We really wanted to fall absolutely head-over-heels in love with Kingdom Hearts 3, the culmination of several games in the Kingdom Hearts series that started in 2002 on the PlayStation 2. Seventeen years is a long time to be telling a single story and if that story is the domain of Square Enix (the folks responsible for the very complicated Final Fantasy universe)…? Almost two decades on a tale is a lot of time for things to go wonky or weird. And yet, that’s not the bit of Kingdom Hearts 3 that lets the side down. Weird as it may seem, the story actually does fairly well here.
The story so far (we think)
Long-time fans of the Kingdom Hearts games, right from the PlayStation 2 starter to the Gameboy Advance, mobile, Nintendo DS, PSP, Nintendo 3DS, or the PlayStation 3 (and 4) compilation and remake efforts… probably also don’t really know what’s going on. It’s a fiercely complex story spanning more than eight games and almost as many platforms. If we’re going to explain what you’re supposed to know going into Kingdom Hearts 3, we’re going to make a mistake, somewhere. But here goes…
Players are up against series villain Xehanort, the creator of Organisation XIII and all-round bad guy. Xehanort has used several plots and incarnations in an attempt to recreate the original Keyblade (which is a sword that’s also a key). If he achieves this, he’ll be able to open Kingdom Hearts, the core of all possible worlds and a location of great power. It’s a little like Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, except that you don’t… actually, scratch that. Spoilers.
Anyway, Xehanort (and a surprising number of folks with names starting with the letter X) are up against a set of heroes. Sora, Kingdom Hearts 3‘s protagonist, is joined by Donald Duck and Goofy as constant companions but there are Keyblade wielders all over the place — including King Mickey Mouse. Yes, really. They, and many other heroes from all over the Disney spectrum, are up against mysterious, teleporting, time-travelling, foes — and that’s before you encounter the Heartless and Nameless enemies, or any of the weird opponents that the game throws your way.
You might as well stop trying to understand the story, however. The game does its level best to explain things as it goes but even fans will be mystified in places, because they didn’t play the Japan-only browser game or missed out on Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories on the Gameboy Advance or something. The tale is a bit hit and miss, sometimes devolving into convoluted and long-winded explanations in an attempt to get players up to speed. When it hits, though, it hits with the full force of classic Disney — relentlessly charming or edge-of-the-seat exciting. When Kingdom Hearts 3 is on form, you’ll forget that you’re playing a game. You’ll be living it.
Please… Stop… Talking…
When it’s not on form, a too-frequent occurrence, Kingdom Hearts 3 is a tedious bore. You may find this during some of the many visually-lush but ultimately mystifying cut-scenes but any time there’s dialogue, there’s the potential for issues. We’re not sure how the game got to this point but in-game chatter and even some of the main scenes are nigh-unwatchable. Not because it’s boring, or obtuse, or… anything really. The problem is that characters… suffer… from… unnatural… pauses.
The issue isn’t constant and there are areas where on-screen interaction feels lively and natural but then the view changes and suddenly Amazon’s Alexa has taken over and there’s a noticeable beat between sentences.
The easiest way to explain what happens with interpersonal dialogue is to compare it to older, or retro, JRPGs. There’s a space between sentences that wouldn’t feel out of place if the game was text-only. You need that moment to finish reading. But when Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear, or Captain Jack Sparrow are on-screen? Kingdom Hearts 3 mangles conversation constantly, so much so that we can’t believe that it issued forth from Square Enix. Final Fantasy XV has some of the best incidental dialogue ever placed in a video game — to go from that natural, jovial flow to Script-O-Bot 5000 is a massive distraction.
The dialogue’s not a deal-breaker. There’s a whole lot more to KH3 but the experience is marred throughout by what boils down to a silly mistake. Younger players may not notice much of the stilted conversation but once it’s heard, it’s hard to stop hearing it. It does say something about how good Kingdom Hearts 3 is overall that sometimes you do forget this problem but it’s prevalent enough that we knocked a whole point off because of it.
Don’t take the dialogue thing to heart, though. There’s more than enough to make up for some stilted performances. The game’s setting whips from place to place with enough variety to make your head spin. Even then, there is enough detail in each location to keep you busy for ages just marvelling at the world-building. There are also immersive little touches, like the fact that the HUD changes based on where players are in this semi-open(ish) world.
Variety also reflects in the range of gameplay. There are influences from all over, but most of these are from previous Kingdom Hearts titles. Players will find themselves sprinting around a stage, up and along walls and generally platforming along. The next second, they’ll be button-mashing. Unleashing physical and magic attacks during combat, with the aim of whipping out a pirate ship, a water-slide, fancy teacup or one of a number of other carnival-themed special attacks. These are brash, flashy and fun, livening up even stock fights against basic enemies. When you’re taking down Heartless by swapping between strikes, different weapons (and their attendant effects), only to finish the show with a pirate-ship dervish… yeah, that’s pretty fun.
And gameplay is more varied even than that. At times you’ll be floating through space, taking on waves of enemies like you were playing Galaga (hopefully you understood that reference), the next you’re surfing on magical rails, making food with the rodent from Ratatouille, or you’ll be building your very own Gummi space ship for travelling to the various DisneyInc™ worlds. On top of that, players can locate and unlock various mini-games. These are rewards for finding certain items (Mickey Mouse’s silhouette is the major one, hidden absolutely everywhere), or are gathered as rewards for completing objectives or finding chests that are tucked away in odd corners. As if the lengthy play-time and convoluted story weren’t already keeping you massively busy…
There are aspects of Kingdom Hearts 3 that have to be experienced. Visually, the game is a feast. We’ve mentioned attention to detail, and it’s here that players could spend ages just marvelling at what Square have created. Pick a vista and just took at it. Whether roaming a mythical landscape, a toy store, or just a town square, there’s always a whole lot to see. It’s worth taking some time out of Sora’s quest to just appreciate your surroundings.
But, more than that, appreciate the sound. KH3‘s music is worth the price of admission all on its own, bringing to mind the orchestra backing that Disney’s classic hand-drawn animations are known for. Audio is so good that it had us wondering whether Square actually herded an entire orchestra into a studio in order to lay down the soundtrack for this title.
As with most excellent in-game music, you’ll only really absorb it via osmosis unless you make a conscious choice to listen to what is being presented. Sound design expands to the sound effects and even the vocal talent — Square’s used a large number of authentic Disney voices and their stand-ins are also on the ball. They might not have brought Tom Hanks in to voice Toy Story‘s Woody but you’d never guess that without checking out the game’s IMDB page. Mostly because they got Jim Hanks instead.
Kingdom Hearts 3: Verdict
As we said in the beginning, we really, really wanted to fall in love with this one. Square had a lot to live up to, and they had to balance long-time fans with newcomers. At some point, someone’s going to get upset. For us, it was the constant stilted dialogue that marred what is a hugely varied and exciting game, even if (or perhaps because) we have no idea what’s going on most of the time. The storyline is really gripping, when it gets its hooks in you, and there’s enough to see and do that you won’t feel disappointed that you decided to show up.
Rather than being a victim of hype, which was a real possibility here, Kingdom Hearts 3 is dragged down by an infuriating dialogue system and very little else. If you can look past that, feel free to add another point to the score. The game really deserves the point but we’re going to have to let someone else award it. We just couldn’t — no matter how much we’ve enjoyed being in Sora, Goofy, and Donald’s company.