I wonder how many folks behind Kingdom Hearts 3 asked themselves that same question after the final product was in their hands. There are certainly few franchises with as much baggage as Kingdom Hearts, a franchise that I think started much differently than it ended. In 2002, Kingdom Hearts was the answer to Square Enix not having any real action games in their catalog. It was a delightful idea based on juxtaposition. Two directly opposed concepts it seems, Final Fantasy and Disney, coming to find something in the middle that truly spoke to fans of both. Typically, they were stories of hope, friendship, love, and the endless battle between light and dark. While Kingdom Hearts 3 is far less about the crossover between Final Fantasy and Disney, and far more about the foundation it’s taken its many, many years in the making to create, it’s all the better for it.
The pressure walking into the story of Kingdom Hearts is monumentous. This game defiantly states it is for the fans who took the time to invest in the journey. Kingdom Hearts, over eight games, has become a story about an estranged family of heroes who have been to hell and back. Through it all they still wish to do the right thing, to protect the innocent, and to fight back against the darkness. There is a clear choice in the worlds, the story, and the throughline of KH3 that was made: to stick to the story Kingdom Hearts desperately needed to finish rather than throw the juxtaposed-and-zippered Square characters at more Disney worlds.
I’m happy to say the choice pays off. The way Kingdom Hearts 3 plays out, from it’s gameplay to its emotional and climactic finale, is a true culmination of the 17 years of the franchise, and offers up a wonderfully satisfying conclusion in all regards.
Once again we take the mantle of Sora, Donald, and Goofy on one more adventure to stop Xehanort, a villain who in some form has been the true evil Sora and friends have faced through every Kingdom Hearts entry. It picks up just after the last major entry in the franchise, Dream Drop Distance, and wastes no time getting into the action.
It’s worth noting here that this game makes no bones about including the stories and characters from every single Kingdom Hearts game. From Chain of Memories to Coded to Back Cover to 358/2 Days, every Kingdom Hearts story is lovingly referenced here, and characters from all of them are essential to the plot. There is plenty to enjoy outside of this, as much of your time is still spent scouring through Disney worlds and saving your favorite heroes from harm’s way. But if you didn’t do your research, you’ll feel a bit left out of the party.
It does help that anyone who did take that time feels more than rewarded through most all of Kingdom Hearts 3. From small moments between characters, jokes at the absurdity of Kingdom Hearts’ own story, and genuine payoffs for things some of us players have been waiting years to see, that time investment feels more than justified here. The story here doesn’t feel incomplete, it doesn’t feel rushed, it takes a lot of time to set up stakes and pay off those feelings in the final act. It’s some of the most genuine and earnest storytelling I’ve seen in a conclusion to a story like this, and it left a very strong impact on me as a fan of the franchise.
After the introductory world, your off in your Gummi ship to explore Disney world after Disney world. Here, the game settles back into a groove that it hasn’t really in been seen since Kingdom Hearts one and two. You spend hours in Disney worlds, sometimes recreating the stories they come from, like helping Rapunzel navigate the Kingdom of Corona in the Tangled world. Other times you’re apart of a smaller, original story that takes place after the original tale, like the Toy Box world from Toy Story. Typically these levels switch up formulas enough from level to level, like the wide ocean full of small islands hiding secrets in the Pirates of the Carribean world, and unlike most of the handheld entries, they serve as beautiful, detailed recreations that feel worth exploring, holding tons of treasures, secrets, or minigames to uncover.
And Kingdom Hearts 3 is absolutely beautiful. From world to world, each area features incredible lighting, varied and beautiful landscapes, and sprawling skyboxes. They are a delight to see. Worlds like Tangled and Frozen especially stand out because they are so strikingly similar to the Disney movies they come from. Some of the things you see in the Pirates of the Caribbean world this time around are just breathtaking, particularly when you’re diving in and out of the water. Every style, every area, all the lighting meshing together just works. Even more so than it has in previous Kingdom Hearts games. The jump to HD makes one of the biggest differences I’ve seen in any franchise with Kingdom Hearts 3.
The game never runs at a perfect 60, but generally runs smooth enough that I’d bet most players will never notice, but the dips here and there can stand out when things get more hectic. The overall result is the game feels a bit smoother than previous entries, and while I wish some of those visual conceits were more consistent, the game benefits from a higher frame rate.
Combat has seen a big upgrade from the last numbered entry, too. Since no two Kingdom Hearts games since have played the same at all, there were a lot of specific and quirky mechanics to choose from. Three brings together the best of them, like the enhanced movement from Dream Drop Distance, the action combo system from Kingdom Hearts 2, and command shifts from Birth by Sleep, which have been reimagined into Keyblade transformations. While previous entries centered more around specific character transformations or summons, the equivalent here is taking your weapon and shifting it into another style for a limited time, all accomplished just by using the weapon. Sometimes that style is magic casting pistols that the Keyblade transforms into, other times it’s a massive hammer that destroys the ground around you, or the Pirates of the Caribbean key turning into a wave-splashing staff that summons the Kraken for a finisher. All of them have a great flourish, and you can achieve these shifts just by using that weapon and building up its meter.
These aren’t the only additions to combat. Other complementary mechanics like summoning a magical version of Disney World rides called “attraction attacks,” or special upgraded magic that have one time uses called “grand magic”. All these things are accessed just by using magic or attacking certain enemies in combat. Some opening animations take a bit longer than they should, specifically the attraction attacks, which I stopped using by the end of the game because the animation to trigger them accumulated a lot of time, but there are always a wide array of options to throw together during any given battle.
The combat is very flashy, and it feels awesome, partly because of a smoother framerate. It falls into the same camp as Kingdom Hearts 2, meaning you may love it or hate it, but the best systems from all of the entries in the series are here. It feels like a real mesh, and in yet another way brings together many parts from nine disparate games very seamlessly. It contributes to the feeling that this game is culminating everything that is Kingdom Hearts.
The worlds are dense and long. Each take three or more hours to explore and finish the story in, but there are numerous mini-games and missions hidden throughout them., There is a noticeable exclusion from your explorations in Kingdom Hearts 3, and that’s the Final Fantasy side of things. There is little to no Final Fantasy to be seen in this game, and that means several optional bosses or sidequests that longtime players of the franchise may have expected to see return are nowhere to be seen here. It’s honestly disappointing, and when you compare the game to Kingdom Hearts 2, it just feels like there isn’t as much here.
The trade-off is the game takes it’s time a lot more and is more deliberately paced. The things that are here feel polished and well made. The focus was on making the conclusion satisfying, rather than overfilling the endgame. It’s a trade that was worth it.
The story here is really something special though. The game goes dark in the way you would expect a franchise that has been growing over the last decade and a half to go. What’s most impressive is how well the narrative walks the line of making things more serious and making the stakes higher, while also holding tight and true to the words of hope the franchise was founded upon. Kingdom Hearts 3 feels like a Kingdom Hearts game through to the core, more than some of its portable releases. It has so much heart, and it cares more than anything about delivering a satisfying story.
At the center of all of that is Sora. Here he gets his moment to shine unlike any game before and effortlessly steals the show. In particular, his relationships with all other characters culminating here elevate him to one of the best JRPG franchise protagonists I’ve seen. In a genre where the type is to start fresh with more of an anthological approach, this series decided to craft a hero over many, many entries, creating an emotional connection to Sora that is the very strength that holds the story together. You see such a direct change in him here over Kingdom Hearts 2 that it pulls some of Sora’s actions together to make him feel like a character that has truly come a very long way. Sora and his lovable nonchalance at caring for anyone and everyone he meets, no matter how tortured they may be, gives us all hope to find love and kindness in others.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is a beautiful, polished, and loving entry in a franchise that means a lot to a lot of people, myself included. This game is maybe the best ending fans who have been waiting over a decade for could have asked for, and spends its energy closing many story threads that have been made over three main entries and six in between titles. It takes its time, it tells its story, and it unites all the threads and players under one sky, one destiny.
This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro system with a retail copy of the title purchased by the reviewer.