Final Fantasy melodrama meets Walt Disney fairytale wonderment - that's a sentence which perfectly sums up one of the most innovative, curious, and outright crazy elevator pitches of all time. Kingdom Hearts became the name of the project, the brainchild of character designer Tetsuya Nomura, a man previously known for his work on Final Fantasy VII, VIII, and X, and the first three titles in the series saw Kingdom Hearts gain so much momentum that it even had the potential to become bigger than Square's second biggest franchise, Dragon Quest. The momentum, however, faded after the franchise branched onto five different platforms and seven spin-off titles of varying quality.
So where does one even start when considering Kingdom Hearts III, the third numbered sequel, a whole 13 years after the second, in a video game franchise with a story so convoluted that even Hideo Kojima would have to think twice in order to understand what's going on? If you're new to Kingdom Hearts, the third chapter has to explain thirteen years of side-stories in one video game.
With all that in mind, arriving at the recent Kingdom Hearts III preview event in sunny Santa Monica we were filled with excitement and caution. Could Nomura and his team at Square Enix create a worthy sequel after 13 years of anticipation?
First up was a panel with the man himself as well as some of the most important contributors to the game, although the attendees weren't allowed to ask any questions themselves and instead had to rely on pre-prepared questions for Nomura and his co-director on the Kingdom Hearts franchise, Tai Yasue. Nomura started the presentation by describing the core theme of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, which was an exploration of the heart, and the team chose the word 'revelation' as the essential summary of Kingdom Heart III. Continuing on, Nomura framed Kingdom Hearts III as the climax of a story 16 years in the making that would, therefore, be a non-stop stream of revelations and epic moments. Details on the exact content of the narrative were, unfortunately, kept tightly under wraps, and the only information given was that the third chapter would seamlessly incorporate Disney and Final Fantasy elements without ever getting too childish or too dark, as would the game's overarching conflict of light versus darkness.
A conscious effort has been made this time around to make the individual worlds feel more alive and populated by real characters. In previous entries the worlds had felt empty and were only home to a select few characters from any given film, and to better demonstrate this new focus, Tai Yasue showed the castle town from Tangled with Sora running around, interacting with various NPCs. The older games taken into consideration, it's great to finally see these film universes come fully to life in Kingdom Hearts.
After the short panel the long-awaited moment to play the game finally arrived, after 13 years of eager waiting. Each journalist was given 90 minutes with the game on either or PlayStation 4 Pro or Xbox One X, and despite Xbox One X's superior power, most preferred to try the game on PlayStation 4, the same family of platforms that housed the first chapter many years ago. Square Enix had prepared two demos showcasing two distinct aspects of the game, namely Hercules and Toy Story.
The first level we got to try was Hercules's Olympus Coliseum, a setting featured in the earliest trailers and a recurring world in almost all of the games. Sora and his loyal companions were tasked with taking down the rock titan wreaking havoc on Mount Olympus, and as a returning fan having recently completed Kingdom Hearts II (for the millionth time) we were glad to see how everything felt like a natural continuation of the second game and the prequel Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.
At its core, Kingdom Hearts III controls more or less like the second instalment and, except for a few animation upgrades, controlling the main character Sora feels as natural as ever. After hitting the enemies a substantial number of times, the player unlocks special abilities that can be triggered with triangle, and using a certain amount of fire or ice magic in succession will allow for an even stronger finishing spell. Similarly, using melee attacks will open other options for finishing blows, powerful limit breaks, or new fighting mechanics.
Battling the persistent Heartless enemies feels better than ever and this time around Sora can summon various Disney rides to aid the fight, which are triggered like sort of quick-time events and aren't classic summons. During the titan fight, for instance, we were able to summon a huge train ride and fire waves of exploding fireworks in what could only be described as a gorgeous combination of vivid colours, suffering enemies, and rain-covered mountains. In other words, Kingdom Hearts III is a stunning splendour of graphical fidelity.
Even though it was short in nature - about 10 minutes or so - Olympus Coliseum was a blast to behold and raised our expectations for the next part: Kingdom Hearts' first Pixar world.
Toy Story was once the pinnacle of digital storytelling and has long been an anticipated world in this hybrid franchise. The Kingdom Hearts III world is called Toy Box and a hefty portion was playable, with the initial D23 reveal trailer giving you a pretty good idea what we tried. There was about an hour of gameplay including story bits and long cutscenes, and the length of these cutscenes can't be understated, since they all last several minutes and have tons of dialogue about classic Kingdom Hearts tropes such as parallel worlds, time travel, and finding your friends. Unlike prior games though, the ways in which the characters interacted and conversed seemed a bit mechanical and the pacing incredibly slow. That being the case we often found ourselves wanting to skip through minutes of dialogue.
The same luckily can't be said about the gameplay here, as just like with the Hercules section we saw some of the best and most polished mechanics in recent memory. Whereas Olympus Coliseum was a small taste of the opening hours of the game, Toy Box features a well-equipped and well-prepared crew. Each of Sora's keyblades has unique functions and can be switched out in the heat of battle, for instance, with one keyblade turning into a giant hammer, another into a magic wand, and another into deadly yo-yos. Banging enemies with a hammer one moment and the next summoning a mountain of bright beams the next is incredibly satisfying, as you can imagine.
Kingdom Hearts III brings back the summoning powers from the other numbered instalments too, and they're powerful allies when surrounded by too many enemies. In the demo both Ariel from the Little Mermaid and Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph were available, both of which reflected their source material perfectly and are controlled similarly to the summons in Kingdom Hearts II. Despite Ralph being a welcome surprise, it was Ariel who was the most impressive visually, as everything from the attacks and the water particles through to her interactions with Sora came together beautifully.
It's one thing seeing a trailer showing the world and another experiencing it for yourself though, and those who have grown up with the adventures of Woody and Buzz may, at first glance, have difficulty separating the game from the first Toy Story films. Unlike many games in the Square Enix catalogue or even in general, Kingdom Hearts III offers the exact same visual quality whether you're watching a cutscene or actively playing the game, which is used to great effect since it allows for smooth transitions between the one and the other.
Observing the amount of detail and dedication to the source material, it quickly becomes abundantly clear exactly why Nomura and his team waited until the third chapter before introducing Pixar worlds; the older generations of consoles, simply put, didn't have the raw graphical power required to do the source material justice. In short, where Olympus Coliseum was a stunning sight to behold, and the Toy Box is among the greatest graphical feats we have witnessed to date.
At the beginning of this preview we asked the question: where does one start when considering Kingdom Hearts III? Behind all the convoluted plot developments of prior games, the unanswered questions and mysteries, it still remains up in the air, but if the hands-on experience is any indication we think we know where to end. Kingdom Hearts III looks to be the most interesting and highly ambitious Square Enix game for a while, not only since the original but likewise since the golden days of the '90s where Squaresoft ruled supreme when it came to JRPGs.