Kingdom Hearts is a series that has always simultaneously intrigued and mystified me. The combination of Square Enix characters and style clashing with Disney classics was always bizarre, but the games had an undeniable charm to them—and that charm doesn’t end with the third main iteration in a series that includes over a decade of titles on multiple different consoles. Is Kingdom Hearts 3 truly worth all the buildup and hype, though?
Kingdom Hearts III
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Platform: Playstation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Release Date: January 29, 2019
Price: $ 59.99 (Review Copy Received)
It’s no secret that the overarching plot of the Kingdom Hearts series is…convoluted, to say the least. There are ten games (spanning multiple consoles) to absorb if you want to truly understand what’s going on, and even then it’s pretty easy to forget the events of games you might’ve played in the early 2000s. I try to just appreciate KH’s story like a weird interactive art piece, content with my basic understanding of the events transpiring onscreen.
The story in 3 at least starts on an exciting note, eschewing the slow, plodding prologue of 2. Sora, in an infamous genre cliché, has lost his powers, but the game at least tries to justify the reason in a believable way. There’s even some great dialogue about it between him and Hercules as they battle through Thebes and Olympus trying to stop the Titans from wrecking shop.
It’s awesome hearing the voice actors for all these major roles return, even if James Woods and Tate Donovan are admittedly showing their age at this point. Sadly, a lot of the other original Disney voices have been replaced by actors doing their best impressions, and some are a bit worse than others. Amusingly enough, Woody’s voice is done by none other than Tom Hank’s brother.
The voice acting, while done by a bunch of folks with demonstrable talent, always manages to feel stilted and awkward. The character animations don’t do much to help this, with exaggerated movements and weak facial animations during the in-game sequences doing little to sell their performances. Strange voice direction is sadly par for the course in this series, though it rarely gets too distracting.
The sound design, however, is superb. Combat sounds are satisfying, from magic explosions to the thwack of your keyblade, and the musical score is simply amazing. Not only are there fun renditions of the Disney themes as you play through the various worlds on offer, but certain story beats are complemented by callbacks to older tracks from previous games. I could listen to this game’s OST for ages and never get sick of it.
The Disney properties (each with their own world) in Kingdom Hearts 3 include Hercules, Pirates of the Caribbean, Toy Story, Frozen, Monsters Inc, Big Hero 6, and Winnie the Pooh. Some of these are exciting, such as Pirates and Big Hero 6, while others feel a bit slow and weakly paced.
Sora, Donald, and Goofy even ask themselves a few times why they’re visiting some of these worlds, perhaps acknowledging the common critique that the Disney levels tend to not matter all that much in terms of the series’ overarching narrative. That hasn’t ever really bothered me, though I will admit that some of the meandering you do in these worlds adds a bit of dissonance with the main plot, considering what’s at stake.
This is somewhat made up for by the truly entertaining combat system. They really distilled all the best parts of the previous titles, tightening things up and making Kingdom Hearts 3’s battles truly a treat to participate in. The verticality on display in some fights is fun as hell, and the new Attraction Flow abilities are great to watch, if a bit overpowered.
The keyblades this time around are great, with each of them having the ability to transform. You’re able to hot-swap three different blades during battle as well, allowing for some pretty great tactical freedom. This is a nice way to break up some of the tedium that previous entries in the series suffered with, while also allowing you to tailor your playstyle to be exactly how you want it.
I did have some occasional issues with targeting, mostly with magic. It was a bit awkward to have to face myself toward the enemy while casting, especially since you have to constantly be on the move to avoid getting your clock cleaned. The auto targeting system for magic is enabled by default, but I still noticed my shots harmlessly flying off to the side a bit more than I would have liked.
The other complaint I can level toward the gameplay is regarding the Flowmotion mechanic—it never really worked as well as I would have liked it to, and some battles all but require the use of it. It just felt fiddly to get working, so I ignored it as much as I possibly could.
The graphics, despite some awkward character animations, are pretty wonderful. Some of the setpieces are simply breathtaking, and I stopped many times just to admire the views on display. The Pirates of the Caribbean world stands out especially for its style and striking visuals, but no part of KH3 looks bad.
The performance can be a bit weak at times, with frames dropping every now and again, but it wasn’t ever enough to fully take me out of the experience. Strangely, there were these large black bars around the edges of the screen, shrinking the resolution the game ran in.
Apparently this is one of the few games that utilizes an obscure display option in the PS4’s settings menu, though I’ve seen plenty of screenshots with these black bars as well. I’m not sure what that’s all about, but it’s unfortunate that I wasn’t the only one who had the same issue.
Seeing the story of Kingdom Hearts culminate into the ending of 3 is pretty sweet for me. The series has been a part of my life since I was ten years old, so all those plot threads finally coming together in a (mostly) cohesive package is innately satisfying.
Kingdom Hearts 3 may not be perfect, and the story may be messy, convoluted, and glacially-paced at times, but the series has always had a ton of heart. The gameplay and awesome setpieces on offer in the third-but-actually-tenth installment of this franchise, to me, more than make up for the occasionally awkward dialogue and saccharine character interactions.
I recommend the game even to newcomers, though at least a cursory knowledge of the events of prior titles is mandatory. It’s a must-have for fans of the series, though I’m sure most of the die-hard Kingdom Hearts fanatics have already finished it by the time of this review.
Kingdom Hearts III was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a review copy provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.