If any game has been a long time coming it’s Kingdom Hearts III, which has seen its life as a series extended through a variety of handheld entries that have been as vitally important to its plot as the main series’ numbered entries. Kingdom Hearts III is the cumulation of not a trilogy, but over 10 games in the current plot thread that all need to be paid off in this instalment. But does Kingdom Hearts stick the landing?
For casual fans of the Kingdom Hearts series it’s going to be a rough re-entry to the series as anyone who played the first two numbered games and thinks that they can simply bounce into part three is going to be in for a rude awakening. We recommend that if players don’t want to replay everything on the run-up to KH3, they at least play through ‘Birth by Sleep’ and ‘Dream Drop Distance’, which between them act as a primer on most of the necessary lore and plot beats.
Graphically, KH3 is an exceedingly good-looking game with a level of detail that’s extremely impressive. This applies to the character models, textures and environments in equal measure and it’s a showcase of current generation power that some of the Pixar worlds created have significantly more polished visuals than the films they are based on. Beyond the way that the world is presented, each environment has been built and designed with both a massive amount of fidelity to what’s seen on-screen and expanded into huge, wonderful zones to explore. Menus are easy to navigate and contain a wealth of information, and toggling between weapons mid-battle has never been easier with the on-screen HUD feeling more friendly than ever.
The sound design for the Kingdom Hearts series has always been excellent and this title manages to both bring a fantastic score and wonderful voice acting to the table, utilising as many original actors and actresses from Disney as possible whilst settling for replacements only when strictly unavoidable. Strangely Mandy Moore, who voiced Aerith in the previous instalments, was unavailable to bring life to her Tangled princess, though her stand-in does a fine impersonation. The score is beyond a doubt the main draw here however, with each world’s track and recurring character theme given a big-band treatment and original composition that makes most film scores look shallow by comparison.
Without descending into spoiler territory for the series as a whole, KH3 centres its plot around Sora as he, Donald Duck and Goofy embark on a quest to attain ‘the power of awakening’ and to restore his previous power levels after stumbling into a trap at the end of Dream Drop Distance that has left him significantly weaker than he’s been in some time. This is accomplished by travelling world to world and getting involved with stories for well-known Disney properties. More recent and famous properties such as Tangled and Frozen are pushed into re-treads of their films narratives (with the addition of some behind the scenes material) whilst slightly older properties are given more opportunity to spin new yarns. Ultimately Sora and his allies are setting about organising seven pure hearts (keyblade wielders) who are fated to do battle with the real Organisation XIII by recruiting many of the series’ main faces back into action. At times the dialogue and story can feel stilted to adults, but when played with children this game truly shines as understanding of what needs to be done and why blooms on even the youngest players faces.
Gameplay is largely taken from the other main-line entries into the series, with many elements last seen in Kingdom Hearts 2 reappearing (no spells locked into a quick-use wheel for us this time) though with the addition of flow-motion movement and shot-lock commands to make for some great free-flowing movement through the considerably larger environments. Combat is still a case of hammering X to deal damage with a keyblade, but now multiple blades can be equipped and levelled at any given time and switched between mid-battle with the d-pad to provide distinctly different flavours of combat. Attractions are summoned with the triangle button and these function much like the QTEs from KH2 as a ‘hit to win’ in many situations, but can be ignored if you so choose. A nice addition is that frequent casting of a spell leads to a 1-shot free casting of its next level equivalent, and this makes for some great screen-clearing moments with thunder magic. Worlds are HUGE compared to anything players will have visited before, with standouts including a children’s softplay area with working physics (and ball pit!) as well as a massive open world to explore in a pirate ship. They are also crammed with mini games, synthesis items, photography missions and a universe spanning treasure hunt to take photos of ‘hidden mickey’ icons will leave you searching every angle possible to see if three balloons can make a suitable shape. Toss in a sizable amount to Gummiship exploration and customisation and you have an infinite playground to enjoy, even before you unlock the late game battle challenges.
Whilst there are elements of Kingdom Hearts III (such as they frankly shameless miss-use of the Kairi character in its story) which might have disappointed long-time fans of the series, the game does manage to be the single most impressive entry to date. In terms of scale, scope and fluidity of play it’s a masterpiece and stands up as the most awe-inspiring Action RPG on the market at this time. Long-time gamers may find the challenge level a little low (though a Critical Mode has been patched into the game to deal with this). Whilst the heralded ‘end of Sora’s journey’ does manage to instead promise further adventures and dedicates time to setting up new plot threads, the cumulation of so many exotic story elements makes for a satisfying finale. Whilst not the best game to start the series with, this is most certainly the best entry to date for gameplay, dethroning the mighty ‘Birth By Sleep’ after all this time.