After over a decade of waiting, Kingdom Hearts 3 is finally out in the wild.
The Disney Final Fantasy mashup returns to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 with a dazzling new set of Disney worlds on display, thrilling combat, and more story threads than you can shake an oversized key at.
For many, it’s the distillation of what the series has been building up to ever since it made its debut on PlayStation 2 back in 2002, and a smorgasbord of fantasy, emotion, and magical storytelling.
There’s been understandable trepidation over whether the game could ever live up to the massive standards foisted upon it by fans, as it had huge shoes to fill.
Luckily, Kingdom Hearts 3 smashes expectations and delivers much more than players could have asked for. In short, this is the best game the series has produced yet.
One Tangled Narrative
Of course, when speaking of Kingdom Hearts, you’ve always got to start with the confusing, terrifyingly convoluted story.
The overarching Kingdom Hearts story is a daunting, often intimidating narrative that can be frustrating to parse. Square Enix is aware of this, and thus included a few prologue videos that can be viewed ahead of playing through the game, though to be frank they end up making things a bit more confusing for newcomers.
If you're a Kingdom Hearts virgin, as it were, having skipped the two previous core titles and various spinoffs, here's what you need to know coming into Kingdom Hearts 3.
The villainous Xehanort (who you'll hear a lot about) is looking to start a war to force both warriors of light and darkness against each other in a bid to reforge the original Keyblade, which will unlock Kingdom Hearts, the heart of all worlds and a source of power and wisdom that others seek for their own.
Xehanort is seeking seven beings who are pure of heart (like the Disney princesses and Kingdom Hearts mainstay Kairi) to clash with his own 13 individuals of questionable morals to bring about the war so he can claim the Keyblade and wield power over Kingdom Hearts.
With Sora's power having been drained at the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 3, he and companions Donald and Goofy must travel throughout various worlds to corral the Guardians of Light to combat Xehanort and clean his clock once and for all.
Of course, that's the gist of it – there are many, many moving parts to keep in mind, and you'll still be extremely confused, even if you've played through the previous games at certain points because Kingdom Hearts as a whole can be needlessly obtuse.
Here's the good news, though: none of it really matters. Kingdom Hearts 3 is a perfectly enjoyable adventure even if you have no clue who anyone is, why you're on this journey to begin with, or care about the characters you meet on your way to the end.
It'll emotionally resonate with you more if you're deeply entrenched within the lore, of course, but this game is more about the journey than the destination.
If you've ever had even a passing interest in Disney franchises or Final Fantasy-related concepts, you have reason enough to play this game, even as a total newcomer.
This quest will take Sora and company throughout several Disney-inspired worlds, such as Frozen's Arendelle, Big Hero 6's San Fransokyo, and Toy Story's Toy Box, each with their own miniature storylines and missions to fulfill based on the source material’s storylines and characters.
There's even a Pirates of the Caribbean world to explore, which is stunningly lifelike in execution.
There are also areas players have been before, like the animated Hercules film's Olympus, but for the most part these new areas offer great reasons for even veterans to get excited, since many of the Disney characters represented in Kingdom Hearts 3 have never been seen in the games before.
Magical Melee and More
Players will settle comfortably into combat, which is frenetic and familiar, taking the same real-time slayage of the first two core games and upgrading it considerably.
Every battle, even the seemingly insignificant ones, is laced with numerous power-ups and special abilities that make even the hundredth slog through a group of enemies feel like the first time. There's such a wide variety of combat actions to be performed that it feels downright unfair for the Heartless that dare cross Sora and his friends.
Hacking away at Heartless with new and improved keyblades awarded to Sora with each completed world adds another dimension to what could normally be pedestrian, grindy occasions.
Mechanics from previous installments have returned for Kingdom Hearts 3 as well, including Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance's Flowmotion, which allows players to run up and along walls, hop around throughout the environment, and swing around on poles for great-looking acrobatic-themed combos. It's useful outside of battle and integral to navigation as well, but it truly shines in combat.
There's also Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep's Focus Gauge, which continuously fills during battle and depletes with usage of Shotlock, or what equates to each particular Keyblade's unique type of fire, as it can be used as a sidearm rather than simply a melee weapon.
The new Attraction Flow summons play a major combat role as well, which are triggered usually after targeting a specific enemy and beating the stuffing out of it.
Based on some of Disney's most iconic rides such as the Mad Tea Cups (spinning tea cups), Big Magic Mountain (Mountain Coaster) and Magic Carousel (merry-go-round), these are enormous spectacles lit brilliantly with a rainbow of lights and gorgeous animations.
Sora can control the Blaster Blaze Attraction, for instance, as if he were riding in a bumper car equipped with lasers, to shoot down enemies.
Splash Run lets you draw a path around enemies that the ride will whoosh down and around, hitting every enemy in its way. They aren't as damaging as they could be, but they're just a pleasure to unleash that it’s fun to let ‘em rip as often as possible.
What's more, companions Donald and Goofy have been improved considerably from past entries. Aside from feeling like real, fleshed-out members of the storyline, they also hold their own in battle.
In the past, they often required constant babysitting and healing, ignoring Sora and his dwindling HP to hack away blindly at a given enemy.
You can tweak their behavior settings, but they're already tuned well enough to lend a helping hand with a Potion or an MP-restoring Ether whenever Sora is in need.
They're also there to unleash devastating Limit Commands, including the dive-bombing Goofy Bombardier and Donald's Flare Face, which you may trigger multiple times in battle.
There's a delicious sort of chaos to unleashing a combined attack from Sora and his companions, a themed Keyblade-specific ability, and one of the new Attraction Flow attacks in the same five-minute battle.
It's certainly a massive spectacle to take in, but none of it ever leaves you feeling as though you have too many powers at your disposal – rather, that you're evenly-matched with the Heartless and other enemies.
Keys to the Kingdom
As rich and fulfilling as combat can be, there's a lot more to the game beyond totally obliterating enemies.
Square Enix has ensured that, even while exploring the game's linear pathways throughout each world, you'll still have plenty to discover.
Combat is each world's main draw, as all the paths are quite linear, but you'll unlock several reasons to explore beyond that.
For one, Mickey Mouse heads called Special Emblems are scattered throughout each world, and the game's "secret" ending requires that you snap a photo with your new "Gummiphone" smartphone of each if you want to get it.
Then there are special photo missions that the moogles of Final Fantasy fame will send you on, where you're required to take pictures of certain areas throughout the game.
Beyond that, you've got adorable cooking segments featuring Ratatouille's Remy (referred to as Little Chef) that finds you searching through each Disney world for ingredients, and the a big, honking feature that you'll spend hours with: expanded Gummi Ship segments.
Gummi Ships are tiny spacecrafts that you use to travel through the world of Kingdom Hearts from place to place. You can create your own out of parts gathered throughout the game using blueprints and parts you scavenge from treasure chests and battles, and ensure you're the most powerful ship out there.
Gummi Ships have always been in Kingdom Hearts, but previously played much smaller roles with far less customization options. In Kingdom Hearts 3, flying around in your ship and taking out enemies while exploring could be an entirely separate game in itself.
There's so much to find, so many cool little parts to add to your ship, that you could nearly make a spinoff out of the content here. It's immensely satisfying, at that.
There are a few niggles, however, to be found when exploring the world. You must obtain a world map that's usually found in a chest at the start of each area, which seems quite pointless given that it's so easy to find – it may as well be automatic at that point.
Then, as battles crop up every so often as you run from point A to point B, it can be a bit simple to get turned around after a heated battle, only to find that you've been running in the wrong direction for a bit.
There are no waypoints on the map beyond simple save markers to help you get situated, so it can be easy to get off track.
Once Upon A Dream
Kingdom Hearts 3 is the best-looking entry in the series by far, with picture perfect representations of even Pixar worlds such as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Frozen, and awesome new character models for core members of the story as well.
Gone are the old, cartoony looks, as they've been swapped for more mature, realistic forms with normal proportions and even wilder clothing than before.
The main voice cast returns as well, for the most part, with soundalikes for roles like Woody and Buzz Lightyear, as well as Monsters, Inc.'s Sully. They do a fair job at representing their respective characters, even if celebrities like Tom Hanks or Tim Allen couldn’t be tapped to reprise their roles.
Some actors do deliver some particularly jarring lines here and there, and Mickey's new voice can take a while to get used to, but the fact that every line is voiced is a boon, adding a great deal to the game's overall personality.
For the most part, everyone is pitch perfect, and those bad lines are typically few and far between.
Kingdom Hearts 3 Verdict
Kingdom Hearts 3 is a magical game that feels like a fitting end for the series – if this is, indeed, the end.
Each of its core mechanics have been improved upon tremendously, and there's so much to do in this 40-hour adventure that you'll return time and time again to experience it.
For veterans, it's a heartwarming adventure that feels like a loving embrace from an old friend. For newcomers, it's a sneak peek into a riveting world where Disney sentimentality meets Square Enix ingenuity, where gamers of all stripes win.
If you play one RPG so far in 2019, make it this one.