Geek Culture

Geek Review: Kingdom Hearts III

17 years is a long journey to take (and wait), but there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing it through a great, worthwhile end, right?

Well, if you’re a fan of the Kingdom Hearts series, the sequel and finale to the series, Kingdom Hearts III, is a bumpy ride littered with pitfalls and stumbling blocks that ultimately delivers a disappointingly mixed experience, even with its signature charm.

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It is a well-established fact that the Disney-meets-Square-Enix franchise boasts an extremely convoluted narrative, with lore spanning across a total of eleven installments. The execution of tricky themes like time travel, body swapping, and memory loss certainly does not make things easy either, and the latest entry tries its best to tie everything up – but the emphasis is on the ‘try’.

The conclusion to the story sees Keyblade-wielder Sora reprising his role as the protagonist, on a quest to regain his lost powers and protect the titular Kingdom Hearts from falling into the destructive hands of primary antagonist Master Xehanort. His trusty sidekicks, Riku, Goofy, Donald Duck, and Mickey also return, which serves as a nostalgic nod to the PlayStation 2 days.

As with all things Kingdom Hearts, however, nothing is truly straightforward. While the game’s timeline is a chronological follow-up to its predecessor, a lot of background knowledge can only be gleaned from the sub titles released in between the first two main games. Confusion is, thus, inevitable, and newcomers will understandably be stumped.

In an attempt to compensate for the 12-year hiatus between this and Kingdom Hearts II, a handy refresher of past events is available from the main menu. Unfortunately, even that counts for little when it comes to understanding most of the lore beyond the surface level.

With so much baggage to unpack and address, it really is not all that surprising that the plot for Kingdom Hearts III does not stick with the landing. In fact, it is easily the weakest element of the game. Sloppily strung together by glaring logical fallacies, self-indulgence, and confusion, coupled with dull, stilted dialogue, the plot is simply a mess. At certain junctures, the reappearance of certain Organisation XIII members seem utterly redundant and inconsequential as well, which only complicates things further.

And as much as everyone loves to see their favourite characters be the central attraction in cutscenes, they are often too lengthy and bland. There are shorter, more dynamic sequences to balance out the storytelling pace, but for a title so reliant on cutscenes for plot progression, the failure to execute the nuances of character interactions and sequences certainly comes across as a shocking flaw. If anything, at least the characters have prettier eyelashes up-close.

Still, there remains an optimistic side to the doom and gloom. The cheerful and light-hearted vibes that permeate present-day conversations in the game help to retain a sense of childish wonder and magic, and some of the cutscenes did integrate seamlessly with the re-enactments of iconic moments across the Disney movies. Where characters are concerned, the team has also delivered upon their promise of featuring more Riku-centric moments, and has reignited our fondness for characters like Axel, Terra, and the like. Sora’s character, however, could have been fleshed out a lot more, especially after going through numerous trials and tribulations in the franchise’s history.

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Instead of the maturation in behaviour and outlook that comes with overcoming struggles, the Keyblade wielder stays an obnoxiously cheerful, naive individual – not that optimism and positivity are negative traits to bear, but the lack of character development does undermine the experiences that he and the players have gone through.

It’s a great pity that Kingdom Hearts III faltered at storytelling, because it is, for the most part, a beautiful and enjoyable title. Staying true to the spirit of the series, the Disney-Square-Enix hybrid continues to explore the signature themes of love, friendship, fate, and the soul, which blend in superbly with the selected Disney movies. For example, Sora’s personal experience with loss, friendship, and progress is expertly echoed in the Toy Story storyline, where Woody lifts up his foot to unveil the four-letter word that is “Andy” in faded ink – the perfect callback to an iconic moment in the series.

This masterful integration of two different realms is maintained consistently throughout the entire narrative. A strong sense of nostalgia always seems to linger as players are transported into the various worlds, with familiar scenes of the more well-known Disney IPs undergoing accurate retellings and re-enactments. In the Kingdom of Corona, we are greeted with Rapunzel being confined in the castle a la Tangled, while Elsa’s singing of Let It Go in Arendelle is replicated to great detail. The Monster’s Inc. world, meanwhile, brings back the familiar struggle of Sully and Mike (does he blink or wink?) to keep Boo safe from Randall.

It’s testament of the team’s magic touch, but a small gripe remains: at times, the characters may seem out of place against the enhanced environmental design in the cutscenes, possibly because the texture quality of these character models are not as fine as that of the game environment, which is a sight to behold.

The in-game worlds are breathtakingly gorgeous. A 12-year hiatus has done well for the series to age gracefully, and in place of fuzzy, loose art details associated with gaming days of the past now stand landscapes upon landscapes of crisp, breathtaking visuals. The hail storms at Arendelle’s ice-capped peaks, for instance, come with clearly-defined ice granules in tow, and the world of Big Hero 6’s San Fransokyo is often drenched in vibrant, neon colours. At one point, players are to escape from a frustrating maze as part of the Frozen storyline, but the magnificent show of sleek, stunning glacial designs almost completely makes up for the dreadful experience.

This same aesthetic treatment is especially evident in recurring worlds: Olympus and Twilight Town. A familiar sight to old-time fans of the series, these two locations retain the best of their existing traits, as they undergo a facelift to emerge more open, authentic, and refreshing versions of themselves – a good balance between the old and the new.

In a show of clever thought to reflect some new changes to the combat system, each world is carefully crafted with geological advantages as well, such as poles to swing about, or cliffs to run up. With varying nuances and special features across the board, all of them are outstanding in their own way, and are mostly able to stand on their own, though one thing remains consistent throughout: the theme of camaraderie.

Among the list, the Pirates of the Caribbean world is most definitely our personal favourite. It’s fun, bustling with activity, and gives a much-welcomed reprieve from the usual combat style – here, fights can take the form of an Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag-esque naval battle, or an underwater skirmish. Kingdom Hearts III may feature fewer worlds than its two mainline predecessors, totalling up to seven in total, but the vast effort put into producing more polished content compensates for the lacking quantity.

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The locations are great; however, travelling to and from each of them is not. The Gummi Ship makes an unceremonious return once again, and the desire to skip the compulsory mode of travel to dive immediately into the next world continues to burns strong. Space combat is no less monotonous and aimless than before, so thankfully most battles can be avoided, except for a few compulsory ones.

It’s definitely a good thing, then, that combat outside of Gummi Ship battles are largely an enjoyable affair that often fills players with a sense of unbridled delight and excitement. Building upon the mechanical approach in the PS2 titles, Kingdom Hearts III does a decent job at retaining a similar control scheme amidst the introduction of new elements. The hack-n-slash action will be familiar to fans of the series and RPG genre, with newcomers being able to pick up the mechanics rather easily, although its overall combat system is hardly the best by far.

The fun and fast-paced nature of the game’s combat allows for plenty of attack chains, and the chance to experiment with various tactics. This time, there’s an increased emphasis on fast transversal and air combos, which means fighting can grow into inelegant chaos, and button-mashing turns frantic. For all of its disarray, the game is most certainly a great step-up from its predecessors, with the movements of Sora and his companions notably smoother and more fluid than before, as should be the case.

Accompanying the combat system is a bag of new tricks that brings a different form of adrenaline to the table. Apart from the usual sword-slashing action and magic-imbued abilities, Kingdom Hearts III also dishes out dopamine through quirky special attacks specially tailored to the DNA of Disney theme parks. Known as Attraction Flow, these attack choices range from spinning tea cups and a carousel, to a water rafting ride and swinging pirate ship – all of which involve chaining attacks, good timing, and the racking up of high scores.

It’s a colourful and highly scintillating affair, made better by frequent intervals. Over the fight duration, Attraction Flow summons usually take place multiple times, making it easier for players to clean up a skirmish, or rain hell upon the Heartless in times of dire need. Boss battles, in particular, are where the strategic execution of these mini-game-like abilities pays off handsomely – while most of the big bad boast a similar appearance to massive bodies of darkness, their special powers are often a handful to deal with. Triggering the activation at the right time can thus help to even out the field, and reduce the overall length of battle.

Hints of the flashy combat are seen through Sora’s Keyblade attacks as well. A marked improvement over previous titles, each newly-earned Keyblade now comes with two unique form changes that allow players to decimate enemy forces through magical or physical means, depending on the Keyblade’s primary mode of attack (magic or strength). Players are also allowed to equip a total of three Keyblades, such that a swap to a more suited option is possible during combat.

For all the vast improvements made to the combat system, it still suffers from some flaws, especially where gameplay mechanics are concerned. In some ways, Kingdom Hearts III feels like an imitation of its predecessor, which isn’t disadvantageous per se, except that it fails to address some of the faults seen in the earlier games. Granted, the movement of Sora and his companions is, as mentioned earlier, comparatively smoother and more fluid in combat, but it’s also bogged down by an unintuitive, clumsy targeting system, awkward camera angles, and unreliable execution of maneuver-based attacks. Navigating through the menus in the midst of skirmishes remains an inconvenience as well, especially with the absence of key bindings that allow for shortcut access to magic spells.

Thankfully, most of the combat situations can be avoided if desired – sans the compulsory boss battles, of course – so players will be able to trudge forward to progress the story, with the risk of being underlevelled. The game may not be as lofty as recent heavy hitters like God of War and Marvel’s Spider-Man when it comes to mechanics, but it does provide a sufficiently satisfying combat experience. In any case, should skirmishes grow to become monotonous, there are other activities to do as well, such as gathering ingredients for cooking dishes, collecting and playing classic games on the Gummi Phone, and hunting down Lucky Emblems.

Kingdom Hearts III is far from the perfect conclusion to a beloved, well-loved trilogy. It has its perks and good moments, but stumbles along the way with a convoluted, bland narrative, and finicky combat issues that are only made up for in the form of breathtaking visuals, creative design, and an enjoyable experience overall. Ultimately, the game takes on a safe approach, seeking to play up the element of nostalgia, rather than bring Sora’s journey to a truly gratifying end. As remakes and reboots have repeatedly shown us, however, the magic of nostalgia is often very powerful – perhaps the best part about the game is how it has enough heart to charm newcomers, while simultaneously attracting long-time fans to keep returning for more.

GEEK REVIEW SCORE

Summary

Sadly, the third time is not the charm. Time has passed, and we’ve all grown up. It’s difficult to say the same for Sora and his companions, with Kingdom Hearts III featuring a mixed bag of old and new elements across the areas of combat, storytelling, and design. Fuelled by nostalgia, the game looks to delight fans of the series – and it does, for the most part. Newcomers, though, should be prepared to be utterly confused (don’t worry, we’ve all been there) as the book on Sora’s journey closes on a bittersweet note.

Overall
8.3/10
8.3/10
  • Gameplay - 8/10
    8/10
  • Story - 7.5/10
    7.5/10
  • Presentation - 9/10
    9/10
  • Value - 8.5/10
    8.5/10
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