Kingdom Hearts 3 works perfectly as both incredible fan service for the hardcores, and a gentle but stunning introduction to newcomers. Without giving too much away regarding the overarching storyline, let’s take a look at what it does well, what could be improved upon, and what you can expect from your first few hours into this fantastic game.
The Kingdom Hearts games are pretty well-known for their story. Cryptic, weird, and requiring a sizeable amount of investment to even remotely follow along, the series has gradually earned a reputation for being intimidating for newcomers because of its convoluted narrative. Even the very first cutscene of Kingdom Hearts 3 is referencing events and characters from the browser and mobile games - games that the average consumer wouldn’t realise are important. Deliberately referencing obscure things in the other KH entries is incredible fan service for those who are in the know, but will most certainly confuse the majority of players, and may even come across as obnoxious.
However, Kingdom Hearts 3 features an absolutely stunning introduction through cutscenes and tutorials that very gently eases you into the game.
It begins with a decent amount of backstory from previous games. Sora has lost all of his powers after being weakened and almost possessed during the events of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance. His mission now is to help gather the missing keyblade warriors linked to his own heart in order to protect the seven great Princesses of Light, who will stop Master Xehanort from recreating the ancient Chi-blade that will in turn protect Kingdom Hearts from falling into the hands of darkness.
Simple plot, right? We'll leave it at that for the time being.
The tutorials are overall very thorough, but they are also skippable - you are free to do as many or as few as you are comfortable with. KH3 slowly introduces a few combat and mobility options, giving you a chance to get used to them, before introducing more and more mechanics as you go. Before we know it, we are off on our way to our first Disney Kingdom - much sooner than in previous Kingdom Hearts games.
Cutscenes are long - a staple of the series - and tutorials are peppered in between.Newcomers not invested into the story may start to feel a bit bored, but at least they won't feel overwhelmed. Combat is introduced slowly for a reason; there are a lot of things to think about, and the game goes out of its way to ensure you're fully in tune with all of it. Moreover, cutscenes are rendered beautifully, with special care taken to integrate characters from different universes seamlessly. This all makes for a supremely strong opening - one I couldn't help falling in love with.
I’m very pleased to confirm that the game continues to be ludicrous and delightfully cheesy, exemplified by Hercules literally throwing you atop a giant statue across the city because (get this) it’s faster than running. Also, it’s great to see that some things never change: Donald is still the butt of all the jokes.
It's impossible to underestimate just how fun Kingdom Hearts III's combat is. Magic is delightful, incredibly mobile and with animation effects that are a spectacle to behold. Spamming the X button is a thing of the past and now we are constantly thinking about what we’re doing and reacting to different scenarios. This is easily the most fun defeating Heartless has ever been. Magic combos produce a strong magic finisher attack, and keyblade attacks can cause a keyblade transformation, increasing its power and utility. The kind of transformation depends on the keyblade, which makes an interesting and entertaining change.
New Keyblades are earned quickly, and once you find a few you like, you have on your hands a highly customisable arsenal that you can power up by finding upgrade items. Instead of just the one that we could change out of combat, we can now have three equipped at once and switch between them on the fly. Battles last longer, to match the massive array of combat options, spells and abilities, and team sizes are larger, allowing two more Disney characters to join Sora, Donald and Goofy. These companions all have their own unique special attacks that you can build up and unleash upon groups of enemies. The whole thing is, of course, very floaty, fast-paced and hectic at times, but that does not detract from the fun. It’s the signature Kingdom Hearts style but cranked up to 11.
Just as you start to think, "Brilliant, there's more than enough options for me to enjoy throughout this game," KH3 introduces Attractions, which are massive spectacles depicting various Disneyworld attractions dealing huge amounts of damage from a safe environment. They take a bit of getting used to, but become very powerful with practise. The Merry Go Round attraction is especially fun, requiring rhythmical button presses to send out waves of damaging energy.
The user interface and menus are very simply designed, streamlined modern takes on the Kingdom Hearts standard, and with minimal exploration you can easily understand how to access everything. Abilities seem quite intimidating at first, but every time you level up, it highlights new additions for you to check out. The minimap is perfectly readable and it's very easy to tell where you've already explored - which is just as well now the world's are huge.
Seeing areas that we're already familiar with being given a new coat of paint and injected full of life is fan-service like no other - especially now that these areas aren’t split up by loading screens anymore. Some worlds have original storylines and some follow the story of their respective movies. Being an integral part of your favourite animated movies is a blast, and it’s even better being a part of whole new adventures.
In the past, individual worlds’ storylines don’t have much bearing on the overall story of Kingdom Hearts. While this is still true to an extent in the latest game, I found myself caring so much more about why I was visiting each world, and how I could help the people that I found there. This is the biggest Kingdom Hearts game yet, and each individual world is a joy to explore and liberate. Mount Olympus as a starting world made me a little nervous at first, as historically it's been nothing more than glorified tournament grounds, but it was a perfect introduction and a wonderful homage to a world that has been with the series since the beginning.
It was also the perfect setting simply for introducing the sheer joy of Kingdom Hearts III's exploration. It might sound really basic, but being able to run around smashing crates and the like adds a surprising amount to previously static worlds. You’ll want to explore every nook and cranny, because, well, let’s be honest, breaking stuff is fun! You're encouraged to take your time and explore, gathering munny and ingredients. I was genuinely so excited every time I found a mushroom, because the cooking minigame is adorable. The game even features a photo mode with collectables linked to it, à la Marvel’s Spider-Man, further encouraging you to take it slowly, listen to your companions for clues and explore each area thoroughly.
The Gummi Ship sequences have gone from being a complete drag, to somewhat bearable, to now being actually really fun. Having 360 degree movement brings with it enormous freedom, and flying to new worlds, collecting munny and defeating enemy ships as you go is a nice change of atmosphere from the main game.
Kingdom Hearts III literally never gives you a chance to get bored. It is constantly throwing more and more new things at you for you to enjoy, whether it's mini-games, beautiful scenery, Easter eggs, cooking activities or collectable hunting. And yes, you’ll be delighted to hear: there is a selfie mode.
It’s really impressive to behold just how far the series has come since the first Kingdom Hearts in 2002, thanks to both technological evolution and the sheer amount of love that has been poured into this franchise by its creators and its fans alike. This entry still feels like those original Kingdom Hearts games of old, but with an incredible level of polish. You can really tell the amount of passion that went into creating this game.
It's really difficult to fault Kingdom Hearts III. Perhaps the slow early pacing will put off fans of the series, but at least it guarantees it's accessible for newcomers. Besides which, those same long-term fans will forgive such a minor fault; this game really is everything they could have hoped for.
5 out of 5. Simply magical.