Kingdom Hearts 3 Review
There’s a part late into Kingdom Hearts 3 that is genuinely one of the smartest story beats I have ever seen in a video game. I obviously won’t spoil it, but this moment relies on subtle design choices that have been around since the very first game in the series and, as a result, feels so natural in how its revealed that you could easily believe it’s something that Square Enix has been planning since the very beginning. This moment not only rounds out one of my favorite stories within the franchise, but does so with a finesse that few games have ever even dreamed of being able to achieve. Unfortunately, it feels completely accidental when, not even five minutes later, an event deemed entirely impossible by the franchise’s overall story occurs in one of the most obvious, contrived, and dumbest twists you could ever imagine.
“Accidentally Good” is a phrase that you might use when describing the Kingdom Hearts franchise. On paper, there is no way a game that has Donald Duck casting flare, writing that consists of the same five words over and over again, and an in-game menu system that makes you question whether or not humans should have more than ten fingers could be considered in any way whatsoever good. Yet, somehow, here we are — Ten games into one of the most beloved JRPG series of all time. Wait — Isn’t this just the third one?!
Awkward naming conventions aside, Kingdom Hearts completely encapsulates the phrase “Accidentally Good.” What started as a simple game of “Let’s go save all the Disney princesses and Cid from Final Fantasy 7 is here for some reason,” has become a phenomenon of horribly bizarre writing, weird character shoehorns, and some of the best damn action gameplay out there — and Kingdom Hearts 3 proudly continues that tradition for better or for worse. Whether you subscribe to the weirdness of the Disney x Final Fantasy ship that many fans have been sailing for almost twenty years now or not, it’s hard to deny the powerhouse that this series has become — which of course makes me absolutely terrified to start a review of the latest game with so many negative comments about it. Don’t worry, though. I will spoil that this is a mostly positive reception.
Kingdom Hearts 3 follows the usual gang of Sora, Donald, and Goofy as they traverse Disney worlds and battle it out with Xehanort and Organization XIII. While it’s already common knowledge that Kingdom Hearts 3 is most definitely not the last game in the series, it certainly does a fairly decent job of tying up many of the story threads presented by the past nine games. Not only that, it manages to make some of the more pointless titles in the franchise relevant. Like, for some reason Re:Coded gets brought up a weird number of times in Kingdom Hearts 3. Unchained X even gets its time to shine in an odd, but probably nice nod to many of the players of the cellphone MMORPG. Ultimately, the story is just as hammy, awkward, and poorly conceived as its always been, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t almost tear up during the final cutscene. If I had one complaint, it would be the utter lack of Final Fantasy in this Disney/Final Fantasy collaboration. I won’t get too into this, as its a fairly big point of contention in the fanbase right now, but Final Fantasy is more or less nonexistent within Kingdom Hearts 3 outside of a few references and nods. While there is a (dumb) reason for this, it’s still upsetting that we don’t get to see a conclusion for the team of Final Fantasy characters that has been supporting Sora thus far.
The worlds and characters that are found within Kingdom Hearts 3 are mostly pretty great, though. Early worlds like Corona, the Tangled world, are some of the best the series has ever seen with their enormous, seamless maps and beautiful imagery. The Toy Box, the Toy Story world, is pretty special in particular. It’s a full-on adventure throughout a toy store that features multiple levels, several bosses, and an entertaining cast of characters. Not to mention, the fact that Buzz, Woody, and the Toy Story gang just assume Sora is a figure from the knock-off Final Fantasy game Rex is playing is a really funny and smart way to include him in the world. It’s worth mentioning that even the Gummi segments between these worlds are even grander in scale, though are still among the more forgettable parts of the game.
Unfortunately, not all the worlds are that well designed. In fact, the last few worlds feel almost unfinished compared to the rest of the other vast, gorgeous locales of Kingdom Hearts 3. The Caribbean attempts to retell the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films — but, it’s so rushed and cut down that I’m just taking a stab in the dark on what actually happened. Sailing around and discovering treasure coves in its open world with an upgradeable pirate ship was at least fun, which is more than you can say for San Fransokyo. Unlike the Caribbean, San Fransokyo actually attempts to become a sort of sequel to Big Hero 6. Not only that, the story had potential to be pretty interesting, too. The problem is that the world itself consists of two mini-games and a boss fight that take all of thirty minutes to complete. Neither are quite so bad as the 100 Acre Wood, though. While the 100 Acre Wood is often the punching bag in other Kingdom Hearts games, it’s at its absolute worst here in Kingdom Hearts 3. You play a Connect-Three game three times in a row, and that’s it. No missing pages to collect. No borderline-fun-but-ultimately-annoying mini-games. Nothing.
That being said, most of the worlds on display here are enormous and very fun to explore. That is definitely due in part to the star of Kingdom Hearts 3 — it’s gameplay. Say whatever you will about its narrative and setting. Love it. Hate it. Whatever. Kingdom Hearts 3 plays incredibly well. Essentially, if you were to take every game in the series and pick out your favorite gameplay features from each one, you would have Kingdom Hearts 3. As it turns out, the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach to adding new gameplay features in the likes of Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance ultimately paid off, as awesome features like finishers and flow motion make a full return in the latest entry. Coupled with a perfected form of Kingdom Hearts 2’s basic gameplay and ability set-up, and you’ve got easily the most fun and least contrived version of Kingdom Hearts to date here. However, Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t just a “Best of” of gameplay structures from past games.
The newest addition in Kingdom Hearts 3 are the keyblades. Oh, you might say. Keyblades have been around from the beginning, you might say. Kingdom Hearts 3 is here to tell you differently. Rather than having a set progression of incrementally better and better weapons for Sora to equip as games have done in the past, each new keyblade is fully upgradeable and sports a variety of abilities to unlock. You can very easily argue the importance of having the Kingdom Key equipped at all times just as much as one might argue the Ultima Weapon is the best — Though, you don’t have to argue regardless as Sora can equip up to three keyblades at once and switch on the fly. More so, each key has their own finisher and/or transformation that will proc whenever you reach a certain combo threshold in combat. The transformations range from big swords made of nanobots to yo-yos made from.. ghosts, I guess? Whatever the case may be, they’re pretty cool. The finishers also have a variety of effects, from an enormous tower sprouting from the ground and raining lasers on everything in the arena, to literally speeding up time and making your enemies die of old age — Well, that’s the idea, I guess. In practice, it just does damage. But, the theory behind the attack is badass enough to bring up.
For the first time in series history, magic has actually become useful beyond exploiting boss fights as well. I was so reliant on casting magic in my endgame battle strategies that the wait for Sora’s MP to recharge created several tense moments — though, the game is admittedly easy enough that just spamming the attack button and hoping for the best works out most of the time. Almost every enemy has a magical weakness that can be exploited. More than that, each spell also builds up their own combo finishers, allowing Sora to periodically cast the upgraded version of that spell (-ra,-ga, and the all-powerful -za spells) before he learns them and at no cost to his MP to boot. Weaving spells into my attack combos was honestly some of the most fun I’ve had playing this series.
Unfortunately, outside of battle and world exploration, Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t quite as fun. There are a few too many mini-games to contend with before you reach the final moments of the game — and most of them are tedious and annoying. I’ve already mentioned the travesty that is the 100 Acre Wood, but other offenders include chasing after a pirate ship in The Caribbean, and a long, boring dancing game in Corona. Ironically enough, the most fun mini-game, cooking with the Little Chef from Ratatouille using ingredients you collect throughout each world, is not required to finish the game… But, you should be doing it anyway for the way-too-adorable animations. I guess you could do it for the buffs that food gives you, too. But, I have my priorities.
The final thing I want to bring up is the sound design of Kingdom Hearts 3. I mean, it’s Kingdom Hearts. You already know it’s great. Yoko Shimomura’s score here is honestly the best its ever been in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. While there’s a reliance on older pieces found within Kingdom Hearts 3, they have been re-recorded with a full orchestra and feel completely revitalized despite their age. It’s the newer tracks that really stand out, however, and Kingdom Hearts 3’s soundtrack is nothing short of masterful because of them. While it was hard to pick a favorite, I have to give it up to the Arendelle theme. It’s an upbeat, orchestral jaunt that incorporates several songs from the Frozen film into its rhythm section, and despite being only a short loop, never gets boring throughout the somewhat long world.
The cast of actors on display in Kingdom Hearts 3 is just as awesome as the soundtrack. Kingdom Hearts games have always had impressive casts (Lance Bass played Sephiroth, and that’s still the silliest god damn thing I’ve ever heard), but Kingdom Hearts 3 really hits it out the park. While there are still plenty of impersonators, most do a good job with their characters (Until I saw it was his brother, I actually thought Tom Hanks was in this game). Both the Big Hero 6 and Frozen world also feature their entire casts reprising their roles as well — Though, the Big Hero 6 cast is certainly more enthusiastic about being in a video game. However, the character, or characters, that really need to be spotlighted here are Young and Old Xehanort, played by Ben Diskin and Rutger Hauer respectively. Diskin is just a really good voice actor whom I have been a fan of since playing Tales of Berseria, so it’s no surprise to me that he does a good job here. However, Rutger Hauer is definitely the darkhorse.
For those who don’t know, Xehanort was one of the late, great Leonard Nimoy’s final roles. I was actually kind of worried to see who might play him, and Hauer would have been my last guess. But, he does a really fantastic job here as the character — You can tell he’s into the cheesy lines and that he’s just having fun playing the bad guy. There’s some awkwardness brought on by a Dutch actor playing a character who had previously been primarily played by Americans, but its easily overlooked because of just how great he is. While I don’t have much authority to say so, I think Hauer gives a performance that respects and preserves the history of the character that Nimoy helped create.
Ultimately, I found Kingdom Hearts 3 to be a very satisfying experience. Even if it’s just “Accidentally Good,” that means it’s still Good. Admittedly, I found myself missing characters like Cid and Squall, who really deserved at least a mention. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t say Kingdom Hearts 3 wasn’t a hell of a time to play — Even if I had know idea what the hell was going on for most of it. That being said, while you can enjoy the game for the most part if you’re just jumping in, as soon as you reach the endgame, you will be entirely lost. So, you might want to check out the previous games beforehand if you haven’t (they’re so easy and cheap to play these days, though, you might as well play them anyway).