Some games seem destined to never see the light of day. The clamouring for Half-Life 3, the cancellation of Star Wars 1313, and the mystery of Tekken X Street Fighter are just a few examples of games with huge potential that never actually got released. Now and then, however, a mythical game plagued by years of hype and public demand finally releases, but usually they land too late or they end up being disappointing. Kingdom Hearts III was one of these mythical games, yet instead of missing its mark it's instead the ultimate demonstration of a talented team working to fulfill its potential and craft something truly special. In short, after many years of waiting, Kingdom Hearts III is a landmark achievement in the diverse JRPG landscape. Now allow us to explain exactly why the third numbered game in the series goes above and beyond what was expected. Kingdom Hearts III is finally here.
The game hasn't even started before Square Enix decides to reward returning players. After some brief flashes of the compulsory Disney, Pixar, and Square Enix logos, a beautiful rendition of Hikaru Utada's theme song "Don't Think Twice" starts playing, followed by a string of cutscenes from all the previously released Kingdom Hearts games (besides the mobile one). Those who have been with the series since back in the early days - or those have recently powered through the re-releases - will definitely get the chills and the already gargantuan excitement for finally playing Kingdom Hearts III will only grow. Prior to even starting the journey and pressing "New Game", Square Enix makes a clear statement: Kingdom Hearts is back.
Kingdom Hearts III is the second "eternity" project reaching current-gen consoles after years and years of waiting, next to Final Fantasy XV. When FFXV was released in 2016 after a decade in development, it featured the sentence "A Final Fantasy for fans and first-timers", making the intentions of the developer clear; it aimed to recruit new fans to the series as well as preserve their existing fanbase. Kingdom Hearts III goes in another direction entirely. The third chapter opens during the end of Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance and leaves both new players and those with limited knowledge of titles other than 1 and 2 in the dust. In fact, the first three or four hours of Kingdom Hearts III come off as specifically targeting a select number of people, instead of trying to find a broad appeal. Just as with the mixed opinions of Kingdom Hearts II's slow pace in the opening hours, its sequel will probably face a similar reception going forward. That being said, the narrative gets less confusing as the story progresses and Square Enix manages to simplify some of the insane ideas introduced in other games.
Briefly summarised, Kingdom Hearts III continues the magical adventures of Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy as they journey from one iconic Disney World to the next. This time around they're tasked with gathering and tracking down the so-called guardians of light for help in the final confrontation with villain Xehanort and Organization XIII. The core premise of the narrative is easy to follow, not being nearly as convoluted as the series has become known for. Having played or being aware of the events in the prologue Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is still highly recommended. Despite a slow start and being the 11th chapter in the series, Kingdom Hearts III still tells an enthralling and fascinating tale across its 40-hour runtime. The player will go through a plethora of emotions before the credits finally roll, having cried, laughed, cringed, mourned, and witnessed one reveal and surprise after another. Kingdom Hearts III is a beautiful mix of a grand JRPG, Greek tragedy, and Walt Disney magic. It sounds insane and yet manages to work so well. In terms of content, the story is finished and not reliant on any future DLC.
A cornerstone of the Kingdom Hearts games are the characters Sora and his crew meet on their journeys. While the same can be said about the third game, this time around Square Enix has significantly improved the dynamic banter between Sora, Donald, and Goofy. The player really gets the feeling of a deep friendship and comradery. Sora and Donald are particularly funny to observe as the narrative progresses. Even more praise needs to go on the inclusion of all the other Disney characters. Woody and Buzz from Toy Story have identical personalities to their cinematic counterparts and feel almost as they have been ripped straight out of the movies. Flynn Rider from Tangled is likewise as quirky and a tiny bit arrogant when speaking to Donald and Goofy. The only real downside was the characters in Frozen who didn't really get as much screen time as one would have hoped, mainly just relying on scenes from the movie. Square Enix's work in getting many of the original actors to lend their voices only makes the characters feel more present and unique. Names like James Woods, Zachary Levi, and T.J. Miller all reprise their roles in the game. And speaking of iconic voices and sounds, Kingdom Hearts III delivers an absolutely magical score. It reflects on both the legacy of Kingdom Hearts I and II's greatest melodies, as well as delivering catchy new tunes; the game is a constant joy for the ears. Nostalgics in particular will enjoy all the classic tunes played during certain key events and activities. For us, it was difficult not to hum the iconic "You Got a Friend In Me" composition from Toy Story or just close our eyes and listen to the score from Big Hero 6.
In terms of nostalgia, Kingdom Hearts started its life in 2002 as an ambitious union of Final Fantasy and Disney universes. As time has progressed, Final Fantasy characters have taken up less space and are completely missing in Kingdom Hearts III. The influence isn't gone, however, and there are plenty of moments paying homage or even directly copied from Final Fantasy games. Moreover, the mix of the Disney and original Kingdom Hearts characters have been suffering from an identity crisis in the last couple of games, with both the second game's and Dream Drop Distance's worlds often feeling disjointed and having no connection to the overarching plot. Many unique Disney worlds turned into rehashes of their movies and would end up feeling like a hindrance rather than cool inclusion. Square Enix clearly knows this, and Kingdom Hearts III stays free of this phenomenon. Every world visited feels connected to Sora's quest and not just a Disney World for the sake of having Disney properties in the game. When you visit Buzz and Woody in their Toy Story world, it's not a retelling of the movie and instead introduces an all-new story in a new setting. Accordingly, Kingdom Hearts III never loses its pace and keeps on being interesting, encouraging exploration.
The series has never been afraid to mess around with its gameplay mechanics and has been both a turn-based card game of sorts, a clunky action-RPG, and has relied on touch mechanics. Nonetheless, it's only with Kingdom Hearts III that Square Enix finally nails every element of the gameplay. Not only is it remarkable to bear witness to but likewise it's a blast to play for yourself. Combat has an optimised customisation system, allowing Sora to bring three keyblades into battle. Each one presents unique abilities and different weapon transformations. One keyblade will turn into a devastating hammer, wrecking everything in sight, whereas another becomes a deadly yo-yo contraption. Each of the weapons, moreover, has a unique special attack, which deals enormous amounts of damage to all enemies in sight. Keyblades can be upgraded using a variety of items, preventing your favourites from becoming useless against stronger enemies as the story goes on.
Besides Sora's arsenal of keyblades, the Final Fantasy-inspired summons are once again back and more useful than ever - and they're just a blast to see them in action. Watching Wreck-It Ralph smash toys in a huge store or summoning the little mermaid in the middle of a forest never gets old. Likewise, Donald and Goofy have never been as reliable and efficient as they are in Kingdom Hearts III, in stark contrast to being almost useless in the second game. Donald will sometimes finish Sora's melee attacks with powerful fire magic and calls upon huge meteors to severely damage the enemy. Goofy, on the other hand, is great at protecting Donald and Sora with his shield-focused abilities. The AI has been improved substantially and the player can actually rely on his allies to help out in a difficult situation.
In terms of the overall challenge, it is recommended to play the game on the "proud" difficulty setting. If played on the regular setting, no encounter will ever get really challenging and as such it's pretty much aimed at those purely along for a story-driven ride.
During the early stages of development, the team shifted from the in-house Luminous engine to the hugely popular Unreal Engine 4, and the developer has certainly been creative with its capabilities. Kingdom Hearts III is an achievement in visual fidelity, world-building, and aesthetically pleasing game design. Being part Pixar animation, part live-action movie, part animé, and part cartoon, the game is an astonishing mix of art styles, biomes, and originality. Notably, when traversing the open-world of the Caribbean or scaling the snowy mountains of Frozen's fictional Scandinavia, the visuals are gorgeous to behold. The work Square Enix has put into each world is remarkable, whether it's the lush forests of Tangled, the metropolis in Big Hero 6, or the iconic Twilight Town. Even after the campaign has been resolved, the sheer joy and wonderment of exploring the worlds, trying all the mini-games, finding hidden treasures, and the allure of optional missions means that many additional hours of fun await.
It took more than a decade of development, over 13 years to be exact, to get to this point. All the hype, anticipation and fear about what the game would end up being seems so far away now. Kingdom Hearts III is a roller coaster of amazing elements, with a gripping story, interesting characters, a beautifully crafted world, and fun gameplay throughout. Simply put, Kingdom Hearts III is a masterpiece.