rousing orchestral music. This montage even features a game of chess showing the struggle between light and dark, a tried and tested trope but one that still manages to gee you up and have you licking your lips at the 30+ hour journey ahead.
After that, an opening prologue set in Olympus seeking out Hercules gently reacquaints you with Sora, Donald and Goofy. This prologue is called Kingdom Hearts 2.9. Oh what, you thought Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue was the last piece of the puzzle before III? Wrong! You should know by now that this series subverts everything you know about storytelling and unnecessarily long game titles.
Here, you get a first real taste for the new mechanics in the battle system. For the most part, it is the same as the other mainline entries: liberal pressing of the A button to hack and slash away at enemies or unleash any of the spells Sora has under his command. But there are new battle features that help turn the tide in your favour.
First up are Formchanges for Keyblades. As Sora completes worlds he will unlock new Keyblades based on those worlds that, through achieving damage thresholds whilst in battle, allow Sora to Formchange the Keyblade, resulting in more damage for a short duration. Some even have the ability to Formchange again a second time, once a higher threshold has been met.
There are also now Attraction Flows, which were given a lot of coverage before the game released. These are inspired by Disneyland and Disneyworld attractions such as the tea cups, merry-go-round and astro blasters, and can be unlocked when attacking a highlighted enemy. Your normal attacks pause briefly and instead you ride the attractions causing damage.
Add to all these the return of team attacks and you have have more than enough firepower to get you through to the final showdown.
Too much firepower it would feel like; all these above attacks can be started by pressing the Y button but so often you will be using one already and the next one is already queued up for use. There are so many that the difficulty curve from previous games is almost completely gone. What was once a tactical battle of attrition against the bosses has effectively become bashing the A button until a prompt to press the Y button appears, repeating until the bullet-spongy HP bars of the enemies have disappeared.
All these non-standard attacks can also be quite jarring and distracting; there is no denying Kingdom Hearts III is a gorgeous game and at times the cutscenes can look as good as the films they are representing, but these Formchange and Attraction Flow attacks are big, brash and unabashed. Some of the bosses are highly imaginative, but then Sora whips out his second Formchange on his Keyblade and engulfs the screen, and invariably you need to move the camera to find where the enemy has gone to.
Thankfully, once again you can check out the character models in the menus when things are a little quieter.
Summons also return but this time are called Links. Again, these feel rather convoluted in their approach: Wreck-It-Ralph’s for example has you place blocks within close range of the last one to cause an area of effect attack when punching one of them. On the other hand, Simba is again a summon and casts Firaga with every press of the A button. Simple and clean.
When not in the heat of battle, Sora et al will traverse through the Disney worlds. Here, Kingdom Hearts III flexes its creative muscles, for a couple of the worlds at least. Iconic locations like Andy’s bedroom or the Monsters, Inc. foyer can be explored, and these are well mixed in with original locations, or expansions to existing places. Some fare better than others: the Pirates world has you cruising round the Caribbean Sea in a mini version of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and the Toy Story world has you control giant Mech’s known as Gigas around a huge toy store. But Arendelle from Frozen and the Monsters, Inc. factory feel dead by comparison, far more linear worlds that will test even the most stalwart Kingdom Hearts fan and their dedication to see this through.
Thankfully, after you have successfully navigated these worlds, the finale comes and restores your belief in the series. It is a satisfying conclusion that ties up most of the outstanding plot points but leaves enough dangling and unfinished to set-up for the inevitable sequel.
The Gummi Ship also returns, which will instil fear or joy depending on your experiences with it. Regardless though it has had a revamp and is now a more open-world take on it. You can fly around the skies without restriction and either head to the next world or take pictures of the constellations and unlock new Gummi pieces. These constellations take the form of classic Final Fantasy baddies, but as it is space and exists on a 3D plane, it can be frustrating to find the correct spot with which to take your picture.
Yes, this is 2019 so now even Kingdom Hearts III has a photo mode. You can take pictures of the stars, the hidden Mickey’s dotted throughout the world that act as a collectible or even your allies and enemies to fulfil photo missions given to you by the Moogles.
Another nod to times gone by is found in the loading screens as they feature an Instagram-like picture, caption and even heart hashtags. Disappointingly though, the photos you take in-game are not included in these loading screens.
If you feel like you need a break from the hacking and slashing, there are also Classic Kingdom games for you to try out. These start off as collectibles in the world that once found, allow you to play a series of games reminiscent of old LCD handheld games, complete with the blips and bloops sound effects. These aren’t too demanding but are a welcome respite.
Yoko Shimomura returns to compose the soundtrack for Kingdom Hearts III, and once again does an exemplary job. Having helped compose the majority of the series it’s good to hear returning compositions in a new light. It is a shame though that many of the licenced tracks from the Disney films are missing. The likes of ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ and ‘Let it Go’ are given special attention and deservedly so, but many other tracks for the Disney worlds are original compositions.
There are 45 achievements in total for Kingdom Hearts III on Xbox One but comparatively with other JRPGs, this is not a massive grind for completion. There are a couple of achievements – get Sora to level 99 and synthesise every item – that will require some grinding to get enough EXP and all ingredients, but many of the achievements aren’t too demanding. Some levels have minigames that have achievements associated with achieving certain scores with them but with a few attempts you can be hitting those scores no problem.
Kingdom Hearts III is a fitting conclusion to this Dark Seeker saga; and by fitting, I mean a hodge-podge of ideas and sub-plots that don’t always seem to work but still manage to muster something pretty decent. There are flaws, such as the chaotic battles and bland worlds of Arendelle and Monstropolis and the game does feel like it loses its way at times on the way to a final act rather than taking the fastest and most efficient route. But everything is rounded off nicely and KHIII will earn the series some new fans along the way.