By Melody Klink
It’s been two weeks since the debut of KINGDOM HEARTS III, a game so anticipated that the only one that might rival it is Half-Life 3.
Sorry guys, Valve is still awfully quiet on that one.
BUT! Square Enix did deliver on the finale of the Dark Seeker Saga, as it’s been titled, bringing to a close the near-twenty year tale first woven in 2002. And while Square Enix master storyteller Tetsuya Nomura has casually mentioned that this isn’t the end of Kingdom Hearts in its entirety, it certainly ties together a wobbly bunch of threads.
There’s a ton to unpack here, so let’s dive in.
(For once in my life, I’m going to keep this review spoiler-free, to an extent; I’ll mention which Disney worlds you travel, and vague details, but I will not be spoiling the over-arching story of Kingdom Hearts III and its conclusion in this tale. If you’ve waited with bated breath like I have all these years, I won’t be the one to spoil it for you.)
Kingdom Hearts III opens up with a series-in-review of sorts, showing the player main points that span over two handfuls of games and mini-movies, once again set to an amazing track by Utada Hikaru. “Face My Fears” is remixed by Skrillex for the intro, and seriously you guys, I cried watching it. Its lyrics are quite indicative of the tone of the ending…
(Also, wanna shout out to Skrillex for the great musical composition on this song. A fan took it to code, figuring out that it’s made up of the key and tones of “Dearly Beloved” and “Passion,” paying tribute and keeping the feeling of Kingdom Hearts.)
Afterwards, you’re given control of our beloved boy, Sora. He’s grown up and awake again, though some of his memories are lacking…
As is Kingdom Hearts tradition, you’ll start by answering a series of questions: which matters most- guarding your friends, or casting powerful spells? Being strong, or playing as part of a team? These will decide your starting stats for the game, as well as a boon for each type of player. In RPG terms, it’s how much HP/MP you start with, along with your Attack, Defense, and Magical prowess. Once you’ve made your choice, the tale begins.
Sora admittedly struggles a lot in the beginning of the game, conflicted and frustrated; earlier in the series, he was nearly taken over by the nefarious Xehanort, and that touch of darkness drained him of much of his power. Master Yen Sid reminds him (constantly…) that he must regain these powers, dubbed the Power of Waking, in order to battle on and confront Xehanort.
Word choices are carefully considered in this game-- everything has a touch of finality to it.
Still pushing on as his goofy, lighthearted self, Sora traverses new worlds-- with stalwart pals Donald and Goofy in tow, of course-- in the Gummi Ship, another staple of the series. (I will not tell you how much I’ve wanted to throw the Gummi Ship in the garbage… for a whole series now.) These worlds, as before, span several Disney (and now Pixar!) titles, with a few KH-specific ones thrown in there. You can expect to see The Kingdom of Corona from Tangled, Arendelle from Frozen, Andy’s house and more from Toy Story, Monstropolis ala Monsters Inc., and San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6, along with a few old favorites, such as the 100 Acre Wood, Olympus from Hercules, and the Caribbean from Pirates of the Caribbean. KH-specific worlds include Twilight Town, and some that you’ll discover (and rediscover) in your journey…
Each of these worlds includes its own story, having Sora and company interact with the protagonists-- and a few antagonists-- of their respective tales. Some, such as the Tangled and Frozen worlds, will have you basically re-living the movies’ plots with some Sora sprinkled in, while others have original stories that play with the timelines between films. During these, you only touch the surface of the greater Kingdom Hearts story, instead focusing on aiding citizens of each world in their tasks, and gathering Keyblades and gear, while being interrupted (read: spied on) by random members of Organization XIII. Maleficent and Pete also make an appearance, on the search for a mysterious black box-- one that the Organization also seems eager to get their hands on.
Nay, the bulk of the Kingdom Hearts story is at the end. And boy oh boy, do they fill it in.
Once you’ve run through the worlds, you get to the real meat of the game-- gathering allies for the ultimate battle of light and dark. Seven guardians of light, and thirteen members of darkness. Gathered together, the χ-blade can be formed, the true Keyblade and the key to opening Kingdom Hearts.
Yes, Xehanort is still eager to control Kingdom Hearts, to destroy and recreate the world in an image he sees fit.
(For those unaware, Kingdom Hearts is the heart of all worlds, and the ultimate source of power. It is where the various worlds came from after a battle of light and darkness, called the Keyblade War, split Kingdom Hearts apart. Its true form disappeared into darkness, and Xehanort has spent all this time trying to recreate this phenomenon and gain mastery of it.)
Sora and his ragtag team plunge on into the final battle, hoping to defeat Xehanort and his Organization XIII once and for all.
But darkness is a powerful force, and light is outnumbered.
Allies fall. And some things are never the same. But all you can do, is pick up the pieces that are left...
Kingdom Hearts III does a great job of tying up loose ends in the series, bringing together friends and allies that have battled their way through darkness and back, and setting things right for each different set of heroes, so to speak. A cast of familiar faces fills the screen, and all of them find a purpose by the end.
The end, oh, what a tearful thing.
I’m not going to lie to you guys: I cried a lot at a lot of things in Kingdom Hearts III. The beginning, the end, some random parts in the middle… We’ve been on this journey with Sora for so long. They were all finally going home. It’s a bittersweet thing, seeing a story like this come to an end. Square Enix certainly plays on the nostalgia KH has created.
Spec-wise, Kingdom Hearts III is gorgeous. You can tell that Square Enix utilized the best tools the industry has in order to create something beautiful. Sometimes when previous game scenes are shown, the original graphics are used-- this was an odd choice for me initially, but I suppose it made sense by the end of the game. It showed their youth; not only the characters in the story, but of Square and the technology of the PS2, PSP, etc. And let’s face it: redoing every shown scene from twelve different games might take them another 13 years.
The battle system is faithful to what was previously established in Kingdom hearts II, just fancier and with a few added fireworks. In addition to the usual attacks and flurries of magic, KHIII has “attraction” attacks-- as in, attractions seen at Disney World. From the Mad Teacups to Magic Mountain, there are several that show up during the flow of battle that can be used to do massive damage to nearby enemies.
It’s flashy as hell.
Team attacks are also here, where Sora and a teammate fuse up for a special. One cool thing about this is that, unlike previous titles, the various Disney characters don’t take Goofy or Donald’s place in the party, so you can sometimes end up with a 5-man team! Not having to choose between them was awesome, as I managed to get the big magic from Donald and Goofy’s shield attacks without missing out on, say, Sulley and Mike Wazowski.
All of this combined means you end up with some wild battles!
It’s a good thing they give you all that firepower, because good grief the sheer amount of Heartless, Nobodies, and Unversed. You can have 30 frickin’ Heartless in one round of a normal battle! They’re all good for crowd control.
If you’re confused about the story of Kingdom Hearts, you’re definitely not alone: the majority of the characters also voice their confusion in-game. This almost came as a relief to me, someone who’s faithfully played and followed the story from the beginning, but was also confused as FACK.
There’s a lot of lines to cross, then uncross, then realize you had it right the first time and have to cross them back again.
But between the overview videos and rehashing in-game, you can get caught up fairly easily without all the fluff. You’re even given a Gummiphone, which contains a complete backup of the story (in addition to little games, a camera for AMAZING SELFIES WITH CHARACTERS, a tracker for various goals, and your access link to other characters, who were also given Gummiphones because WHAT IS HAPPENING?) Still, I’d recommend playing the other games (at least I and II, maybe watch a few videos on YouTube) before diving in here, so you can have an understanding and appreciation for what you’re seeing.
The pacing for some of the worlds, though. Ugh. I did find myself zoning out during some of the seriously lengthy cutscenes, and at the slow trot of some gameplay. Each world is massive, which unfortunately leaves a lot of dead space; Nomura indicated that he’d rather give us big worlds with lots to do, than tons of smaller worlds, but come on. I often found myself making a beeline for objectives, tired from exploring and coming up empty-handed for the endeavor. And some of the world’s stories are neutered to fit the narrative; for example, the Kingdom of Corona leaves out massive chunks of Tangled, which makes certain things not really make any sense, and would certainly confuse anyone who hadn’t seen the film.
It was a grit-your-teeth-and-just-do-it situation.
There are some mini-games scattered between worlds, such as dancing with Rapunzel (which admittedly was fun to interact with that part of her story), and doing virtual reality tracks set up by Hiro Hamada in San Fransokyo. As I mentioned before, there are also some old school cell games on your Gummiphone, which can be as frustrating as a couple choice 8-bit titles of yore. These weren’t my jam, but hey, they’re a good time sink if you’re into that kinda thing.
One thing I can truly appreciate is returning voice actors for Kingdom Hearts III. Haley Joel Osment (THANKFULLY) reprises his role as Sora-- the same he has since it all began. David Gallagher also returns as Riku, and just like Osment, he’s been there since the beginning. Several other actors make their return, while others reprise their roles straight from Disney, such as Kevin McNally as Mr. Gibbs ala Pirates of the Caribbean, Zachary Levi as Flynn Rider from Tangled, and nearly the entire Big Hero 6 and Frozen casts. There’s been a bit of a fuss regarding Kairi’s voice, though; apparently Hayden Panettiere wasn’t asked to reprise her role as Kairi, and instead Allyson Stoner helmed the character. To me, this isn’t a big deal-- yes, I liked Panettiere in KHI as Kairi, but they’ve switched between the two for the entire series so I’m over it. The voice acting here is pretty great anyway, most of the time.
In true Kingdom Hearts fashion, there’s an “after the ending” video you can unlock, if you’re willing to find Lucky Emblems (i.e. random Mickey heads) throughout the worlds. Seriously, the Mouse’s head is everywhere. This video is absolutely worth the effort to unlock (okay, okay, I guess you can look it up on YouTube IF YOU INSIST), and links KHIII to another Square Enix title, which I shall not name. But watch the real ending first!
Feel the brevity.
Overall, I was satisfied with the ending Nomura chose for this arc. Nothing good comes without sacrifice, and these guardians of light have worked so hard for so long. I didn’t always enjoy the pacing, or the inbetweens, but I absolutely loved the story I came for. Nostalgia is one hell of a drug, but Square Enix also knows how to hurt some feelings. If you’re a Kingdom Hearts fan, but you’ve been holding off, I say come on, experience this journey’s end with me.
We’ll go together.