WOO! OKAY. WOW.
This review was hard to write. For so many reasons! How do you succinctly summarize the experience of a game that carries 20 years and 10 previous series iterations in its DNA? How do you categorize a game that, within its 40-or-so-hour run time, becomes a cooking game? Then a snowboarding game? Then a space travel adventure? A pirate sea-travel epic? An 8-bit classic game emulator? All while being a Disney-laced fantasy epic beat-em-up?
But, most crucially: Who is this review for? If you’re a fan of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, you’ve been waiting for this game for upwards of a decade–chances are that a review of the game isn’t the last piece of the puzzle that will make up your mind. And if you’re approaching the Kingdom Hearts-iverse as a blank slate, you might be feeling like you’ve missed the boat on a series so steeped in lore and history can feel impossible to jump into unprepared. But there’s a secret third group that I’ve decided to write this review for: the quiet but curious. The shamefully behind trying to right their wrongs. The brave few who are willing to dive into the deep end headfirst and sink or swim. This review is for you. And I should come clean—I am a member of that group as well.
Yes, though as a reviewer I always hope to project an air of complete and faultless knowledge over all things gameological, I have long committed Kingdom Hearts from my catalogue. For a long time, I thought that that would just be how it was. As the games in the series stacked up and my ignorance compounded, it felt like any kind of attempt to reengage would be futile. But, as many of the heroes of the franchise would say, it is only when we lose hope in our heart that we succumb to the darkness. So, when this review presented itself, I decided to dive in 100 percent. I watched videos. I made a reading list. I studied. And now, I sit here–quite literally 70 hours into my combined crash course and play through–I emerge, a changed man, to tell the world: It’s… fine!
Kingdom Hearts III follows the story of Sora, a young wielder of a class of magical weapons known as Keyblades, as he travels across the universe accompanied by Donald Duck and Goofy, attempting to protect its denizens from the evil Organization XIII and their ground troops, the Heartless. This quest takes the trio to different worlds, each one inspired by a different Disney movie, featuring movie-specific designs and quirks. The Toy Story-inspired world “Toy Box” has Sora, Donald and Goofy appear as toy versions of themselves as you fight baddy-possessed mechs with the help of Buzz and Woody. Monstropolis sees your monster-fied team riding doors with Sully, Mike, and Boo to thwart the return of a royally pissed off Randall. Arendelle has… a full, shot-for-shot remake of the “Let It Go” scene from Frozen… for some reason?
But this is all, of course, just surface detail. There’s so much more going on. You see, Organization XII is run by Xehanort, an evil overlord assisted by a younger version of himself who he traveled back in time to convince him to travel forward in time to assemble all future iterations of Xehanort to make vessels for his own heart, which he has repeatedly fractured off into other people’s hearts. But not Sora! You see, Sora’s heart has multiple other hearts inside it from past journeys, which he’s trying to bring back to life while also trying to protect his sometimes-friend-sometimes-possessed-mortal-enemy Riku from the realm of darkness where he’s gone with Mickey to rescue Aqua, another Keyblade user who’s trapped in the realm of darkness, but Sora can’t help until he rediscovers the power of waking, which Master Yen Sid (read that name backwards) tells him he lost because he almost became the 13th vessel for Xehanort through fighting Xemnas and Xigbar who ARE Xehanort and asjkdhasldfhashfuihAHHHH! AHHHHH! AHHHHHHH!
I’m sorry, I blacked out for a moment there. The point is, there’s a lot going on. And that’s a good thing! For players both old and new, part of the fun of Kingdom Hearts is the breadth and ambition of its storytelling. Creator Tetsuya Nomura has never shied away from taking bold, ambitious steps in his grand vision for the series, and whether you’ve hung on his every word for 17 years or are new to the scene, there’s a certain giddy joy in being totally swept up in a story that scopes out far enough to make you feel minuscule by comparison. I enjoyed the journey of stringing together the various story lines and was pulled forward by seeing just how far it could bend and stretch and still snap together to a satisfying conclusion. I was moved at times—surprisingly deeply, even—by the emotional journeys of the characters.
The only drawback to the sheer amount of story is the sheer amount of time it takes to tell it. I often found myself discouraged by the frequency and length of cutscenes. They had a tendency to come every few minutes, and at times felt unnecessary and somewhat repetitive. It’s okay to let me play for a while, and do a bigger exposition dump down the end! At one point in Toy Story world, the big baddie of that universe is going on a long speech about the powers of darkness and how they’re working on something big but they can’t tell us what it is, and Woody steps up and says—I promise you I’m not making this up—“Whatever you’re talking about, I don’t care.” And honestly, in that moment I kind of agreed with Woody. Kingdom Hearts III has a complex, compelling storyline at its core. Its mistake is in sacrificing its quality for quantity, oftentimes prioritizing macro over micro with detrimental effects. And unfortunately, the same can be said for its gameplay.
My reaction to the gameplay of Kingdom Hearts—most essentially, its battle system—mirrors my feelings for its story: so many good, interesting ideas, with execution often leaving something to be desired. While you only control one fighter at a time, you’re always fighting as a team—you’re always with Donald and Goofy, as well as a rotating cast of characters you meet in your adventures. In addition, your weaponry is variable. As you play, you’ll unlock various forms of your original Keyblade that allow for different combat methods and contain different powerful transformations.
This amount of variety makes for a ton of exciting options, both individual and team-based, across a fight. The game makes great use of them—battles are clean and crisp, and your larger attacks, as well as your theme-park-inspired “Attraction” attacks and team attacks, are impressive and grand even after multiple uses. It’s a true disappointment, then, that even with all this variety, the game doesn’t make it more imperative to use it. Playing on normal difficulty, even the most mundane fights usually begin with your strongest attacks available, flattening out the challenge of a horde of Heartless so much that I’d often ignore the prompt to use my stronger moves to draw out battles. Even in the battles that were more challenging, there was little need for nuance. While a more patient player might have found particular ways to artfully combo and structure fights, I found 95 percent of the time that simply mashing the attack buttons while auto-targeting enemies dispatched enemies from minions all the way up to bosses.
The game tries to make up for the somewhat static combat by offering up a smorgasbord of new and updated gameplay quirks—snowboarding, sautéing, space traveling, Parkour, and… Olaf-body-part-hunting all make appearances—but none of these quite stick the landing. The most enjoyable extra gameplay to me was in Pirates of the Caribbean world, where I took no small pleasure in piloting my own pirate ship across a treasure-laced ocean rife with naval battles. But even then, it felt non-essential, hard to focus on in a game that’s constantly drawing your attention in a myriad number of directions. As I played, I felt drained by the sheer much-ness of the experience. Why give me 40 fine things? I’d be happy with six excellent ones! Five, even!
In the end, that felt like a solid summation of my entire Kingdom Hearts III experience. A sensory, literary, experiential overload that at its best left me feeling moved, awed, or giddy, but most of the time simply left me tired and a little ticked off. For the loyal followers who have been waiting for this game all your lives, it will check the boxes you want—the characters you love are back and their storylines are addressed, and you can save the Disneyverse again. But the game goes on to take those checkboxes, and invent a dozen new ones, and then kinda half scribble in them. The result is a game that feels at once essential and unnecessary, over- and underwhelming, vast and narrow. It’s a classic in the way that a Jackson Pollock painting is a classic, or that Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo is a classic—big, flawed, bold ideas that are left in your hands to decide how worthy they are of your admiration. For me, it fell short of expectations–and that wasn’t with a 15-year period to build them. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go read a random Kingdom Hearts wikipedia page entry before bed. I can’t help it—it’s become habit now.