It’s not an exaggeration to say that fans have been waiting ages for Kingdom Hearts 3. The Square Enix and Disney collaborative crossover Action-RPG first made waves when Kingdom Hearts launched on the PS2 in 2002. What started out as a bizarre fusion of Disney and Final Fantasy turned out to be a captivating story of love, trust, and the strength of true friendship. Then the GBA spinoff Chain of Memories was released, and since then the series has been infamous within JRPG circles for having a plot that seemed to only get more convoluted as time went on. A game with Goofy and Donald fighting alongside the spiky-haired anime boy Sora had no business having an overarching mythos centered around themes of human experimentation, existentialism, the futility of war, and the loss of your loved ones, but Kingdom Hearts achieved the absurd feat of tackling such serious subject matter while having Mickey Mouse deliver the line “Did somebody mention the Door to Darkness?” and a rage-filled promise of vengeance (in his signature silly little falsetto) within a short few scenes of each other.
It’s no wonder that Kingdom Hearts 3 has taken so long to show up; in the series’s 17 year long history, the third mainline entry in the franchise has a lot of heavy lifting to do plot-wise. Picking up almost immediately where Dream Drop Distance (Nintendo 3DS, 2012) left off, our hero Sora lost most of his powers in the previous game’s climax. Now, racing against the forces of darkness, Sora must rediscover his lost strength and gain the mysterious Power of Waking while Riku and King Mickey track down the missing guardians of the light before the evil master Xehanort and his new Organization XIII can complete their plan – all while the witch Maleficent and his lackey Pete have machinations of their own.
Yes, this game’s story is a bit weird.
Kingdom Hearts 3 features possibly the most action-oriented combat system seen so far in the series. While not tailored to continuous, resource-less casting like in Birth By Sleep, the combat is defined by the new reaction command system. Performing certain actions in combat, such as filling a gauge with melee attacks and spells, or hitting highlighted enemies, cause additional commands to appear above the command menu. By pressing Triangle with the appropriate command highlighted, Sora can perform highly damaging and very flashy maneuvers that make Kingdom Hearts 3 as fun to watch as it is to play. Grand Magics, rewarded for landing consistent spellcasts, give you one free spellcast a tier above your current magic’s element. Form changes allow Sora to transform his keyblade into different weapons, such as a shield for countering heavy attacks, a pair of guns for raining down a barrage of bullets, or a staff that lets him fire lasers and create damaging copies of himself. Team attacks can happen at any time and provide a much-needed burst of damage in the middle of encounters. Finally, there are attract commands – highly-damaging minigames based off famous Disney theme park rides such as pirate ships or roller coasters that can deal with large amounts of enemies at once. Supplementing the wealth of combat options, Sora’s foes now come at him in greater numbers, frequently spawning several waves in single encounters so you don’t just blow everything away with one well-timed Aeroza.
The game’s worlds feel like a step up from the previous worlds in the series. No longer bound by the Disney 2D canon, many of Kingdom Hearts 3’s worlds are from the 3D animation age. Iconic locales and stories are either retold to fit Sora in it or take place after the end of their films, with original scenarios and perspectives keeping things fresh – and with current-generation hardware, each zone is many times bigger than in any previous game. Alongside this, each world seems to have its own unique gameplay style to keep things fresh between combat encounters, from the cover to cover laser avoidance and firefighting duties in Monsters Inc.’s Monstropolis to running around the pseudo-open world of Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo. It’s very hard to predict whether or not Sora will be placed right in the thick of the respective world’s conflict, subverting your expectations in nearly every level. Even ones that play the plot almost entirely straight, like in Frozen’s Arendelle or Tangled’s Kingdom of Corona subvert expectations, often in over-the-top ways.
Kingdom Hearts 3 feels like the most beginner-friendly entry in the series to date. Kingdom Hearts 1’s storyline may have been relatively simple, but the gameplay has not aged well at all. Its sequel, Kingdom Hearts 2, required the player’s investment in both the first entry and Chain of Memories to make sense of the plot and the motivations of the mysterious Organization XIII. In 3, Sora’s penchant for losing his memories is abused frequently as a means to reintroduce returning characters and concepts while being a convenient vehicle for other characters explaining the complicated backstory.
This isn’t to say that it could alienate returning fans; as someone who’s only played 1, 2, and the PSP spinoff/prequel Birth By Sleep, I was intimidated by the backlog of story I missed out on. Luckily, enough exposition filled in the gaps without feeling like someone reading a plot synopsis. At the same time, there’s plenty of nostalgia to go around. Many tracks from the first two games make a triumphant reprisal with remastered and re-orchestrated instrumentals. My personal favorite is how the incredibly flashy Attraction Commands are accompanied by the battle music from the first game’s first real area. The game’s original tracks are bangers, too, ranging from the soft melodic stylings of an instrumental You’ve Got A Friend In Me from Toy Story to peppy synthpop to the classic Pirates of the Caribbean theme.
All in all, Kingdom Hearts 3 is shaping up to be one of the biggest titles of 2019. I certainly enjoyed every moment I had playing the latest installment to Testuya Nomura’s wild ride, and I’m certain hardcore Kingdom Hearts fans and casual fans will find something to enjoy.