I’ve had a morbid obsession with Kingdom Hearts III for a fair share of its worryingly protracted development cycle. See, here’s the thing: I kinda like Disney – well, mid-90s Disney anyway. I was a snotty nosed tween when the company was enjoying its cinematic renaissance, so I grew up with legendary movies like Aladdin, Lion King, and, of course, Toy Story. I even had freakin’ Woody and Buzz Lightyear toys, although I had to settle for the chrome Buzz because you couldn’t get the standard version without breaking the bank in those days. I digress.
The point is that I have a lot of time for a lot of Disney franchises, but I don’t have a lot of time for anime. As our resident office weeb Robert Ramsey will attest, I can’t stand it. Now to be totally fair, when I wasn’t singing the Circle of Life during the car ride to school, I was probably humming Stan Bush’s The Touch, so there are elements of anime that I do enjoy. The Transformers are legendary; I even kinda got into Cowboy Bebop at one point.
But no, as a general rule I don't like it – I played through the entirety of Persona 5, expecting to uncover the critical darling that was going to change my mind. But if anything it reinforced my point of view: anime, and by extension anime games, are not for me. Nuh-uh. No way, José Mourinho.
Kingdom Hearts III, though. Kingdom Hearts III.
In many ways, looking at it from the outside, it’s everything I hate: it’s unnecessarily convoluted, it’s got the kind of twee ass pop music that makes me wish I didn’t like twee ass pop music, you can buy t-shirts in Hot Topic with Sora on them that have slogans like ‘I’m Sora Awesome’ printed on the front, and it’s about crystals. I think. Because everything in anime, when all’s said and done, is about crystals. Even Shenmue, the most grungy and grounded game franchise ever, is about freakin’ crystals.
But I saw the demo at EGX 2018 last month and I knew I had to play it – I had to know. Now I’ve watched the story recap and I couldn’t tell you a single thing about the narrative of this franchise, hence why this is a Soapbox rather than a Hands On. What I can tell you is that there are Toy Story characters in it and you play as a dude with big, bushy hair who carries a key instead of a Buster Sword. That’s about the gist of things, right?
Seriously, though, the graphics are very impressive. Do you remember when Sony announced the PlayStation 2 almost two decades ago and said it’d be able to produce Toy Story-esque presentation? I think that’s a bit of an urban myth but look: the Toy Story level in Kingdom Hearts III looks as good as the movie – in fact, it’s probably better. If you just walked past without any prior knowledge, you’d think it's from the film.
I mean it looks and sounds exactly like the movie – Tom Hanks isn’t there, but a pretty decent sound-a-like is. Square Enix has really nailed the look of the Toy Story films: the colours, the gangly animations – it’s all spot on. And being inside Andy’s bedroom is just really, really cool – even if you’re forced to control an action figure Sora, rather than, like, Hamm or something.
I like the way the Toy Story characters interact with Sora and his Disney friends; there’s this sense of misunderstanding and confusion as the two different casts clash. But let’s be clear here: while the visuals and audio scream Toy Story, the script does not. No, the script is your usual anime guff – I’m pretty sure they mention crystals at least once. Oh, and the Heartless, which even I know are the bad guys in this series. I think?
Look, the gameplay’s bloody brilliant. It’s real-time character action style stuff, but it’s got a Final Fantasy-esque menu in the corner where you can perform spells and use items and s**t. The thing I really appreciated is how flashy and over-the-top it is: you’re constantly getting new power-ups which you can trigger with the triangle button, transforming Sora into spinning teacups and later a freakin’ pirate ship. It’s amazing, and it runs really smoothly on the PS4 Pro.
The other level I got to watch (but not play) was taken from the Hercules world, and basically sees you running up a wall while a big monster thing attacks you. It’s got less of the glitz and glamour that the Toy Story stage has, but I appreciated it showing some different styles of gameplay; essentially this level is all about platforming and avoiding hazards. My takeaway was that the game looks great and plays smooth.
But it’s just that story that’s putting me off. I know it’s considered blasphemy among the inner sanctum of Kingdom Hearts fans, but a huge part of me wishes Square Enix would have just done away with all the anime and made a Disney RPG instead. Come up with an excuse to pair Mickey Mouse with Captain Jack Sparrow and let’s get this done. Because I think what the developer’s made here looks and plays nicely, but it seems borderline impenetrable if you haven’t been there since the start.
And look, I don’t have the heart or stomach to learn about Sora and the Heartless this late in the game. No, thank you.
Where do you stand on Kingdom Hearts III? Are you a long-time fan, or are you a newcomer unsure whether to pick this sequel up? Agree that the Crystal Maze is the only acceptable use of crystals in the comments section below.