For one group of devotees, Kingdom Hearts III is far and away the most important game of the generation. Announced all the way back at E3 2013, Square Enix’s latest Disney crossover attempts to conclude a story 17 years in the making, while also inviting newcomers along for the ride. The adventures of Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy are sure to capture the interest of many, but is this a game that anyone can pick up and play? The answer is a resounding yes. Kingdom Hearts III is a truly magical and special experience you won’t want to miss out on.
Is there anything left that can be said about the plot of Kingdom Hearts? As the third mainline entry in a series that actually reaches double figures when all is taken into account, Kingdom Hearts III assumes a lot. Picking up right where Dream Drop Distance left off, you’ll once again join Sora on his quest to regain his lost powers and rid the world of evil, most notably the evil Master Xehanort and Organisation XIII. That is only the tip of the iceberg, though.
From the word go, it’s clear that Kingdom Hearts III is designed for the fans. Pitched as the concluding chapter for the current state of the franchise, there’s little in the way of introductions, explanations, or detailed recaps for the uninitiated. This of course suits those who have been invested in Sora’s journey for the past two decades perfectly. The game gets right into the action as it tries to neatly tie up numerous narrative threads through meticulously detailed cutscenes and gameplay, and honestly, it absolutely succeeds. Relegated to the touchline for much of the experience, the Square Enix side of things takes centre stage for the latter quarter of the title as revelations and unbelievable battles change the course of the series. There are some absolutely incredible moments to witness during the final few hours of the game, alongside closure for fan-favourite characters such as Aqua, Naminé, and Roxas that takes their arcs in unexpected directions. Those who have been there since the beginning are sure to be satisfied by the time the credits roll, but newcomers will be in for a much tougher time despite the somewhat obvious stakes and payoff at hand.
It's absolutely possible for someone with no prior knowledge of the series to jump into Kingdom Hearts III and have a delightful time, but if one wants to understand what is actually taking place, a decent amount of background research is quite simply essential. The game does come with a Memory Archive that sums up the plot in 20 minutes, but even after taking all of that in, there’s still plot points that beginners will be none the wiser to. Because of this, the aforementioned final quarter of the experience is going to be very, very confusing – to the point where many will likely lose interest. If you’re not invested in the plot by the time the concluding hours roll around, it’s probably best to turn your brain off and just enjoy the ride.
What newcomers can latch onto, though, is the self-contained stories found within the eight Disney worlds that Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy visit prior to the final showdown. While some more or less retell the story of the film those worlds are based on, such as Frozen and Tangled’s worlds of Arendelle and the Kingdom of Corona, others opt to mix things up with a spin on what we’ve come to expect from those big cinema screen outings. Take Monstropolis for example, a world famed for its harvesting of the screams and cries of children in Monsters, Inc., continues the lineage that Sully and Mike put in place of using laughter to power the city instead. Elsewhere, Toy Box introduces an entirely new location to the Toy Story universe as Sora, Woody, and Buzz Lightyear embark on a rescue attempt after the Heartless kidnap Hamm and Wrex. The narratives found within are easy to follow and offer up just as many spectacular moments as the final few hours do for diehard fans, especially so when Kingdom Hearts III gets to expand on those universes we already hold near and dear.
That’s not to say that the worlds that stick to the tried and true plots of the films they’re based on are forgettable, though. In actual fact, Tangled’s Kingdom of Corona was by far our favourite world of the lot, with lush forests and Rapunzel’s tower to do battle in, alongside a whole town to explore upon the world’s completion. Arendelle doesn’t drop the ball either with a full rendition of everyone’s favourite song, Let It Go, as well as the return of the hearty bunch of Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven. Every one of the eight worlds has something new to offer, and there isn’t a single dud amongst them.
Alongside its plot, one more aspect that defines the franchise is its combat. It’s what you’ll be engaging with most within gameplay, and so it’s a good job there’s a lot more to it than simply mashing the X button. This is an issue previous entries have faced, but thanks to the addition of a variety of new mechanics, hitting a single button is no longer a route to success. Alongside casting magic, Sora can now call upon a new ability known as Attractions. As their name would suggest, these take the form of magical theme park rides that can be activated after eliminating specific members of the Heartless, and to say they’re a visual spectacle would be an understatement. Once they’re on the field of play, you’ll take control of movement and means of attack for more than enough time to destroy whole groups of enemies, making them a lovely addition to the loop of engagements.
There’s much more to combat than simply attacking, though. Blocking and dodging allows you to delve into retaliations that deal more damage than the average blow, upgrading Keyblades increases stats across the board, while balancing your AP meter lets you equip new abilities as and when you level up, providing even further ways of dispatching adversaries. Throw accessories into the mix that boost certain statistics and you’ve got the means to min-max your build once you reach the later stages of the title.
Outside of combat, there’s a plethora of activities and mechanics to engage with. Explore each and every world in search of treasures, hunt down materials for Keyblade upgrades, or take out the Gummiphone and take some pictures of the numerous Lucky Emblems dotted about the place to move one step closer to unlocking the secret ending. There are even entire mechanics tied to specific worlds.
The Caribbean allows you to upgrade your ship via the collection of crabs, mini-games can be found in Toy Box and the Kingdom of Corona that put your dancing and shooting skills to the test, while Big Hero 6 has an entire open-world city to rummage through once you’ve completed its associated story. Kingdom Hearts III makes sure there’s something for everyone when you’re not battling the Heartless, to the point where it’s easy to leave the central plot behind for several hours.
This is of course going to extend your play time depending on how many hours you’re willing to invest in the game’s intricacies. A typical playthrough of the core story will last upwards of 25 hours, but that can be close to doubled if you decide to reach the heights of the Platinum Trophy.
If you do decide to take things that far, though, one unfortunate thing you will have to deal with is the Gummi Ship. Used to travel from world to world through space, you’ll have to put up with confusing menus, needlessly complex building interfaces, and frustrating battles that gate progression. It serves its purpose if you’re just looking to get from point A-to-B, but anything beyond that is a complete hassle. It doesn’t even do a good job of tutorialising things should you decide to construct your own ship. One day Square Enix will learn that the series would be far better off if the returning “feature” was stripped altogether, one day.
There’s no doubting that Kingdom Hearts III is a real, real looker. Every world takes on its own visual style alongside a unique colour palette that complements the films those environments come from. The Kingdom of Corona truly pops with dense and rich greenery that goes a long way when setting the scene of Rapunzel’s tower. It’s a dazzling sight as sunlight beats down onto the river that breaks up the blades of grass, while every drop of water shines under the sun. On the complete opposite end of the thermometer, Frozen’s Arendelle impresses with visual delights that look like they’re lifted straight out of the film. It manages to look that good.
The fact that Kingdom Hearts III even managed to release could be considered a miracle in of itself, but what’s perhaps even more surprising is that the finished product defies all expectations. As an unforgettable experience, Kingdom Hearts III is exceptional, essential, and most of all, undeniably special.