Kingdom Hearts 3 Review

After 17 years of the franchise’s existence, 10 games, a ton of reissues and roughly 13 years since the last numbered installment, it’s finally here. Kingdom Hearts 3, the final part of the initial saga, but not necessarily the end of Square Enix’s and Disney’s shared megafranchise… Though I’m beginning to think maybe it should be.

Whether one harbors an attachment towards characters found across several franchise properties under the umbrella of Disney, Pixar, Final Fantasy, The World Ends With You or even the originally created Kingdom Hearts cast, there exist some kind of unexplainable connection to these fictional people that have engrained their selves in our respective childhoods and granted us entertainment, laughs, high stakes drama and jaw-dropping action well into adulthood. And as a grand finale, Kingdom Hearts 3 does right by the characters introduced in…Kingdom Hearts. If you’re here for the Disney, the Pixar or the Final Fantasy, Boy do I have varying degrees of bad news for you.

I’m not going to sit here and speculate on all the “what if’s” and “coulda beens” of the Kingdom Hearts series. I’m not interested in the Square Enix and Disney properties that didn’t get a slot in this RPG. There’s a lot of “hey, what happened to Final Fantasy 13 and 15? Where are my sexy Miqo’tes and Vieras and other animal eared women?” And “wouldn’t it be cool if we got Tomb Raider or Life is Strange?” And “Yo where my Star Wars and Marvel” because truth be told, that’s all missing the point.

Kingdom Hearts was always conceptualized and pitched as Disney nostalgia hooking up with modern Final Fantasy. Square Enix in particular had a ton of IPs sitting around they could have shoved in if they really wanted. Some of these other speculative series are steeped a bit more in the realm of reason, such as Square looking for some way to incorporate any acquisition Disney made (I.e. Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilms).

Rather I’m going to judge Kingdom Hearts 3 on what it tried to be. It’s not quite the same as wild fanboy speculation, it’s taking the story elements KH3 presented to us and optimizing them. Saying “they probably should have done this with the character of Aqua” which is a lot different from “Boy I wish Iron Man were in it.”

However I will address the Dumbo in the room. Final Fantasy. Or rather, the lack of. Because let’s face it, as the hardcore mature and edgy gamers that we are, back in the day the game’s representation of Final Fantasy sounded like the only appealing element. However, I legitimately believe it was the skillful execution of the title’s Disney elements and the playful nostalgia it brought, paired with the refreshing optimism of lead character Sora and his friends that kept people invested. In retrospect I often don’t hear about just how cool Cloud was or the waifu eligibility of Aerith. Honestly, I think it’s the opposite, with Kingdom Hearts often accused of misunderstanding these characters and granting them shallow portrayals… Portrayals that extended beyond Kingdom Hearts and infested things like the movies, sequels and prequels of these JRPGs.

Look, this isn’t some “ha got you Final Fantasy fanboys.” I was one of said Final Fantasy fanboys. But I can admit Disney returned some childlike wonder that was missing for me, what being the hardened gang running street boxing teenager I was. Characters like Zack, Setzer, Vivi and Sephiroth made for some intense and epic boss fights. But that’s almost all they contributed. The relevance of Final Fantasy got to be less, and less and less until it was more or less replaced by the crew from The World Ends With You (another fine RPG of its own and sadly… or maybe not so sadly given Square’s track record… a one-off.) Then the same thing happened to the Disney side.

Sora is our proxy to the world, and his getting to gallivant around Pride Rock, swim around Atlantis, prance in 100 Acre Wood, sail in the Caribbean, fly over Neverland and ride a magic carpet over Agrabah let us re-experience all those wonders for ourselves, as if we were experiencing the magic of the movies for the first time, all over again.

“Graphically, Kingdom Hearts 3 is outstanding.”

It was a title that once strongly considered the “user end” or “player experience.” As an interactive medium, this matters a great deal to both storytelling and gameplay.  Strategizing against Cloud Strife, using all the magic and limit breaks we used to use to kick our ass, and getting a little sprinkle of Tinkerbell’s fairy dust contributed a lot to said experience. When you lose that, Sora and the other Kingdom Hearts leads stop being a player proxy and just start being someone you get to watch. On that point, worlds like Tangled provide a worthwhile player experience, because Rapunzel is a babe to the world and so are you, the player, and you get to explore it together. Otherwise, you end up with mundane worlds like Monsters Inc, where you run from one plot point to the next with little to engage you.

Graphically, Kingdom Hearts 3 is outstanding. Imported to Unreal 4, It’s a very pretty game that retains the cartoony Kingdom Hearts style but smooths out the rough edges. When I peeled back the curtain to look behind the scenes I wasn’t surprised to find out Pixar helped a great deal in teaching the KH team about animation and camera work, that extra bit of polish shows. Pixar was also generous enough to straight up give Square Enix their character models, which is a pretty bro thing to do.

The music is equally outstanding. Utada Hikari returns to lend her vocals, as do Kingdom Hearts alumnus and general Square Enix veteran composers Yoko Shimomura, Takeharu Ishimoto And Tsuyoshi Sekito. Even Skrillex, a long time KH fan, lets some of his beats dream drop for the score. It really puts together an epic game with musical scores that call up the Kingdom Hearts nostalgia in all its bittersweet salty ice cream flavor.

The vocals are top notch as ever, Hayley Joel Osment wasn’t so much made to see dead people as he was to wield the keyblade. Bill Farmer and Tony Anselmo bring it in with Donald and Goofy. Since the game uses much more recent properties, and since it’s a different era of film, television and video games where crossing over between the three doesn’t necessarily make you a commercial “failure” as it did in the past, they were able to secure a lot of original rolls. Kristen Bell as Anna. Idina Menzel as Elsa. James Woods as Hades. The Big Hero 6 cast nearly in their entirety (except for Damien Wayans Jr, too good for us, Damien?). It’s wonderful having characters that actually sound like, well, their character.

But that’s where it ends. At graphics, score and sound design. Which is a very Square Enix trait in general, sure the game may suck Eeyore balls but damn does it look good and damn, will you be listening to that soundtrack for all eternity.

The combat is, well, it’s there. For me Kingdom Hearts was never the most complex of RPGs. The closest it’s gotten to role-playing is allowing us to be a kid in a giant Disney amusement park, and hey, fair dues, the combat system is literally made up of amusement park rides. As in actively, in battle, you can summon in Disney theme park rides to do your dirty work for you. I stand in opposition to a lot of reviewers and general players when I say I really enjoyed this mechanic, but it did get old. Mostly because the game had all of six rides put on a loop for your summons…Out of how many theme park attractions? Out of how many Disney theme parks? And The KH team could only come up with six rides total. Let’s blame it on lack of production time.

The reason I approve of this feature, for the most part, is because for me the combat in Kingdom Hearts has always been more spectacle based. The combat in 2 wasn’t anymore complex, but it was a ton of fun snatching weapons out of the hands of your antagonists and bashing them over the head with them. KH3 also brings back final fantasy magic spells and Disney characters as your summon, and there’s something amusing about smacking the face of the Lucifer-esque final boss with Ariel’s mermaid tail. Kingdom Hearts 3 also pulls a slight remix of the “drives” from 2, giving you keyblades (the giant key that’s also a sword, if you’re lost) with a mechanic named “form change.” Transform your key into a spear, crossbows, a hammer, claws, giant yo-yo’s, ice skates, a ship’s wheel, a Pegasus and even Rapunzel‘s tower because sure, why the hell not?

So for all the pure spectacle of it, the combat does just fine, there are far more complex action RPGs out on the market, and there are even more complex Kingdom Hearts titles, to the point I find it questionable they dumbed down the combat to pre-Final Mix KH2 levels after the more complex, strategy and experimentation oriented systems introduced in Dream Drop Distance and Birth By Sleep. My best guess is for the sake of new players but, as I’ve said before and I will say again, nothing else about this title is friendly to newcomers.

“Kingdom Hearts 3 is so erratic no clear theme ever gets to emerge.”

Now it’s time to go into some general story spoilers. I had difficulty working out the theme of this Kingdom Hearts, reunion? Holding on to hope? Heroic returns? It’s hard to nail down because KH3 just doesn’t have a very strong thematic connection like the others did. Yes, the Kingdom Hearts Story has always been wonky, at times unquestionably bad, but I can name how each title at least manages to be strong thematically. Such as the first game with its bonds of friendship, Chain of Memories questioning the… well, value of memories, and Kingdom Hearts 2 getting straight philosophical on what it means to have a soul.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is so erratic no clear theme ever gets to emerge. My best guess are those themes above I already named, reunion, hope and heroism. It feels kind of vague and unsatisfying to finger those generalities, however. If those are the themes, Kingdom Hearts 3 could have done a much better job chiseling them out. One of the biggest payoffs of the game occurs around the act break when a major protagonist from one of the previous game’s is rescued from a fate worse than death. It truly felt to me, in that moment, that this game should have mostly been about rescuing this character. Instead the game threw as many names at you as fast as possible in an effort to remind you they exist. “Roxas and Namine and Terra and Aqua and Ventus and Xigbar and Xemnas and Ava, hey you remember all those guys right? They were in the other games!”

And frankly no, no I don’t remember them. No one would blame you for thinking the name “Kingdom Hearts 3” was legitimately the third game in the series. But no. No it’s not. Try the eleventh. There are ten other tales you have to catch up on, not two, in order to even remotely have a clue as to what’s going on. The worst part is a lot of these other games essentially played and looked like isolated spin-offs, exclusively for handheld devices and mobile phones. Some of these devices had a very small install base… Meaning you likely didn’t play it.

And neither did I, and I very much did have the means to do so. I did most of my catching up to Kingdom Hearts 3 while playing Kingdom Hearts 3. So many hours logged on wikis and YouTube and manga readers, oh my. I even cracked open a couple of the games I skipped. Now I get what’s meant to be going on in this flaming pumpkin carriage KH3 calls a story, but the truth is no one should have to do that much work to understand the -third- part of a narrative. I can catch you up on the third part of Back to the Future easy enough. “Marty’s buddy builds a time machine, Marty uses the time machine to stop his parents from screwing up on screwing, then in the sequel to stop his kids from screwing up, now he has to prevent his ancestors from screwing up.”

I can even do the same with the third Avengers movie, which are a great parallel because while it’s an overall very hefty franchise, Avengers does a pretty strong job of inviting new audiences, and all of its additional content I.e. the other Marvel movies, is pretty easy to get a hold of. If you want to get caught up for Kingdom Hearts 3 get your pencil and marble notebooks ready ‘cause we ’re basically going to school, and deciphering the Kingdom Hearts Story is just about as difficult as taking the LSAT.

When the game does feel bothered to let you in on it, it’s done via lengthy and dry exposition dumps. The problem is this nasty trait doesn’t only affect Kingdom Hearts. It affects the Disney worlds. In the past, Kingdom Hearts has carefully interwoven the quest of the lead characters in with the storylines of the Disney movies it’s tackled. Nowhere is this truer than the very first game,  but the others do a decent enough job. For example, I hadn’t managed to see Tron before playing Space Paranoids in KH2, but they gave me plenty enough story to effectively understand the movie, and when I finally did see the movie it matched well aside from one or two understandably dropped storylines.

With Kingdom Hearts 3 you’re going to have to come in having already seen the six Disney movies this game covers, otherwise, you’re going to be completely clueless. The game puts a lot of priority on what are often the most insignificant plot points to these movies. Square Enix recreating Let it Go from Frozen is a wonderful Easter egg in itself, but the song is meaningless without understanding how Elsa was emotionally and at times, physically locked away for years due to fearing her own power. Instead, you only see Elsa running away because, I dunno, she’s stressed out or something. Then at best, later on, Kristen Bell uses her pro vocal talents to, guess what? Drop an exposition dump on our heads.

Even worse is that the concept of true love comes up often in Kingdom Hearts 3. Get your OC ships ready now people, Aqua and Terra? Sora and Kairi? Namine and Roxas? Roxas and Xion? Sora and Riku? Axel and Saix? Namine and Xion? Mickey And Pluto? If you can imagine it, Kingdom Hearts 3 will tickle your lemon fic writing bone. So why then does it deal with six movies that also take on the concept of true love, love between friends in Toy Story and Monsters Inc, love for family in Frozen and Big Hero 6, and romantic love in Pirates of the Caribbean and Tangled, then completely squander that?

After getting through these six worlds the endgame sequence kicks in. And, well, it’s absolutely fantastic. These are some of the weirdest, greatest, mystifying, baffling, touching, heart wrenching, and all around greatest moments of a video game I’ve ever played. The energy of the last 5 – 10 hours is just on an entirely different plane than the rest of the game. It feels like this is the Kingdom Hearts director Tetsuya Nomura wanted to make, not the game he was obligated to make. This too is reflected in the Disney worlds, the worlds Nomura and his team salivated after such as Tangled were just of a higher general level of quality than the worlds that felt like they had to include due to popularity, such as Frozen.

It ’s a truly epic and worthwhile sequence that is packed with metagame moments that could have been dreamt up by the likes of Hideo Kojima, Yoko Taro, Suda 51 and David Cage, and it proves Nomura’s competency and creativity as a director. It’s a fantastic and pleasing send off to the rather proportionately large cast of Kingdom Hearts, with just a dash of the tragedy we’ve become so accustomed to in the other games, but nothing so bad as to spoil those Final heartwarming moments. In a strange way, it feels as if Kingdom Hearts (this saga anyway) had to end this way. But it still doesn’t excuse the poor pacing, meandering subplots and minimally recognized worlds. Additionally the payoff really only works if you’ve either managed to keep up with the entire series, or at least found one or two characters to care about (I fit in the latter category). Once more, this is not newcomer friendly.

Sadly, 30 hours of a miserable game with a few highlights here and there is just too much video game to get through for the few phenomenal hours at the end. I think a lot of us have outgrown Final Fantasy, and I think a lot of us have moved on from Disney, making room for our kids, our young siblings, our nieces and our nephews to take on the Disney fairy tale and Final Fantasy mythos for themselves. Most of all, I think it’s time for Tetsuya Nomura to move past Kingdom Hearts, I think he has proven he is quite capable of making a good game when he actually cares about it, but we shouldn’t have to watch the things we all love suffer just because he ain’t feeling it.

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