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Kingdom Hearts III (PlayStation 4) artwork

Kingdom Hearts III (PlayStation 4) review

"When a game is really entertaining, but still winds up being a bit of a letdown."

On one hand, it can be said that 2019's Kingdom Hearts III is a great addition to a series that has endured since 2002 on multiple systems throughout multiple generations. And the PlayStation 4's technology is good enough to make this game's worlds look like the ones presented in the Disney and Pixar movies they're derived from, while the gameplay generally takes after that offered in Kingdom Hearts II -- widely considered the best game in the series -- with some of the more intriguing elements from other games simply being added to that strong foundation.

You'll encounter fast-paced action, mixed in with the sort of epic moments you'd expect from a game designed as the conclusion of a 17-year plot concerning the youthful Sora and his cohorts attempting to prevent the schemes of the malevolent Master Xehonort from coming to fruition. There are plenty of diversions, ranging from finding a lot of simplistic arcade games based on those Game & Watch offerings I vaguely remember from my youth, to cooking various stat-buffing meals, to finding large numbers of well-hidden Mickey Mouse emblems in order to unlock additional cinema in the game's ending.

Battles have the potential to be extremely fun. While "rapidly tap X to win" definitely is a viable strategy, at least on the less taxing difficulty settings, you'll get so many cool attacks that it'd be foolish to not experiment. After you whack enemies with your Keyblade or spells often enough, you'll start seeing all sorts of optional attacks show up for you to choose between, which you can hit the Triangle button to implement. You can temporarily transform any of the game's many Keyblades into a stronger variation, you can access more powerful versions of spells, you can implement a special attack based on a Disney Park ride or you can team up with one or more comrades for a damaging special attack. And these options pop up regularly, so an attentive player can spend as much time devastating foes with these optional moves as with Sora's basic swipes and slashes.

While I won't say that every world in this game was equally fun, I will say the best are possibly my favorites in the series. The world based on Toy Story mostly takes place in a large shopping center, where you'll explore multiple toy-themed stores, while this game's Pirates of the Caribbean land gives you a small open world where you can sail a ship to a number of islands simply to explore and find treasure. Throughout the game, you'll find yourself using Dream Drop Distance's Flowmotion moves, both to scale walls and to attack, and they'll be most useful in this game's Big Hero 6 world, where you're placed in a decent-sized city and expected to scale skyscrapers and other buildings to find treasure and complete plot objectives.

And really, if a world didn't captivate me, it had less to do with said world being poorly designed and more to do with its storyline being a heavily-truncated version of the movie it was based on, with Sora, Donald and Goofy having little else to do besides fight their way through monsters, while you hope you can remember enough of the film to understand this game's interpretation of its plot. I mean, I'm not super-familiar with Frozen, but I'm pretty sure that Prince Hans had a more significant role in the movie than two non-speaking cutscene cameos followed by him turning into a demonic wolf. In fact, I'm pretty sure that last thing didn't actually happen in the movie, although it'd be cool if it had!

Yeah, on one hand, this is a great culmination for this series. Unfortunately, that other hand had to reach up and pimp-slap my exuberance into submission. Kingdom Hearts III is a fun game to play and it contains a lot to do, but plot-wise, it really fell short of my expectations given that it serves as the conclusion of a story that's taken 17 years to conclude. And the sad thing is that the culprit behind this shortcoming is the reality that this is a Kingdom Hearts game following the structure one expects from a Kingdom Hearts game.

Not counting the eminently forgettable Chain of Memories or the ones deemed so insignificant they were reduced to cutscene movies on the many Kingdom Hearts HD compilations that've been released, these games follow a simple pattern. Your hero -- usually Sora, but occasionally another character or three -- will travel through a number of worlds based on Disney movies, going on adventures related in some way to those films' plots. During this time, the game's main plot will gradually unfold and things will usually come to a climax around the point when the Disney worlds have run out, setting up the game's final lands, where some huge revelations are revealed and the final battles are fought.

For this formula to work, the writers must walk a very fine line. Since each Disney world has its own self-contained plot, it's imperative they find a way to advance the main story in a way that it doesn't completely overshadow the Disney stuff, but still points you toward the prize, so to speak. Important adversaries might find themselves allied with a particular movie's villain, or perhaps they'll be causing trouble behind the scenes while you're trying to stop the Disney evil-doer. Regardless, the appeal of this series is derived from its ability to allow the individual worlds to breathe while also using each one as a mechanism to keep the overall plot moving.

Kingdom Hearts III does not come close to succeeding in that aspect. For the first time ever, those Disney (and Pixar) worlds legitimately feel like filler. Early in the game, Square Enix pokes fun at how they've numbered these games by referring to Sora's tutorial trip to Olympus as "Kingdom Hearts II.9" before giving you the legitimate title screen after completing that world. Alas, the vast majority of the game feels like "II.9" and then all the big events get thrown together one after the next with no single moment getting time to shine in the "you waited for this to happen for years; now enjoy it!" way they deserve.

In short, when this game starts, Xehonort has nearly everything he needs to start his Keyblade War, but this encounter is supposed to be contested between the seven lights and 13 darknesses and the forces of light have some catching up to do. After the events of Dream Drop Distance, Sora has been left depleted and needs to regain his strength and master a mystical McGuffin known as "the power of waking".

And that's the bulk of the game: Sora goes to a world, works through its plot, doesn't obtain that power and goes to the next world. While members of Xehonort's Organization interact with him, it generally feels like they're just killing time while waiting for the fun to start. For example, one guy, Marluxia, shows up in the world based on Tangled because the Organization has a vested interest in Rapunzel's safety. She could be a potential back-up if someone happens to one of the series' Princesses of Light. He'll chat with your team, as well as movie villainess Mother Gothel, send a big monster after you at the end and then go back to Organization headquarters, rarely appearing in scattered cutscenes until its time to dust him off for the finale.

This will happen for the bulk of the game, to the degree that even Sora gets repeatedly frustrated by how he can't help with the heavy lifting because he's stuck on his McGuffin search. Uh, guys, when I'm feeling that the key attraction of your series has been reduced to filler that happens to eat up the majority of a game's length, it might not be a great idea to have your main character confirm those suspicions, making me think you wrote yourself into a corner and simply reacted by sticking your heads into the sand, pretending there is no problem whatsoever.

And then, after you've finished the final Disney world, everything goes crazy. Sure, there's still a bit of filler -- such as the bizarre little segment where things go completely wrong for the heroes, leading to you controlling Sora in an afterlife setting to collect over 100 copies of his body in order to reset time a bit and gain a second chance at overcoming that seemingly-insurmountable bit of adversity -- but you'll go from one big fight to the next so quickly that all 13 of Xehonort's darknesses can easily be dispatched in an hour or two. We're talking guys who've been the final boss in previous games, as well as the characters who did the heavy lifting for those bosses and they're all fought in groups of two or three and, just like that, they're gone. You'll be fighting a group of them, one of them will fall, you'll get a "fare-thee-well" cutscene and then resume the battle against the surviving foes. You'll spend two hours unraveling Vanitas' plots in the Monsters, Inc. world and then two minutes putting an end to him in a battle where he has to share the spotlight with a more imposing villain during this extremely rushed boss rush.

What can I say? On a pure "fun to play" level, this might be the best Kingdom Hearts has ever been, with responsive controls, tons of combat options and optional things to do when out of battle. But as far as storytelling goes, this might be the series' lowest moment. The pacing of the game is atrocious, with nothing significant happening for an eternity and then everything big all happening at once before getting resolved so quickly that nothing really resonates. The Disney worlds, while fun to play through, have scarcely any relevance to the actual plot. You know the old saying about how the journey is more important than the destination? I'd say that one's opinion of this game depends on one's level of agreement with that statement. Kingdom Hearts III's journey was a lot of fun, but the destination was quite lacking.


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (March 31, 2020)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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