Kingdom Hearts is a long-standing series with numerous releases over the past decade. With the first entry hitting shelves nearly eighteen years ago, multiple games have been released over more than a handful of different consoles; each story interconnected and linked to some, greater overarching plot that hasn’t yet seen fruition. This is a series with such presence that it doesn’t require much of an introduction.
Kingdom Hearts III starts with a cold opening. You’re immediately thrown into the game after the events of Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, and those that aren't familiar with the series and everything that has taken place from the first title and everything in between until now might find themselves a little lost. Even if you have played previous titles in the series, you still might need a bit of a refresher. Outside of a beautifully rendered introduction FMV, which has become a standard for the series, you can peruse the Memory Archive to fill yourself in on the events of games you haven’t played if you’re returning to the series, or if you’re new to it entirely.
However, some crucial details are left out of these brief narrated sequences and you’re honestly better off dedicating a few weeks to playing through the re-releases of the game to fill in these gaps. In that way, Kingdom Hearts as a series suffers. Even events from Kingdom Hearts UX (a mobile-only title) are imperative to completely understanding certain story beats, and if you didn’t go through that game on your own, you might find yourself grasping at the significance of certain scenes later in the game.
As a result, the story is somewhat tonally inconsistent throughout as characters from previous games like Birth by Sleep or Chain of Memories make their return. While these games were arguably more serious in tone, the balancing act of including these characters and weaving them into the more light-hearted story of Kingdom Hearts III is complicated. Sometimes the landing sticks, other times not so much as Kingdom Hearts flip-flops from whatever it wants to be within its own contained narrative to a light-hearted Disney romp. Speaking of which, when these characters do finally interact and the various plot threads finally intersect - but this doesn’t happen until the last few hours of the game. In many senses, the majority of the actual forward plot development in KH3 happens in its final hours.
Most of my time was spent helping Disney characters solve problems within their own worlds, such as helping Rapunzel and Flynn Rider reenact the plot of Tangled in its entirety before going off onto the next Disney world. This structure is a familiar rinse and repeat for the most part, though there are a couple worlds that do provide a more unique narrative for Sora to actually participate in without being something of a bystander to events. In between these themed excursions, the original Kingdom Hearts III plot would progress at a crawl, switching between different sets of characters to give a glimpse of what they were doing. Despite this, the last segment of the game is without a doubt the best part for longtime fans invested in the story of Kingdom Hearts as a whole. Certain plot threads are tied up neatly and felt rewarding, while others are left open for more speculation.
Kingdom Hearts III is the most impressive Kingdom Hearts game yet. It combines all of the best aspects of previous Kingdom Hearts titles to make for some truly fun gameplay. The combat system has been smoothed out and several new features have been added - mostly notably the Attraction system. When executed properly, you can summon Disney attractions to deal heavy amounts of damage to enemies in something of a mini-game. These were great for clearing out waves of enemies or dealing with bosses. However outside of this new feature, normal combat did feel fairly stale by the end of the game as it was a rinse and repeat without any real depth. I did play the game on Standard and not Proud Mode, so this might be different for those playing on the hardest difficulty available.
In addition to this, most Disney worlds come with their own unique gimmicks at some point or another, whether it be sailing through The Caribbean on your pirate ship or piloting toy mechs in Toy Story’s very own Toy Box. These are generally pretty fun until you realize that these mechanics you’re being taught won’t be utilized in any real way outside of their own worlds. It also made going to new worlds fairly frustrating as a new tutorial would pop up almost every time, sometimes thirty hours into the game, to teach me something I would only use in a limited fashion. Not only this, but the tutorial window has notoriously small font, sometimes making instructions illegible if I wasn’t a few feet away from my television screen. While most of Kingdom Hearts III’s UI doesn’t suffer this problem, this rears its head in the worst ways when it does.
Some series staples such as the Coliseum don't make a return, instead replaced by enumerated challenge fights called Battlegates that take their place. By completing these, you can acquire a series of Secret Reports that provide some forward-looking lore for the series in the form of some text excerpts from various characters, both known and unknown. However, this was something I didn’t spend much time with as I actually ended up sinking most of my extra time into new additions like helping Little Chef cook at his bistro or hang out with Pooh and friends in the Hundred Acre Wood collecting flowers and vegetables. Some of the new features and minigames are genuinely really fun and provide a nice break from some of the more monotonous moments of the game.
When all was said and done and the journey was over, Kingdom Hearts III left me with somewhat mixed feelings. As a long time fan, I simultaneously felt rewarded yet also underwhelmed when the credits rolled. I eventually saw the Secret Movie as well. Seeing my favorite characters on screen and finally getting the closure I wanted for almost ten years was great, but the storyline of Kingdom Hearts III in many ways also felt like a big filler for whatever Nomura and his team have next. I wouldn’t recommend this to new fans without having played the previous titles as some sequences might go completely over their head.
I wouldn’t say Kingdom Hearts III isn’t any less of a confusing place to start if you were looking to make this your first dive into the franchise. With that being said, Kingdom Hearts III is a masterful game when it succeeds and a mediocre one when it simply doesn’t.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4
Disclaimer: A copy of this game was provided to RPG Site by the publisher.