Review: Kingdom Hearts 3

I’ve been of two minds about finally doing a KH3 review. I finished the main story a few weeks ago and had mixed feelings about it. As time passed, my feelings ebbed and flowed like a river of Heartless. Sometimes reflection is needed after a game before final opinions come into focus.

So now I think I’m comfortable with my final thoughts on the game. I already talked about how I was disappointed with how the Disney worlds played out in an earlier post, so I’m not gonna harp too much on those themes again (but they will probably still come up). I’ll also try to avoid any specific story spoilers, but there will be general spoilers of what happens all the way up to the endgame.

Now let’s get into it.

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Kingdom Hearts on PS4! Yay!

I was super excited for Kingdom Hearts 3. It was going to be a conclusion to a long, complicated storyline! There were awesome, completely new Disney worlds to explore! And the last mainline game was on PS2 so the graphics looked amazing and the worlds looked visually beautiful! I couldn’t wait to explore and find out the conclusion to this series I’ve been invested in since 2002!

And while playing it, I didn’t not enjoy it. It was fun, it was engaging, I had a dumb smile on my face in some parts and was laughing at the absurdity in others. But everywhere I looked, I kept thinking to myself that KH3 just could have been better. In many ways the game was polished and passable, but it could have been so much more.

My favorite two Disney worlds ended up being the Pirates world and the Big Hero 6 world, both of which I had yet to play for my previous article. And they both did better at things I complained about – Organization XIII’s effect on the world was much more tangible and you got to fight actual Disney villains/characters. In Big Hero 6 you get to interact with Big Hero 6, which is great!! But Pirates takes place during the third movie, which is already weird since the second and third movies were tied together. And said third movie takes place pretty much entirely off-screen: you see all the Pirates characters in the beginning, get a cut-scene in the middle, and then another scene at the end after you fight Davy Jones. Pirates 3 is already a movie with a confusing plot – and it’s even worse when you only get 10 minutes of a 3 hour movie.

It’s baffling design choices like that which drove me crazy as I played KH3. They give you a pirate ship to explore the world, but the main activity is to….collect crabs to upgrade it? What? Instead of adventuring on the high seas with Will and Elizabeth, I’m hitting barrels to reveal crabs. Yes, that’s what I want in my Disney worlds!

And it’s not just the worlds that could be better. There is a very strong “press a button, do cool things” feel to the combat. The Attraction Flow attacks – where you summon an amusement park ride like tea cups or a roller coaster to do damage – activate pretty much every battle and negate a lot of the difficulty. During the first world I was thinking how neat they were, but by the third world I was barely using them at all because their animations took too long and it made combat too simple. There’s supposed to be a method to when you can use them, but as far as I could tell if I hit enemies eventually I’d get one.

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Attraction Flow, activate! Wait, what’s going on I CAN’T SEE ANYTHING!

In KH2, Sora had what was called Drive Forms. They used their own meter and the meter ran down quickly and took longer to refill. So when you used a Drive Form it felt powerful, it felt unique, and it felt like a special, awesome ability. You had to be strategic and save it for tough battles. When you used it, you felt like you earned the right to be a bad-ass.

In KH3, Drive Form is replaced by each Keyblade having a transformation – some have two! And you activate the transformation by…hitting enemies a bunch. And after you get the transformation, how you attack with the Keyblade changes. The Tangled Keyblade, Ever After, transforms into the Mirage Staff and you go from wielding a key sword to shooting beams out of a magic staff, and you can make duplicates of yourself to shoot more beams.

That’s really cool!

Except, like the Attraction Flow, it’s super easy to get each transformation because all it takes is just whacking on enemies for a bit. And each transformation has its own associated animation, so you spend a lot of time in battle watching Sora transform his Keyblade or use the final super attack when the transformation time window runs out. Nothing about the different Keyblade forms feels special or earned or strategic. It’s just “mash X” until you can press Triangle, then mash X some more.

Sometimes I would have four or five special Triangle abilities queued up at once – a special Sora & Goofy/Donald combo move, a Keyblade transformation, an Attraction flow attack, and a “Grand Magic” or two which are basically crazy awesome magic spells you can cast if – you guessed it – you use the same magic spell on enemies a bunch of times in quick succession.

These special, supposedly awe-inspiring attacks, became rote and repetitive. It made most non-boss combat trivial and even some bosses were easily gamed. It’s as if they wanted KH3 to be all flash, no substance when it came to the combat system. I never felt like I had to use strategy in most of the fights.

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And then there’s the story. Most of the Disney worlds barely connect with the overall plot. The actual plot of the game is literally “you can’t do the main plot yet, go explore worlds until you get this macguffin ability so you can.” And then once you’ve done all the Disney worlds, you discover the macguffin was in you all along and you’ve had the power to move the plot forward the whole time!

It’s really a mess and feels like the Disney worlds are a burden more than an integral part of the game. Even if Disney put restrictions on how certain properties could be used, it felt a lot like there was a story the director wanted to tell and he couldn’t figure out a way to make exploring Disney worlds – the whole concept of the original game – relevant, so he just tacked them on and hand-waved whatever.

Once the game enters the climax portion – which is basically the last 5-6 hours of the game and is all plot, no Disney – it gets marginally better. All the Organization XIII bosses are kick-ass and the musical accompaniment is nothing short of genius. You fight several members at the same time, and the battle theme starts as a mix of all their themes, but as each boss is defeated, their theme is dropped out and the remaining themes become more prominent.

It’s fantastic sound design, and while all the battles are basically souped up versions of when you fought each one in previous games, it ends up being a very satisfying end mechanically.

Story-wise, though, it’s still all over the place. New plot threads are introduced over the course of the game and then abandoned (or left to be picked up in a sequel). Old plot threads get wrapped up quickly without any chance to breathe or enjoy the moment. Some big plot points are just fixed without any explanation. Almost every villain gets some sort of redemption arc. And the game ends on yet another cliffhanger, so any of the resolution that was promised is actually moot!

It’s unacceptable. Especially when two characters who were hyped up to matter in the finale actually get brushed aside and dumped on for no reason. And in the climax, there are no less than five characters you may have previously played as over the course of the KH series, each deserving their own catharsis moment, but you only get to play as Sora and end up a bystander to said catharsis.

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Kingdom Hearts 3’s story summed up in one picture. Me too, Sora. Me too.

As you can see, I have a lot of criticisms of KH3. But I still enjoyed playing it in an inexplicable way. Kingdom Hearts 2 was a highlight of my formative gaming years and the Final Mix version is just a chef’s kiss of a game. A lot of nostalgia drove my excitement for the game and it was fun to experience the lighthearted, almost Saturday-morning cartoon innocence of Kingdom Hearts on my TV screen once again.

But it’s been 13 years. This was, very clearly, not a game made for people new to the franchise. This was not a reboot, or a reimagining, or a point of introduction. Yes, there’s recap videos in the menu you can watch before the game. But the Disney worlds don’t convey much story at all, and everything that’s supposed to be impactful is predicated upon years of investment in the series.

But it doesn’t feel like a game with years of build-up. It doesn’t feel like an advancement. Harry Potter was successful because its characters and story grew with its readers. But Sora and company haven’t aged a day. Sora and the lifeblood of KH is still 16, even 13 years later when every person who played the first games as a kid has grown into adulthood.

I’m not saying Kingdom Hearts has to go grimdark or gritty. But fans of a thing grow up and change over a decade. If you’re going to make a conclusion for a series that’s satisfying to your long-term fans, you have to grow and change with them. KH3 doesn’t do this.

Perhaps it’s a blessing, then, that this doesn’t look to be the conclusion at all.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is a PLAY if you’re a dedicated fan of the series, but a PASS if you’re not.