Kingdom Hearts Retrospective, Episode III: Closing the Door

[Okay, here’s the deal: I am going to try my absolute damndest to avoid spoiling what happens in Kingdom Hearts III. However, as the final chapter of a story, you need to acknowledge to some degree what came before and how this game builds on and brings previous story elements to a close. While this review won’t spoil anything in the final act, epilogue, secret movie, or major plot developments, you might infer them from what I say based on your own understanding of the series. Therefore, I’m going to write up my overall feelings now, and then, go into more detail after the first image. So…

It’s great. But not perfect. It has significant structural and pacing problems, unstable performance, and no room for newcomers, but the emotional payoff for veterans and sheer gameplay spectacle make it a unique adventure worth the wait. Whether or not it bests Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix is hard to say, but regardless of your feelings, these Keyblade wielders gave their all and truly deserve this final salute.

You still here? Okay, here comes the rest of it.]

Kingdom Hearts cover

With Kingdom Hearts III, the story of Sora, Donald, and Goofy, known as the Darkseeker Saga, comes to a close. Everything established, teased, and planned by director Tetsuya Nomura in numerous portable games comes to fruition, after the most notoriously protracted hype cycle this side of Duke Nukem Forever. Audacious and uncompromising, this final chapter will likely inspire the most love, hate, discussion, and debate of any game released in the last 13 years.

13 years also marks a significant change in the player base. Many of the impressionable kids who played the original game back in 2002 have been adults for a long time (myself included), maybe with Disney-infatuated kids of their own. The larger question remains, disregarding whether it lives up to older fans’ arguably unrealistic expectations: Does beating up cartoon characters with giant keys still hold up as an enjoyable hobby?

Kingdom Hearts 3 Sora

Taking place literally at the end of Birth by Sleep 0.2: A Fragmentary Passage, the story follows Sora as he journeys through another selection of worlds based on Disney movies, old and new. With Xehanort traveling through time and filling the holes left in Organization XIII, he must discover the “power of waking” he failed to acquire in Dream Drop Distance, while his friends Riku and King Mickey assemble seven guardians of light for the impending confrontation.

Things start with a brief jaunt through Hercules’ Olympus as an extended tutorial, before covering the likes of Toy Story, Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Monsters, Inc., and ending at the biggest location in Kingdom Hearts lore, haunted by faces of the past that still have a significant influence on the present.

Along with recapping various movies and exploring a surprisingly relevant theme of reconciling the strength of the human condition with suffering caused by outside circumstances, III lays every single possible card on the table, resolving major plot threads and bringing every last conceivable player back on the grand stage. There’s a lot to keep track of, and even with a strong attachment to the main cast and recaps by way of a Memory Archive, it feels like too much at times. The fragmented, uneven balancing act between retelling the films and tying up the backstory before the finale can bring the pacing to a screeching halt, damaging the overall flow and sense of urgency.

Redundancy, informational overload, and tonal whiplash could make even longtime fans take a short break, even if they want to see what happens next. But even with these problems, the go-for-broke approach just might be the only way this labyrinthine saga could end.

Whatever your feelings about Kingdom Hearts III, the gameplay does a hell of a job taking those niggling thoughts and beating them unconscious. Combat and exploration can best be described as a ReMix (hehehe) of Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep. From II, it builds on the larger worldscapes and free-flowing movement with an almost overwhelming number of combat features.

Options, like being able to use dynamic team-based moves, transform Keyblades into powerful weapons that can be switched out mid-combo, and even summon full-on theme park rides in the form of Attractions, provide a refreshing versatility compared to games past. Couple this with much greater freedom of movement and custom combo finishers based on attacks used, and III demonstrates a willingness to take risks—and that willingness pays off well, even if it comes at the cost of challenge for most of the campaign (at least on Standard mode).

Similarly, each of the Disney worlds also makes an effort to provide variety. From the opening spectacle of facing off Greek Titans with Hercules, the plot takes Sora and the gang from literally playing with Andy’s toys while piloting giant mechs one minute, and engaging in festive dancing with Rapunzel from Tangled the next, ensuring the same thing rarely happens twice. Even Twilight Town offers something unique with cooking minigames organized by none other than Remy from Ratatouille, now working a bistro run by Scrooge McDuck. Some worlds are admittedly more spectacle-filled than others, but even the most straightforward areas, like Arendelle from Frozen, never succumb to outright boredom.

Even traveling between these worlds has seen a noticeable improvement. Previous games often relied on the Gummi ship and its basic arcade shooting minigame as a way to break up the action, but this time around, it takes the faster arcade approach of II and adds open exploration on top, allowing full movement that serves as a nice change of pace. Other than needing it to access each world, the Gummi Ship never becomes mandatory, but like the cooking minigame, these diversions flesh out the worlds and offer more beyond just a never-ending stream of combat encounters.

The visual and mechanical variety are greatly appreciated but have their downsides, as well. Sora can be hard to pick out and control amidst all the splendor, making it difficult to track threats and react quickly—or even respond at all. Large battle arenas can only do so much to compensate for this, and it can feel cheap, especially in the climactic endgame, when you might get hit because an enemy attack was concealed by a massive fire spell.

More unfortunate is the toll it takes on performance. Not of the actors; everyone in the English dub pulls through with outstanding performances, propped up by a majority of actors from the original movies reprising their roles. But this cinematic ambition takes a serious toll. On a PlayStation 4 Pro and playing in the Default performance mode at 4K, the framerate can be absolute chaos and never feels truly stable, with dips at seemingly random times. It never becomes a single-frame slideshow, but it takes the wind out of the sails, both literally and figuratively, when you’re trying to sail the high seas of Pirates of the Caribbean only for the tech to actually feel like a product of the Golden Age of Pirates.

Kingdom Hearts 3 Battle

Kingdom Hearts III has been nothing if not an exercise in patience. Some have been seeking closure since beating Kingdom Hearts II back in 2005; others are burnt out after years of tortuous delays, inconsistent portable entries, and HD remasters of HD remasters. The last 13 years have not been kind to this once-novel concept, and in that regard, Kingdom Hearts III is not an elixir that will cure all ills or transport longtime fans back to a simpler, cleaner age. At the same time, it’s a potent reminder why the franchise has endured for so long.

In the end, I’m not hung up on convoluted plotlines or technical issues. Rather, I feel like I’ve grown up with some of my closest childhood friends. And I’ll always be thankful for the adventure.

If you’d like to read more about the Kingdom Hearts series, check out the following:

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