Let me provide some necessary personal context surrounding the release of Kingdom Hearts III before proceeding any further: Kingdom Hearts III was officially announced in June of 2013, which happens to be the summer preceding my eighth grade school year. Within the circumstances of the franchise at large, the last main installment of the series (Kingdom Hearts II) was released in 2005. Since then, multiple spin-offs have been released attempting to explain certain aspects of the narrative across multiple consoles. Therefore, the expectation surrounding Kingdom Hearts III was astronomically high, with the hope of resolving major plot threads and providing a satisfying resolution to the current saga of games.
Kingdom Hearts has remained a significant part of my life since 2006. I fondly remember the day that I went to check out some video games at a local public library and noticed Kingdom Hearts amongst the the various titles on the shelf for the PlayStation 2. What soon followed was a fantastical adventure across various Disney worlds, in which I followed the rag-tag trio of Sora, Donald, and Goofy on his journey to find Riku, Kairi, and King Mickey. Having played through the first installment multiple times, I can affirm that Kingdom Hearts provided a fresh perspective on the action role-playing game for its time, with a deeply rewarding combat system and a faithful integration of Disney’s and Final Fantasy’s best.
Then came Kingdom Hearts II, which mustered the courage to revamp the strong foundations that it had established once before to craft a more exhilarating combat system without compromising the inherent challenge present within the original. Amongst the Kingdom Hearts community, this installment continues to remain the gold standard of the franchise with near unanimity.
Yet spinoff installments that filled the gaps never managed to hit the same benchmarks of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, introducing certain elements that never truly synergized with the core appeal of the series, including but not limited to convoluted narrative arcs, unhinged movement abilities, and decisive battle structures. Therefore, Kingdom Hearts III was looked upon as the title to retrace its steps and deliver the optimal experience fans have anticipated for years, incorporating the elements across the franchise that worked to then provide the sense of originality expected from a sequel.
And unfortunately, it doesn’t quite strike gold.
Kingdom Hearts III certainly rose to the occasion on virtually every front imaginable, especially with its ability to capture the true magic that Disney is capable of infusing into a video game with its strong presence, alongside the phenomenal creative feats in the audio-visual department. Yet stripped down to its fundamentals, the game fails to grasp the spirit and charm of its combat and narrative that it established so many years prior, amounting to an experience that while unabashedly fun, also portrays an aura of hollowness.
The Beauty of Kingdom Hearts
The Breadth of Disney and Pixar Worlds
One of the greatest achievements of Kingdom Hearts has always remained its ability to establish the purpose of Disney lore within its own universe. Because the series opted to pursue a light-hearted tale centered around the rare themes of friendship and companionship, Disney cemented itself as a perfect fit within the context of the various places that Sora will travel.
However, the various Disney worlds traversed never managed to portray the full scope of detail present in their complimentary films. Likely due to technical limitations, some worlds upon arrival gave the impression that Sora was exploring a diorama that focused more on aesthetic than character, which became most evident with Disney worlds that feature movies with iconic reputations, including Aladdin and The Lion King.
Fortunately, both the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One manage to provide the resources necessary to revitalize the core appeal of the Disney worlds. Featuring a selection of Disney titles that largely represent the newest repertoire of films, Kingdom Hearts III diversifies its game mechanics and experiences within the context of the various Disney properties to give each a unique identity apart from its artistic portrayal. Enemies take on appearances complimenting the scenery and occasionally feature new attack patterns that prompt the use of new combat techniques.
Graphically, enough comparisons have often praised the worlds for replicating the authentic look and charm in most regards, which I wholly agree with. Within the Toy Story universe for example, the characters are appropriate shrunken down to size as they explore Andy’s room and venture off to Galaxy Toys, nailing the feeling of navigation as a toy interacting with their environment in a fresh way, whether fighting against action figures or roaming the tunnels of a playhouse.
Elaborating upon this idea, there is a certain world that features a rendition of a musical number that appears nearly identical to to the film version, which particularly struck me as fantastical, even adjusting some camera shots to add a dynamic edge to specific angles.
Traveling back to the world of Olympus provides a fresh update to the area most often explored in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. With a greater sense of verticality and the inclusion of Mt. Olympus and Thebes as new locations, it quickly rose atop my favorites solely on the basis on variety alone.
Out of the eight Disney and Pixar worlds available to explore in Kingdom Hearts III, the majority successfully manage to grasp the best qualities of each property and translate it into a video game, supplementing their grounds with beautiful landmarks and side content. On a personal note, however, the worlds of San Fransokyo and Hundred-Acre Wood felt pale in comparison due to the deprivation of fun story beats and extra challenges, even though the former arguably features one of the most compelling locations of recent Disney films.
And most importantly, it clearly distinguishes itself as a pinnacle achievement in animation within the Playstation ecosystem nearly unparalleled by its competitors, with major strides towards realism dominating significant portions of the AAA-market. Even the universe inspired by Pirates of the Caribbean blends seamlessly within the rest of the title while managing for its inhabitants to look authentic next to the likes of Donald and Goofy. This became such an important factor of anticipation for the title because it truly represented a full opportunity for the development team to take advantage of prior experience, abundant source material, and boundless talent to produce gorgeous results in cooperation with Disney and Pixar.
Based on the selection of recent Walt Disney Animation films and popular Pixar movies as the inspiration for the universes travelled in Kingdom Hearts III, there is a clear attempt to underscore high appeal to newcomers unfamiliar with the other games. Fortunately, I can assert that merely traversing and experiencing the magic of these places and their characters remain the greatest appeal of the game.
A Phenomenal Soundtrack
Fantastic music has come to become a staple within Kingdom Hearts for good reason, balancing the abundance of influences within each individual Disney universe in tangence with a new sound direction to underscore the melding of two disparate franchises in Disney and Final Fantasy triumphantly, and nearly every installment has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to satisfy and exceed expectations.
Put briefly, Kingdom Hearts III provides a compelling argument to be labeled the musical king of its series, featuring original remixes of classic tracks and contemporary interpretations of music for its Disney universes, with a recollection of the series best for its biggest narrative moments. Within each world, there are often two music tracks allocated for the majority of its runtime: one exploratory theme and one battle theme. Both are firmly tailored to capture the atmosphere within each world. Looking along the lines of Toy Story, a brand-new instrumental remix of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” accompanies Sora and his gang as they travel outside of Andy’s house towards Galaxy Toys. Battle themes attempt to meld a sense of urgency with thrill when the Heartless or Nobodies appear on screen, with the intention of bolstering excitement within the player as they cut through enemy after enemy.
Yet, no soundtrack that labels itself as original to Kingdom Hearts lacks a contribution from Hikaru Utada, the acclaimed musician responsible for lending her voice to the iconic main themes for Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, better known as “Simple and Clean” and “Sanctuary” respectively. For the purpose of Kingdom Hearts III, Utada is solely responsible for writing and performing the ending theme “Don’t Think Twice”, but also collaborates with Skrillex and Poo Bear for the opening theme “Face My Fears”. Comparatively, “Don’t Think Twice” opts to provide a somber resolution to the series, poignantly reflecting upon Utada’s connection and journey with the series, while Face My Fears hopes to rekindle the passion that series veterans have vested in Kingdom Hearts for years.
And while it took some time to finally grow on me, both songs left a grand, lasting impression capable of underscoring the emotionally touching scenes that it accompanies. They further cement the impact that Utada has left upon the identity and importance of Kingdom Hearts within gaming culture, with optimistic expectations arising for its future.
Even if Kingdom Hearts III (or prior games in the franchise) fail to spark interest on its premise alone, there remain a multitude of locations to listen to specific tracks throughout the series history that certainly sustain a great range of appeal for audiences of numerous musical preferences.
The Mess of Kingdom Hearts
Style Over Substance
Since the release of Kingdom Hearts II, the series went in a largely concerning direction as a direct result of the experimentation in future installments that were deemed controversial. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep introduced the Command System alongside the Command Deck, providing a greater array of situational commands tied to cooldown charges. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance attempted to establish a new movement system in Flowmotion that largely gave the player extreme momentum and versatility offensively and defensively, which greatly downplayed any semblance of challenge that existed with the various enemies introduced.
As a result, the expectation became that Kingdom Hearts III would be a culmination of the series’ best elements from past iterations. And that notion fulfilled itself in some capacity, with the traditional combat system featured in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, rooted within specific foundations from Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance. Having played the game from start to finish, it certainly nails the fun factor. Yet it lacks something quite crucial to the core Kingdom Hearts experience: challenge.
For transparency, I initially did a playthrough of Kingdom Hearts III on the “Standard” difficulty despite my experience with the franchise. This is a result of a personal belief that a game is most consistent mechanically and fundamentally at its normal setting, as it represents the ideal experience that the game developers intended for the average player. Additionally, Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II retained demanding challenge in certain sections of a playthrough at its Standard difficulty that required mastery of its combat mechanics to fully prepare one for the trials ahead.
Unfortunately, Kingdom Hearts III misses the target here by a painfully long shot, almost wholly as a result of the dominating power of Keyblade Transformations and Situation Commands capable of obliterating enemies with virtually no consequence; they are not only too powerful, but too numerous and too accessible.
Gaining access to most Situation Commands is straightforward: attack enemies with melee and magic to fill an arrow-shaped gauge. Depending on the tactics used, various commands outside of Keyblade Transformations will show up. As an example, using the Fire spell multiple times may activate a grand magic command with higher damage output. Certain enemies will have a green reticle around their body, which if attacked will instantly trigger the ability to summon an attraction ride, perhaps the commands that provide the greatest amount of protection while dishing out massive damage.
I should also elaborate upon the capabilities of the various Keyblades apart from transformations. Each Keyblade features two to three “shotlocks” depending on the use of the Focus gauge, which slows down time to target enemies and unleash a rapid flurry of blasts upon enemies. The actual transformation sequences of the Keyblades still deliver damage throughout the animation, even though you’re essentially immune. Magic holds a viable range of options, from summoning lightning to recovering health. Most Keyblades are fashioned after the Disney worlds you visit, prompting a massive arsenal of combinations to utilize in combat given their unique characteristics. Not to mention, there also exist Link commands that often summon iconic characters like Ariel and Simba to take center stage and participate in the battle under your control.
Throughout my main playthrough, I only used the Link commands twice because I found magic to be potent enough, but knowing that I was never prompted to demo them, even if there were multiple at my disposal. They never became a necessity in battle, a trump card to avoid death, because I am not exaggerating when I state that I did not die once during the main campaign, nor did I ever fear such a possibility; enough options are thrown at the player without scaling the difficulty to accomodate their potency. This is not something that would easily be remedied through a playthrough on the Proud difficulty, and I guarantee that the sentiment would remain consistent regardless.
Without challenge, there exists no incentive to achieve mastery of the game, no opportunity to test one’s skills against formidable opposition. In its place, the game distracts you with the flashiest combos and techniques with the hopes of providing sheer entertainment. The spectacle is certainly authentic in execution, but its implementation cannot satisfy the void left in its wake.
An “Unsatisfying” Conclusion
Some may have expected more elaboration upon the failings of Kingdom Hearts III, but that solely resorts to disclosing massive spoilers, so perhaps I must end off this post in the same manner that the game wraps up: unsatisfying.
Put shortly, it provides ample setup to continue the series beyond the current saga of Kingdom Hearts, but can leave some of its most dedicated players cheated out of a conclusive end in its entirety. Think back to the context I provided near the introduction: people have been waiting for a true sequel since 2005. Additionally, Kingdom Hearts as a franchise started back in 2002, meaning that nearly seventeen years have passed.
Even the gap between the announcement of Kingdom Hearts III and its release was a significant wait. Five and a half years. Sixty-six months. Two thousand seventy-five days. With such anticipation, prospects become exaggerated, anticipation swells beyond feasible belief. Players expect works of perfection that are nearly unachievable, but developers can also lack foresight into the obligations placed upon them to achieve. Announcing Kingdom Hearts III so early was clearly a mistake, but one that Square Enix has failed to properly learn from, as was seen with Final Fantasy XV (once Final Fantasy Versus XIII) and as we are witnessing with Final Fantasy VII Remake.
And as many would argue, Final Fantasy XV was a victim of its treacherous development cycle, and Kingdom Hearts III appears to have fallen within the same boat, albeit a smaller scale. This game feels like a coordinated effort of passion and effort poured into countless aspects of the game, visual and audio presentation alike, but featuring misguided efforts in arguably the most important foundation of Kingdom Hearts (the gameplay) that ultimately leave the game in a strange place.