The Kingdom Hearts franchise is an undeniably huge deal with a seriously dedicated fanbase. Since the original game launched back in 2002, there have been 13 games in the series, including the recently released Kingdom Hearts 3.
I’ve heard stories from friends, and read articles from esteemed peers that tell of how this strange JRPG franchise from Square Enix and Disney shaped their lives, forged friendships, and gave comfort to them in times of distress.
I’m sorry to say that I have never played a Kingdom Hearts game in my life. I want to make it clear from the outset that this was never a result of any particular bias against the series. The simple fact is that I never owned a PS2 growing up, so the first game – released in 2002 – passed me by.
Subsequent games did nothing to draw my attention. As the years marched on, the releases piled up, and the lore became increasingly convoluted. Honestly, I don’t think it ever occurred to me to go back and play the games from the beginning. It seemed like a ton of effort for something I wasn’t even sure I liked the look of.
I mean, Mickey Mouse and Goofy all glammed up in JRPG gear running around with some anime lookin’ dude? I dunno, the older I got, the more I felt like Kingdom Hearts just wasn’t my cuppa.
Of course, then Square released a trailer for Kingdom Hearts 3 that showed off the Toy Story themed level, and a small surge of interest sparked in me. After all, any 90’s kid with two eyes connected to a heart has an attachment to Toy Story, right?
This sudden interest quickly passed when I remembered the fairly high barrier to entry Kingdom Hearts has, but when a review code for KH3 came in, I said I’d tackle it.
As you’ve likely already gathered then, this isn’t a review of Kingdom Hearts 3 from someone who knows the franchise inside and out. Those reviews have already been done – and done brilliantly – elsewhere.
If I attempted to pretend I knew I was on about for even a fraction of a second, I’d doubtless be exposed as the duplicitous fraudster I am, and I didn’t fancy that. Better to get the fact I’m an idiot out of the way up front.
This is a review of Kingdom Hearts 3 for anyone like me out there; complete newcomers to the series who are currently questioning whether or not it’s finally time to take the plunge and wade into this notoriously difficult to penetrate series. I feel I’ve done a suitable job of explaining my lack of credentials, so let’s get right to it.
When I booted up the game for the first time, there was one question on my mind; can I enjoy the JRPG gameplay and explore a bunch of colourful Disney worlds without actually knowing (or particularly caring) what’s going on?
I’m thrilled to say that the answer is yes – for the most part. The most immediate issue any newcomer will have with Kingdom Hearts 3 is the sheer volume of cutscenes that get in the way of an otherwise genuinely delightful, accessible, and joyfully nostalgic gameplay experience.
The game starts and we get a fairly brief, wordless recap of the story so far which will make zero sense to anyone who’s never played a KH game before. From my perspective all I was seeing was a string of utterly bizarre scenes without context.
In terms of story, the game continues in much the same frustrating style. It’s as if Square couldn’t work out what needed explaining to newcomers and what didn’t.
This makes every cutscene something of a slog in which newbies will be sat baffled by overly long exposition on characters and plotlines they’ve never heard of, while veterans will likely be intensely bored at having to hear recaps of things they’re already well versed in.
If you really, truly don’t care then you can let your mind wander to an extent during these cutscenes and still get a rough feel for what’s going on. As I understood it, our main character Sora has lost the majority of his power, so he sets off to explore a bunch of self contained Disney worlds to attempt to regain his powers and save his friends.
That, by and large, is all I needed to know to have a good time with this game, because when I wasn’t being bored to tears by the particularly lore heavy cutscenes, I was having an absolute blast with Kingdom Hearts 3.
As soon as I arrived at the first proper level (the Hercules themed Mount Olympus), I finally understood a huge part of the appeal of Kingdom Hearts. It weaponises nostalgia in the same breathtaking way as Mary Poppins Returns or Toy Story 3.
Revisiting these worlds that I was so enthralled with as a kid tapped into the part of my brain that was happy to shut up the cynic in me.
The part of me that wished I could ram a Keyblade down Donald Duck’s throat so I didn’t have hear his voice anymore took a back seat to the part of me that was overjoyed to be fighting side by side with the likes of Woody, Buzz, Hercules, Mike, and WINNIE THE GODDAM POOH.
Sprinting up Mount Olympus to rescue Zeus and do battle with the villainous, behemoth Titans in a God of War style boss battle (sans gore) felt as epic to play as it always looked when I watched Hercules as a kid.
The actual gameplay is simple yet addictive. Combat essentially boils down to combining physical attacks with the odd bit of magic (and occasionally dodging), but as you progress through the game you’re gradually introduced to new systems to keep the fighting fresh.
You’ll pick up a number of different Keyblades as you progress, each with their own fighting style, alternate forms, and special attacks. One might turn into a powerful crossbow capable of dealing massive damage, while another can summon a mighty horse and chariot to trample opponents.
Discovering what each new weapon can do and working out the best one for you is a huge part of the fun, and there are also some absolutely insane special attacks that pay homage to various Disney attractions.
These are all brightly coloured treats for the eyes, and all feel utterly fantastic to use. My personal favourite summons a bumper car which switches gameplay to first person and allows you to drive around zapping enemies, though I also have a soft spot for the deadly spinning teacups.
Dashing into battle to chain together your alternate forms, special moves, and team attacks with companions Donald and Goofy makes for a robust and consistently engaging combat system that will constantly surprise and delight.
Even individual levels will offer completely unique mechanics, such as the Toy Story world which invites you to jump into a giant mech suit and gun down opponents. When it works, it’s glorious stuff… and it pretty much works all the time.
The only real letdown on the combat side of things is an occasionally finicky camera and dodgy lock-on system that can kill the flow of a fight stone cold dead, but I found that rarely intruded in the grand scheme of things.
If any of the above sounds good to you, it’s because it absolutely bloody is! Kingdom Hearts 3 is truly at its best when it’s embracing the grand Disney spectacle of it all, at least from the perspective of this newcomer.
Watching Elsa from Frozen sing the entirety of Let It Go only hours after fighting giant dinosaurs with Buzz and Woody was a heady thrill, and the joy really does tend to come thick and fast.
When things really started to grind to a halt for me was whenever I was reminded this is the third game in a trilogy, and the 13th overall. Something the game does all too often courtesy of a barrage of unending, dull cutscenes.
If you really want to enjoy the game, you just have to roll with this shit as a necessary evil to get to the next bit of actual gameplay, because my God, for a game about teaming up with Goofy to fight evil, Kingdom Hearts 3 can take itself way too seriously.
None of this is helped by some atrocious dialogue about the power of friendship, heartless, datascapes, and darkness, (a word which is overused to an insane extent, by the way).
Seriously, why the fork is Mickey Mouse talking to me about a realm of darkness? He’s Mickey Mouse for God’s sake, he should be merrily steering a steamboat, not dumping decades of stilted exposition on me.
To sum up then, Kingdom Hearts 3 is an absolute blast for newcomers when the game actually decides to let you play. When it’s forcing you through overlong cutscenes that leave you confused and kind of angry? Not so much.
My advice to any fellow newcomers? Just don’t worry about the lore, go along with the story as best you can, and let the fantastic adventures with some of Disney’s finest take you away to a truly magical – if occasionally frustrating – place.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.