Though it’s not the longest game to grace our consoles, Kingdom Hearts III is still a meaty package. We’re talking some thirty plus hours of main story content to scour through, finally untangling a web of mysteries the series has been spinning for almost two decades. There’s no doubt hours and hours of side missions, with easter eggs, and other hidden bits to uncover too. So, with our review copy of Kingdom Hearts III turning up on launch day, and with a subtly ironic Final Fantasy XIV fan fest to attend over the weekend, we’ve only really been able to play enough of this hotly-anticipated JRPG to share our initial thoughts.
Unlike previous entries, Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t spend long dilly dallying. Although it immediately indulges in its own convoluted overarching narrative, you won’t have to wait hours to gain control of Sora who, as ever, is flanked by his trusty companions, Donald and Goofy.
Their first destination? Olympus, the gorgeously evocative world based on Disney’s Hercules. However, before the dreamboat demigod turns up we instead get reacquainted with his arch-nemesis, Hades. He’s cropped up before in previous games and this time he’s changing up his plan of attack, sacking off the Heartless and calling upon the combined might of four Titans to overthrow Zeus once and for all. You know, just like in the movie.
As far as the story in Kingdom Hearts goes, it can usually be split into two parts: the self-contained sagas of each Disney world and the series’ wider plot, these threads often overlapping. If this is your first time playing Kingdom Hearts then, to be honest, you probably won’t have a clue what’s going on. Donald Duck being an all-powerful grand mage is hard enough to get your head around without having to think about Nobodies, Organization XIII, and what it means to be “Norted”. If you’re simply interested in seeing how Square brings various Disney properties to life then you’ll likely be satisfied though fans will tell you that the beating heart of this franchise lies with its core characters and a journey that has spanned years of spin-offs and sequels.
Dropping down into a plaza overrun with Heartless, initiating that first attack with Sora’s keyblade sent a pang of nostalgia right through me. Yet, during these interim years after Kingdom Hearts II, my taste in video games has matured and my tolerance for certain design tropes has definitely waned. As much as I loved the originals, I wasn’t sure the core combat in Kingdom Hearts III would be fleshed out enough to hold my attention for long.
Admittedly, those first encounters with the Heartless are a little drab. Sora’s moveset and pool of abilities have been deliberately pared back so players aren’t too overpowered right off the bat, and those base controls remaining largely untouched since 2002’s original Kingdom Hearts.
Saying I was disappointed by the game’s opening may be a little harsh, but it did very little to reel me in. Action sequences are constantly bookended by needlessly long cutscenes which linger for a little too long without pushing the story forward. While Square has done a good job rounding up much of its existing Kingdom Hearts voice cast, the performance quality is all over the place with some characters either absent or creepily lurking in the background of cutscenes saying nothing. For example, instead of finding someone to put on their best Danny Devito voice, Herc’s goat-legged mentor Phil silently stares off into space during conversations.
Thankfully it isn’t all just talking. After a while you’ll begin to see some of the new features Square has layered on top of the existing combat mechanics such as wall-running and the iconic Disney World attractions. When prompted, you can summon a familiar ride to wreak dazzling devastation on your opponents, from the pendulum swings of a pirate ship to a rapid onslaught of spinning teacups. Combine these with companion attacks and a wealth of other contextual powers, Kingdom Hearts III gets fairly chaotic at times. Compared to the straightforward hacking and slashing of the first game it can seem superfluously complex, each fight becoming its own bombastic fireworks display with little room for tactical scheming.
It’s too early for us to rustle up a final verdict and slap a score on Kingdom Hearts III. We’ve yet to see how the story unravels and as we hop from one world to the next, there are new systems and mechanics constantly being dripfed, some being far more worthwhile than others. It’s a game that dazzles with its recreation of popular Disney properties yet struggles with pacing and faces the unenviable task of wrapping up years and year of storytelling in a way that will satisfy long-time fans.