It is hard to explain the magic behind Kingdom Hearts as a series. It started immediately as two mainline games and one spin-off that originated on a handheld but later evolved into something extremely convoluted and with a story spread across a dozen different games. There is a good reason the story and multiple complicated timelines of Kingdom Hearts series get mocked by the gaming community, but it is often overshadowed by some great character design and character development, which is where the narrative excels at despite many spin-off games.
Kingdom Hearts III culminates the Dark Seeker saga that began all the way back with the Kingdom Hearts Unchained mobile game. Confused? Not really. It was a mobile game that released years later after Kingdom Hearts 2 launched, but it carries some key plot points that hold the story together. Sadly to get to most of the story content, you will have to spend a considerable amount of time on it. Which is why you can skip it altogether and settle on a recap video.
To get a better idea of the story, you will have to either watch lengthy story recaps or play through the six different games and watch cutscenes for the rest of them. This is why there is a collection available to play before diving into Kingdom Hearts III and it is appropriately labeled as “The Story So Far” since it is basically the complete Kingdom Hearts story condensed in a single package across the dozen of games.
I have been a fan of the series since I played the first two Kingdom Hearts game and even tried my hand with the GameBoy Advance spin-off that was apparently pretty important to the story leading into the sequel. To prepare for Kingdom Hearts III, I decided to refresh memory and watched multiple recaps to get a fresh new perspective on the series. If I am being honest here, they weren’t making it much clear for me as I started Kingdom Hearts III but they are still essential nonetheless.
The game offers a memory archive feature for this exact reason but honestly, it is more of a speedy recap that only explains the story in bullet points and you miss out on a lot the important story beats. To further add to the confusion, the epilogue is not available on disc and needs a day one update. There is a secret movie that teases the future direction for this franchise and while I won’t spoil it, it was a part of another post-launch update.
That’s enough about the story now lets talk about the gameplay. Kingdom Hearts III has taken a lot of elements from its predecessor and added plenty of new mechanics to the combat. Battles are all real-time with a menu that you can navigate using the directional buttons. It is something that you won’t have to do much, thanks to the ability to assign shortcuts to magic or items. The action-based combat system works beautifully offering smooth animation and the ability to dodge and parry attacks. It is an excellent combat system but with one major drawback that stops it from becoming the best in the series.
The new addition to Kingdom Hearts III combat is reaction commands that pop up most often. There are various forms of reaction commands. Some will transform your keyblade, others will trigger a team ability, and some offer a powerful version of the standard magic spells. The most annoying ones are the Disney rides that will lead to an animation playing out when you trigger them. You can skip this animation of course but the Disney rides can often lead to weird camera cuts and awkward controls that don’t work in a small enclosed space.
The main issue that I had with Kingdom Hearts III is that it is far too easy on the standard difficulty setting. It wouldn’t be this way if there was no flaw in the game balance, but in its current state, there are many powerful reaction commands that will tempt you to use them during combat and the enemy difficulty itself is beginner friendly unless you are playing on proud. Your partner AI is fairly competent this time, which is good because they were terrible in the previous games. This also means that you will get cured instantly as your health starts to drop to low.
Kingdom Hearts III also ditches the Final Fantasy characters to focus on Disney worlds. This is the first time the series has added Pixar’s Toy Story, which is apparently a big deal for the game director Tetsuya Nomura. There was a lot of effort spent to make each Disney world display its own unique identity and this shows with the graphics engine. Each Disney world feels alive with some nice open environments to traverse. You will mostly see a rehash of the same story taken from the movies with cutscenes that are painstakingly rendered again and look quite impressive. It is just that there is not a lot of unique story content in them and the way the story unfolds in the beginning, the game has a rather slow pace which starts to improve as you approach the end.
Exploration is greatly helped by the flowmotion system that also integrates smoothly in combat. You can run on walls, jump on trees or warp to specific points by targeting with your keyblade. The maps are not that open and there is usually some linearity that exists within them so don’t expect to see an open world game here. It is still a step up from the previous games so there’s that. I did find it annoying how the game showed that there was some path but you end up hitting some invisible boundary line. It is especially bad in Twilight Town with the reduced scope of the city itself, which is a shame honestly.
The visuals in Kingdom Hearts III are best described in one word: Flawless. They are spectacular and the performance is great in combat, at least, on the Xbox One X. Technically, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels and plays really well but there are still some flaws that you will start to notice the more time you spend with the game. The frame rate is good but it is not exactly rock-solid so there will be some performance issues but that will be only noticeable if you are sensitive to the unlocked frame rate. There is a choice to pick locked 30 FPS or unlocked frame rate and I wouldn’t recommend picking 30 FPS since they completely ruin the experience.
There are mini-games too like cooking with Remy the Rat or playing classic Games and Watch style games based on Disney properties. The biggest one is the gameplay portion involving a Gummi Ship. This makes a return here in an expanded state adding several new features and open space to traverse. It is mostly used to travel between the different worlds but you can unlock fast travel later. There are now a lot of heartless to fight, upgrades to do, and treasures to find. You can get some nice synthesis items by exploring with the Gummi Ship. Sadly for me, I was never a fan of this particular gameplay mechanic so in most cases, I simply rushed to the next world and only did the bare minimum to survive since there will be boss fights too.
Coming to the conclusion, let me make it clear, I absolutely adored Kingdom Hearts III. It might be the best game in the series in my opinion. After watching the epilogue and the secret ending, I am more excited to see what Tetsuya Nomura can do with the series. It was a long wait, but one that has been worth it so far. If you are a fan of Kingdom Hearts, then don’t hesitate or get intimidated by the convoluted story. Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t hold it back offering you a magical world full of some great characters and fantastic gameplay.
Kingdom Hearts III Review (Xbox One)
Game Reviewed on: Xbox One
Game description: Kingdom Hearts III is an action role-playing game developed and published by Square Enix for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It is the twelfth installment in the Kingdom Hearts series, a sequel to Kingdom Hearts II, and the final chapter in the Dark Seeker saga.
Final Score - 9.5/10
Kingdom Hearts III is a visual spectacle that presents playable versions of the various Disney worlds in a way that has never been attempted by a video game. It has a convoluted story that might confuse newcomers but once you dig deeper into it, there is a surprising amount of depth underneath it backed by a refreshing combat system.