Review

Review: Kingdom Hearts III (PS4)

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As the conclusion to a story thread that has spanned many a game and continued over the last 17 years, Kingdom Hearts 3 has a massive amount of hype and expectation. So, is it any good?

At A Glance – 7/10

Kingdom Hearts 3 is a gorgeous game that leans more on the love of Disney and Final Fantasy (which is almost entirely missing in this one) than adding any truly interesting pieces of its own fiction. The combat is a spectacle that eventually becomes repetitive and lacks any challenge, the cutscenes are long and rambling with horribly cheesy and sometimes bad dialogue, and the game just feels like a product of a bygone age.

I actually had a good deal of fun playing this newest entry into the franchise despite its problems, but maybe after this long it is time for the series to grow up a little. I’m hoping that by finally allowing a conclusion to a myriad of story threads and getting a lot of the fan-fiction moments out of the way that the next entry into the series is able to evolve and grow into something more than a sum of its nostalgic parts.

I was a Kingdom Hearts fan from the very beginning. As a massive fan of Disney and Final Fantasy it seemed like the most unlikely peanut butter in my chocolate scenario I could imagine, but it worked well enough to enrapture an enormous vocally passionate fan base that would follow this series anywhere. And have followed it anywhere. There have been main entries to the franchise on the PS2, PSP, DS, 3DS, Game Boy Advance, Phones, and now on the Xbox One and PS4.

Being scattered over this many different platforms and running for so long it is a commonly held opinion that the story of Kingdom Hearts is inscrutable–to the point of being a running joke among gamers. I happen to think that while this idea isn’t entirely unfounded it isn’t entirely fair either. So that is where I would like to start, by addressing the elephant in the room.

No, not  you Dumbo, you weren’t even in this game.

Is the story of Kingdom Hearts complex? Absolutely, but it has also been running for 17 years and spans 9 games (9.5 if we count the four hour long Birth by Sleep epilogue/Kingdom Hearts 3 prologue). While being available across so many systems and a general horrible taste in subtitles hasn’t helped the series, anything that covers that much ground while also trying to be one ongoing narrative is going to be a mess in a lot of places. As far as I can tell near entire games exist solely to explain plot holes, such is the fervor of the community to understand what is happening. This all muddies the water a bit, but never in a way I found to be completely inscrutable.

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My personal experience is that I’ve played the first and second game, played Chain of Memories, and a good chunk of Birth by Sleep. For the rest I watched quick recap videos before starting Kingdom Hearts 3 so I could know who these people were, and for the most part I felt like I understood everything going on. Even if I hadn’t watched these videos the newest game does a really good job of filling you in on the most important bits, and even has a little primer you can choose to partake in off the bat for those of us that need our memory jogged. That isn’t to say that the story always makes sense, there is a good deal of time travel involved which makes everything messy. There are characters who are able to host a myriad of other characters within them and keep them alive in a way, and then on top of that you have versions of characters who used to be one person, but changed into a different person when losing their heart, but swap back into that other person in certain sections of the story. It is A LOT, but not any more so than any other long running series.

There was more than one point in the game I just shrugged and said ok, letting go of logical inconsistencies or plot holes in general. I’ve been a fan of fantasy and Sci-Fi literature for as long as I’ve been alive, and narratives in video games are very much like that. Sometimes you just have to be willing to accept whatever explanation the source material gives and move on with your life. If you can’t do that, if you are the kind of person that needs to pick apart every plot point, then Kingdom Hearts 3 will drive you mad.

The story is done ok, for what it is. This essentially feels like a professionally done fan fiction novel, with scenarios fans have been wanting to see played out for a long time now finally coming to fruition. Like many Kingdom Hearts before it you follow Sora, Donald, and Goofy through a myriad of Disney worlds mostly replaying the plots of movies you have likely seen a hundred times. In between these vignettes and sprinkled throughout them is an original story line involving a somewhat sinister group of enemies dubbed the Organization XIII.

This story is conveyed to you through a series of lengthy cutscenes in which one character or another will verbatim go over the plot lines you’ve just witnessed, recap previous games, ponder shallow philosophical questions, declare that hearts are light or dark, say they love their friends,  or just say the word hearts five billion times. The dialogue is horribly cheesy for the most part, but I think that is an overall acceptable mode of communication for this series of games. After all, this is a collection of worlds based off cartoons, and while some of that medium has evolved a good deal of it still features this sort of over explanation that is meant to help carry the meaning across to children. It feels like it tries really hard to be a story and setting for children, while simultaneously trying to pander to the adults that grew up with the series and make up its most ardent fanbase. What you get is a story that feels like that place when you are a fifteen year old—you just don’t quite belong to either world.

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The Disney worlds that do a simple retelling of the existing plot are the dullest among the game, and I found the worlds like Big Hero 6 and Toy Story more interesting as they told more original stories. Seeing the Disney characters we all know and love so much is absolutely a thrill, but it feels a bit like cashing in on a pre-existing joy rather than creating new or compelling stories. The worlds are at least slightly more occupied then they have been previously with some towns being filled with people, but for the most part you will still be making your way through hallways connecting larger spaces, each suspiciously empty aside from constant battles with enemies.

The ending of the story is mostly satisfying with nearly every story thread being resolved in some way. Of course the epilogue and then secret ending set up a sequel, but this is video games–that is pretty much a guaranteed at this point, especially for a franchise as popular as Kingdom Hearts.

I’ve focused so much on the story out of the gate because I believe that it is largely what fans enjoy and critics decry about the series, and really the only thing I think escalates it into one of those IP that everyone cares about so much. It is this unique fusion of things older gamers like myself loved in our childhood, and now it has its own unique brand of nostalgia associated with it from the original characters within it. It is very much a simple anime story, but it is one that includes Hercules, Simba, Goofy, Donald, Elsa, and Baymax. It is a wild mess that has a few complex scenarios that are explained to death, while simultaneously only making sense if you don’t think about it too hard. I explained some of it to my six year old and she understood the bulk of it, mostly because to a child the idea of your heart as your sense of self and transferring it just makes sense.

In short, it is fine for what it is. The story is ok, the Disney bits are messy, and the dialogue is terribly cheesy, but it is wholly Kingdom Hearts. If you’ve liked the story telling in the past this is more of that. There are moments that I felt genuine emotion for these characters, or whopped in delight at an insane over the top thing that was happening, and for every one of those moments there was another where I found myself rolling my eyes. I must also mention here that I was more into the Final Fantasy side of Kingdom Hearts than the Disney side originally, and for those looking for that here you are bound to be incredibly disappointed. Other than a few scant cameos, the general naming conventions of spells, and a item shop Moogle the Final Fantasy elements of the franchise are completely absent. You won’t see Cloud, Squall Leon, or even Noctis in this one, and though fans can explain it away by saying the Hollow Bastion storyline is concluded that is a sad justification for throwing out one of the things that made the series such a big deal in the first place.

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The game proper is again the same Kingdom Hearts you’ve always remembered, albeit with a lot more spectacle thrown in. The menus are as clunky as ever, though shortcuts do help, and the action is the same as it ever was. Most boss fights reduce down to mashing the X button until a triangle prompt appears, which either changes your Keyblade to a powerful new form or summons a ride. These attacks are big, bombastic, and light up the screen with special effects. It becomes a race to see when you can get your next triangle attack, just to take a break from mashing the X button. If you choose to focus on magic you can certainly do that, but it requires as little thought as a purely physical approach does. There is a flow that battle has to it, a constant back and forth between enemies that is as exciting as it is frustrating, but there are no real tactics outside of waiting for an enemy to stop an unstoppable combo so they can stand still and you can wail on them.

There are a myriad of abilities you unlock as you level up that can change the flow of combat, transferring Sora into more of a magic user, more of a defensive player, or more of an aggressive one. I choose the mostly physical assault route, but in general even when I swapped it up it all played mostly the same. You lock onto the target, you mash X to reach them and keep hitting them, and you stop to dodge out of the way occasionally. There is no real skill involved, no tactics that I could discern, and the game is tremendously easy. Typically I don’t really care about the challenge a game puts in front of me being a more casual one, but in this case it makes the combat have almost no stakes. You have to stop to heal now and then, but normally you can steamroll opponents five or six levels above yourself with no issues. I seldom used Links (essentially summons here), constantly forgot to equip new abilities, and didn’t use any items until the very end and had zero problems. The only times I did die were because I got caught in some unbreakable combo a boss was doing, and even that is rectified later by an ability. Personally I felt that if you have to put in an ability to counteract something you know is an issue in your game, maybe just fix the thing instead?

Kingdom Hearts 3 is an incredibly linear game with very little outside of the main story. Sure, there are things that you can do, but none of them are particularly noteworthy or have rewards that are worth much of anything. You can unlock the Ultima Keyblade at one point, but by then you are almost done with the game so I felt it was a little pointless. Minigames are particularly mediocre in Kingdom Hearts 3–The Hundred Acre Woods have been reduced to one big, poorly designed mobile game knock off and it is atrocious. I don’t want to cook with Remy from Ratatouille for buffs I don’t need—the mini games were just short enough to be pointless while also still managing to be boring.  I don’t want to play a frustrating robot battler minigame over and over again. It just isn’t interesting content, and seems to solely be there for the sake of saying that there is more to the game then hallways, boss battles, and long cutscenes.

To its credit the game is utterly gorgeous, and extremely well polished. There were moments playing through the Tangled world that I had to stop and gape at the lush and beautiful forest area. When I was playing through the Pirates of the Carribean world I was stunned that the CG characters were so incredibly good for in-game cinematics that they reach uncanny valley levels quickly. The game is truly a technological wonder, and not something I really expect from a Kingdom Hearts game. We always have said as gamers that the newest cartoon like world that reaches any fidelity almost looks like a Pixar movie, but we are actually there now. Some of these scenes could play side by side with the actual footage of their film counterparts, and I’m not sure you would always be able to spot the difference. It just looks that damn good.

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Not only does it look brilliant, but it sounds brilliant also. Sure, that is kind of a given considering they are incorporating some of the most amazing tracks from cinematic history alongside some nostalgic renditions of Simple and Clean, other new awesome tracks from Hikaru Utada, and really good arrangements from the franchise’s history as well. Still, it is an amazing sounding game, and they absolutely nail the worlds that they seek to represent.

A lot of this sounds like I really disliked Kingdom Hearts 3, but believe it or not I did enjoy my journey. It was a horribly conflicted one though, I would have moments of elation at the sheer spectacle in battle one moment only to be bored by the repetitive nature and ease of the combat the next. There would be these really emotional pay off moments that I knew were manipulating the inner fan in me, but I loved the cheesy over-the-top nature of it all. Then Sora would say dialogue so bad and cringy that I felt pain for the voice actor in having to record it, or a villain would go on about some vaguely nonsensical plot point for far too long. For the first five hours of the game I had a smile constantly plastered on my face as I experienced some really cool Disney moments and amazing voice acting, but over time the spectacle stopped really penetrating that deeply and I just kind of wanted to get on with the game.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is a game that is securely still rooted in the PlayStation 2 era, and there are both good and bad things about that. The franchise hasn’t evolved its storytelling, combat, or world building in a landscape where games are now telling intricate stories among some of the most engaging worlds we’ve ever played in. There is a nostalgic charm inherent in that and a real whimsy and joy that the Disney franchises lend to the property that makes it unlike anything else out there, but that simply isn’t enough to allow it to compete with the best in the industry today.

Maybe after this long it is time for the series to grow up a little. I’m hoping that by finally allowing a conclusion to a myriad of story threads and getting a lot of the fan-fiction moments out of the way that the next entry into the series is able to evolve and grow into something more than a sum of its nostalgic parts.

 

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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One thought on “Review: Kingdom Hearts III (PS4)

  1. I had a similar feeling about the Disney worlds. The “retelling” ones had no new story content of interest, or any varied gameplay (save Pirates). The ones where they cut loose were more enjoyable for the interesting bosses and new mechanics. I liked using the mechs in Toy Story, and the Boss in Big Hero 6 was a lot of fun.

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