Kingdom Hearts III – The End of an Era

Kingdom Hearts III Box Art

There was a time when Kingdom Hearts III was a punchline. Nothing more than vaporware; something that only existed as fan-fictions and fake box arts. It was synonymous with hell freezing over. And right now, the Devil himself is neck deep in snow. Even after it was announced back in 2013, it still didn’t feel real. But as the years went on, as we slowly saw more trailers and heard new details, myself and many others realised that this was, in fact, happening.

And now it’s out. You can go and buy Kingdom Hearts III and actually play it. But now that it exists, we must ask that dreaded question – was it worth the wait? This is a title that fans have been waiting for since 2005 when Kingdom Hearts II released, and acts as the finale to a story-line that’s been ongoing since the first game came out in 2002. Fans’ expectations have been ridiculously high so does it meet them? Is it the conclusion longtime fans deserved or is about as fun as going to an overcrowded Disneyland in the rain?

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Well, can I start off my saying that this game is FREAKING GORGEOUS?! Like, holy shit, I’m still not quite over it. This is probably one of the most visually pleasing games I’ve ever seen, especially in regards to the Disney locations. The series has always been pretty good at managing to recreate these iconic films and make you feel like you’ve stepped into them but KH III blows them all out of the water.

Being on much more powerful hardware obviously helps but it’s still kind of mind-blowing, with some worlds like the Toy Story and Tangled ones straight up looking exactly like the original movies, to the point where you could easily mistake some scenes from actually being from said movies. These worlds would never have looked as good on the PS3 so, as much as we all complain about how long it took, I say it was well worth the wait for this level of graphical fidelity.

This also extends to just the general atmosphere of all these locations. Something about how they’re designed, combined with the accompanying music and character animations make exploring these massive locales all the more entrancing. They feel so… alive, even in areas without NPCs. Yes, towns are actually populated now. It’s a little detail but it’s such a far cry from the borderline desolate worlds from previous games. As someone who’s always been annoyed by how little attention the Disney side of things has been getting in recent titles, it was such a joy to see so much care put into making these worlds as detailed as possible (I mean, what kind of sorcery must’ve been committed to make the Pirates of the Caribbean world look THAT good?).

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This game is a marvel in regards to its overall aesthetics, and with these large, beautiful areas combined with the lighting, particle effects and all the crazy bullshit happening during combat, it’s shocking that the frame-rate is able to remain consistent through it all, even on a bog-standard PS4. And if there was any slowdown, I didn’t notice it.

And the music – the sweet, sweet music. I swear composer Yoko Shimomura can do no wrong. Her work on the series has always been one of its best aspects and she continues to knock it out of the park here, though I also want to acknowledge both Takeharu Ishimoto and Tsuyoshi Sekito, who I only recently discovered had contributed to previous KH games as well. Together, these three have possibly created the best soundtrack in the series, which is chock full of amazing original pieces and fantastic rearrangements of popular tracks from the series’ past. I know some fans have complained about how much music is re-used from previous games but the series has always loved its recurring themes and leitmotifs, and with this being the conclusion of everything that came before it, it makes sense to have a bunch of callbacks like this (I just hope Square Enix actually makes the OST publicly available on iTunes or something).

“But wait,” I hear you say, “That’s all well and good but what about the actual gameplay?” Well, after several games of experimentation (with some more successful than others), KH III returns to the style of Kingdom Hearts II, where basic attack strings are performed by tapping the X button, with Sora gradually unlocking more attacks that he can combo together to knock back and juggle enemies. By flicking through the Command Menu with the D-Pad, you can also perform various kinds of magic and use items to support you on your adventure. It’s all very basic and easy to understand; for fans who have been playing the series since the beginning, it’s like riding a bike, and perfectly accessible to newcomers.

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It’s honestly relatively unchanged since the second game but some minute additions have been made. For starters, Sora has much better defensive options. I found his guard ability to be much more viable here than in the second game and you have his Dodge Roll available right from the start, so players with a more defensive mind-set in mind can rest easy. Sora’s manoeuvrability is also slightly better since he now breaks out into a sprint after a short while (making walking around these large open worlds less of a slog), he automatically jumps up short ledges and can run up walls, which is a little finicky but you get used to it after a while.

Flowmotion from Dream Drop Distance also returns but it’s nowhere near as game-breaking as it was in that game so don’t go thinking you can endlessly dash and jump into walls to get extra height. It’s not quite as viable for combat as it was before either but it still has its uses (and you’re not exactly starved for combat options but I’ll get into that later). And on top of that, Sora can Airstep by holding down R1 and pressing the Square button, meaning he can zip towards certain locations like poles he can swing off of with Flowmotion and even enemies to attack.

As for magic, just like in KH II, it’s dictated by an MP bar which will slowly recharge once it’s been fully depleted, but you can speed up the process with items like Ethers. This game really encourages you to use magic quite a bit and there’s a reason for that – it’s a little overpowered. I personally never really used it back in KH II because I didn’t find it that reliable (even if it was also kind of broken in that game, from what I’ve heard) but, just like in 0.2 (which you can read my review of here), there’s been some extra touches that end up making it a lot more fun to use.

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You can move whilst casting magic, it has more of an effect on the environment (e.g. Blizzard leaves a trail of ice across the ground that Sora can grind on), can inflict certain ailments on enemies (e.g. Thunder can paralyse them), some enemies are extra weak to specific kinds of magic and you can even use a spell multiple times in a row to pull of a magic combo. Suddenly, spamming fireballs over and over is a strategy. And if you use a certain spell enough times, you can gain the option to activate one of the game’s many Situation Commands and cast Grand Magic that can devastate anything unfortunate enough to be in the way.

Situation Commands are very much a replacement for KH II‘s Reaction Commands, which were mini QTEs that allowed Sora to pull off enemy-specific counter-attacks with the press of a button. Here, though, Situation Commands become available when certain conditions are met and then appear as a button prompt above the Command Menu, with a timer next to them to show how long they’re available for. And there are a lot of them.

You’ve got Team Attacks with your party members, Keyblade transformations that change up Sora’s fighting style and abilities, the aforementioned Grand Magic and the new Attractions, where Sora can summon different Disneyland rides, like a big pirate ship or the tea cups, to deal with large groups of enemies (which sadly don’t have some in-universe explanation as to how and why he’s summoning them). These commands pop up so frequently that sometimes they stack on top of each other. Fortunately, you can toggle between multiple ones with the L2 button so you don’t have to waste one just to use the other.

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Between all of this, the returning Shotlocks (long-range attacks that can target multiple enemies at once and are also unique to each Keyblade) and the Link attacks (which are the game’s Summons where you temporarily call upon another character like Wreck-It Ralph or Simba to help), there is no shortage of methods of wiping out any Heartless, Nobody or Unversed that cross your path. Even though the larger areas and five-man parties you can now form mean enemy hordes are bigger themselves, you’re very rarely going to struggle in battle, especially since your party members are no slouches and perfectly capable of dealing with enemies themselves (the sight of Woody from Toy Story decking Heartless in the face will never not be funny to me).

On top of this, you can also go to Moogle shops to synthesise new items and accessories to further buff your party. Plus, you can now upgrade Keyblades, which is a fantastic addition since it means that if there’s one Keyblade in particular you really enjoy using, you can keep making it stronger so it’s still relevant for the endgame, rather than being forced to ditch it for another one. You can even equip up to three Keyblades at once and switch between them on the fly by tapping left and right on the D-Pad, just for the sake of variety or if you feel one Keyblade is better suited for the current situation.

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And as you traverse the worlds, you can stumble upon ingredients (get used to hearing Donald and Goofy point them out to you constantly) that you can take to a bistro via save points that’s run by Remy from Ratatouille (who does not say the “I’ve come up with a new recipe” line from Final Fantasy XV – I mean, come on, it was right there for the taking!) and make meals that provide temporary stat buffs and sometimes even brief access to high-tier magic, though you do have to perform an incredibly short mini-game first and failing it means you waste the ingredients, and these mini-games can be really finicky. I can’t count the number of times I failed trying to crack open those bloody eggs or juggle the pepper grinders (just hold it normally, Sora! This is a kitchen, not a circus!). It’s a good thing it’s optional and so charming in its presentation.

Where am I going with all of this? Well, I think everything I’ve mentioned so far is why the game isn’t exactly challenging. Throughout my entire playthrough, I only died once and that was during the very final boss. And even then, I had a one-use item called a Kupo Coin that immediately restores Sora to full health if he gets KOed. There is a hard difficulty and an ability available from the very start that prevents Sora from gaining any experience but, from what I’ve heard, die-hard fans who have taken on some of the series’ most hardcore challenges have been less than thrilled with the lack of intense difficulty.

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On the flip-side, this does make KH III the most accessible entry for newcomers in terms of gameplay. And while it may be a tad easy, that doesn’t stop the game from being fun. The combat is certainly more style than substance but it’s such a treat for the eyes, and it’s not like you won’t struggle at all – certain battles will keep you on your toes. Speaking of, this probably has some of the best boss fights in the whole series, in my opinion. Nearly every one of them was such a joy to fight for one reason or another. Highlights include summoning the Big Thunder Mountain Coaster to take down the Rock Titan, battling Davy Jones in the rain and pretty much every boss that appears throughout the finale. I kind of wish there was an option to replay them.

A lot of this game’s enjoyment comes from simply exploring all these worlds, especially if you don’t care about the the easier difficulty, with some of them offering different gameplay styles to mix things up a bit. For example, in the Toy Story world, you can hijack these giant mech enemies and pilot them like it’s a FPS, and the Pirates world has underwater combat (which is infinitely better than how it was handled in the first game) and a pirate ship you can sail so you can explore various islands and battle other ships. There’s always something new around the corner to keep things varied and interesting.

They’re not all perfect, though. Some worlds are unfortunately much weaker than others (Twilight Town is criminally small compared to previous appearances and the Winnie the Pooh world is cleared by just playing the same minigame three times) and in some instances, it’s because of how they’re adapted and worked into the overarching narrative. The Tangled and Frozen worlds are probably the biggest offenders since they’re just re-treads of their movie plots, which is usually how these Disney worlds went in previous games. But here, so many integral scenes are removed that the plot ends up making no sense unless you’ve seen the movie. The Frozen world’s particularly bad since Sora and co. barely interact with any of that film’s cast and it feels like they didn’t really change or have an effect on anything that happens (though it does feature the entire Let It Go musical number for seemingly no reason and I unironically love it).

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Others like the Big Hero 6 and Monsters, Inc. worlds, however, get completely original storylines, which means that they have a lot more freedom to do crazy stuff to help tie it in with all the nonsense regarding main villain Xehanort and his many vessels, resulting in some of the best cutscenes in the entire series. Hell, most of the cutscenes are enjoyable to watch thanks to their direction and animation.

KH III is probably the best game in the series for how it incorporates the Disney side of things, at least thematically. Unfortunately, the visits to these other worlds, once again, are ultimately filler until the real plot starts. The first two-thirds of the game are spent seeing Sora trying to reclaim the Power of Waking (and not succeeding) and seeing other characters all prepare for the final battle. As a result, the game has some really wonky pacing, meaning it doesn’t have a lot of time to resolve a number of plot points and some things feel awfully rushed.

It’s kind of a shame since I feel like this game has some really good writing and characterisation. There are some surprisingly funny moments and genuinely touching scenes, especially for those who have been keeping up with the story so far. Unfortunately, it is also mired in some of the usual BS. A couple plot elements aren’t explained particularly well and, despite otherwise managing to wrap up most of the ongoing plot threads rather effectively, there are still a number of things that haven’t been explained. In fact, the game introduces new plot points and deliberately leaves them hanging just to set up future games. It’s like director and overall mad-man Tetsuya Nomura doesn’t understand the concept of ‘endings.’ And whilst I’m here, I may as well mention that after the ending, there unfortunately isn’t much else left to do, at least when compared to KH II. That’s not to say there’s no post-game content at all; there is, but none of it really feels like it’s worth doing.

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You could scour for all the hidden Lucky Emblems with your Gummi Phone (oh yeah, there’s a photo mode because of course there is), find and play all the little Game & Watch-style minigames based off of classic Mickey Mouse shorts (a cute novelty but they’re only fun to play for like a couple of minutes), take on these Battlegates that have tough enemy hordes to defeat – there is quite a bit here and I did do a bunch of them just because I enjoyed the core gameplay so much and didn’t want to stop but some will be left disappointed by the lack of any tournaments or optional super bosses (there is one secret boss, actually, but I’ve heard that it’s much easier than previous ones).

I think the biggest disappointment is the Gummi Ship gameplay. Rather than playing an on-rail shooter to reach the next world, the Gummi Ship section is now a whole world in and of itself – a huge open 3D space where you can freely fly around, shoot down Heartless ships in the aforementioned on-rail shooter style and find materials and blueprints to help you build and customise your own ships. I admire the effort put into it, it plays well and I know there are fans of the Gummi Ship building that’ll enjoy it but I got tired of it pretty quickly. Once I got the option to quick-travel to worlds, I never touched the Gummi Ship again. It’s harmless and unobtrusive but a part of me wishes they made it simpler and cut the fluff.

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For all my complaints with KH III, though, I have to take umbrage with some people calling it “disappointing,” because it’s really not. Does it have its flaws? Yes. Does it do everything I wanted it to? No. But while there were plenty of moments that had me raise an eyebrow or groan in annoyance, there were way more where I gasped with delight or cheered with excitement; I even shed a few tears.

From that opening music video to the moment the credits rolled, I spent the majority of my journey with the biggest smile on my face. It may not be perfect but Kingdom Hearts III was well worth the wait and the amount of effort that went into making it as grand and impressive as it is should be respected. Hopefully we won’t have to wait as long to see what Nomura has up his zipper-lined sleeves for the future but I know that I’ll be among the first in line to see what it is.

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