The world waited nearly 15 years for this. I waited nearly 15 years for this. Investors probably waited nearly 15 years for this. Where is the innovation?
Let’s just get this out of the way now: Kingdom Hearts III is fine. The game is definitely flawed, but it’s nice to look at and mostly fun to play. With that said, the game that spent so many years in development — so many years marinating in the Square Enix offices as spin-offs released regularly and new games revolutionized the industry — and despite all that, it’s fine. It’s just fine.
Don’t attribute my disappointment to high expectations, either. I’m a fan of the series — I remember playing the original Kingdom Hearts when it first came out, and I loved it. It hasn’t aged particularly well, but it’s still a solid experience and one that revels in its own difficult-yet-approachable simplicity. Kingdom Hearts II raised the stakes with flashier moves, grandiose battles, and an ambitiously dense amount of content. Aside from Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, I ended up skipping most of the spin-off games as many of them were on systems I didn’t own.
This makes Birth By Sleep the last new game I played in the series. That was way back in 2010, and even at the time I thought that Birth By Sleep boasted some major innovation and improvements on the series formula. So how is it that, even after nine years and the several new games that have come out since, Kingdom Hearts III feels so dated? For all of its “fine” qualities, the conclusion to the trilogy feels so oblivious to modern game mechanics as well as its own flaws — some of which have actually worsened in the decade it had to fix them.
Fans are eating this game up, and even after completing the game (roughly 40 hours later), I still do not get the hype. It looks like a game from 2019, but it plays like it could have hit shelves back in 2007. How is this blowing minds and selling so well? I mean, I know why — nostalgia, brand recognition, and the casual players who have no idea that there are 12 Kingdom Hearts games instead of three. Like I said, it is moderately fun, but there is no excuse for this game to be so middling.
Before I totally roast this game, let’s talk improvements. Levels are larger, with individual areas sporting more verticality than before — Sora, Donald and Goofy will be doing lots of jumping and climbing. To compensate for this, traversal has been improved with faster running, more jump abilities, dash abilities, and wall running. The animations look fantastic, especially when brightly-colored Disney rides are weaponized in ridiculous fashion. Toy Story and Monsters Inc. are in the game — huge perks, in my opinion. You can also take selfies with your favorite Disney characters.
Every other aspect of this game has been worsened in some way, or simply hasn’t improved since 2005. Fight me.
In the years this had to develop, the combat system has actually taken a step back. The improved system used in Birth By Sleep has been half-way implemented for stale results. The animations in conversation are the opposite of the ones in combat — they’re stilted, lifeless, and hilariously awkward. The story isn’t accessible to anyone who has skipped a single game in the series. It’s unclear whether or not this was intentional, but if it was, then the game’s awful dialogue doesn’t help matters.
If conversations aren’t filled with vague arguments about the nature of light and darkness (between cartoon characters no less) then they’re brimming with retcons, needlessly long pauses, and the cardinal sin of telling and never showing. The hours and hours of cutscenes in the game mostly consist of plot exposition. Characters will remind Sora of something that happened over a decade ago with dialogue that doesn’t actually provide any context to the events, so newcomers to the series will be lost. It sounds like the writers were lost too, as so many plotholes are filled and then reopened with clunky exposition — eventually I just stopped caring.
At 10 hours in, I started to skip cutscenes that didn’t include Disney characters. I couldn’t be bothered anymore. Even the final level — one that appears unique and refreshing at first — is marred by interruptions of cutscene after cutscene, most of which last minutes on end with mere seconds of gameplay in-between. The epic finale to a 12-game story arc should be something worth experiencing, but the pacing makes it a total slog.
The worst sin of all? Kingdom Hearts III is incredibly easy. Even on higher difficulties, the game pales in comparison to its predecessors. Blocking and dashing are often completely unnecessary. Gone is the twitchy combat and thoughtful combo system —now moves are so powerful and enemies are so weak that combat doesn’t require much thought at all.
Now, that is often a criticism of the series, but earlier games required much more strategy. Boss battles used to be daunting, nerve-wracking challenges. Each one felt like an ordeal and they weren’t just sequences that you walked into without a little anxiety. Did you have the right items? Did you level up enough? They’re no sweat in Kingdom Hearts III. Even the drawn-out final boss is a breeze.
I was hoping to champion this game as a comeback of a beloved childhood franchise, but instead, it’s just another one that I doubt I’ll ever pick up again. Instead, completing this game just makes me want to go back and play the older ones. Square Enix and series director Tetsuya Nomura had years to make this game great, but instead they have only given me an appetite to relive the franchise’s glory days. I’ll be breaking out Kingdom Hearts II and some of the spin-offs I missed, but Kingdom Hearts III is destined to collect dust on my shelf. I mean, I got to cook with Remy from Ratatouille in this game, and it still couldn’t win me over!
The quality of Kingdom Hearts III says a lot about Tetsuya Nomura as a director. He’s a fantastic character designer and has been a Square Enix sweetheart since his Final Fantasy days, but his writing and directing skills leave a lot to be desired. I get the sense that his creative process is as aimless as the game’s production was — with delay after delay and retcon after retcon, it seems like Nomura just implements whatever comes to mind and deals with the consequences later.
Why would the spin-offs (ON DIFFERENT CONSOLES NO LESS) be treated like essential sequels? Why confuse your audience? This isn’t the Marvel Cinematic Universe! None of these are written like accessible entry points except for the first game! This might be a rant for another time, but it speaks to the haphazard production process. Nomura is also heading up the Final Fantasy VII remake, and that production is MIA despite being announced years ago. Coincidence?
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I’m sorry, Kingdom Hearts III. I truly am. You’re fine. I just wish you were better.