“Kingdom Hearts III’s earnest and sincere intentions suffer from elements that backfire against them and leaves us to wonder if the magic was ever really there.”
There’s no other video game franchise quite like Kingdom Hearts. An entire generation of Internet has ensured its infamy via memes, in-jokes and GIFs. As such, recounting Kingdom Hearts’ seventeen year history for any video gamer is rather superfluous. Its strange mashup of Disney worlds and characters and Square RPG’s narrative aesthetic isn’t just a trademark, it’s the entire brand.
And yet strangely, Kingdom Hearts III is an odd duck of a videogame even accounting for everything above. Like other games that have spent a protracted amount of time in development, it hurtles forward from a time long ago, shorn of two console generations worth of the mechanical and aesthetic developments we now take for granted.
Much hand-wringing has been made about Kingdom Hearts’ convoluted lore, such that there was a whole cottage industry of explainers and recaps leading to its release, and dunking on it has become a pastime for would be gamer comedians on social media. But the truth is that the ever twisting saga of Kingdom Hearts isn’t what undercuts Kingdom Hearts III but its own feckless mechanics and the degenerate gameplay experience that comes out of it.
Most ambitious crossover event in history
At the heart of Kingdom Hearts’ appeal is its use of one of the wildest ideas in videogame fiction – in which the struggle between good and evil is made explicit by tangible metaphysical forces that can only be defeated by the binding properties of friendship and love – as the raison d’etre behind an odyssey across the entire Disney IP catalog, and positions its contents as a single coherent universe.
It all started with an elevator. According to a story relayed by creator Tetsuya Nomura, a chance encounter between series producer Shinji Hashimoto and unnamed Disney executive led to the idea of a RPG crossover between the two companies’ properties. The result is a world where Mickey Mouse is a troubled monarch turned wandering swordsman and sorcerer Yen Sid serves as mentor to a whole generation of arcane warriors.
Across twelve games, Kingdom Hearts’ lore has only become more byzantine. It threatens to buckle under reams of lore. Over time it has discarded the Final Fantasy characters that provided the series’ initial supporting cast. And since 2005’s Kingdom Hearts II, Nomura has used spin-off games to fill plot holes, add new characters, reimagine pivotal moments and then retcon them all again, attempting to explain various elements of the saga players rarely questioned.
Kingdom Hearts III believes it is trying to make sense of its disparate plot threads, but is actually terrible at it. Several supporting characters (including antagonists) are mostly reincarnations or time travelers who answer to and address each other by multiple names. Nomura and company obfuscate their lore to all but the most devoted fans. Newcomers are guaranteed to get lost, and to them I recommend leaning on the game’s emotional beats to find their way.
That’s because for all of its faults as a saga, Kingdom Hearts provides a bizarre foundation for moments of sincerity. It all came together for me when series protagonist Sora and Toy Story’s Woody take turns delivering sick burns to one of the villainous cohorts about the power of friendship. “You’re so caught up in finding the shadows, you forgot about the light that cast them,” Sora says. It’s only by conceding its lack of irony that Kingdom Hearts III’s writing becomes bearable and ...sometimes... enjoyable.
“There’s a sense that problems can be traced back to protracted development time. Some spots shine, but others feel like decisions that predate this generation.”
So many ups and down, my heart’s a battleground
It’s in the actual experience of playing Kingdom Hearts III where deeper problems lie. As per the series template, it sees Sora make his way to various Disney worlds, befriend their main characters, and fight past swarms of monsters. All of these beats are cheeky excuses to present Disney’s beloved intellectual properties. It’s precisely what past games are remembered fondly for. But it is the anemic presentation that threatens to drain the life out of Kingdom Hearts III.
Hercules’ Olympus tries to make a big impression with splashy set pieces, but the spartan number of inhabitants makes saving the city feel underwhelming. Frozen’s Arendelle suffers the most as a lifeless canvas of white snow and gray mountains. I went up and down this drab environment, getting miserably lost and wishing for the linear corridors of the factory at Monstropolis. Sure not everyone has the world building resources of a company like say, Ubisoft, but other JRPGs have done more with so much less.
The actual mechanics of the game don’t fare much better. While the basic systems are pretty much the ones that have been in place since the first Kingdom Hearts games, there is a feeling of degeneracy to how it all works. Most every encounter I played eventually descended into a button mashing affair. And if that sounds like a bit of a cliché thing to say in games criticism, consider this: there is very little incentive in Kingdom Hearts III for players to do anything well.
For while mechanics are in place that can reward mastery, I mostly couldn’t be bothered to even try. I’m sure it’s tremendously satisfying to max out your combos and optimize your use of spells and link summons, but why bother? It’s not that the game can’t be challenging – occasionally an exciting set piece will test your sense of vertical command or attack timing – but when you can pretty much get away with almost anything and little is given back for perfection, there’s no reason to attempt it.
More odious are the Disney-themed attacks. Whether I linked up with Woody and Buzz to ride a rocket into the fracas or summoned a magic carousel that sends out waves of damage, I instantly regretted it as the animation time spent on these things was rarely worth the results. Sure it’s entertaining the first couple of times, but hours later I tired of them especially when there’s little control over when to deploy them.
“It’s only by conceding its lack of irony that Kingdom Hearts III’s writing becomes bearable and ...sometimes... enjoyable.”
No accounting for old mechanics
Overall, there’s a sense that Kingdom Hearts III’s problems can be traced back to its protracted development time. So while some spots shine, individual design choices feel they were made in a context that predates this generation of consoles. Whether it’s the decision to present tutorial elements as an awkward series of panels that freeze the action or retain the archaic save point mechanic that defines older JRPGs of yesterdecade, Kingdom Hearts III belongs in 2009 and not 2019.
Ultimately, Kingdom Hearts III suffers from too many elements that backfire against its own earnest and most sincere intentions. I could only appreciate the game’s fiction from moment to moment by willfully ignoring its epic scale lore, and the wow factor and spectacle of the game loses its lustre very quickly. Worst of all, Kingdom Hearts III discourages you from engaging with its combat, reducing it to a rather passive experience. As one slogs towards its climactic finale, I can’t help but question if the series’ magic was ever really there.
[This review is based on a PS4 review copy provided to Too Much Gaming by Sony PlayStation Asia.]
What I've played
35 hours spent playing the game
Main game finished once
(+) Characters are very likable, if a bit shallow
(+) Unforgettable combination of Disney aesthetic and Square sensibilities
(-) Disney environments feel cheap, drab or underdeveloped
(-) Combat is flashy and exciting but fails to reward strategy
(-) Dated design choices make game feel as old as it actually is