Platform: PS4, Xbox One
Genre: Action, JRPG

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Can a game live up to the unbridled level of anticipation and hype which has been slowly building over 14 years, from a franchise which initially began almost two decades ago? The Kingdom Hearts franchise merits a sense of nostalgia and furore unrivalled by arguably any other game franchise. If you’re reading this, you’re either a long-time fan or you could care less about a game that features Mickey fighting globs of black goo.

This is it. After a total of nine games (including spinoffs) across three gaming generations, it is my absolute pleasure to tell you that Kingdom Hearts 3 is indeed the epic conclusion we’ve been waiting for.

No amount of words can fully describe the cacophony of emotions and sentiment bursting in my heart from finally being able to play this game. But I’ll do so anyway.

Got It Memorized?

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Ignore the franchise’s propensity for having such a convoluted mess of a story and you’ll find that Kingdom Hearts 3‘s main premise is essentially a simple one. Our Keyblade-wielding protagonist Sora needs to discover or activate the “power of waking”, which will be needed in the upcoming final battle against Master Xehanort and his 13 darknesses.

In the meantime, Sora’s other friends are either trying to gather the 7 guardians of light (Riku and Mickey) or training to become Keyblade wielders themselves (Kairi and Lea). Ultimately there’s much more to that, seeing as Kingdom Hearts 3 is still the culmination of many years’ worth of story and character development. It remains a game made for fans from the very beginning, and it clearly rewards you for that.

I guarantee that longtime fans will smirk and chuckle in glee at every little reference and easter egg to past games. I know I did. With that said, newcomers can probably still enjoy Kingdom Hearts 3, though they won’t really comprehend the nuances and details of the events that transpire throughout.

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Thankfully, Square Enix has provided a five mini-movies that recap the events of the franchise up to Kingdom Hearts 3, which is called the Memory Archive. This serves a serviceable job of keeping newcomers apprised of everything that has happened to date, though I still believe there’s no substitute to actually playing the games. Heck, if all else fails, I completed the gargantuan task of recapping all the Kingdom Hearts titles myself, which is available for your reading pleasure here, here, and here.

Some have criticized how the Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3 are just middling distractions from advancing the main plot, and that everything only picks up near the very end, making the endgame feel rushed and unsatisfying. I’m here to refute all that because the fact is that almost every game in the Kingdom Hearts franchise has followed that exact template.

The basic idea of the entire franchise began as an excuse to travel Disney worlds, and though it has developed since its conception by creator Tetsuya Nomura, almost every game has followed the same narrative formula. The player begins by travelling to multiple Disney worlds, before ending the game with the elements that Kingdom Hearts is known for (all the darkness and light stuff, original characters).

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I admit that these are valid criticisms, though it seems like these critics want the game to something it’s not. The charm in Kingdom Hearts stems from its successful meshing of Disney and Final Fantasy, something that shouldn’t have worked in the first place. From that point on, the franchise has continued to be different in both tone and structure, developing independently from other JRPGs along the way.

I won’t spoil the ending for anyone, but I can safely say that I was extremely satisfied that it managed to tie up almost all the loose ends from 17 years of Kingdom Hearts lore. I appreciated the sense of closure it gave me, and I’m sure many fans will feel the same way.

Without giving anything away, the epilogue and the secret movie for Kingdom Hearts 3 do tease future installments and continuation of the franchise. Some fans might be disappointed that Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t the definite end, but it was never meant to be in the first place. This is only the end of one saga and the beginning of the next.

Whole New Worlds

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The choice of worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3 has been dividing fans for quite some time. This is because Square Enix has opted for newer Disney and Pixar properties rather than the classic ones we all know and love. The problem is when some of these newer properties like Big Hero 6 and Frozen seemingly lack the rose-tinted nostalgia associated with older animated movies.

Let me tell you now that those issues might as well be non-existent. Despite what your thoughts are regarding these newer Disney Pixar properties, the Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3 are some of the best in the franchise. The variety in settings and level design are apparent, and some of them function as open-worlds by themselves.

Sure, some of the Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3 might be more linear and limited than others, but they’re still leaps and bounds ahead of past games. In particular, I admire the new sense of vertical freedom Sora has in Kingdom Hearts, where worlds like The Caribbean and San Fransokyo feature ample space for our protagonist to leap, glide and dash to his heart’s desire.

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Like I previously mentioned, some of the worlds have side-content that could be regarded as core mechanics in other games. My favourite would have to be controlling my own pirate ship à la Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Going in, I never thought a Kingdom Hearts game would ever feature a fun naval mini-game like this, but here we are.

The world-specific mini-games and side-content in other worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3 are less inspired and are simply that; gimmicks. This includes piloting the mechas in Toy Story’s Toy Box, and shield-sledding in Frozen’s Arendelle. These feel less fleshed-out and therefore less deserving to return to after having to play it once via the story.

Unlike previous titles in the franchise, I also adore the fact that several worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3 actually act as direct sequels or continuation of the original movie it’s based on. They’re not simply cheap rehashes of the original movie’s story anymore. For instance, Hiro and his team are already a team of superheroes when Sora meets them in San Fransokyo. It’s amazing how much creative freedom Square Enix is able to squeeze from Disney now.

Combat Perfection

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Even if you’ve never been into Kingdom Hearts for its story, chances are you would still be fans of the franchise due to its gameplay, which has steadily become more fast-paced and kinetic over the years. Kingdom Hearts 3 boasts the smoothest and polished gameplay to date.

It expands on the gameplay mechanics already established with Kingdom Hearts 2‘s Situation Commands, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep‘s Deck Command system, and Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance‘s Flow Motion system by introducing new mechanics of its own.

The addition of Keyblade transformations and improvements to how magic works have made the combat flow much better in motion and action. This means that choosing the right Keyblade is more than just considering its stats (since each has its own unique form and abilities). Longtime fans will love that Sora can now move while unleashing magical attacks; back then, he had to stand still like a sitting duck and wait until his magic attack finishes.

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However, I did find the new Attractions mechanic to be annoying, as it popped up too often. With its long animation (which thankfully can be cancelled) and overpowered nature, this was one gameplay mechanic that is too flashy for its own good and should have been reserved only for special occasions in the game.

All of this does come with one small caveat. Due to the improved gameplay mechanics and camera during combat, Kingdom Hearts 3 might possibly be the easiest game in the franchise. I never died once in my 30-hour Standard Mode playthrough, not even during the final boss battle. Past games were sometimes too punishable and frustratingly difficult, so I think the easier difficulty would be welcomed by many fans like myself. If you insist for a harder experience, just jack up the difficulty level and attempt a no-experience run (staying on level one for the entirety of your playthrough).

The Gummi ship mechanic also returns in Kingdom Hearts 3; now more expansive than ever by allowing players to navigate through a free-roaming 3D open world, instead of the limited by-the-rails version in past entries. While the Gummi ship might still feel tedious and a chore to play, they’re mostly optional and players only ever really have to play this section in order to reach newly-discovered worlds.

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In fact, there are several new mini-games that are entirely optional. This includes the Ratatouille cooking mini-game and the many Game & Watch-style mini-games inspired by classic Disney animated shorts. These can all be avoided if the player chooses to do so (unless they’re trophy hunters), as they don’t affect story progression in any way.

All of these side-content and mini-games ensures that players will be still have a lot to occupy their time with even post-game. This is in addition to traditional Kingdom Hearts post-game content in Kingdom Hearts 3, such as secret bosses, secret reports, obtaining the Ultima Keyblade, and capping Sora’s level to 99.

For those asking if any other characters besides Sora are playable in Kingdom Hearts 3, I won’t spoil it for you, but I can advise you to lower your expectations. Only two characters will be playable, and even then, they were only playable for one or two short occasions. If you’re expecting to go through the game with another character like Riku in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, unfortunately, that won’t happen.

Am I Watching Frozen?

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The biggest reason for Kingdom Hearts 3‘s long delay was its transition from an older engine to the latest Unreal Engine 4, which also powers many other recent games like Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of An Elusive Age and Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown. The power of this new engine has allowed the visuals and lighting in the game to rival and sometimes surpass that of its original source material.

For instance, Frozen’s Arendelle, Tangle’s Kingdom of Corona, and Big Hero 6’s San Frnasokyo are all clear examples of this. They look just like their movie counterparts, and then some. What’s even more impressive is how far the franchise has come that cinematic cutscenes are now mostly rendered using the in-game engine, instead of being pre-rendered like past entries in the franchise.

The appeal of seeing all these Disney Pixar properties coming to life and interacting with has never been more apparent than in Kingdom Hearts 3. Your friends and family will look on in disbelief and awe as they realize that they’re watching a game and not a movie. We’ve come a long way since the days of the original Kingdom Hearts.

My Kingdom Hearts

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Everyone has a reason for being a fan of Kingdom Hearts, be it the exciting combat, the convoluted albeit charming story, or maybe they’re just in it for the Disney worlds. For me, it’s definitely all of the above. Kingdom Hearts is a beautiful symphony of wonderful things all smooshed together.

I believe that an excellent game is not just the sum of its parts, but also the many memorable and great moments contained within. I had a huge smile on my face as I watched Elsa belting out a full rendition of Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’ as Sora, Donald, and Goofy looked on, mesmerized.

Most of all, I praise the ending of Kingdom Hearts, which is filled with many of those aforementioned great moments. Some might say that it’s all being cramped and forcibly pushed into the final few hours of the game, but I disagree.

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The ending of Kingdom Hearts 3 overwhelmed me with a flood of emotions. What other game would have the same effect on me? It’s a testament to Tetsuya Nomura and his team that the conclusion is a such a perfect sendoff for the franchise. That finale makes up for everything. It doesn’t matter what flaws or faults you think the game might have.

Trust me, once you get to the ending, the next thing you realize will be tears streaming down your face with a silly smirk on your face, as you feel utterly satisfied and a weird emptiness at the same time, knowing that the journey has ended but that it was all worth it in the end.

Pros:

  • An epic conclusion well-worth the wait.
  • Some of the best Disney worlds in the franchise.
  • Most polished and satisfying combat gameplay.
  • Graphics and visuals on par with the original movies.

Cons:

  • Newbies may need help playing catch-up.
  • Gummi Ship sections are a chore.
  • Minor grievances (it can feel like a PS2 game at times).

Final Score: 80/100

Kingdom Hearts 3 was reviewed on a PS4 Pro, via a review copy courtesy of Square Enix.


 

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