Like every game in the series before it, Kingdom Hearts 3 begins by playing its theme, Dearly Beloved, over the title screen. Composed by acclaimed musician Yoko Shimomura, it perfectly captures the sentimentality at the heart of the series. The song is at once tender and melancholic, wistful and adventurous, somber and uplifting–a reminder of a history that’ll leave longtime fans dewy-eyed. I wish I could properly convey the impact of hearing it, but the best I can do is to say that it is overwhelming.
The only way to really understand the emotions Dearly Beloved stirs is to have connected with the franchise and its characters; to have followed their journeys over its 17-year history, for better or worse. The nostalgia for and investment in Kingdom Hearts as a franchise is incredibly powerful, so much so that it helped me push through the rougher patches in what is overall an enjoyable, if uneven, third entry in the core series. Kingdom Hearts 3 is preoccupied with fan service to a fault, and it also struggles to stay coherent under the weight of its own convoluted lore. But it’s also everything fans love about the series: a thrilling action-RPG that celebrates Disney and Pixar, all the while ensuring themes of friendship, heroism, and pure-hearted goodness shine bright.
At times, those themes can be difficult to discern, particularly when the game is intent on telling the grander story of Kingdom Hearts as opposed to the smaller tales centered around Disney’s iconic characters or Sora’s innocent idealism. Given it’s the concluding chapter in a massive story arc, it can’t be faulted for having this fixation, but the execution is frustrating nonetheless. Kingdom Hearts 3 is bogged down in the finer details of its lore, so much so that–for all but the most clued-in fans–it can be difficult to get a sense of what our three main heroes are actually trying to accomplish.
At its broadest, the story of Kingdom Hearts 3 involves Sora, Donald, and Goofy preparing for an upcoming war against the forces of darkness by gathering the Guardians of Light. This is oversimplification to its most extreme, but to delve into the finer details would require lengthy explanations of numerous confounding concepts and characters. It is undoubtedly messy, but for fans who have committed to playing all the games and been studious enough to join the dots along the way, it makes sense. For those that aren’t as well-versed in Kingdom Hearts, the essentials of the story aren’t laid out nearly as clear as they need to be.
The bloated state of Kingdom Hearts’ lore is the result of numerous spin-offs and sequels that introduced new characters to explore back- and side-stories. Contained in their own games, these characters had the room to breathe, establish themselves, and have full narrative arcs. However, when united in one game, each is diminished in both characterization and impact. Kingdom Hearts 3 attempts to take all the disparate narrative threads from across its many games–and the characters tied up in them–and weave them together into one concluding story, and the result is incoherent to say the least. It doesn’t help that numerous characters look the same, or that some are time-travelling versions of themselves. Others, meanwhile, are reincarnations that have taken on a new form or exist inside the heart of yet another character. There are also a few that used to have one name, but now have another, but both names are used depending on who is talking about them. Before long all of these characters are elbow to elbow, vying for screen time and pulling the story in so many different directions that it becomes difficult to find its center again. The handful that are critical to the plot inevitably become lost among the many bit-parters that feel like they’re in the game as fan service, instead of being meaningful to the story.
If Kingdom Hearts 3 had stronger writing it may have been possible to highlight key details and figures for the player to latch onto; a chance to see through the crowd of faces and pick out the ones most important. However, the writing largely makes proceedings even harder to follow. The villains in particular–many of which are members of Organization XIII–spout inane lines that are purposefully vague. Presumably this was to build mystery, but it only serves to muddy motivations and further obscure the crux of the story. Otherwise, they’re delivering cheesy dialogue that feels at odds with the sincere melodrama happening around them.
At its core, Kingdom Hearts 3 is a heartfelt tale of enduring friendship, and the narrative is at its strongest when it narrows its focus to just this
This is a shame because, at its core, Kingdom Hearts 3 is a heartfelt tale of enduring friendship, and the narrative is at its strongest when it narrows its focus to just this. Sora, the hero of the series, continues to be plucky and lovably naive. His greatest facets are his strength of heart, his ability to make friends with anyone, and his devotion to them–he is the archetypal wholesome good boy. Joining him once again is Donald Duck, stuffy and prone to outbursts but a trustworthy companion; and Goofy, slightly dimwitted but also the emotional anchor of the group.
The endearing trio’s adventures through the Disney and Pixar worlds featured in Kingdom Hearts 3, as well as the interactions they have with the characters within them, are a reminder that beneath the tortuous lore are smaller stories that resonate. By keeping the bigger Keyblade Wars story in the periphery and having minimal involvement from all those involved with it, these stories are clearer and more concise. The underlying themes of Kingdom Hearts harmonize with those of Disney’s own properties so well that each new world Sora journeys to delivers an impactful moment of storytelling. In Toy Box, Sora helps Woody, Buzz, and the gang find their missing friends, as they also grapple with the idea that they live in a world where Andy doesn’t exist. In Arendelle, he meets Anna, who is desperately trying to reconnect with her sister, Queen Elsa, and gets caught up in the family drama. In San Fransokyo, Sora assists Hiro and the Big Hero 6 team as they battle Microbots and find a forgotten friend. Admittedly, some of these stories retread old ground, but whether it’s Tangled, Pirates of the Caribbean, Winnie The Pooh, Monsters Inc., or Hercules, experiencing them again through the lens of Kingdom Hearts 3 still packs an emotional punch. It’s hard not to get swept up by the exaggerated displays of heroics or earnest reminders that your friends exist in your heart.
One of the strengths of Kingdom Hearts 3 is the care and attention it pays to bringing Disney’s worlds to life, which, in turn, makes being in them all the more exciting. You get to wander around Andy’s bedroom as a diminutive toy version of Sora, scaling his walls and jumping on his toys, before making a trip to the mall. There you visit various toy shops, leaping on top of display units and between shelves as you battle the enemy Heartless. Returning to Kingdom Hearts 2’s Twilight Town comes with a wave of nostalgia, as you hang around in the square watching a Mickey Mouse movie projected on a wall or visit the mansion where Namine stood at the window all those years back. Venture to the Pirates of the Caribbean world and the game adopts a striking, realistic visual style, swapping Sora and friends from their usual vibrant visages to a muddier tone in line with the movies’ color palette. It then gives you command of your own ship with Jack Sparrow at your side. 100 Acre Wood shifts to the warmer pastels of a storybook aesthetic, as you help Rabbit tend to his garden so that Pooh can get some honey. San Fransokyo makes great use of verticality and Sora’s ability to effortlessly run up buildings and glide between rooftops. At night it transforms into a blinding neon cityscape, inviting you to fly between floating blimps and grind rails with Baymax flying in tow. Monsteropolis has you working with Sully and Mike to stop Randal seizing control of Monsters Inc., and all the while Boo adorably potters along next to you.
Many of the worlds offer extra gameplay activities to engage with after the story within them is wrapped up. Toy Box puts you in a Final Fantasy XV parody where you’re in a mech destroying enemies and chasing high scores. Traverse Town has a cooking mini-game which involves collecting ingredients from across the worlds and then bringing them to Ratatouille’s Remy to make meals. Pirates of the Caribbean lets you sail the open sea in search of treasure and do battle with enemy ships, or defend Port Royale in a wave-based mini-game. The amount of gameplay variety in Kingdom Hearts 3 is impressive, and although the extras may be short-term distractions, for those who want to spend more time in their favourite worlds, they’re a fun reason to make the return trip.
Not all worlds maintain that high bar, however, as some feel either empty or lacking in what they offer. Arendelle’s snow-covered terrain, for example, feels quite bland, and the main mission involves climbing a mountain multiple times. Port Royale is an entire location used primarily for an item hunt. Toy Box’s mall is devoid of life beyond the toys and enemies–it would have been nice to have people around to make it feel more alive, instead of like an after-hours shopping center. The same can be said of San Fransokyo which, on ground level, feels eerily deserted for a metropolis.
The bulk of Kingdom Hearts 3’s gameplay, however, is in its sword-swinging, magic-conjuring combat, which feels fast, frenetic, and spectacular in its cinematic flourishes. Its combat mechanics are an evolution of Kingdom Hearts 2’s, which themselves have been tweaked and refined in the various spin-off titles. The most noticeable change is in its fluidity; Sora moves between enemies quickly, delivering a barrage of attacks, seamlessly transitioning into casting Fira to set enemies ablaze or Cura to recover health. There’s a pleasing forward momentum to all the battles, as you zip around dispatching enemies in quick succession.
There are numerous layers on top of the basic combat mechanics which, while not adding a great deal of depth or strategic considerations, make for more exciting skirmishes. Keyblades now come in a number of flavours to match the Disney worlds they’re unlocked from. As part of this, they also have Formchanges, which are exactly what they sound like. As you land attack buttons, a meter builds up, and you are eventually given the option to transform your Keyblade into more over-the-top forms, where more powerful attacks and abilities become available. The game shows creative flare in these transformations too; Wheel of Fate, unlocked in the Pirates world, becomes an oversized spear and then the mast of a ship with the flag attached. Happy Gear, found in Monsters Inc., transforms into a set of high-speed claws and then a pair of yo-yos. Hunny Spout morphs into a pair of twin pistols and then a launcher, both firing honey at enemies.
The amount of gameplay variety in Kingdom Hearts 3 is impressive … for those who want to spend more time in their favourite worlds, [mini-games] are a fun reason to make the return trip
Magic works similarly, with repeated use of a spell eventually making a Grand Magic version available at no additional mana cost. Throughout, Donald and Goofy will call to Sora for a team-up attack. For the former this could be a salvo of colorful fireworks that damage everyone in your vicinity. For the latter you can leap into the sky and throw Goofy at an enemy, with his shield causing an explosion on impact. These are characters that have fought many battles side by side, so having these back and forths are a nice representation of the camaraderie between them and their growth across the series–not to mention they’re eye-catching cinematic moments.
Feeding into the Disney milieu further are attractions such as tea cups, water rafts, bumper cars, and a rollercoaster that can be summoned to dish out damage. Each one controls differently, either through timed button presses, using the analogue stick to guide their path, or becoming a first-person shooter to pinpoint specific enemies, injecting a different style of combat gameplay into the action at regular intervals. Other Disney characters such as Simba, Stitch, and Ariel can also be called into battle, functioning similarly to Final Fantasy’s summons to unleash devastating special attacks. Their inclusion is welcome, in lieu of giving them their own worlds, as some have had in past games. Beyond that there’s Flowmotion, which builds a sense of speed by encouraging you to dash into objects in the environment to swing around, or at walls to parkour along. It can be tricky to get a handle of, but once you’re able to work these moves into the flow of combat, you build a sense of prowess over the battlefield.
Watching battles unfold, you’d be forgiven for thinking that combat is a complicated dance of fingers across buttons, but everything is actually achieved with one or two taps. Kingdom Hearts 3 is simple to play, which works in its favour. It prioritizes spectacle above all else and delivers tremendously. Instead of having to focus too much on what you’re pressing and when, you can enjoy the madness unfolding on screen. This is a game that shows off and wows you with dazzling lights, explosive sounds, and high-octane action, and you don’t want to miss a second of it. That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of strategic considerations, but you’ll need to play on the harder Proud difficulty level if you want the game to challenge you. Otherwise–barring a few end game bosses–the enemies are pushovers.
Another feature that makes its return from Kingdom Hearts of old is the Gummi Ship. Sora and his crew are able to pilot a spaceship as they travel to new worlds, at which point the game becomes a shoot-em-up of sorts. While Gummi Ship segments in the past were on-rails, this time you have full freedom to fly where you please, using wormholes and boost pads to explore quicker. Space is littered with treasures to find, but you’ll often have to battle enemies to acquire them. The shooting in the Gummi Ship, while serviceable, isn’t satisfying. The combination of lackluster visual and auditory feedback makes it hard to tell whether you’re actually doing any damage, and for the most part I found myself absentmindedly holding the fire button down and waiting for things to explode. It is possible to create your own ships and outfit them with more weapons and augmented support abilities, but the fundamental shooting remains unchanged and uninteresting.
As the game reaches its conclusion, the balance shifts heavily in favour of non-Disney worlds, where the main story of Kingdom Hearts can play out and resolve itself. Many of the environments this happens in are striking, from a pristine white city to strange modular arenas that can be turned upside down at the whim of an enemy. But in these locales the game trades the heart and whimsy of the worlds up until that point for heavy-handed storytelling that inevitably culminates in battles that are impressive set-pieces but feel cheap and spammy to play. With the finish line in sight, the game disrupts the pace with one arduous boss fight after another–not challenging in any way, just more of slog. The payoff, meanwhile, isn’t entirely worth it, as Kingdom Hearts 3 wraps up its story in an incredibly unfulfilling way.
But the story of Keyblade wars, time-travelling villains, body-hopping also-rans, and world-ending darkness isn’t what I’ll remember about Kingdom Hearts 3 or the series as a whole. What sticks with me is the exciting battle against elemental titans with Hercules, taking Rapunzel out into the unfamiliar wide world for the first time, snapping selfies with Winnie the Pooh, and going toe to toe with Davy Jones. In 2002, as Sora, I left Destiny Islands to travel across the universe and make new friends. In 2019 I brought old ones home, and I had so much fun doing it.