Game Review

Kingdom Hearts III (2019) [PS4]

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“End? No, the journey doesn’t end here.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien

 

 

Editor’s note: A DualCast is when two hearts are united and the light shines through. Nobody knows exactly how it happens, somewhere in the darkness of the internet, but the end result is far from heartless. A DualCast review brings two different mages together for one critique. It’s conversational while still functioning just like our other analyses.

Enjoy this DualCast critique of Kingdom Hearts III courtesy of the Blue Moon Mage (@wrytersview) and the Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage (@overthinkery1).

-Red

 

 

bluemoon Some things are timeless. In 2002, I put Kingdom Hearts into my PS2 for the first time and was greeted with the menu’s musical theme: “Dearly Beloved”. The moment stretched into eternity as the simple yet beautiful piano melody whisked me away to another world–away from the stress of my college studies, away from bad dates and relationship break-ups, away from the fear of wondering how I’d support myself once I graduated. “Come with me,” the game seemed to say. “You’ve worried enough.” It had me hook, line, and sinker, and I’d not yet even pressed start.

Once I did, however, Kingdom Hearts turned out to be exactly what I needed at that time in my life. As I battled the forces of evil alongside familiar Disney and Final Fantasy characters, I found something nostalgic and yet also brand new. I loved exploring the worlds, making new friends, and believing, if only for a while, that good will always triumph if only you’re sincere enough. The Well-Red Mage and I recently had a discussion about emotional resonance vs technical execution in video games, and I struggle to think of any game that has lived up to both aspects so completely for me as my first playthrough of Kingdom Hearts did. Even now when I hear “Dearly Beloved”, the melody always makes me pause and smile.

Of course, that was 17 years ago. A lot has changed since then, not the least of which is myself. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” or so the saying goes, but now that we’ve finally got our hands on Kingdom Hearts 3, one must ask the question: can anything live up to 17 years of anticipation?

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FF3-NES-Scholar Perhaps we ought to begin our deep dive (a small number of people are cracking up right now) with the simple concession that reality is, in fact, extraordinarily unlikely to be equal to years of imagining, theorising, and generally working oneself up into a hype-fuelled frenzy. It’s been an odd journey at times, what with theories about Kingdom Hearts 3 beginning as far back as 2005 when KH2’s secret ending depicted three people who might or might not have been called ‘Chasers’ having an extraordinarily epic battle that had something to do with a ‘Keyblade War’. This turned out to be the climactic fight in Birth by Sleep, a prequel to the story as we knew it so far, although right up until KH3’s official box art was released you could still find fanmade ‘KH3 box art’ using visuals from the BBS scene.

In the intervening time we’ve had numerous additions to the franchise, as well as remixes and remasters of existing games, and while each of these has spawned their own theorising and fan love (or otherwise), the announcement in 2013 that Kingdom Hearts 3 would definitely be happening – if nothing else about it – was monumental for the fans. A good five years or so of fan excitement, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that online discussion about something people are really excited about can sometimes turn into an echo chamber of idea reinforcement to the point that people are convinced certain things will or won’t happen. Kingdom Hearts 3 was always going to be a bit of a departure from the fantasy people had built in their minds of it.

But who cares whether it’s what people thought it would be? What we care about is whether it’s good, regardless of whether that aligns with predictions or hopes. Let’s take a look.

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 Visuals : 10/1010/10

I cannot possibly fault Kingdom Hearts 3’s visuals. It’s beautiful, and I mean that in as many senses of the word as I have by which to mean it. It’s always been a good-looking series – have you seen the opening FMV from KH1? It’s from 2002, on a PlayStation 2! – but this is really the fulfilment of its aesthetic. I think a lot of Kingdom Hearts fans, myself included, will have grown up playing the early games on teeny little screens and imagining, or remembering, what the games would look like if their design philosophies were fully realised, if technology could only catch up to the aspirations of the visuals, and I think KH3 gets us there.

Character models are gorgeous, with the changes in our main trio’s appearances between worlds being incredibly well-done. Some are big, obvious things like turning them all into toys; some are more subtle, such as the fact that not only does Sora get a fancy pirate outfit in the Caribbean but his facial proportions are delicately tweaked to make him fit better with the look of the other characters in the region.

Textures and palettes are perfectly picked, again with enough differentiation between worlds to make each place feel like a new adventure but while maintaining a consistent feel. No matter where you are or what kind of situation you’re in, almost any moment is guaranteed to be screenshot-worthy.

That’s almost an understatement! The farther I got into the game, the more incredible the visuals got (such as the battles in the Keyblade Graveyard and Scala Ad Caelum, also The Final World). I just wanted to share ALL THE SCREENSHOTS, but of course you can’t, because spoilers.

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gameplay Gameplay: 9/109/10

Now THIS is what I remember! Flying to new worlds in my Gummi Ship, smashing Heartless in the face with my Keyblade, listening to Donald and Goofy make terrible jokes–to me, this is the REAL Kingdom Hearts. All the titles that were released on portable systems are nice, but it’s the main series games that have my heart.

KH3 is more of what you already know and love about the series, but smoother and more streamlined. The worlds are bigger and more open. Sora can run up vertical surfaces in utter defiance of gravity, and this brings a ton of variety into the ways you can explore your surroundings. The combat is pure flash and dash–a light show that looks like it was born from the Main Street Electrical Parades that Disney has performed in its parks since the 1970s. Is it silly? Yes. Is it excessive? Yes. Do I care? Not in the slightest. I mean, where else can you take down a giant stone titan with a rollercoaster??

Uhhhh… I’m not sure there is anywhere else, Blue! It sounds like something Suda51 or Yoko Taro might have done at some point, but as far as I know, KH3 is your one-stop shop for all your rollercoastering-into-the-face-of-sentient-50-foot-tall-boulder needs.

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This is not to say the gameplay lacks any substance, however. By spending your party’s AP, you can turn combat mechanics on or off in nearly infinitely customizable ways. Likewise, situation commands (where you join with Donald and/or Goofy to perform special attacks) will trigger from time to time, and you can use these or not based on your preferences. In addition, the game features 17 different Keyblades (although three of them were pre-order bonuses depending on your platform, and so I don’t know if it’s possible to obtain, say, the Phantom Green–the XBox pre-order bonus–if you’re playing on PS4), and each has its own forms and combos. Basically what I’m saying is, we’ve got options, people.

Things are not perfect, of course.

My biggest issue with the situation commands is that they triggered too often and so pretty soon, they didn’t feel special anymore. It seems ridiculous to break out an entire pirate ship for a handful of low-level Heartless. Eventually I just stopped using 90% of them.

Some of the worlds are definitely better than others. When I played through Toy Box (the Toy Story world), I basically had a giant smile on my face the entire time, but Corona (from Tangled) was rather boring, and Arendelle (from Frozen) was just annoying. However, the number one worst aspect of the game is the helpful hints the characters give you during certain side quests.

For example, in a section in Corona, Rapunzel wants you to bring some birds over to her. To get to the birds, you have to move slowly. I’m talking at the pace of death, or else you’ll scare the birds off. I had to try again and again and again, and yet every 15 seconds or so, Flynn or Donald or Goofy would pipe up, “I think Rapunzel sees something!” or “Rapunzel’s calling for you!” I KNOW, OKAY?? It’s not taking me this long to get the birds because I’m incapable of remembering what I’m supposed to be doing! It’s because it’s really, really difficult!

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Yeah, the new openness of the worlds may have resulted in them overcompensating by making characters much more eager to remind you what’s going on! Let’s not even mention the section wherein Olaf the snowman’s body parts go flying off in different directions and we literally go on a hunt for snow in a landscape that’s nothing but snow! ‘I think I saw a bit of Olaf over this way,’ Donald would quack interminably, while I internally screamed that not only did I have no way to know what ‘this way’ meant but that eeeeverything looked like ‘a bit of Olaf’.

My favorite (finger quotes) part about this quest is that the game takes away your minimap, so you are literally going by sight only as you try to remember where you’ve already searched and where you haven’t.

I’ve also seen a lot of mixed reaction directed at the ‘bistro’ minigame portions, in which Sora completes micro-tasks in Cooking Mama style to create cuisine that increases stats out in the field.

I actually enjoyed those, but I do wish there were more than three challenges.

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And finally, the thing that bothers me the most about KH3 is actually just its approach to saving. There are really long stretches with no save points, and while it does have an autosave function (for the first time in the series) my experience with that function is that it’s not worth trusting! It can sometimes be a really long time between periods where you’re able to take a break, which can become a bit of an issue.

But, hey, these are only nitpicks at aspects of the gameplay, and for the most part KH3 is just super fun to play. The Kingdom Hearts series has experimented with a few different models for combat and, as Blue says, KH3 brings together some of the best bits of its predecessors while introducing some new elements of its own.

Blue makes a good point about the flash-and-dash (a phrase I’ll have to use more often myself) of things, and one criticism of KH3’s combat – and other areas, actually, but we’ll come to those later – that I’ve seen from fans is that it is a case of style over substance. I don’t agree: I would call KH3 a spectacle, by which I here mean that it is both solid in foundation and ludicrously stylish, almost to the point of excess. That makes it, overall, extremely fun and satisfying.

I’m gonna talk about the combat real quick, because as a fan of the KH speedrunning and technical community I saw a lot of discussion both before and after the game’s release about its combat. The problem that a lot of people have, I think, is that Kingdom Hearts 2 is considered the gold standard for action RPG combat, and anything that didn’t equal KH2 was always going to be a disappointment. Criticisms of KH3’s battle mechanics have been very heavily based on identifying deviations from what KH2 did, which I don’t think is the most useful method of evaluation. KH3’s combat is not identical to KH2’s, and I will say outright that I prefer KH2 from a purely combat-gameplay perspective, but that does not mean by any stretch that it’s not good. Heck, I reckon that if KH2 had never been a thing people would be losing their minds over KH3, lauding it for being unique and unlike anything else that’s ever been done before. Stringing together physical combos with magic, team attacks, Keyblade form changes, and various other bits of badassery is as satisfying as anything I’ve played in a long time.

I think that while there are some elements of the gameplay that I can identify as having flaws, they are almost all things we’ll cover when we get to talking about difficulty, and so suffice it to say for now that I think a lot of things have been put together very well here.

Overall, I found the gameplay responsive, fun, and a heck of a spectacle. I don’t feel it is as much a case of style over substance as some have said, though: I still feel it deserves a 9, and that the fundamentals are really good! I can observe one or two flaws, but I still think that on the whole it’s beautifully put together.

Definitely. What they did right far out-shadows the few areas that could’ve been improved, and to fixate on a small number of negatives is to miss the point.

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audio Audio: 10/10 10/10

I like Skrillex now.

Haha, I cannot make that commitment, though I do like “Face My Fears.”

Okay, so that doesn’t really encompass the whole story, but I think the fact that “Face My Fears” is just as good as either “Simple and Clean” or “Passion/ Sanctuary”, while feeling fresh and different, is a pretty good achievement all by itself. The anticipated new title mix of “Dearly Beloved” also doesn’t disappoint; I know there’ll be a lot of fans who’ll have just sat at the title screen listening to that for quite a while before even starting the game!

*raises hand*

I mean, it’s no surprise that Shimomura delivers again on the OST. Her work taking the tonal beats, if not the melodies, from existing Disney properties and turning them into incidental and battle themes is top-notch as ever, and the returning leitmotifs of the original tracks enhance the significance of story and character moments, lending some real emotional weight.

Yes, totally! I was playing the end of the game after finishing the Disney worlds, and it was like a trip down memory lane–not just because of all the characters and storylines finding resolution, but largely because of the music. It reminded me all over again that the series’ original music is one of its strongest points.

The voice acting is also impeccable. Sure, some of the dialogue is a little heavy-handed, but that’s not a criticism of the actors, who keep the delivery consistently endearing and effective. This is by far Haley Joel Osment’s best performance as Sora since at least Kingdom Hearts 2; for some of the intervening games, his vocals have suffered as he’s tried to recapture the tone of 2002 Sora, performed when his vocal biology was significantly different! Here, though, he gives us a (slightly) more mature Sora who’s still got that optimism and heart. He also gets to have some fun as Vanitas (I don’t think that’s a spoiler – he was in the trailers!), letting loose on a Sora-style voice who just happens to be deliciously evil.

A lot of people are giving the game flack for bad dialogue, but it should be specified that that is different from the actual voice acting itself. While most of the characters don’t have their original Disney voice actors, you can tell that the replacements took enormous pains to replicate the work of their predecessors.

Also, okay, I will admit that much of the voice acting is a giant helping of corn with a side of cheese, but I loved that Haley Joel Osment returned as Sora, also Disney voice legend Jim Cummings, plus Tate Donovan and James Woods reprising their roles as Hercules and Hades. Woody is played by Jim Hanks, Tom Hanks’ brother. Even a surprise appearance by Mark Hamill!

I don’t think there’s a single voice in there that made me react badly or break immersion at all; every performance is solid, in my opinion. There are a couple of voices notable by their omission: it’s a bit odd that Phil is present in Olympus but stays completely silent, while Remy (the rat from Ratatouille) is known in this game as ‘Little Chef’ on account of the fact that he doesn’t talk. I know that in the movie Remy couldn’t talk to humans, but this is a universe in which doorknobs, ducks, and bags of bugs can talk, so it just seems a bit odd that Remy can’t! Maybe they just couldn’t get anyone to do a Patton Oswalt impression.

And P.S. I’m going to be listening to “Oscurità di Xehanort” for the rest of my days.

narrative Narrative: 8/10 8/10

The narrative of KH3 was always going to be a tricky balancing act. How do you wrap up nine games’ worth of storylines to the satisfaction of long-time fans while still having enough exposition that newcomers won’t be hopelessly lost? It’s an impossible task. The easy answer is to sacrifice the needs of one group in order to cater to the other, but I think Square did as well as anybody could in finding a good happy medium. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s impossible to please everybody. A veteran might be upset that Xion didn’t get enough screen time while a newbie will likely not even know who Xion is. But neither of these complaints means that the story of KH3 is bad. There’s a difference between “I was hoping for something different” and “this is a bad story.”

I think the sheer volume of hopes that people had for their favourite characters could only possibly lead to eventual complaints when those hopes weren’t met. In fact, a lot of fans’ overall impressions of the game seem to have been formed primarily based on how their faves were treated by the plot! (Or, perhaps, how their preferred shippings – pairings of characters, usually romantic – unfolded.) For what it’s worth, Xion is one of my favourite characters and I was just excited to see her get A Good Moment.

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The plot of the KH series is famously complicated with dozens of characters and timelines, and many details are left purposefully vague. What exactly is a heart? How does one lose their heart? Do you become a different person without your heart? Really in the end, it’s not important. The point of the KH games is to have fun with the characters while exploring the worlds of your favorite Disney films.

Because of the exposition, the overall plot of the game can move slowly at times. Also, not to pick on Corona and Arendelle again, but those two worlds follow the exact plots of the films they’re based on rather than using the characters to tell new stories within those worlds (like how in Monstropolis, you have to help Sully and Mike return Boo home safely after a playdate). Perhaps it’s personal preference, but I definitely prefer the latter over the former.

I’m also a big fan of original stories. It makes me feel that I’m visiting these lived-in worlds and having adventures while knowing that the original stories are still preserved as they were: in Monstropolis, I know where this new story fits in relation to everything I’ve seen on film, and it’s an addition to that, whereas in the Caribbean I’m left feeling that I’ve just lived some sort of alternate-history version of one of the movies.

Yes, that’s exactly it! It’s like a Doctor Who episode.

I quite liked KH2’s approach to the Disney worlds: there were two visits to each world, with the first usually being a retelling of the film’s plot and the second being more focused on the original story and the machinations of Organization XIII, but on the other hand I think I liked how each of KH3’s worlds had a solid and self-contained story, meaning you could progress through without backtracking and finish each chapter of the story one at a time.

The overall narrative had a quite separate challenge: how do we tell an original story set mostly in non-original worlds? I thought the execution of the story on the whole was fairly well-done, weaving the big-picture narrative into each world’s individual story through the presence of Organization members serving to remind Sora and co. what’s at stake in the grand scheme of things. As is traditional for Kingdom Hearts, there’s a little bit of an issue with pacing: while I think the game does a pretty good job of keeping us aware that there is this bigger story unfolding while we’re on our smaller-scale adventures, it’s undeniable that the majority of Important Things That Happen are squeezed into the last few hours. We get a few cutscenes between worlds to let us know the direction the game’s likely to take, but it takes a good two-thirds of the game’s overall duration to actually start seeing where that road leads.

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This is very true. KH3 almost feels like two separate games: one where you explore the Disney worlds to level up, and the other being the “real” story. Then you get all the important things, all at once. It makes it very difficult to find a good stopping point in the second part of the game because you just want to know what happens next!

It’s hard to say too much more than that without spoilers, but I think Kingdom Hearts 3 provided a fitting story to end the Dark Seeker Saga while opening many more doors for future games (which we knew it would be doing, but I think there are some genuinely surprising and theory-baiting moments right at the end that we didn’t see coming).

themes Themes: 7/10 7/10

I think it would be fair to say that KH3 retreads a lot of the well-worn themes we’ve seen previous games go into, but it does so quite nicely and in a way that I found fitting. The primary theme I associate with these games is that of the power of the bonds between people: ‘my friends are my power’, let us not forget. The way this series’ metaphysics works is such that the friendships between individuals have such literal, actual power that they can allow impossible things to happen like worlds to be saved and new hearts to grow (effectively transforming something from non-existent to existent). That theme is on display here more than it’s ever been, and I’m so here for that.

I think the music plays a big part in developing that, actually: Shimomura is fantastic at leitmotif, at associating little snippets of themes with each character or with particular moments or feelings, and she’s a master at weaving multiple themes into a single piece in order to tell a story. (One of my absolute favourite examples, though not a direct example from KH3, is the Piano Collections version of Xion’s theme, “Musique pour la tristesse de Xion”, which includes allusions to at least Sora’s, Kairi’s, and Namine’s leitmotifs as well as implying the chord structure from “Dearly Beloved”. It’s JUST SO GOOD, and it’s one of the few times I feel comfortable and not pretentious saying that this piece of music truly tells a story all by itself.)

Arguably, KH3 isn’t always the most elegant or delicate in expressing its themes. There are definitely some moments of dialogue where I felt that there was just a little bit too much ‘heart’, ‘darkness’, ‘heart’, ‘light’, ‘heart’, to the point that if someone had come in and watched what I was doing for a bit I might have felt compelled to apologise for the melodrama of the thing.

‘Earnest melodrama’ is a great phrase, and I think it fits a lot of elements: the dialogue and VO work especially, but the overall narrative and themes too. I think that if Sora weren’t the main character then the franchise could tell a less earnestly melodramatic story, and it would be… different. Could it be better? Probably, in some ways; would that be too much of a departure from what KH has always been, though?

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The main MacGuffinAbility of this one seems to be the ‘power of waking’, which… nobody’s really explained? I do think the individual worlds’ plots are pretty cohesive and feel like good self-contained stories while also all contributing to the overall layout of things, where previous games have struggled to do both of those things at once.

The lack of explaining the power of waking never really bothered me. Those who played Dream Drop Distance will remember that when Sora was sent to the dreaming worlds, he couldn’t leave (a.k.a. awaken) on his own. This is alluded to in KH3, but not enough so that people who skipped the previous games will understand. Sora needs to command his own mind fully before he can hope to face down enemies with a stronger presence. A lot of the powers in KH have similarities to the Force: light vs dark, having influence over weaker minds, etc.

I have played DDD and remember not understanding what the power of waking was supposed to be in that either! I understand that it means that Sora can’t ‘awaken’, but not what the power itself actually is or where it comes from. I have some more thoughts down below about the individual worlds and how well their stories hold up.

I know some will go ‘but if you can’t understand it without playing all the others, it’s not good’, but my response is just ‘that’s how sequels work’. I find the overall plot cohesive and satisfying, even if it is (as KH has tended to do ever since the first) very heavily backloaded – which is to say that most of the Overarching Plot Elements happen right at the end rather than being paced throughout the whole thing.

I’ll agree, the power of waking is left pretty vague but it’s no more or less vague than anything else (i.e. the exact rules governing the creation of Nobodys, heartless, unversed, time travel, possession, etc.). If you want to step back & view KH3 as a singular entity, the power of waking does appear more of a fault, but it is consistent within the KH framework.

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It is kind of odd that a series which is so vague with its core tenets would be so on the nose with its themes, but I suppose that is an indication as to where the story actually lies according to Nomura and any others sharing story credit. The difference between a Heartless and an Unversed, the Power of Waking, how exactly Xion was reborn after it was previously dubbed impossible for her to exist while Sora was awake… these things are not important. What is important is the characters, their relationships, and how they react when faced with impossible odds. What has caused those odds? Doesn’t really matter. This makes the KH series a veritable MacGuffin-fest.

The story centers around a cast of middle graders, which is an age of over-the-top emotions and heavy-handed declarations, and so in many ways, the earnest melodrama seems fitting to me. It’s nice to think that somewhere in the universe, people could promise to be friends forever and it would really happen. But if there is a weakness in all of this, I think it’s in using Sora as the main character. He really grows and changes very little from KH1 through the end of KH3. Riku is much more interesting with his story of redemption and learning to live with both the light and darkness inside him, which is a much more mature viewpoint. Using squeaky-clean Sora as the main character keeps the game in a more childish mindset than is really needed.

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replayability Replayability: 9/107/10

Once you beat the game on regular mode, you can replay in Proud mode for a greater challenge. If that’s not enough for you, it’s also been confirmed that the game will be getting a Critical mode (the hardest mode) as free DLC. In addition, there is lots of side quest and post-game content, such as finding all the lucky emblems, unlocking all the recipes, completing all the photo missions, and finding all 14 battle gates (which replace the Coliseum cups). And, as is customary in the series, there is also a secret boss battle and a secret ending.

My approach to playing Kingdom Hearts games is always the same: once on standard to see the whole story and get as many of the sidequests done as possible, and then every subsequent playthrough I’ll up the difficulty and skip all the cutscenes just for the fun of doing the fights again! Well, sometimes I’ll do another story playthrough, but generally if I go back to a KH game it’ll be just to play, since I don’t often have time to see the whole story in full again.

My personal favourite parts to replay in these games are always the boss fights. I love bosses in this series, so much, and while I’m by no means a speedrunner or strat developer I do like learning a little bit about how to do things quickly and effectively, making the best use of all the resources at my disposal to create super free-flowing and awesome moments. I’m definitely going to be replaying KH3 for some of its bosses – not all, but a good chunk. I don’t know yet just how good I’m likely to get at that, or whether these bosses are designed to appeal to that same sense that previous games’ bosses do, but I really, really enjoyed a whole lot of these fights.

As we’ve touched on already, there’s a lot of spectacle in this game – an awful lot of style, but still with solid, well-put-together foundations – and I think I’ll definitely enjoy reliving that. It’s so fun.

I think perhaps Blue and I diverge a little bit on our definition of replayability, I should maybe note! I don’t really factor in side content and post-game things to ‘replayability’, since they could all be done in one playthrough and therefore don’t add what I would think of as ‘replay value’: I’m judging it on whether it’ll be enjoyable to experience multiple times rather than on how much there is to experience for the first time. Still, I’m most definitely looking forward to playing KH3 many more times in the years to come – and, yes, I do predict that I’ll still be playing it years from now.

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challenge Challenge: 7/10 8/10

I’ve gone back and forth on my thoughts about this particular aspect of the game! Next to the story, the difficulty is perhaps the most divisive aspect of Kingdom Hearts 3 among the fandom, or perhaps that’s just because the people I see speaking about it are those who are very big on the details of balancing and things that make speedrun and technical play possible in other games (most obviously Kingdom Hearts 2).

I think, on balance and reflection, that KH3’s difficulty is probably about where it ought to be. It’s possible to complete fairly easily on lower difficulties and making use of all the tools the game gives you, and I think that the tone and direction of the game overall is such that being accessible for a younger or less experienced audience is a good and consistent move.

The complainants are mostly those who have spent a very long time with KH2’s mechanics and who hold those up as a gold standard, and I’ll admit that I’m influenced by those arguments. My overall impression now, however, is that Kingdom Hearts 3 would have made a generally bad move if it had adapted its difficulty levels to be where that vocal minority of fans would like them to be! Still, I do have hopes that the upcoming Critical difficulty mode will provide a well-balanced experience as good as the one KH2 delivers, if not exactly the same.

Haha, I think I’m getting rather bored of hearing KH3 compared negatively to KH2! If fans just wanted more KH2, they should simply continue replaying KH2 to their heart’s’ content. Personally I appreciate that the series has always done new things in each game. Not all were successes, but I appreciate the effort put into trying to keep the gameplay fresh. The whole thing of “we want something that feels new but is actually exactly the same” is rather an unfair expectation.

I think the reason a lot of people point to KH2 as such a great example of a well-made action RPG is to do with its balancing of options: in easier modes it’s possible to press X to win, but in harder modes you are required to know how to use every trick at your disposal – and those tricks have a cost, meaning you need to manage your resources, but they’re also available for you to proactively trigger any time. KH3, by contrast, still gives you a lot of tools, but they’re not ones you can reliably access at the best moment (meaning it’s to at least some extent up to the game, not you, what options you have) and they have no resource cost, which can make them feel a little cheap. Some Attraction Flows in particular can wipe out whole rooms of enemies with ease and basically for free. I hear the argument that ‘if you want more of a challenge, just don’t use Attraction Flow’, but I think the difference is that KH2 makes use of its difficulty to encourage the player to use every resource they have. You get to see Sora at his most powerful when you’re playing KH2 Critical level 1, because you have to use all of his abilities to succeed; I don’t think it’s as satisfying, at least for me personally, to self-impose a higher level of challenge by deciding just not to use all the powers you’ve got.

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(There’s probably a bigger topic here in this concept of intrinsic difficulty versus extrinsic, or self-imposed, challenges: can something you have to impose on yourself actually be considered part of the game? Can we account for that when critiquing, or do we have to disregard it as being outside the work itself? That’s for another time, perhaps.)

All that said, I still think KH3’s difficulty is better-thought-out than an initial kneejerk reaction might have led me to believe. It’s as hard as it ought to be, giving the wide range of people in its diverse fanbase (some young, some old; some veterans, some new to games) the ability to play at their speed and find something satisfying in there.

Very few games can find that balance between being welcoming to newcomers but still challenging for veterans. It’s nearly impossible, and most games end up prioritizing one over the other (for example, if you look at some of Nintendo’s recent titles, such as Super Mario Party or Mario Kart 8, you can see that they chose to please young players over veterans). So I think KH3 has done an admirable job of trying to balance all the difficulty groups, even if they didn’t completely satisfy the most hardcore fringe players.

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mypersonalgrade Our Personal Grades: 9/109/10

In many ways, it can be argued that no game can ever live up to 17 years of anticipation and hype, but at the same time, KH3 was going to have to screw up royally for me to not like it. I’ve been a huge fan of the series since day one, so while I absolutely acknowledge that the game (and the series as a whole) is far from perfect, I believe it has done a good job of staying true to its heart and its identity throughout the years rather than chasing after new audiences (think of the massive genre swings in the Resident Evil series, and you’ll see what I mean). KH does a thing, and okay, it’s a super weird thing, but it does it well. In the end, this is more or less exactly the game that I expected, and I’m happy with it.

It’s really interesting that Blue says this is about what she expected. I saw a tweet the other day (which I can’t find now, so apologies for not giving credit) which, paraphrased, said something to the effect of ‘Kingdom Hearts 3 couldn’t possibly have pleased everyone’. There are those fans who only played KH1 and KH2, those who have really strong positive or negative feelings about each of the handheld entries (Days, Birth by Sleep, Dream Drop Distance and so on), or about particular story beats or gameplay mechanics from any of the many entries in the franchise, and every one of those little groups of people had their own expectations about how KH3 would fix their issues with other games and be the best of all the things they loved. That was never gonna happen: the fanbase was already divided on KH3 before it was even out, unfortunately.

I think you’ve actually summed up the debate perfectly in just two sentences!

As for my own opinion: Kingdom Hearts 3 is a great game. It really is. Is it my favourite of the series? I’m not certain – right now, I’d say no, but KH2 has not only a special place in my heart but has also had many years over which I and others have become super familiar with it. Plus it’s had the chance to have a Final Mix version with tons of extra content, and remembering it at launch is almost a different game entirely. The point of a review, though, isn’t really to complain about the fact that one game isn’t another game.

“MOAR KH2!”

kingdom-hearts-3

Of course it’s not another game: it is the game that it is. And the game that KH3 is, regardless of any other thoughts about any other games, is a really, really good game.

Something I really loved was the volume of self-referential jokes in there. There are so many little moments which feel like a ‘wink wink nudge nudge’ from Nomura to the fans, usually at his own expense: the game opens with a fake-out title splash showing ‘Kingdom Hearts II.9’, in a hilarious nod to the franchise’s odd naming conventions and numerous titles; the Organization members are actively disgusted by how boring it is that they’re all back together again; one fan favourite character even mentions that he’s too popular to die.

It’s just so well-put-together, I think is my overall sentiment. Everything just works; even if there are little bits that might not be perfect, nothing’s out of place or anywhere near being bad. This is a truly phenomenal action RPG, and fitting and deserving of its important status within the franchise.

This is very true. If a person wants to nitpick this game (and the series as a whole) to death, they can certainly do that. But the KH series has always been greater than the sum of its often odd parts, and KH3 is merely the latest evolution. The games will continue to grow and try new things, and I’m excited to see where they go next.

Aggregated Score: 8.6 – 8.5

 

The Blue Moon Mage, aka Blue Williams, is a nerd of many layers: games/anime/film/books/dogs/coffee/seriously so much coffee. You can find her on Twitter at @wrytersview or at her other writing locales: The Loot GamingGamerheadsPodcastThe GamerHot Cars, and wrytersview.com.

 

Though he’s been known by many names across the vast and peculiar landscape of the Internet, every iteration of The Sometimes Vaguely Philosophical Mage has shared an urge to look far too closely at tiny details and extrapolate huge, important-seeming conclusions. These days, in addition to Mage duties, he can be found discussing gaming and other pop culture (and occasionally sharing some of his own musical and fictional creations) at the Overthinker Y blog and on Twitter.

 

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11 replies »

  1. Great review. I… didn’t enjoy Kingdom Hearts 3 at all, but it’s nice to see different opinions than my own. Then again, I’ve never been a Kingdom Hearts fan, to begin with, so I knew going in that I wouldn’t like Kingdom Hearts 3.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Most agreed with segment, Audio. The music is fantastic. “Face My Fears” is a noble third act for the numerical entries and their opening songs. The compositions that play upon familiar Disney/Pixar scores is clever, inventive, and creative.

    Least agreed with segment, Audio. Hahaha hear me out! I think a lot of the Disney/Pixar characters sound like people doing impressions, at best, or they sound completely different, at worst. Scrooge comes to mind as completely off, considering his character model matches the classic DuckTales, not the new one. The original characters are fine for VA.

    What about the lack of Final Fantasy characters? This is completely personal, but I got into KH in the first place because of them and I missed seeing them in KH3. I think their excuse that they wanted to focus on the KH characters and their stories is totally bogus; that didn’t prevent them from retreading entire Disney/Pixar movie plots and cameoing tons of characters from those franchises.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Here’s my thinking:

      Firstly, the music is so good that I actually completely forgot until Blue reminded me that VA is part of the ‘audio’ category!
      Secondly, I’d give the music, like, 15 out of 10, so the VA would have to be worse than a 5 to take it down below a 10 in the end :3
      Thirdly, I agree that not all the Disney voices sound like previous incarnations, but I don’t think that’s a point against it in itself; KH is its own thing, so I don’t think they need to sound like any particular other versions of the character, and the more important thing is that the acting is well-done whether it sounds like previous versions or not. There are only a few lines I would have identified as outright badly delivered, and almost all of the original characters have top-notch work; I touched on HJO giving his best Sora in years but I didn’t even mention Rutger Hauer’s Master Xehanort. Leonard Nimoy was irreplaceable, so Hauer does his own take on it and does it really well. Jarring at first, maybe, but a great performance regardless.

      As for the FF characters, I do wish we’d seen them in some capacity. I’d have preferred them to be there, yeah, but I think a big theme of this review was not judging KH3 for what it isn’t, or what it doesn’t have that previous entries did. I missed them a little bit, but I think there was enough going on that the gap they left didn’t feel noticeable unless you were looking for it, if that makes sense.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The soundtrack is particularly spectacular, even to magically break the scale and somehow score 15/10 hahaha 😉

        On VA, the Disney voices were the worst of the lot, but most of them were pretty great, as in the Toy Story world. I agree they don’t really need to sound like any particular version, but there are a few that sound rough, and besides, you do mean that they need to resemble their actual Disney counterparts at least partially… it would have broken your immersion had Donald sounded like Goofy and Goofy Donald, for instance, or if Mickey Mouse sounded any more like Kermit the Frog currently does compared to Henson’s original. I *do* agree that the original characters are well-acted, typically, based on what I’ve played. I still checked out around Frozen. What comes to my mind now is what standards do we use to judge an actor’s voice performance, anyway? That’s a question out of curiosity.

        And yes I noticed a strong theme of this review was KH3 compared, compared to KH2 and to fan anticipation and expectations and so on. It *should* in one sense bear that burden and responsibility; it is after all Kingdom Hearts Three, and it is as much a sequel as Return of the Jedi. However, I don’t think anyone should make the point that it’s bad because there are no FF characters. We can’t know if they would have improved or subtracted from the story. I missed them personally because they’re why I decided to play KH in the first place, but that’s subjective preference (see, I account for subjectivity!)! So I agree that there’s no need for them to fill any kind of gaps, again at least from what I saw, but their absence in a numerical entry is merely an unprecedented disappointment for this player, which doesn’t reflect on the quality of the game, but I do question the integrity of the excuse for their absence.

        Like

  3. I was a little surprised at the difficulty rating. I figured SE would be trying to make the game more newbie-friendly overall since the story sure isn’t. But no Critical mode + tons of free attacks (particularly Attraction Flow) + lack of human Bosses + no Coliseum made it too easy. Obviously the data fights were from KHIIFM, but even vanilla had the FF Cup battles, DDD had tons of portals with challenges, etc. The few postgame portals didn’t cut it for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I was initially gonna give it a lower rating, but Blue convinced me that while it may not be as hard as previous entries, its difficulty is coherent with the rest of its elements, and that’s the best way to judge whether it’s the ‘right’ difficulty or not. I’ve seen a lot of veteran fans complaining about the difficulty but not a single series newcomer, so I think I agree that it’s what it should be for what it is.

      Liked by 1 person

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