Kingdom Hearts, as most of you are probably sick of hearing about, is one of my favorite franchises of all time, if not the favorite. It holds a special place in my heart, and honestly is one of the biggest influences on my gaming tastes to this day. When the first game came out, I was a young Weeb just getting into anime, just starting to really be serious about drawing comics, and in spite of being a game on a system I didn’t own, I became enamored by it. It was just the most perfect idea for a game I had heard, a game that lets you travel to various Disney worlds and interact with Disney characters.
I’m not a Disney apologist, but I can’t separate the fact that my childhood was shaped by the experience of watching Disney movies and cartoons with my mom. They were good experiences. Disney movies and shows still hold me and my mom together. Even though she no longer games, she is not an anime fan, doesn’t like comic book movies, or shares many of my other interests, we can still talk about new movies and new shows. It was her idea to invest in Disney Infinity.
So when the first trailer with Simple and Clean appeared on TV, I genuinely ached to play the game. The first game I played was the original Chain of Memories for the GBA. I bought a PS2 and copy of Kingdom Hearts for my 17th birthday with the last birthday money my grandmother ever sent me. She stopped talking to me after that. I still don’t know why. This was back in 2004.
Before Kingdom Hearts, I never touched a Final Fantasy game. It was the Disney characters that brought me to the franchise, not the Final Fantasy ones. But by playing Kingdom Hearts I became curious about the other characters. My best friend from high school bought me Final Fantasy X as a present for my 18th birthday. We’re not in touch anymore. In life sometimes you just grow apart from the people you cared for most when you were younger. I loved Final Fantasy X, and started tracking down the rest of the games in the series. At this point I’ve played all of them except the MMORPGs, V and XV. From there I developed a ravenous appetite for JRPGs, branching out into Star Ocean, Tales of, Atelier and many, many other franchises.
Kingdom Hearts II came out in 2005. I didn’t get the game until 2006. Money was tight, so I could only get games if they were twenty dollars or less, and only maybe one or two games a year. That was also the year my childhood dog Athena got sick. I’ve written about her before. She would sit next to me on the floor as I played. In 2007 we had to put her down. After the vet left our house I went into the basement and played Simple and Clean over and over on a loop for hours as I sobbed.
The next Kingdom Hearts game I played was 358/2 Days with a DS my mom found in Goodwill. She was so happy to find it for me because she knew I wanted it, and it was only five bucks. In spite of how screwy some of the gameplay was, I still loved the game, and the final boss fight was one of my favorite experiences. I had gotten it a few months after I had life saving surgery. It was the only DS game I had for a while.
I got RE:Coded and Birth by Sleep at roughly the same time many, many months after they were originally released. I got Birth by Sleep right after the end of the PSP’s life cycle when all the games were on clearance at Best Buy for ten dollars. Money was slightly less tight then, but I still had a while before I could play it because Sony memory cards were still rather pricey.
Dream Drop Distance was the first 3DS game I ever got, and was the first time I had a game for a system that had been recently released. That was 2011, a year after I graduated college, and when my disease started to manifest. Sometimes playing games on my back with a portable system was all I could do all day.
Now it’s 2019, and Kingdom Hearts III has finally been released and I have been given opportunity to play it at my BF’s apartment. I was a little worried to play it. A lot of those things from my youth that have been rebooted or continued have not lived up to my nostalgia. Sailor Moon Crystal was underwhelming. While the manga is fine, the Cardcaptor Sakura Clear Card anime went at a snail’s crawl with a lackluster season finale. Digimon Tri started out fine, but crashed and burned in the last two installments. After so long in development and so many years since the last original title release, I didn’t want this game to suck, or ever worse, be mediocre. It’s not just the story of Sora and his battle to stop Darkness. It’s my story too. It’s been the story of people I’ve met and lost, experiences I’ll never forget, including ones I really wish I could: my health, my family, my failures and the few successes I’ve achieved by grabbing on with both hands and refusing to let go.
I’ll admit, when the opening movie started and I listened to ‘Face My Fears’, I found myself with eyes welled with tears, and diving into Kingdom Hearts III felt like going home. Taking place just after the end of Dream Drop Distance and Birth by Sleep 0.2, Sora is sent on a mission to recover his lost powers, so that he can gain the power of waking and find the lost members of the Seven Lights, people vital to stopping Xenahort once and for all. Because Xenahort is about as hard to kill as a cockroach, he’s back with a new version of Organization XIII, made up of villains Sora and Riku had vanquished in the past, all acting as Xenahort’s vessels. But Sora isn’t too worried, as he’s got Donald and Goofy with him, and as he figures, everything pretty much works out right in the end, no matter what he does.
This game is Peak Kingdom Hearts. While the bigger plot, as difficult as it is to follow, is hovering in the background, the majority of the subplots and game play are classic ‘what happens if we throw all these Disney characters together’ shenanigans that result in a mix of cute, charming and hilarious, because as serious as the stakes for this game are, Sora doesn’t take himself too seriously. Much like all of us, Sora has grown from an adventurous child, to a somewhat angsty and contemplative teen to a fun loving warrior who has seen enough battles with the darkness to know to stop and embrace the absurd. And don’t get me wrong, this game gets bonkers, especially the combat.
You can see the pedigree of the various Kingdom Hearts games before it: Kingdom Heart II’s partner attacks, Birth by Sleep’s Shotlock ability, Dream Drop Distance’s Flowmotion. With everything turned up to 11. In addition to using your Keyblades, magic, summons and partner attacks, Kingdom Hearts III is crammed with new combat abilities such as the Attractions, new combat modes and transforming Keyblades. One minute your blasting an enemy with your Keyblade, the next you’re summoning a roller coaster that shoots rockets, then your Keyblade transforms into a shield you can throw like Captain America, the shield then transforms into a goddamned chariot that shoots lightning. Then you’re throwing Goofy into the air to crash all the enemies on the ground. This post is now diamonds.
And this isn’t including reaction commands that open up during boss fights.
A lot of the boss fights are gleefully over the top, though a few have that classic Kingdom Hearts frustration of having to figure out how to get around the game’s own mechanically pitfalls. The camera is a lot more functional than games in the past (I’m glaring at you, RE:Coded...), but blocking and dodging are still on the same button, and aren’t as reactive as you want, especially when you have an enemy spewing ballistas at you, and you’re stuck in an obstacle you have to defeat to escape the barrage. And any combat that requires you flying up in the air is a nightmare, particularly when you’re in the Caribbean, and you have to face the little brother of 358/2 Days most obnoxious boss, Ruler of the Sky. I don’t know what the development team’s obsession with skeletal bird Heartless in pirate worlds, but when that MoFo showed up on the screen I just about had a psychotic break.
Also be aware that when you hit San Fransokyo, the previously perfectly functioning Flowmotion abilities basically break down. You’ll freeze in the middle of jumps, get stuck on walls and miss poles you aim at. I warn you to be patient because those Flowmotion attacks become pretty important in one of Big Hero 6’s missions. Hopefully future patches will fix all the physics mechanics that cause this particular world to go wacky.
The mini games and mission objectives are also quite diverse and engaging. The lucky emblem selfie quest is stupid, but the cooking mini game with Remy is challenging and actually helpful since the food you cook boosts your stats, the Disney-shorts based mini games are interesting, and some of the world based quests, like the Tangled dancing game are downright fun. Playing on Standard mode requires mastering most of these challenges to get the Secret Ending, but playing on Proud Mode makes these optional. For the most part Proud Mode is actually fairly easy, especially compared to Kingdom Hearts I, so if you thought II was too easy, you might find the same issue with III.
The Kingdom Hearts games always looked good, and are some of the few PS2 games that managed to age pretty well by implementing a simply, cartoonier style to the characters and the graphics. But KHIII manages to blow all its previous incarnations out of the water. The worlds are HUGE with massive detail and highly animated character models. Gone are the days of fish face. And since the majority of the worlds in this game are based off of the CGI era of Disney and Pixar’s animation library, there are times when scenes looked pulled straight out of the movies. Pirates of the Caribbean still is majorly Uncanny Valley, but all things considered, still looks way better than the models of KHII. Also, NPCS! Holy cow is it strange to see worlds like Thebes and Twilight Town actually populated with people instead of being empty worlds where other characters only show up in cutscenes *cough Birth by Sleep cough*
If you hated the previous Kingdom Hearts games, you probably won’t get converted with this one. The game makes it pretty clear that all the side games are not only canon, but as best as they try to catch you up with the rest of the series, you’re going to have to be pretty familiar with the previous games to have a prayer to understand what the holy hell is going on. My poor BF has been trying to keep up with the various factions and characters to understand the significance of certain reveals, and I’ve been doing my best to catch him up. It’s required a lot of pausing. I’ve joked that Kingdom Hearts is the Metal Gear Solid of kids’ games. That is turning out to be true. Even stupid RE:Coded is turning out to matter; but even the game pokes fun at the fact that there’s a lot to catch up on.
But if you’ve been a loyal fan like I have, the game offers some major emotional payoff. The care in the writing and the animation in the character models as long lost friends are found or reunited, or the effects of tough choices characters are forced to make really hits you in the feels. The use of music in the final boss fights with ‘Dearly Beloved’ and ‘Simple and Clean’ is also pitch perfect, bringing the story to a bittersweet conclusion. I bawled my eyes out during the ending. I’m not a huge fan of the English rendition of ‘Don’t Think Twice’, but the melancholy tone of the ending still is a fitting cap to this part of the saga, and the epilogue set up a new adventure I very much look forward to seeing.
I do have a few gripes, but this is mostly just nitpicking. I found the game a tad short, and wished they squeezed one or two more Disney worlds to explore, and the treatment of Kairi in the big battle was a bit annoying. I also really want Maleficent to go back to being a major villain. Since after the original Kingdom Hearts she’s largely been relegated to a secondary background role, and it’s clear she’s planning something and I want to see that come to fruition. They finally gave Lea/Axel a cool outfit, which you only see for about thirty seconds. I liked all the Final Fantasy Easter eggs the game implemented, and understand why no Final Fantasy characters appeared with all the plots that needed to be sewn up, but I’d like to see the FF characters come back in Kingdom Hearts 4 or one of the spinoffs, and maybe even some other Squeenix properties like Bravely Default’s characters.
That being said, this game managed to make a Hail Mary pass. Not only was Kingdom Hearts III the last great vaporware (that wasn’t straight up canceled, sorry Half-Life fans.) the game manage to tie up eight games worth of plot points, managed to do so in a way that gave everyone a satisfactory conclusion without being overly saccharine and with solid game play. It didn’t trip. It didn’t blow the landing. It left me emotionally wrecked in the best possible way with only minor complaints, and above all, was well worth the wait.