Jumping into Kingdom Hearts from the off must be a daunting experience. The numbered releases of the series are outnumbered by side-games, meaning that players who want to pick up the entirety of the story may want to put a project plan together to ensure they meet the requirements. Nonetheless, Kingdom Hearts 3 attempts to pull these strands together cohesively, all the while determined to push the series forward and towards a dramatic finale.
Kingdom Hearts 3 may have been in the pipeline for some time, but nonetheless the title doesn't feel like one that has struggled to be put together. Rather than a Frankenstein's monster of old and new ideas crammed into a neat package, Kingdom Hearts 3 recognises the 13 years it has been between numbered entries, and adapts accordingly. It manages to feel like the original Kingdom Hearts games, but also takes into account gaming improvements that have arrived over time.
In short, all the gameplay elements that made Kingdom Hearts a bizarre and unique experience back in the day remain here. Action-oriented JRPG gameplay is dropped into the twisting pathways of a generally linear story, complete with armies of weak enemies and damage-sponge bosses. Meanwhile, the true allure of Disney-themed levels and story arcs comes to life through the occasional unique game mode, breaking up the more traditional gameplay with mini-games and genre-defying bursts.
These moments are once again the best of the bunch, and Square Enix has done a tremendous job of delivering them. Kingdom Hearts 3 includes some extremely well-crafted worlds based around the best of recent Disney and Pixar titles. When the development team adds little extra snippets of gameplay framed around these moments, it's enough to bring out a kid-like joy, as if it tapped into childhood wishes for a game based around said property.
Perhaps the best example of this is the Toy Story world, called the Toy Box. Player character Sora is thrown into Andy's bedroom in toy form along with long-term compatriots Donald and Goofy, and then teams up with some of the Toy Story gang to go on a fun adventure to find their missing friends. Starting with the room itself, it's a great recreation of that well-known Pixar setting, before heading out into the wider world.
The gameplay within the Toy Box world is great, with mech-based segments alongside the traditional combat and the joy of being able to explore a toy store, complete with a host of fun new enemies. Most of the segments of Kingdom Hearts 3 work this way, though, from the colorful landscapes of the Kingdom of Corona from Tangled through to the frosty world of Arendelle from Frozen. In a way, these moments feel like a virtual Disneyland, with individual movies given their own spotlight, particularly with the Attraction attacks that emulate theme park rides.
Although this element of Kingdom Hearts 3 is hugely successful, the core gameplay isn't quite as perfect. It's still a lot of fun, but it is worth pointing out that the moments of bog standard combat, where Sora et al take on the forces of darkness that pop up within each movie world, aren't as gripping as some other modern games provide. It's not as engaging as top tier action RPG titles like God of War, lacking the fluidity that has come with other very recent releases – perhaps a hangover of just how long this game has been in development.
However, part of what works about Kingdom Hearts as a whole, and not just when it comes to gameplay, is that it allows players to choose how much they put into it. The core gameplay includes lots of intricacies and technical aspects to maintain, and this is true across different modes such as those weaker sections when flying through the larger galaxy on the Gummi Ship. However, in general players can still just bludgeon through the game on normal difficulty without delving into menus and more complex mechanics. This is a very strong part of Kingdom Hearts 3, and although the game deserves to be explored in this manner – not only is it a lot more fun but it also makes it less of a grind in combat – it's still good to know that those after a more casual experience can still hop on and enjoy it.
This flexibility is part of the major appeal of Kingdom Hearts 3, with the game allowing a degree of player control within its more linear, restrictive form. Yes, players will still follow the same path and complete the same levels as everyone else, but whereas some may simply sit back, press the main attack button and wait for the next cut scene, others will get more involved, diving into the mechanics as well as exploring the game to get the most out of its hidden collectibles or non-compulsory systems like cooking with Ratatouille's Remy to get temporary stat buffs.
By having a relaxed approach to player engagement, it turns what should be a niche product into one that is much more accessible. After all, Kingdom Hearts 3 is a weird game – much like the entire series. It's a teen drama formed around prophetic visions of the apocalypse, with its key heroes coming as beloved childhood characters. Yet, it all works, in spite of what rationally should be a chaotic bundle of clashing ideas.
Once again, this comes down to players getting out as much as they put it, although it's fair to say that Kingdom Hearts 3 does work at its best when its focus lies on being a playful RPG that pays attention to its source material. Sora's never-ending optimism that aligns with the LEGO Movie mantra that "everything is cool when you're part of a team" gels well with its hopping from place to place to meet fellow larger-than-life characters that players already know. It's a dip into a bubble bath of nostalgia, with the added bonus of it being a return to the Kingdom Hearts universe as a whole.
It doesn't always work, of course, with the introductory segment based around Disney's Hercules being an example of when the title doesn't quite feel natural. Dialogue with Herc is stilted, and the fast talking jabs of Hades fail to resonate when aimed at Sora, Goofy and Donald. Meanwhile, Megara's character seems very far from the quips of old, appearing briefly with an entirely mute Phil to tick off a box rather than add anything specific to the overall experience.
That's a rare misstep, though, and overall the tone of each Disney movie is replicated fairly well, albeit put through a Square Enix filter to help it work with the overall plot of the game. No characters quite match their silver screen counterparts, with the possible exception of Flynn Rider and Rapunzel from Tangled, but it's close enough for it to generally feel seamless. Meanwhile, the Pixar films work very well in the same setup, with Big Hero 6 working perfectly within the Kingdom Hearts universe.
The overall story is another example of something that shouldn't work – and, to be fair, in the minds of some does not. Even without the Disney elements, the plot of Kingdom Hearts is convoluted, with time travel, alternate dimensions, virtual realities, and ancient magicks thrown around with abandon over the course of 17 years. When Disney characters are thrown into the mix, it takes on the tone of a fever dream, and this is something that has never quite shifted from the series – and partly why it has become so captivating.
Those players who have only picked up the numbered entries, or who perhaps haven't been keeping tabs with the franchise since Kingdom Hearts 2 released, might find the prospect of this a bit daunting. After all, Kingdom Hearts doesn’t suffer fools lightly, and does expect players to understand what is going on relatively quickly. There's no dump of exposition to bring players up to speed, or at least not to the level that those who have been absent for some time may require. Nonetheless, it still works from a story perspective within the framework of Kingdom Hearts – just about. Reigning in the sprawling arcs of Kingdom Hearts is a major challenge, and while those who have never quite found the allure of the series will be as confused as ever, it will likely leave long-term fans happy.
At the end of the day, this is who Kingdom Hearts 3 is aimed at, too, and for the Kingdom Hearts fandom it's the kind of experience that will go down a treat. Newcomers will find it incredibly bizarre, and sometimes certain worlds or gameplay methods are more successful than others, but overall it's what fans will have been hoping for. A sprawling, varied game that is all the better for its wild, confusing moments.
Kingdom Hearts 3 releases January 29, 2019 for PS4 and Xbox One. Screen Rant was provided with a PS4 download code for the purposes of this review.