Shaun Munro reviews Kingdom Hearts III…
It’s probably fair to say that no video game in the position of Kingdom Hearts III could entirely live up to the hype. Finally in gamers’ hands some 13 years after the previous mainline entry landed in the tail-end of the PS2’s life cycle, this threequel wears its eccentric design philosophies on its sleeve throughout, and confidently – and mostly rightly – assumes you’ll stick along for the ride.
To even begin to dig into the game’s sprawling, messy plot is a headache-inducing effort, but it broadly involves protagonist Sora venturing across various magical worlds in order to regain his ability to restore lost hearts and stop the tyrannical Master Xehanort (with Goofy and Donald Duck in tow, of course). Even more simply than that, it is a classic good vs. evil, light vs. dark showdown, albeit one with about 500% more expository dialogue than even the most verbose JRPG.
And indeed, the story of the Kingdom Hearts games is utter pish to many. It is overly fond of esoteric Capitalised Concepts and characters with unpronounceable names, and propagates the word “heart” as though terrified it’s going extinct. The result is a game that’s paradoxically newbie-friendly and not, because though the delineated hub-worlds are splashy fun, they’re also strung together by a painfully dull overarching narrative. The exposition vomit is so aggressive and the chit-chat so cringe-worthily earnest that you’d be forgiven for checking out within an hour. To the game’s mild credit, though, it does at least seem a touch keener to mock Sora’s naivete than previous outings were.
Kingdom Hearts III is a fairly linear experience if you want it to be, and though the scant exploration on offer can be rewarding, combat is what you’ll spend most of your time doing. It’s immediately apparent that the game’s finicky camera feels ripped from a prior era – the PS2 era, that is – but dismantling Heartless hordes is undeniable fun, even if on Normal difficulty the game is comically easy.
Don’t be surprised if you end up finishing the entire game with all your deaths counted on a single hand. The player is given so many ways to approach a given battle – with different Keyblades, Disney-aping carnival attractions and the ability to tag in summons of iconic Disney heroes – that you’re never at a loss for how to proceed. The game tries to balance this by limiting the number of potions you can carry and enforcing a magic cooldown, but there’s nothing here which can’t easily be overcome with sufficient skill and planning.
The general ease of combat is accentuated – or exacerbated, depending on your outlook – by the game’s commendable lack of bloat. I was able to beat the final boss at just level 35 and didn’t even feel particularly under-powered. There is little-to-no incentive to grind enemies here unless you’re a completionist, which given the tendency for JRPGs to show precious little respect for a player’s time, is quite encouraging.
But the bulk of the game is pure fan service, and that’s also where Kingdom Hearts III shines the brightest. Of the seven main Disney-themed worlds, some re-tell the movie’s story, while others come up with something “original” – that is to say, a plot carefully curated through an army of Disney lawyers to ensure it doesn’t disrupt the established canon.
The easy highlights here are Toy Box (Toy Story), San Fransokyo (Big Hero 6) and The Kingdom of Corona (Tangled), with each playfully playing tribute to its inspiration with a genuine sense of craft and visual verisimilitude. Less appealing are the soulless, repetitive Arendelle (Frozen), which features the game’s most laborious fetch quest, and the wildly disappointing Monstropolis (Monsters, Inc.), which devolves into nothing more than a few hours of copy-pasted industrial hallways. The lack of Final Fantasy worlds or even basic character cameos throughout is also a bit of a shame.
But the bite-sized nature of these worlds ensures we’re never mired in one locale for too long, and even if a world isn’t doing it for you, you’re stuck there for “only” 2-3 hours a pop. All the worlds are, however, punctuated by the ever-divisive Gummi Ship sequences, which prove only slightly less tedious than in previous games despite their overall brevity. The dull customisation options are there for those who care, and at least the game generally allows the player to simply speed past enemies to the next world.
As much as Kingdom Hearts III is a not-so-subtle veiled branding exercise, it is a damn fine one, largely thanks to some outstanding visuals which elevate the experience quite a bit. One imagines Disney wouldn’t have signed off on anything less than spectacular, and this also marks the first time in the series that the House of Mouse has provided Square Enix with the same digital assets used in the corresponding movies.
Even the less-good worlds look pretty remarkable, while Toy Story‘s toyetic designs prove the most natural fit for the video game adaptation treatment. Though cut-scenes can err on the stilted side, the character models and locales look mostly terrific across-the-board, bolstered by strong voice acting and a diverse host of musical arrangements. Haley Joel Osment does an especially solid job bringing life to Sora despite the gibberish so often spewing from his gob, though one must admit that some of the celebrity soundalikes are just rubbish (especially the Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley stand-ins in the Pirates of the Caribbean world).
If you can put up with the game’s patience-testing plot, you’ll still have to deal with some insanely inconsistent pacing which at times seems employed solely to test the player’s loyalty. Square Enix has inexplicably decided to back-load all of the big revelations into the game’s final 5-ish hours, which combined with the absurd battery of bosses the game throws at you one after another – often without save-points in-between, no less – makes for an exhausting end-game experience.
To the uninitiated and to those who haven’t touched the series since 2006, Kingdom Hearts III‘s story will be comically overwrought if not an outright obstacle to enjoying the moment-to-moment gameplay. But it almost feels like the game is giving you permission to tune out completely, which will be winsome to some and equally off-putting to others. The combat does bolster the impenetrable storytelling to an extent – enough to say that this is a good game – but the heavy lifting is done mostly through the sheer diversity of the themed worlds.
Often as infuriating as it is entertaining, Kingdom Hearts III bolsters the series’ trademark commitment to nonsense, both for better and for worse.
+ Should satisfy the hardcore fans.
+ Slickly entertaining combat.
+ Disney-themed worlds are effortlessly appealing.
+ Terrific graphics.
– The story is hilariously convoluted.
– A little too easy for its own good.
– Not all Disney worlds are created equal.
– No Final Fantasy characters.
– The ennui-inducing final few hours.
Reviewed on PS4 (also available for Xbox One).
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more video game rambling.