Kingdom Hearts 3 Review: A Flawed, Emotional, Ode To Joy, Pixar-Style
The moment Kingdom Hearts 3 gave me control of Sora in Andy’s Room from Toy Story, my eyes started to fill up with tears.
There was no particular trigger for this. No existential angst being thrown in my face. No looming threat for any characters I’ve cared about for decades. I was just existing vicariously in a space I’ve always dreamed of exploring. I was given free reign to scale the cloud-laden wallpaper walls that I recreated in my own room as a child, and saw the space ranger duvet on Andy’s bad indent with every step I took.
It moved me in a peculiar way that few works of art ever have before, a resonance stemming from the finely detailed work of multiple talented artists and designers who have put their heart and soul into a virtual space.
It was an appreciation for passion, an overwhelming, purgative audio-visual moment that reached down deep into the depths of my inner child and gave me a warm hug. I will likely never forget it. It was the first place I raced back to when I rounded out Kingdom Hearts 3’s 40-hour story, as I just wanted to exist in that space for as long as I could.
This emotional magic is something that pervades Kingdom Hearts 3, and is what makes it such a spellbinding game from start to finish. Yet, it’s certainly not without its gripes, which are mostly due to its architecture, and the things that the series is most famous (and infamous) for.
It’s an incredibly generous game, almost too generous, for reasons I will dwell on later, and I suppose that makes sense, considering that fans have been waiting for a mainline sequel for nearly 14 years. In that sense, it can be abrasive to those who aren’t drinking the Kingdom Kool-Aid.
There’s a lot of moving parts for the die-hard fans, but if you’re a newcomer, there’s an evil man named Xehanort who wants to use Kingdom Hearts (a giant source of light) for his evil deeds, and he has to assemble 13 vessels to battle the seven guardians of light to fulfill a prophecy and make it happen. The story follows Sora, one of those guardians, as he attempts to assemble the remaining guardians to meet Xehanort’s vessels for one final, resolute scrap.
As per usual in any Kingdom Hearts game, this involves traversing through several worlds based on Disney properties before the real story kicks off. In this particular game, Square Enix has managed to wrangle blockbuster titles like the aforementioned Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Frozen and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as more cult hits like Big Hero Six.
The bread and butter of this game will involve you travelling to one of these locations, disrupting and developing the plot of that movie with a couple of interruptions from the bad guys bubbling away in the background. This means you can split the game into two acts, Disney and Kingdom Hearts. Once you make it through the Disney worlds, you get to the real meat of the experience, the final battles and subsequent answers that the veteran fans have been begging for more than a decade.
The Disney worlds, on a whole, are hit or miss, but the most important thing is that they all offer something incredibly fresh that works with the I.P in a meaningful way. The Caribbean, for example, has a fully fledged, totally optional pirate ship exploration map, where you can hunt for treasure and live out your swashbuckling dreams.
The ship combat is delightful, and the photorealism is stunning. In Monstropolis, you ride the rails in the door depository, turning the game into an on-rails shooter.
In Toy Box, you pilot Evangelion-style toy mech suits and trample on your Heartless foes. Visually, it’s stunning, especially in upscaled 4K on the PS4 Pro. Even the most pointless textures are detailed, the colours are vibrant and the enemy designs are varied and intricate.
Sora and his sidekicks Donald and Goofy transform from their usual selves into rickety toys and scary monsters to fit the mise en scene, and their bantering with the inhabitants of each world is genuinely funny and well-written at points (Hamm from Toy Story, after being trapped in a doll’s house, calls it a ‘Dread-and Breakfast’) but it’s not out of the woods as far as Kingdom hearts is concerned.
There are plenty of dead silences, odd laughs and unexpected emotions coming out of the characters. If you’ve played a Kingdom Hearts game before you’ll know this is par for the course, but it sadly undermines some of the new properties.
You expect these iconic characters to sound and perform a certain way, and even when the voice actors are in tow, there’s a strange robotic feeling during certain engagements that age the game when you compare it to the more cinematic titles of the last few years. When they’re not, it’s laughably bad (just wait till you hear Elizabeth Swann.)
Like I’ve mentioned, it’s very much hit or miss, some of the emotional beats from the related Disney stories land, but many don’t, or are ruined by the intrusion of one of the many dispensable side enemies that appear to deliver half-truths every so often. Once you’ve seen the first one you pray every following encounter, but it never is. It doesn’t matter if it’s Marluxia or Braig, or whoever they throw into the mix, when they appear to say something, it’s mostly inconsequential until you reach the second act.
Aside from the main missions, the Gummi Ship sections are back for the moments in-between, and it could well be its own game. I’ve spent more hours than I’d like to admit exploring space, unlocking new parts and fighting heartless mobs in Galaga-esque fashion, trying to create the perfect aircraft. It’s like Resogun mixed with the open world of Starlink: Battle for Atlas.
It’s utter madness, and totally unnecessary, but as someone who hated the Gummi Ship in previous instalments, I’ve been well and truly converted. There’s also the Little Chef Bistro, a cooking mini game with Remy from Ratatouille, who is strangely lacking a voice actor? Regardless, it still offers a fun challenge, and completing his menu with ingredients you find in special spots in the Disney worlds is a dangerously addicting side hustle.
Combat is back with a bang, and the Flowmotion system fixes the traversal problems that plagued prior games in the series. When Sora glides into poles he can swing around them, ride on rails and run up most walls to get a vertical advantage on his unfortunate opponents. You can keep yourself in the air most of the time, and you don’t feel too jostled by the camera unless you’re on-rails. The new form changes also feel fantastic, with each keyblade offering world-appropriate powerups. The weapons feel built with love, down to the clanking metal of the Monsters Inc. keyblade and the accompanying Boo keychain.
Yet, the Disney attraction-based Formchanges are often the most exciting additions. Splash Run situates Sora, Donald and Goofy on a river rapids ride where you paint a water track and follow it back around before it ends in a conclusive splash, dealing mega-damage.You can ride a tidal wave into enemies whilst captaining the Black Pearl and use Mike Wazowksi as a bowling ball to clear a wave of foes. Enough said.
When you bring the baggage of the endless games that precede this one into the final mix, the Disney melodrama can also feel disconnected from the urgency of the plot. Sora’s friends are trapped or doomed and the final battle is on its way, but Sora always has time to help find Olaf’s missing body parts for half an hour or play superhero with the Big Hero Six gang.
Square Enix’s commitment to tell every story from each of the worlds in full is certainly admirable (there’s a full recreation of the Let it Go music video in this game, for crying out loud) but it can be a bit too bloated at times, and you’ll start to crave the drip-feed of actual plot content, perhaps running past a few non-essential mobs to push the story forward.
I wouldn’t blame you for it, because when you get there, best believe it puts all of its cards on the table and rewards you with one of the most satisfying, emotional and adrenaline-pumping final acts of any JRPG I’ve ever played. It’s long but it’s never boring, and it might not provide the answers the die-hard fans are begging to hear, but as you may recall, the epilogue and the secret video are being added to the game post-launch, so even I’m in the dark about this games real ending.
I do not want to dwell on it to save some of this game’s finest moments, but let's just say that even though the real epilogue isn’t here, by the end of it, my hands were shaking with adrenaline and my face was an utter picture.I needed to go lie down for an hour just to take it all in.
The stakes are higher than ever before, and it’s chock-full of electrifying theatrics and death-defying set pieces that will inspire euphoria in any player, especially if you’re a fan.
Something that struck me near the end of my playthrough is the feeling that this is very much the Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots of the Kingdom Hearts series. It’s massive, unwieldy and far too generous, and packed to the brim with long cutscenes.
Unlike MGS4, you have to be ready to usher out your inner child to get the most out of Kingdom Hearts 3, but it definitely mitigates this process with its charming characters, obsessive but enrapturing world design and pervading feeling of joy that is almost impossible to escape.
There were points where I’d open up my save game and feel like I’m pushing against a brick wall in one of the more underwhelming worlds, but all it would take is a daft quip from Donald Duck or a bantering cutscene to bring a goofy smile to my face. A meaningful switch in gameplay is never too far away either, which often helped give me the spirit to push forward when the repetition started to bother me.
Kingdom Hearts 3 – 4/5
– Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro
This is a game that wants to delight you. It is unapologetically hopeful, like nothing I’ve ever played, offering a seemingly endless font of positivity that is difficult to ignore. Alas, it is still very much a Kingdom Hearts game, and the staunchly unwavering architecture of it is felt in every U.I element and cutscene. Though, when the final curtain called and I was watching the credits, I really didn’t want to leave. It dug its hooks into me and I’m still not free. I’m still here, hunting for hidden mickeys in Arendelle and diving into the ocean to find seafood for the Little Chef Bistro. I imagine, if you’re open to it, you’ll be the same as me. It’s certainly not perfect, but Kingdom Hearts 3 does more than enough to please the legions of die-hard fans and will no doubt convert an entire new generation, as long as they’re ready to let their inner child out for an introspective adventure with old friends.
• Faultless visuals that transform to meet the many inspired worlds
• Flowmotion and clever Formchanges make for the best Kingdom Hearts combat yet
• A spellbinding, deeply satisfying rollercoaster of a final act that will leave you an emotional wreck
• The inescapable feeling of joy baked into its DNA that embraces the inner child in all of us
• Voice-acting and cutscenes are hit or miss, and this undermines the appearance of some iconic Disney characters.
- PS4 News
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