Kingdom Hearts III – Review
I was nine years old when the original Kingdom Hearts released for the PlayStation 2. I was already brought up on RPGs, particularly eastern varietals and the nutty idea of a Squaresoft (now SquareEnix) and Disney crossover of all things, while odd, captured my imagination in a way no other game had at that point. I often gravitated towards RPGs (and still do) because of their scale, mystique and priority for storytelling. Most of the time, anyway. Fast forward two years later and Chain of Memories dropped for the Game Boy Advance. While a fun bridge between the inevitable true sequel, I was foaming at the mouth by the time it released when I was 12. Kingdom Hearts II, flaws and all, was my favorite game, period, for most of my remaining adolescence.
Then, something changed. I felt that the series was heading in a direction I wasn’t keen on. While gameplay kept me mostly entertained, the narrative was becoming too convoluted for its own good. Gone was mystique and a sense of genuine awe in favor of a melodramatic farce which has further strayed from its core draw (at least for me) and has continually bogged itself down. Now, 14 years after Kingdom Hearts II, it all comes to a head.
Right off the bat, Kingdom Hearts III is not, I repeat, NOT a direct sequel to II. Don’t let the numerical designation fool you. Every game between this matters to the story, whether you like it or not. Picking up after the events of Dream Drop Distance, after failing his Mark of Mastery exam and (sort of) discovering Xehanort’s true intentions, Sora must travel and help other worlds, build his strength and hope to gain the power of waking now that he’s been conveniently nerfed in order for us to have an excuse to level up again. We then proceed through the episodic adventures of handpicked Disney and Pixar worlds, which have little-to-no impact on the overall narrative, before the plot comes to head by the end.
Let’s talk about those worlds. While I think Kingdom Hearts II is a superior product to the original in many respects, one of its drawbacks that has persisted and carried through each subsequent entry up to now is how little these visits to respective Disney worlds actually impact the story. There was a goal in mind for the original game. Find the keyholes. There is a reason Sora, Donald and Goofy are there. Plus, each villain is part of the rogues gallery working to impede their progress. There is a sense of agency unmatched in the original game that we’ve only lost the further we’ve kept this going. II had this problem as well, especially when it came to second visits, but it is even worse here. Sora’s goal is vague and superficial and we just kind of fool around in each world and move onto the next, and any involvement or interference from our antagonists is ultimately superfluous. It’s all painfully fragmented.
Combat-wise, we’ve at last put the Command Deck to rest. We’re back to more sustainable combos and an MP bar. Situation Commands return from 0.2 and have been expanded upon. In simple terms, they’ve essentially combined Reaction Commands, Limits and Drive Forms into one streamlined system and while it’s very overpowered, it’s what I enjoy the most about the gameplay this time around. It’s especially helpful if you favor magic.
Speaking of overpowered, this entry is quite easy. Potentially the easiest game in the series. I had half a mind to start the game on Proud Mode for fear that it’d be comparable to II’s Standard difficulty and found it was even easier than that, before starting a new file to go with my initial instincts. Proud Mode might as well be Standard. That being said, combat is fluid, there are enough toys to play with, even if the game is a little small for it’s intended ambition. The game clocks in at about 30 hours, depending on how much time you dedicate to extra content not related to the main story.
I can’t say I didn’t have fun. Having gone out of my way continually for this franchise has been bumpy to say the least but I still carried a torch for it long enough for III to potentially provide some closure, at least for most of the plot threads established, given that this is far from the last entry in the franchise. I didn’t feel closure by the end, only the same fatigue I’ve had since about 2010. The conclusion to this arc is not satisfying, even after 13 years to stew and half a decade to actually develop, it still feels undercooked and ultimately rushed. Whether or not this affects your enjoyment will depend on how much stake (or lack of) you have in the narrative. This series is woefully melodramatic and will continue to be so with or without me, but as far as being an outlet to spew nostalgia for Disney, it works in that respect. Unfortunately, the SquareEnix side of this crossover is almost entirely ignored, as no Final Fantasy characters, old or new appear in the game outside of Easter eggs and Gummi Ship blueprints. Gummi Ship sections however, are easily the best they’ve ever been, there’s just not enough for you to do with them.
The irony is not lost on me that I’m being plenty melodramatic about something I’m complaining about being… well… melodramatic. That’s sort of the trouble with any property being so close to you as you grow up. “But is it FUN!?” I hear you shouting. Yeah, I’d say so. Is it satisfying? In some ways yes, in other ways no. Was it worth the wait? That’s considerably more complicated. Among my friends, a handful of us have said that Kingdom Hearts III would likely be our last game, regardless of what crazy direction Tetsuya Nomura wishes to take it next. While I don’t have a definitive answer as to whether that’s still the case for me, I will say I’m done going out of my way.
Ultimately, it’s an unpolished, fast-paced little mess. Enjoyable, but ultimately shallow. More so than usual.
7 out of 10.
Watching how this one ages is going to be interesting.