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Game Review

by Callum May,

Kingdom Hearts III

PlayStation 4

Kingdom Hearts III

Your impressions of Kingdom Hearts III are almost entirely shaped by how much experience you've had with the series thus far. Or how you felt about each entry. Zipping around Disney, Pixar and original Kingdom Hearts worlds, Sora seeks to find a resolution to seven previous titles worth of character stories to finally conclude the saga. Overall, it's a stunning accomplishment.

Resolutions form the core of Kingdom Hearts III, not just in regards to the combat, but within the gameplay as well, forming a game filled with references to previous titles. As I said before, how you value these references will determine whether this is a game where characters finally learn to recognise their own self-worth, or if it's a game about travelling through Disney properties, occasionally interrupted with some nonsense about “hearts” and “darkness”.

I don't think it's unfair to say that Kingdom Hearts III is exactly the game that fans expected it to be. Instead of introducing a new unexpected story, the game follows directly after the events of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance where Sora has just been made aware of Xehanort's new plans. It's possibly the quickest entry into a Kingdom Hearts title yet, setting aside the menial tasks of the previous two numbered entries' opening moments and sending you straight into the familiar Disney world of Hercules.

Whilst the stated theme of Kingdom Hearts III is “resolutions”, I can't help but rephrase that to “finding happiness”. Everything from the character writing (which either through the original script or localisation, has improved massively) to the bright new visuals emphasises absolute joy. Any other game would find it difficult to balance the looming threat of Xehanort with a casual exploration of San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6, but despite what people say about Kingdom Hearts' convoluted writing, the main goal of the series is (to put it in the words of Marie Kondo) to spark joy.

Somehow, this genuinely makes up for the lack of an original plot. Those who have played all of the titles since Kingdom Hearts II will understand that there really isn't much room for new enemies to be introduced or new conflicts to arise. The appeal instead comes from focusing on individual Disney and Pixar worlds and having them play larger roles within the story. Kingdom Hearts III has the least Disney worlds of all the numbered titles, yet it makes up for this by having the player spend longer in these worlds and giving them more to do. Whether it's the mini-games, excellent pre-rendered cutscenes (such as Let it Go from Frozen) or a whole bunch of collectibles, it'll take much longer until you can say “I don't have a reason to come back here.”

That said, the biggest problem with the Disney worlds don't come from the game itself, but rather, its marketing. Kingdom Hearts III is a much anticipated title that has the full backing of both Disney and Square Enix, so it was clear that they needed to show off as much of the appeal as possible. That said, it left the player with little surprises. Not only did we know all of the worlds that would feature in the game, but we were also made aware on some level of what stories would be told within these worlds. I even tried to stop watching trailers at one point entirely, but even walking past a tech store in Shibuya managed to spoil me on a major moment near the end of the game. It's because of this that I had multiple moments of “Wait, is that it?”, thinking there were more Disney worlds or a longer ending because I was already aware of so much of it. In reality, there was plenty to chew through, but it's harder to accept that when we've spent 2018 watching many of the best parts.

That said, there still were some surprises left, although it's unfortunate that so many of them had to be stacked together in the last world. Kingdom Hearts III makes an effort to mix together the overarching plot with the Disney worlds to an extent, but it's careful to respect and retain the charm of these films. This means that a lot of the events that lead up to the final battle take place in cutscenes between the worlds. There's no feeling of accomplishment when the events of games like 358/2 Days resolves themselves with no input from the player. It just feels like Sora had a great time hanging out with his friends for a while but eventually had to get called back to work.

More importantly, it leads to a loaded final segment of the game with so many resolutions that they start to feel tiresome. As someone who absolutely loved Birth By Sleep, it was heartwarming to see that game finally reach a conclusive ending. But because it was placed between similarly heartwarming scenes that concluded other games in the series, it all felt abrupt and sudden, as if it was rushing to get things finished. This meant that the impact of a lot of these moments fizzled and some characters, especially the female cast, feel utterly wasted.

But even though many of the plot beats were expected, Square Enix had managed to keep the sheer breadth of these worlds a secret. There are at least three worlds that I'd say could be expanded into their own independent games. You only get a slice of these in the main game, but Kingdom Hearts III is a title where post-game is a huge part of the appeal. Searching for hidden collectibles will not only give you the chance to see the game's secret movie, but also give you the opportunity to explore the game's large open worlds. Any qualms I had with the game's scope and length were immediately shattered during post-game, which can add an extra 15 hours of battles, mini-games and collecting.

I mentioned earlier that the combat represents a resolution as well as the story. By this, I mean that several gameplay systems from previous titles are a part of Sora's Kingdom Hearts III arsenal. It makes a huge change from the first entry, where your priorities were getting new keyblades and finding spells. Instead, you'll find that team combo attacks, amusement attacks (based on famous Disneyland rides) and keyblade transformations will be your bread-and-butter for taking down any enemy. These new mechanics are added to classic ideas such as Shotlock from Birth By Sleep and Flowmotion from Dream Drop Distance. The only issue is that it's just slightly too much.

There are some battles that will be settled entirely with the triangle button as Sora goes through a sequence of mega-powerful attacks. It does succeed in making Sora feel powerful and each battle exciting, but there's too many times when I felt nostalgic for the tense battles of the first Kingdom Hearts. The point where I discovered that you could use the opening animations of some of these special moves to avoid oncoming attacks instead of having to block or dodge was the point where I felt that Sora had maybe a bit too much up his sleeves. Even something small like making amusement attacks rarer would have solved this issue where the player cycles through powerful special attacks.

It's hard to talk about the appeal of Kingdom Hearts III without mentioning how the visuals have evolved. Even in regards to the real-time gameplay running in Unreal Engine 4, the team at Square Enix have turned combat into a party. Bright effects, transforming weapons and gleeful animation make Sora one of my favourite characters to play as in a video game. The team at Square Enix have made sure that during battle, we still see plenty of opportunities to witness Sora's enthusiastic personality. One of my favourite examples of this is when he hops inside a mech in the Toy Story world with a massive grin on his face. It's a reminder that Sora isn't just a player avatar, he's dumb, happy and fun.

This also comes out in the in-game cutscenes, which now look better than even the pre-rendered cutscenes from Kingdom Hearts 2. The character animation was coordinated with teams at Disney and Pixar to accomplish a game where it genuinely feels like we, as the players, are entering into these Disney properties. Even long-time companions Donald Duck and Goofy move in ways that are more evocative of classic Disney animation. The first Kingdom Hearts game had stunning animation for an Action RPG, but Kingdom Hearts III has demonstrated that not only are they able to take on new challenges, but they are able to improve on old accomplishments as well.

Although, when speaking about new challenges, it would be remiss to not mention Kingdom Hearts' pre-rendered material. These are movies produced by Square Enix Visual Works, the in-house team for developing cinematics and opening movies for titles published by Square Enix. They're mainly known for their work in realistic CG, stemming from their revolutionary attempt at photorealism in 2000 with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Although that attempt was a commercial failure, Kingdom Hearts III's attempt at recreating the climax to Pirate of the Caribbean: At World's End serves as a taunt to anyone who might've doubted their attempts. Some characters, like Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swann still feel a bit uncanny, but the overall scene itself is legendary. This, and their many other pre-rendered movies demonstrate a bright future for Square Enix CGI and prove that they're not far behind their colleagues at Pixar and Disney Animation.

Kingdom Hearts III is both a technical accomplishment and an achievement in delivering the purest form of “happiness” through the many elements of a video game. I spent 25 hours with a huge grin on my face and that's something I won't forget quickly. Despite all of my problems with the pacing and marketing, it's some of the most fun I've had with a video game. I'm currently in the middle of trying to get a Platinum trophy, but not for any sort of bragging rights. Rather, I just needed an excuse to spend more time in these worlds, discovering every side of this game before I can honestly say I've experienced it all.

The future of Kingdom Hearts is a bright one. Previous plotlines have reached their conclusion and Sora is ready to go on a brand new adventure. Some of what's to come has been teased in the mobile game Kingdom Hearts Unchained x, whilst other baffling revelations appeared in the post-credits sequence and secret movie (If you want to know what I'm referring to, look at the first letter of every sentence in the first two paragraphs).

After Kingdom Hearts 2, Square Enix gained more trust with Disney and it seems that relationship has only gotten stronger in Kingdom Hearts 3. Whatever the team chooses to make next within the series, we can expect that everyone from Visual Works, to the collaborators at Disney and Pixar will defend the series' title as the most ambitious games franchise.

Overall : A
Graphics : A+
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : A
Presentation : A-

+ Sora is more fun than ever to play, incredibly impressive CGI, worlds are unique and satisfying to explore
Narrative pacing is awkward and rushed, some characters don't get their due, too much revealed in marketing

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