Kingdom Hearts 3 review: One wild ride (PS4)

(Image is courtesy of Square Enix)

This review contains minor spoilers.

January 2019 blessed us with the long-awaited game Kingdom Hearts 3, the brainchild of  developer Square Enix and animation magnate The Walt Disney Company. Numerous prequels, sequels and spin-offs have gifted JRPG fans with one of the most intricate (or convoluted, depending on who you ask) stories of modern gaming. Kingdom Hearts 3 marked a personal 16 year journey with the franchise — and it has certainly been a wild ride.

So what are my feelings toward Kingdom Hearts 3 and the franchise in this post-Xehanort saga era? Is roughly 25-30 hours of gameplay enough to fulfill a longtime fan’s wishes for the final installment of a beloved series? Much like the battle between light and darkness, the answer doesn’t lie with a simple yes or no.

I will start off with a major positive for Kingdom Hearts 3. The combat has undergone many iterations since the series debuted, but it’s at its best here. Hacking away with the keyblade used to be a slow, but effective way to mow down Heartless, Unversed and Nobodies; now it is quick, flashy and a lot of fun.

Combat abilities and spells are gained quickly as you level up. Flying from enemy to enemy with quick succession, unleashing bursts of magic and utilizing the many on-the-fly attack prompts leaves the player feeling all-powerful at a time when the main character, Sora, is supposedly at his weakest. Being able to cycle through three keyblades during combat is a welcome change that further opens your fighting options.

Striking your foes at the right time triggers even more commands in the form of Attraction Flows which let the player take control of the most famous Disney rides to wreak further havoc. Summons are back as well, though I rarely used them; I was already drowning in fantastical ways to decimate everything in sight.

For all those with a modicum of video game experience, it’s best to play this game on Proud mode; anything less and you’ll begin to suspect this might be the easiest of the Kingdom Hearts adventures (and you wouldn’t be wrong). Even on Proud there is little reason to fear each boss’s many health bars. You’ll find that they melt away a bit too easily once you get the hang of stringing together the various commands.

The graphics and presentation of Kingdom Hearts 3 are similarly impressive, though not without minor faults.

Character models and environments utilize the current-generation technology to its fullest. Friends and foe alike received impressive makeovers and they are all rendered beautifully. Facial expressions are seemingly “plastic” on occasion, but the franchise has never steered towards uber-realistic graphics. It is obvious, though, that not all characters received the same attention to detail as the core party.

Exploring all the Disney worlds has never been so fulfilling. Players have free roam of expansive, colorful environments that both borrow from and build upon their source material. A focus on height offers multiple vantage points from which Sora can catapult himself and free fall to his heart’s content. The Shotlock ability similarly allows Sora to cover large distances quickly even though traveling by foot is speedier this go around and is a great way to find all sorts of hidden secrets.

I did find the environments a bit devoid of life at times. Arendelle features little of the titular city and a whole lot of frozen(!) mountainside. Sure, what’s there is gorgeous, but it’s also easy to find oneself uninspired. San Fransokyo should be a bustling metropolitan city, but you’ll find more parked cars than NPCs. Twilight Town was largely gutted since its appearance in Kingdom Hearts 2 and Hundred Acre Wood might as well not even be in the game at all. Square Enix had five-and-a-half years to get things right; even these small missteps are disappointing.

My feelings toward the story pacing are even more conflicted.

Sora, Donald and Goofy begin the final leg of their long journey by once again setting out to visit various worlds. This time Sora needs to awaken his Power of… Awakening in order to save the lost Guardians of Light and defeat Xehanort for good. The franchise is notorious for posing as many questions as it does answers; Kingdom Hearts 3, as the conclusion to the current saga, was set to tie up all the loose ends and provide a good jumping off point for the next one.

Does it accomplish this? Yes. Does it accomplish this in spectacular fashion? No.

The first 20 hours of the game are largely devoid of meaningful story progression and instead rely on the star power of various Disney properties to hold the player’s attention.  You’ll first visit Olympus to check up on Hercules and regain what Sora lost in his last fight against Xehanort. We’re reintroduced to Maleficent and Pete who are now searching for a black box (more on that later). Organization XIII also rears its head again as Xigbar appears, spouts off random nonsense then disappears again. The player is then treated to more stunning locales and impressive boss fights before heading off to the next world.

Each of the worlds after this play out in a similar way: rescue/team up with distressed Disney characters, play through a new or recycled storyline within the world’s universe, listen to Sora be utterly confused by everything, maybe be treated with a semi-important cutscene, defeat the big bad then fly off once more. If you were to let someone else play through the rest of these worlds then return to complete the last four or five hours of the game, your understanding of the overarching plot would be largely the same. Until Aqua is rescued, there is little shown of what Xehanort and his crew are actually doing.

To attempt to tie up 17 years of loose ends in the last five hours of a game is an atrocious narrative choice. Pacing has been an issue in past entries, but it is at its worst here. That the Disney worlds are largely kept separate from the main plot doesn’t help either. After roughly 10 games of build up, the protagonist can’t still be bumbling around until the last possible second —  and believe me Sora is as clueless as ever. Donald and Goofy have a much better grasp on events which doesn’t bode well for our big-shoed, spiky-haired friend.

Thankfully, the climax and resolution offer a satisfying ending that mostly makes up for earlier narrative stumbles. The late-game string of boss battles is intense and emerging triumphant over the remaining Organization XIII members is a great feeling. Square Enix attempted to redeem many of these baddies in their final moments to varying degrees of success. And it’s no surprise that Sora and company are able to defeat the many Xehanorts, bring back their lost friends and usher in an era of peace. This victory is short lived for Sora, but most fans will be satiated for the time being.

You may have forgotten about Maleficent, Pete and the black box by the end, but they are brought back at the last second. The player also learns that one of the recurring Organization members is definitely not who he appears to be and is also connected to the black box, as are the original Foretellers from the mobile game, Kingdom Hearts Union Cross. And if you unlock the secret movie you’ll be treated to a quick teaser regarding Sora’s disappearance after saving everyone. There’s a lot crammed into the final hours, but it’s the stuff fans (including myself) will eat up.

A sentiment I’ve expressed more than once is that Kingdom Hearts repeatedly tells the player that Sora and Kairi are somehow destined to be together, though Sora’s dialogue and mannerisms don’t always validate this. Kairi is largely a throwaway character in most of the overarching plot, as are many of the other female characters (this is a recurrent issue in JRPG culture). She functions as a damsel in distress even after training to protect herself. The scenes in which Sora and Kairi interact in a meaningful manner are simply few and far between.

But do you know who Sora does share plenty of screen time and chemistry with? Riku, of course.

That these two do not end up together is a disservice to the relationship Square Enix has fostered between them over 17 long years. Sora and Riku’s bond has only strengthened as they fight to reconnect time and time again. Kairi’s original disappearance serves as the catalyst for their friendship to begin evolving beyond its youthful competitiveness. In Kingdom Hearts 2, Sora breaks down in tears when he finally rejoins with Riku in The World That Never Was. Dream Drop Distance is entirely built around the pair seeking each other out as they are at their strongest together. Many a fanfiction were dedicated to this pairing back in the day, but it is the emotional relationship most grounded in franchise lore.

So where does Kingdom Hearts 3, and the series as a whole, stand?

Despite some shortcomings, the gameplay in Kingdom Hearts 3 is fluid and fun. Tearing through foes with a near-infinite arsenal at your disposal is satisfying. The Disney worlds are larger than ever and fun to play through, even if some of their plots can be derivative. It’s a spectacle with substance, though not without a few bumps in the road.

The ending to Kingdom Hearts 3 will be satisfying for the majority of fans. Is this game perfect? No, far from it. But if you take the time to experience the entire Xehanort saga you will appreciate the evolution of franchise’s combat and the the culmination of years of storytelling.

This installment serves as a springboard for the future of the franchise. Sora and Riku have come full circle as they are once again tossed into an unfamiliar world. The Kingdom Hearts universe is rich with intricate storytelling and characters you can’t help but love and I will be more than happy to dive right back in when the time comes.

4/5

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