Games Review: Kingdom Hearts 3 is the wave of wholesome joy we all need in our lives right now

The day has finally arrived. Almost 14 years after Kingdom Hearts II was released to critical acclaim on the PS2, its long awaited follow up Kingdom Hearts III is here. But fans of the series — which melded the Final Fantasy and Disney universes a decade before the company acquired the Marvel Cinematic Universe — have been far from starved from stories.

During the wait there have been no less than seven entries in the Kingdom Hearts series across a number of consoles. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep served as a prequel to the mainline trilogy, and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 (which incorporates Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage and a whole lot of bridging cut scenes) sets the stage for this new release. This connection is only emphasised by the fact the new game starts with a “Kingdom Hearts 2.9” title card as you pick up from where Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance left off. 

So just how much pre-established knowledge are you expected to have about the series going into Kingdom Hearts III?

Given the amount of re-releases over the years, and the fact that the premium version of KHIII comes with just about every title to date, the expectation seems to be that you’ve at least played Birth By Sleep, 0.2 (released as part of “2.8”), in addition to the original Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. Games like Dream Drop Distance (originally a 3DS game but re-released with KH2.8 on the PS4), and even the Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover film which (precedes the mobile game) will definitely help you get to know some of the smaller characters, what Organisation XIII’s deal is and everything that has led our heroes into this mess, but they ultimately feel less consequential. If you felt like you couldn’t keep up with all of that, rest assured, you aren’t the only one. The narrative of Kingdom Hearts is widely considered one of the most convoluted in video game history. As someone who has played most of the series over the last 17 years, I was still jumping into the Wiki to remind myself of some key parts of the story. Eventually I just gave up and went along for the ride.

For those who need a quick refresher though, there’s a five part “memory archive” on the title screen which helps bring you up to speed. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to unpack. 

So where does the game start? We jump in with Sora, Donald and Goofy at the conclusion of Dream Drop Distance. Master Yen Sid encourages the trio to continue their journey to ensure Sora gains the “power of waking” while Riku and Mickey go off to the darkness to try and rescue Aqua, last seen in 0.2.

As you jump into the gameplay — Olympus from Hercules, before making your way to Twilight Town — there’s a few notable and immediate differences to the form. Firstly, the characters react more to their environment, with Donald and Goofy giving you hints when there’s a secret Mickey emblem you need to take a photo of with your new phone. Yep, you have a mobile phone, or a “Gummiphone”, which Sora humourously doesn’t understand how to use. This multipurpose device becomes a key feature throughout the game. 

You’ll also notice yourself picking up items like Oregano and Butter — yes you’re going to foraging just like in Red Dead Redemption 2. However this time it’s to give the ingredients to Remy, aka “Little Chef” from Pixar’s Ratatouille, who is hanging out in Twilight Town bistro set up by Scrooge McDuck (because of course). This opens up a new “cuisine” option, meals that grant stat increases and other bonuses when consumed. You then go through a variety of different Mario Party-esque mini games to prepare the food.

And this barely scratches the surface. There are new “Attraction Flow” attacks, where bizzaro Disneyland rides — Mad Tea Cups, Water Rides, Roller Coasters, Pirate Ships and more — become powered up special moves used to devastate the bad guys. The attractions will change depending on where you are and which Keyblade you’re using; naturally there are a variety of new keyblades too.

You can scan QR codes and collect “Mickey and Sora” mini games in a Game & Watch-esque “Classic Kingdom” on your phone. There’s dozens of them to collect. There’s even a film festival in the courtyard in Twilight Town turning Mickey and Sora’s adventures into old-timey Disney cartoons. 

But at the heart of it all (pun intended), Sora and co will run and fly from world to world, fighting the Unversed, the Heartless and Nobodies and weaving their way into classic Disney storylines, occasionally altering them dramatically. Luckily, some of our favourite Disney films of the last decade are in the mix, with 3D animated films the focus for the first time..

Tangled and Toy Story are the first two main worlds after the Hercules and Twilight Town set up, and you can get Wreck-It Ralph as a linked character to enjoy in battle. Frozen and Monsters Inc worlds follow, with the former taking over where the original film left off, and the latter taking place after films (which is the same for Tangled and Toy Story too). By focusing on Disney and Pixar’s 3D worlds, the animation blends together much more naturally. The graphics are excellent, and differ from world to world; much more “cartoony” in the Winnie The Pooh world, and much more realistic in Pirates of the Caribbean (to the point there are quite a lot of cutscenes to amp up the realism). 

And for the first time in the Kingdom Hearts Universe, it definitely felt like the worlds were so big you could get lost; especially when you hadn’t found a map. In Tangled‘s Kingdom of Corona for instance, you could easily feel like you were going the wrong way; thankfully characters around you would often indicate if this was the case, hinting maybe we should go back to the area we were before and find another path… all the while showing that there are areas to explore outside of the main quest line. The same went for the seemingly massive ocean to explore in The Caribbean. It’s a magnitude the game has never seen much of. And then just as soon as you’re lost in the woods, you find you’re flying down the hills, “fishing” and then playing a dancing mini game with Rapunzel and all her friends. 

Because why not? Sora lives by the code of YOLO. He has a mobile phone now! He’s totally hip and down with it. I jest, but the game fills me with so much joy I can’t even.

There’s also more detail in the combat than ever before. For instance, you can control how often your friends use abilities, their combat style (will they “stick by Sora?” or “finish the job”), and recovery (how often they use recovery skills like curaga and potions), which is a great addition to the customisation. Really across the board there’s never been this much customisation in any Kingdom Hearts game. From being able to make dishes thanks to Ratatouille’s little chef, that add temporary boosts to your skill range – which honestly I haven’t been taking advantage of until the battles towards the end of the game – to your Gummi Ship (which I’ve never really given much emphasis to in any game, and this one is no different, though I didn’t mind having to fly between worlds as much as I have in past games).

You can turn abilities off an on for all characters – and there are a LOT of abilities – and customise shortcuts as in past games. And then there’s things like posting letters you find, taking photos with your phone for not just the Mickey ears but particular requests for the shop Moogle, and all the treasures you’ve gotta capture along the way. This is a game that has always encourage collection (remember the 101 dalmations you had to find in game one?), and here they’ve gone all out. And even ten hours into the game they were still adding more and more for you to do. In “Toy Box” there’s a whole other playable game in the video game store! There’s different styles of gameplay hidden throughout all the worlds – and jumping in the toy mech suits in that world was particularly fun and well done.

Nine games in you’re still fighting similar monsters and there’s some repetition in the story and general gameplay along the way, but it’s impossible to get bored by the game. There’s just SO much to do. The graphics are phenomenal – shining particularly brightly in worlds like “Toy Box” and “The Carribean”, where you run around a real world atmosphere for the first time in the Kingdom Hearts universe, and see the detail of blades of grass as you run through Andy’s neighbourhood. And god bless Wallace Shawn (Rex) for coming along for the ride (not all characters are voiced by the original film actors). I couldn’t stop smiling while playing that whole level, even when some of the battles seemed never ending. 

There were nice touches in terms of things like being able to put out fires with water magic during a battle. And they use the world of Frozen to take you through ice mazes, help you race down a mountain to escape an avalanche that is beaming with heartless, and massive snowballs can even be used as weapons. 

By the time you make it to “The Carribean” – one of the few worlds you return to from earlier games – you’re given a whole ship (The Leviathan) after an adventure that takes you underwater and into the skies as you strap onto heartless to kill some sort of Magnificent Fying Machine. The ship is something you can explore the Carribean with AND you are able to level up the ship itself; with additional dialogue helping wrap up the storyline once you return to the world after you’ve defeated the final boss. It’s worth noting too they’ve got the swimming mechanics down to a tee. And you don’t even have to dress up as a mermaid this time!

With all this at play, it becomes quite clear that there’s always going to be new experiences around every corner. It isn’t just the Game and Watch simulation that is a game within a game; there are enough mini-games to make Mario Party fans blush.

At the time of this review, I’m about 32 hours in and I’m not quite sure how much longer I’ve got to go; there are a lot of storylines still to unravel and if my trophy indicator is anything to go by, I’ve barely scratched the surface. But I do seem to be in “The Final World” – an existential experience if there ever was one – so I can’t be too far off

But needless to say, I’ve been soaking up every minute of this long awaited game, and loving absolutely every minute of it. As a Kingdom Hearts fan, this game has been everything I had hoped it would be and more, with developers cranking the gameplay up to 11 to make it impossible to put down. You won’t be disappointed.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Pros: Endless, endless gameplay; often spectacular battles with the introduction of Disney rides as a battle option (seriously wtf, but I’m so into it); incredible graphics; the introduction of the Pixar worlds; Wallace Freakin’ Shawn; I think Donald is in love with Rapunzel and It’s so damn pure and lovely I can’t even; massive worlds that encourage a genuine desire to return and exploration; an impressive variety of gameplay and mini-games.

Cons: The odd camera issue; some lengthy battles that you want to end just so you go and visit the next world because this game is pure magic; often confusing storyline.

Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 25th January
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac

This game was reviewed on PS4, and is also available on Xbox One.