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The Kingdom Hearts series has always been one of the most fascinating and complex pieces of media to ever exist. The concept of stirring up the sensibilities of the Final Fantasy series with Disney characters and a completely original story feels like the makings of a jokey fanfiction, yet it works outrageously well. A series which many may have believed to be a weird licensing flash in the pan quickly grew to one of people’s most beloved, thanks to its perfect blend of sincerity and absurdity.
Kingdom Hearts III is the culmination and execution of nearly every single narrative point that has been brought up in the ten entries that have been released since the first game way back in 2002. It brings all sorts of characters and plotlines into the same room, and makes them mash up against each other in the complex yet melodramatic ways that only a Kingdom Hearts game could pull off. While there’s plenty of great moments of resolution, Kingdom Hearts III isn’t interested in one last hurrah, but rather making sure everything is set up for whatever comes next.
Picking up after the events of Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance, III finally brings Sora, Donald, and Goofy back together after nearly 13 years. While most of the non-numbered entries in the series implemented unique twists on the standard Kingdom Hearts combat- with gimmicks like using cards to attack, or collecting Pokemon-esque buddies to help- III is a welcome return and update to the refined and robust combat II featured. I’ve always considered the Kingdom Hearts games to be like a much more simplistic and approachable Devil May Cry, with a focus on spectacle and player skill over managing statistics or menus.
The new and improved combat plays like an absolute dream, and it’s hard not to consider III as a contender for one of the best playing games of all time. Sora jumps and jabs in the most satisfying and successful ways that it makes every enemy encounter feel entrancing. Adapting the drive forms from Kingdom Hearts II, at the end of nearly every other combo, Sora is able to transform his keyblade into a variety of different and stronger weapons that all feel completely unique. There’s keyblades that turn into drills or hammers, there’s pugilistic keyblades, and there’s even keyblades that turn into straight up guns. Thanks to the new weapon upgrade system, you’ll also be able to pick and stick with whatever keyblades you want to use as well, unlike past games where picking and choosing keyblades was more based on their stats and abilities.
On top of forms, there are a variety of special moves like upgraded magic, partner abilities, and more, so it’s impossible to go even a few seconds without prompting the appearance of a new show stopper. Unfortunately, even on the game’s hardest difficulty, the game feels trivially easy with all these tools at your disposal. When you’re constantly fluctuating through a whole slew of explosive and effective moves against waves of largely inactive enemies, it can become frustrating just how little a threat everything poses. I typically play through the Kingdom Hearts games on Critical difficulty, but that option isn’t present in III for whatever reason, instead capping out your options to “Beginner,” “Standard,” and Proud.” I’d go so far as to recommend people play through Kingdom Hearts III on the hardest difficulty, if only because there’s at least a degree of resistance there, and I personally shudder to imagine the simplicity of Beginner mode.
At times it can feel like the game has forgotten just how fun its core combat is, and tries way too hard to lean into those moments of spectacle to the detriment of the overall experience. One of the best examples of this is the Attraction Flow feature, which puts Sora into a Disneyland amusement ride that renders him pretty much invincible while performing some sort of minigame to inflict damage on nearby enemies. Each of these Attractions force you into a jarring cutscene that takes momentum away from the combat while you press X for a bit. The Attractions range from outright frustrating at worst, to just mediocre at best, and each time they popped up on my command list I ended up doing my damndest to make sure that I never accidentally activated one. It’s cool to watch your moves evolve as you fight and figure out what the best way to solve any given encounter is! It’s less cool to watch Sora get into a pirate ship for the fiftieth time and just mash X as it rocks back and forth to instantly win.
There are so many other aspects of the gameplay that end up feeling unnecessary. There’s an entire elaborate system designed around finding various ingredients around the game world and taking them back to the rat from Ratatouille (who is being managed by Scrooge McDuck because Kingdom Hearts owns) to make meals to eat. Everytime you go to make a meal, you have to go through a short but frustrating minigame where Sora cracks open an egg or something, and it’s all too easy to fail these and lose your valuable components. When you succeed, the food you make can be eaten to receive temporary buffs and abilities, but in a game already as easy as Kingdom Hearts III, this feels tacked on just because every other JRPG has a cooking minigame these days.
There are minigames that actually feel good and well implemented, and it’s largely because they integrate so well with the core gameplay. Challenges like the parkour Flash Racer courses in the Big Hero 6 world, or the various Flan minigames that range from silly selfie taking to combat encounters with specific rules, present a compelling and fun challenge because you’re utilizing the tools you would normally use. Instead of having to arbitrarily pressing X to the rhythm of a carousel, or tilt the control stick just the right way to mignon that filet, you’re dashing and mashing around the way you usually would. If the Attractions were utilized more in a scripted way, where it made sense with the current environment you were in, or enemies you were facing, they could legitimately be really fun! There was even a system like this back in Kingdom Hearts II, where certain enemies would have exclusive counters and attacks, so it’s just bizarre that the game would take so many steps forward, and these few bizarre steps back.
As with the battles, the environments of Kingdom Hearts III are just as confounding as they are compelling. More on-model than ever before, it’s clear just how well the aesthetics of Pixar and the more three dimensional Disney movies mix with the sensibilities of Kingdom Hearts. Worlds like Toy Story’s Toybox and Frozen’s Arendelle look so perfect that it absolutely feels like you’re stepping into those films. Kingdom Hearts has always been infamous for how hilariously out of place Sora and his compatriots can look at times, but in III he fits into nearly every environment. I was even surprised just how well he fit into the Pirates of the Carribean world, with his custom outfit and darker shading palette making it seem like he really belongs there.
Unfortunately not everything is as perfect as it looks. While it makes sense that Square Enix would want to take advantage of just how far game technology has come in the last 13 years, it’s all too easy to get lost in the visual vastness of it all. Instead of the various rooms separated by loading screens that have permeated the Kingdom Hearts series since its inception, most worlds are made up of a few massive areas built like shopping malls and mountains with plenty of verticality. While it’s nice to wander around without much waiting to take you out of the game, it can be hard to parse exactly where you’re meant to go. Luckily there is a minimap to show you a zoomed in portion of the area you’re currently in, but there’s no way to expand it and see where you should be, or which sections of the map you haven’t visited yet.
This is made all the more baffling by the fact that you pick up maps from treasure chests. You’re getting what should ostensibly be helping you figure out where the heck you are, only to be presented with something that is only half as helpful as it sells itself on. While most of the game is pretty straightforward with plenty of signposts on where the story wants you to go, there are lots of collectables that you’re always going to watch out for, and with these huge environments, it becomes annoying with just how hard it is to keep track of where you’ve been. Especially in areas like Frozen’s Arendelle, where each zone is characterized by snowy mountains that largely blend together into looking like the same place everywhere. It’s all beautiful and perfectly recreated, but eventually I end up struggling to visualize what I need to.
Now it’s finally time to talk about what is arguably the most important aspect of any Kingdom Hearts game: the story. The Kingdom Hearts series has always been known for its convoluted and complex narrative, full of proper nouns and dozens of versions of Sora, and it has given the games equal amounts of devotion and distaste. If you’re the type of person who’s frustrated by the idea of managing large complex webs of names and concepts over the course of ten games, then Kingdom Hearts III may feel a lot more like a research project than a game. However, If you are into that, and have been involved and aware of pretty much everything that’s gone down from Birth by Sleep to Re:Coded, then you’re going to get nearly everything you’ve asked for.
Kingdom Hearts III was never meant to be a final ending. Series director Tetsuya Nomura made it clear this is the ending of the current “saga” long before the game came out, and in that vein it absolutely has a whole bunch of beautiful finishing touches. Every single original character who has ever been in a Kingdom Hearts game is represented and accounted for, with their stories resolved one way or another. While the game is very blatantly focused on setting up a whole new web of intrigue and another decade plus of storytelling, the way that things are told in no way detract from the weight of just how good the conclusions to this era of Kingdom Hearts are. I found myself in tears multiple times over the course of the game’s two hour long ending stretch, and reminisced over so many memories I had growing up with these characters as a super passionate fanfic writing teen.
While I absolutely adored the ending overall, and I loved playing through Kingdom Hearts III to 100% completion, there were a few problems with how everything shook out in the end from a structural standpoint. Firstly, the narrative is almost entirely backloaded, with little to no advancement to the plot occurring until the twilight hours of the game. While plenty of games in the Kingdom Hearts series have done this, Birth by Sleep especially, there was usually at least some sort of larger conflict that happened in the midst of the story to really keep the momentum going. In III, however, you’re going to be blasting through seven Disney worlds in a row with only the occasional transition of suggestive plot details in between. This wouldn’t be so bad if, but the Disney worlds’ stories do very little to support Sora as a character like in previous entries, so they end up feeling more like unrelated busy work.
Instead of adding in some sort of twist or wrinkle on the various featured films’ narratives, most of the worlds in Kingdom Hearts III are almost complete and nearly unchanged retellings of their source material. While the Toy Story world and Olympus Coliseum offer more unique stories, others like Tangled, Frozen, and Monsters Inc. straight up regurgitate either memetic quotes or entire scenes from their source material in ways that can often feel out of place. Almost the entire ending to the Frozen world, for example, is taken directly out of the film, including the character of Hans who until that point had been completely unknown to Sora and co, but now he’s here as the central conflict I guess? It all just feels very strange and almost lazy when compared to how worlds have been in the past. I loved how the Nightmare before Christmas world in Kingdom Hearts I and II featured the concept of Halloweentown Denizens coping and playing with the concept of Heartless. It made sense for these edgy emo characters to get hype over the villains and try to figure them out, but in KH3 it feels like all the enemies are…just sort of there.
Even worse, there’s a complete dearth of Final Fantasy characters throughout the entire plot. While this isn’t a game-ruining problem or anything, it ends up making a majority of the game feel like a licensed Disney joint, instead of the Square/Disney crossover that Kingdom Hearts has always been. Characters like Cloud or Squall brought levity and a sense of outlandishness to the series, and while I can understand the presence of every Kingdom Hearts original character might make adding more of them feel overwhelming, their absence is noticeable. It’s such a shame too, because when the characters of a Disney world interact with the Kingdom Hearts villains, it’s almost always completely hilarious. Seeing Woody call out Xehanort by saying no one has ever loved him and that he has no friends made me absolutely lose it, as did a similar scene where Mike and Sulley try to take out series edgelord Vanitas in an outrageously elaborate fashion. I would’ve loved to see more of this, because the idea of Cloud Strife having to interact with literally any Disney character is the funniest thing in the world to me even after all these years.
Even more frustrating is the lack of respect for almost all of the women characters amongst the main cast whatsoever. While Kingdom Hearts has never particularly been caring towards letting women have agency, recent games like Birth by Sleep 0.2 had given the glimmer of hope that hey, maybe a woman will be allowed to wield a keyblade and fight as good as all the men. Unfortunately that glimmer was lost to the darkness, and it would’ve been nice if say, Kairi, who had been set up for multiple games as becoming a huge keyblade master, who spent the entire game training to fight, wasn’t forced into being just a damsel in distress yet again.
Kairi isn’t the only one who has to suffer either, as the typically heroic, if not chronically failing Aqua accomplishes absolutely nothing throughout her entire narrative. It often makes me wonder why so much effort and emphasis was ever put on them in the first place, if they were never intended to actually do anything meaningful. While I can understand a primary focus on Sora being important after so long, and the fact that having such a heavy roster of characters makes who gets focus a balancing act, I don’t understand why the women have to get short shrift so often. It’s ridiculous to see a character like Aqua, who is touted as an indispensable and strong keyblade master, lose every conceivable conflict she’s placed into, just so she can be saved by the incredibly dweebish Sora. When they inevitably make a Kingdom Hearts IV, I hope that for all the girls’ sakes, and mine, that they get to be treated even half as well as any of the men do.
I may seem like I’m really firing off all cannons at Kingdom Hearts III here, but I actually really did adore the game. Playing through the game and doing every conceivable thing struck a feeling in my heart that hardly anything else manages to. I absolutely adore the homoeroticism the series has always projected, and getting to see Riku and Sora hit on each other in high definition was a complete game changer. I also love how the series has continuously delved into more psychological themes like disassociation or even trans narratives with the characters of Xion and Roxas, regardless of whether it was intended to or not. The endgame sequence, where Sora goes up against every villain from the series’ history and has a therapy session with them after an explosive and elaborate fight is one of my favorite segments of a game literally ever! It’s because of all this love and appreciation I have for the game and series at a whole that I can’t help but be more harsh with my criticisms, because it can be better, and I desperately want it to be.
Under a capitalist society it can be hard to find endings. So many stories have ended up squandered as the creators ended up desperately searching for the maximum amount of potential profit possible. Games like Mass Effect 3 have sacrificed nuance and depth in favor of trying to onboard as many previously uninterested players as possible, while shows built for serialization like The Simpsons last in perpetuity long past their expiration date. Kingdom Hearts III is bold to me because it caters so specifically to its most dedicated and passionate fans, and tries to give an ending for each of them. Whether you loved the trio of 358/2 Days, the Wayfinders of Birth by Sleep, or the classic Sora, Riku, and Kairi combo, there’s something in here for everyone, and some sort of soft end to make you feel something inside. Simple and clean is the way Kingdom Hearts has always made me feel, and I’m glad that I haven’t had to let it go.