The last numbered game in the Kingdom Hearts series came out 15 years ago. Since then, we’ve had spinoffs, prequels, sequels, and rereleases that each added to the already complicated narrative. Some of those games were fun, and a couple of them were almost big enough to qualify as part of the main series. But none of them were Kingdom Hearts 3. No, we had to wait until 2019 for a fully featured game that would somehow tie up all of the many, many story threads of the series. I’ve been an avid fan of Kingdom Hearts since the beginning, and the game’s midnight release happened to occur on my birthday, so I was more than eager to get started.
For the most part, mechanics are pretty much the same as in Kingdom Hearts 2, at least as far as I remember. The most significant change is that Sora has a lot of new ways to attack. He can equip three keyblades at a time (not simultaneously), each with different stats and unique forms that turn them into a different kind of weapon. He has Grand Magic, team attacks, Shotlocks, and Attractions. The Attractions are really the standout:after hitting a certain highlighted enemy, you can summon colorful theme park attractions to attack your foes. Some of them are generic, but the most interesting Attractions for me are based on particular Disney theme park rides. Unfortunately, there are only 6 of these in total, but they add some variety to your attacks. Almost too much, actually; with all of the keyblades, forms, and various special attacks, it can feel a bit overwhelming at times. I usually completely forget that the Shotlock exists, for example. It’s better than the rather bland combat from Dream Drop Distance, at least, and it’s still a lot of fun to play. I’m happy to see the return of difficulty levels, but there are a few things you should know about them. First, you can’t change your mind after you choose. Second, the Standard Mode difficulty level is not too big a challenge. In general I don’t think it should be, but depending on your preference, you might want to take the leap to Proud Mode.
If things get too repetitive for you, don’t worry; some of the worlds in the game offer unique gameplay options. The world based on Pirates of the Caribbean will make you think you switched over to Assassin’s Creed 4 as you engage in naval combat and dive for treasure. The Toy Story section, meanwhile, resembles Titanfall with its heavy use of mechs. Both of these sections can be frustrating, as can the collection quests on which Sora is sent in a few instances. But I think the game is still better for them, and they can be a lot of fun. Let’s also not forget the largest example of alternate gameplay: the Gummi Ship. You can once again build your own ships from a wide variety of parts, and fight Heartless enemies while you travel between worlds. The big difference this time around is that this section doesn’t play like a rail shooter; instead, you can freely explore three hub areas in your ship. Outside of a couple of bosses, you don’t really have to fight any Heartless either. Rather than just battling in the hub areas (with some exceptions), you have to approach an enemy to start a battle segment that’s sort of a mix between Galaga and Star Fox. This section is a lot of fun when you get used to it, as is unlocking parts to customize your ship. Keep in mind, though, that you have to actively focus on it if you want to unlock more parts and options for your ship, and since very few battles are actually required to get through the game, you might not feel very rewarded for your accomplishments. By the time you build the gummi ship of your dreams, you may find you no longer need it.
Now that we’ve avoided it for as long as we can, let’s talk about the story. The plot of Kingdom Hearts was already infamously confusing from the first release, and it’s only become more and more complex with games released out of story order and the introduction of time travel. Whether you need to know all of the backstory going in depends on what kind of fan you are. If you really want to fully understand (as much as possible) every event in Kingdom Hearts 3, you will need to either play all of the games or watch a recap video. There’s one built in on the main menu, which is cool, but even it doesn’t tell you everything. In particular, it excludes an explanation that you would definitely need to understand a few really cool moments late in the game. In fact, it references a plot from the Kingdom Hearts mobile game that’s still ongoing. But not knowing the origin of every character and event won’t prevent you from enjoying Kingdom Hearts 3 overall, as they actually aren’t that important. As is typical for this series, you spend most of the game fighting enemies and interacting with characters in the Disney movie-based worlds, with the real plot not taking center stage until late in the game. I’m of two minds about that plot. On one hand, I appreciate that it manages to bring together all of these different characters and storylines from throughout the series in a way that’s relatively easy to follow (“relatively” being the key word.) It’s impressive, and rather surprising. Kingdom Hearts 3 does have a lot of plot threads you need to keep track of, but as long as you either know what happened in previous games or don’t care what happened in previous games, things will come together in a way that makes sense. On the other hand, I sort of expected more in certain areas. I realize this was probably necessary given the size of the cast, but some of the characters on the box art are barely involved at all, appearing only in the last few hours. A little more time spent on the non-Sora characters would be nice. And the biggest failure in storytelling here is that there’s not much of a reason for Sora and friends to be visiting the Disney movie worlds in the first place. The explanations were pretty sparse in previous games too, but especially within the plot and events of this finale, Sora’s time in those worlds seems to serve no purpose in the larger narrative.There are also several plot points that get resolved offscreen, including a few that the game spends a lot of time building up. There are even a couple of cliffhangers left for either the DLC or the next game, but they’re all very minor.
Speaking of the Disney worlds, that’s where the real fun of Kingdom Hearts comes in, despite their disconnect from the overall story. That’s why people have been able to enjoy these games so much despite their confusing plots. The choices this time might be surprising, as, with the exceptions of Hercules and Toy Story, they are all from more recent movies. But there is a good reason you won’t see many classic characters here, beyond the simple fact that the series has already used most of them, and it becomes clear as soon as you run into Hades in the Hercules world. When you try to bring established 2D characters with a defined look into modern 3D high definition graphics, it looks…weird. Granted, the main Disney trio look fine, but I imagine the developers had to design them specifically to fit in properly; it makes sense to use CGI movies instead of doing that for every character. The worlds and characters generally match their origins very well, and it is still a lot of fun to interact with them. While the storylines in some worlds follow the plot of the movie, most of them act as a sort of “sequel” to the original. Naturally, the latter are a lot more interesting, but they don’t necessarily have much of a story to follow. The worst implemented movie world is probably Frozen, which basically amounts to climbing a mountain, seeing a scene from the movie play out (which really shines a light on how much of a Mary Sue our main character is), falling off the mountain, then repeating this process. The most fun, meanwhile, is probably Pirates of the Carribean. It follows the plot of the third movie, and like the other movie plot-based sections, it will be confusing for those who haven’t seen the film. Despite that, it tells its story pretty well, and as I said previously, it probably has the most interesting gameplay.
So, where does all of that leave us? Good question. I really enjoy Kingdom Hearts 3, to the point that I wish it was a lot longer; interacting with Disney characters is always fun, and the gameplay has enough variety to keep me interested. The plot is as complex as ever and requires holding onto many narrative threads at once, but if you’re able to do so, it succeeds in the colossal task of securing all of the loose ends. I do wish there was a bit more to the main plot, and more content in the game to go with it, as some of the characters feel like afterthoughts. But then again, that would make the plot even more difficult to follow, so I guess one could look at it either way. At the very least, I can recommend the Kingdom Hearts series as a whole, and I can recommend Kingdom Hearts 3 to fans of the series. On its own it isn’t as good as its numbered predecessors in some areas, but it’s a fun culmination of the long-reaching story, and it manages to tie everything together without breaking your mind.