Enjoying The Ride

I’ll be honest: I was pensive approaching this game, much less writing about it. As a devoted Kingdom Hearts fan, I (like the rest of the world) have been waiting 13 years for this anticipated title to drop. When Square Enix finally announced the release date last year, my unbridled excitement was subsequently followed by abject anxiety. After all this wait, would Kingdom Hearts III be worth it?

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When this logo got unveiled, a lot of hype - and a lot of expectations - fell onto its shoulders.

After spending a solid two months with the game, the answer to the question isn’t absolute, but a watery blend of yes and no. Kingdom Hearts III is a dazzling culmination of every previous game in the series and then some. However, it also bears the crushing weight of all of these games, each of which were poised to set the stage for this ultimate entry. With every bit of the Kingdom Hearts franchise leading to this moment, the stakes were high. Some facets of Kingdom Hearts III paid off, and some didn’t.

As much as I tried to crunch my analysis into one solid review, too many factors required deeper scrutiny. Thus, this two-part “review” will examine the light and dark (see what I did there?) of Kingdom Hearts III. Obviously, for the sake of all my fellow fans who have been waiting a long time to get the final chapter in this long story, I’ll attempt to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. However, there is one major plot-point I will spoil, as it needs to be mentioned.

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Signs that that KH3 is in a new gaming era: it has a camera mode. Also, insert whatever lucky emblem joke you like.

So, without further ado, let’s highlight the best parts of Kingdom Hearts III in this first part of my review.

The Gameplay's Wild Ride

Kingdom Hearts III is built solidly upon the gameplay of its predecessors. We step into the oversized shoes of main protagonist Sora, with his trusty buds Donald Duck and Goofy in tow. A real-time action RPG through and through, Sora’s arsenal includes physical and magic attacks, along with use of items and summons. Like KH1 and 2, the RPG elements of the game rely heavily on what equipment and abilities are assigned to your team. As you progress and gain levels, you can still equip add-ons to Sora’s combos and support abilities. As usual, magic and items can still be set to shortcuts to make life easier.

However, Kingdom Hearts III beefs up the gameplay with a lot of new attacks and strategies. Goofy and Donald will regularly signal team attacks like “Flare Force,” in which Donald and Sora set off a cyclone of fireworks, or Goofy’s “Bombardier”, wherein Sora launches Goofy shield-first into enemies. The team-up attacks with level-specific characters, like Jack Sparrow of Pirates Of The Caribbean and Rapunzel and Flynn Rider of Tangled, have also made a triumphant return from KH2.

Punching up combat a further notch, there are theme park ride attacks. Let me repeat myself: theme park ride attacks. We’re talking taking out Heartless with an honest-to-goodness carousel. Destroying an army of Nobodies with a swinging pirate ship. Never in my life did I think I could plow through baddies with a tea cup ride, but Kingdom Hearts, you’ve yet again expanded gaming possibilities in my puny brain. All of these attacks are inspired by classic Disney World rides. One particularly awe-inspiring visual takes place in Hercules’ Olympus Coliseum level. Sora summons a roller coaster and hops on as it orbits the enormous Titan you’re facing, turning a Space Mountain-esque ride into an offensive light-rail of war. Does it get anymore imaginative? Part of me wanted to say this is needless branding, but the rest of me howls with how fun and epic these ideas are.

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Finally, you have “Formchanges,” which convert your keyblade into other weapons for a limited amount of time. For example, Toy Story’s “Favorite Deputy” keyblade transforms into a hammer, while the Monster’s Inc.-inspired “Happy Gear” shifts from claws to some rather brutal yo-yos. Furthering this element, keyblades can now be upgraded via the Moogles’ synthesis shop, allowing you to beef up a particular keyblade’s stat, if you want to keep it for the long haul rather than trade up to the newest model.

Truth be told: at first glance, the gameplay felt a bit too flashy. In fact, there are several reviews that have claimed that Sora’s overpowered arsenal made the game too easy, as well as clashed with his narrative (he’s supposedly “weak” and in need of further training at this juncture). However, I found that as the game continued, all of these varied attacks kept gameplay interesting and fresh, as well as cinematically stunning. This stock of special moves can really come in handy in boss battles, as you’ll have several attacks queued up and ready to fire for massive damage. I never got tired of unleashing one technique after another, and switching out keyblades to test out their different Formchanges kept the combat from getting stale as the game continued on.

Additionally, kicking off the game with these team attacks between Sora, Donald, and Goofy does works on a narrative level. These three amigos have been traversing the universe and adventuring together for a long time now, thus these epic collaborations, which are easy to execute, really gives you a sense of how much the team has gelled. The gameplay is so enjoyable, in fact, that many times, that I forgot about the RPG component, running from one battle to the next without visiting the menu to equip new abilities and gear.

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When you see some of the combo attacks and bizarre weapons, it's hard not to think of Devil May Cry at times.

Finally, the boss battles in the game have a real wow factor. These fights are events, with each monster going through several “tiers” and modes requiring an adaptability that previous games didn’t have (other than KH2’s many quick-time events). Along with the immense nature of some of these enemies, these boss battles make for some eye-catching, and at times artistic, moments that further immerse the player in the experience. The giant wolf heartless at the end of the Frozen level was especially gorgeous.

All-in-all, the battles in this game are fun, fast-paced, and a blast to watch.

The Worlds at Large

If there is one way that Kingdom Hearts III ups the ante from its predecessors, it’s the scale of it all. The entire draw of the first Kingdom Hearts game was the opportunity to step into the worlds of classic Disney franchises. Kingdom Hearts III 100% maximizes this, and is bigger in every sense of the word.

For example, Square Enix made the smart choice of establishing KH3’s first destination as Olympus, from 1997’s Hercules. Traditionally, Olympus has been the smallest area of each game, consisting of the Coliseum (only two rooms beyond the general battle area), and the additional Underworld portion in KH2. Kingdom Hearts III blows the doors wide open to the whole of Olympus, from traversing through a burning Thebes, to exploring mountains, waterfalls and Greek architecture (including very imposing statue of Zeus) before skyrocketing into the clouds to the shiny majesty of Mount Olympus itself. In using this familiar world as the game’s front door, KH3 establishes right off the bat how immense the worlds of Disney will be in this new entry.

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Adding to the expanse of each area, Sora can now vertically run up “glowing” walls, Prince of Persia-style. This new mechanic quite literally allows for exploration where the sky is the limit, as you’ll want to scale every mountain and cliff for treasure chests and food (more on that later). Throw in other factors like riding rails (akin to the vine portion of the Tarzan level in the first game), level-specific mini games, and the straight up pirate ship antics in The Caribbean, and Kingdom Hearts III ensures that you’ll never be bored for one minute.

Even the worlds themselves feel more populated and alive. Cities like Pirates of the Caribbean’s Port Royal, which was comparatively small and desolate in Kingdom Hearts II, are now thriving and full of people.

All of this was fantastic, but there was one part of the game that myself (and many fans) have always dreaded: the Gummi Ship. I’ll be forthright here: the Gummi Ship is still ugly as hell. They didn’t change its design at all for KH3. Aesthetically, it looks like it fell ass-backwards out of a PS1 game, with a fresh coat of HD slathered onto it. Maybe some other fans find it endearing, but I'm not one of them.

However, when you take that puppy into space, prepare to have your mind blown. Gone are the days of the linear paths between one world and the next. Congratulations, Kingdom Hearts III, you have given us Star Trek levels of outer freakin’ space, and it is breathtaking:  open sky exploration with meteor showers, treasure puzzle globes, intergalactic speedways, and spaceship battles, all backdropped by a beautiful blanket of stars. You can choose to enter zones with Heartless battle challenges, seasoned favorably with a taste of old-school games like Asteroid or Galaga, or just head straight to the next Disney “planet” to continue the story. It’s definitely the most ambitious Gummi Ship system yet. Well done!

Other New Elements

Here’s another awesome upgrade. While I’m in Olympus, Hercules joins my party. Right on! Welcome aboard, my muscle-y brother from another mother! Now who I am sacrificing out: Donald or Goofy...hold up, they can stay?

Finally, after all these years, Kingdom Hearts III allows for more than three members in your party. Hallelujah! A simple upgrade, but one that makes the game feeling richer than past incarnations.

KH3 also throws in a metric ton of fun sidequests. As if to boldly scream “It’s 2019, and we’re hip with the times”, Kingdom Hearts’ faithful travelogue companion Jiminy Cricket has traded in his journal for a smartphone. Sora is tasked with snapping photos of “lucky emblems” (the Mickey Mouse symbol) across the universe with this phone, akin to the search for Trinities in KH1 and puzzle pieces in KH2. Additionally, there are also photo requests from your friendly neighborhood Moogles, i.e. a particular toy display in Toy Story or the festival in the Kingdom of Corona.

I suppose having a teenage boy protagonist and not having him take selfies is just too much of a stretch for the imagination. No complaints here though; these photo missions make for an enjoyable scavenger hunt. Plus, taking pictures of the various Disney characters in your party is a hoot, as they instantly react when you point a camera at them. The moment Woody from Toy Story asked “you wanna take my picture?” and tipped his hat, I melted into a squealing puddle of geeky goo.

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Throughout the game, you can also collect mini-games on your phone which are legit Game-&-Watch / Tiger handheld-inspired fare. When the massive adventuring of a Warrior of Light gets too overwhelming, settling into a little black & white relic of the good ol’ days of 2 double-A batteries and no backlighting can be a welcome distraction. The sheer simplicity of these little gems give a fun contrast to the overall bombast of the rest of the game, as well as a nice nod to the Steamboat Willie level of KH2.

Finally, Kingdom Hearts III takes a page out of the Final Fantasy XV book of status-boosting meals. Sora can bring ingredients from around the world to the new bistro in the series’ mainstay village of Twilight Town. There, Remy the Rat of Ratatouille fame controls Sora (via his spiky hair, just like in the 2007 movie) in mini-games to create new meals and desserts, which are added to your inventory for later use. These games are super fast and take a steady hand, dealing a different challenge than the rest of the game. The one downside is that you’ll get incredibly tired of Donald proclaiming there are ingredients in the area every time you step into a room. For crying out loud, Donald, yes I see there are mushrooms in under that tree - shut up!

Whatever, it’s a small price to pay for the added element, as well as a nice way to work in another Disney/Pixar character.

One Great Story Thread

HERE’S THAT SPOILER I WARNED YOU ABOUT! Read on at your own peril!

Yes, the storyline of Kingdom Hearts is incredibly convoluted. I know this, you know this, your mama knows this...

It’s unfortunate, but one of the reasons why this first part of the review is mostly spoiler-free is because a lot of the storyline will be addressed in part 2 of this review. However, Kingdom Hearts III has definitely taken care to address many of the previous games in order to tie all of the threads together, and few moments in the game’s finale delivered a satisfying payoff that bares mentioning.

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One of the most redeeming moments of Kingdom Hearts III is the redemption of the side characters: the original Keyblade Warriors of Light, and the Nobody trio. Through a series of fights with main villains -- the “new” Organization XIII -- Sora and his fellow soldiers are pitted against their rivals so that the stage is set for some beautiful final acts. These action set pieces are resolved with the return of Roxas and reveal of Xion, who reunites with Axel (see previous article referencing 358/2 Days). The stars of prequel Birth By Sleep get their climax with the revival of the once “possessed” Terra, who comes to the rescue of his best friends Aqua and Ventus. After years away from these characters and the unhappy circumstances upon which their respective games ended, witnessing their happy endings was joyous capstone. Something in the way these moments were orchestrated felt incredibly genuine and thoughtfully planned, and definitely merited legitimate tears of joy.

Beyond Birth By Sleep and 358/Days, many nods are made to Re:Coded, Dream Drop Distance, and Chain of Memories. One particularly cool inclusion was the reference to the mobile game Union X: About 500 real-life players with high scores were immortalized in one stellar attack in which Sora “summoned” the old keyblade masters. Kudos to Square Enix for finding an interesting way to include even the oddest addition to the series.

A Final Thought On The “Good” Parts of Kingdom Hearts III

As evidenced, Kingdom Hearts III really delivered particularly on the gameplay elements, culminating in an experience well worth the thirteen year wait. From the expanded universe and rich landscapes, to the amplified gameplay, KH3 managed to growth with the times while still having the familiar feel of the original games.

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At the end of the day, KH3 understands how to make you feel like a kid exploring your own imagination, and that's one of its greatest strengths.

So the question remains: with so much good talked about here, where did Kingdom Hearts III go wrong? Was there even a way that this long-awaited game could have satisfied all of the hungry fans out there? We'll talk about that in part two.