Early in Kingdom Hearts III, series primary protagonist Sora returns to his spaceship with his Duck Dad Donald and his Dog Dad Goofy. This nuclear family sits in silence and ponders a crisis.
When we last saw Sora elsewhere in this seventeen-year-old video game franchise, it was either moments or eons ago. He had failed a crucial examination. He had been denied the title of Keyblade Master. Sora has lost all of the phenomenal cosmic powers he once used in a clash with a group of zipper-loving, pleather-clad dark wizards. Now he has to regain them from scratch. His level has been reset to one, both literally and figuratively.
Other characters are elsewhere searching for another character. The only clue anyone has of where or how to find this missing person comes from literally the moon-and-stars-hat-wearing wizard of our collective subconscious, Yen Sid, a.k.a. The Sorcerer from “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” This wise man tells Sora that he must acquire “The Power Of Waking.” Whatever this power is, what it does, where Sora will find it, how he will use it, and what it will do, Yen Sid does not know. Duck Dad and Dog Dad look on lovingly as their teenage son racks his brain about where in the too-big world they should dare to begin their search for whatever they’re looking for.
A smartphone ringtone punctures the cold silence.
This frightens our characters. They didn’t know any of them even had a phone. Sora doesn’t even know what a phone is, right up until the moment he removes the ringing phone from one of his pockets. Chip and Dale, erstwhile Rescue Rangers, inform us that so-and-so wanted Sora to have this phone, so they put it in the pocket of his new clothes for him. Like all things technological in the Kingdom Hearts universe, the phone is made of magical Gummi blocks. Its default call mode is Facetime. Sora’s family spends so many minutes talking to multiple friends, like they’re calling the extended family on Thanksgiving, that my Xbox One X dims its display brightness due to lack of controller input. I reach over on the sofa to wiggle the analog stick. The Xbox has turned the controller off as well.
I wait for the controller to turn back on, and the Kingdom Hearts III cut-scene’s next moment yanks me back to reality. As a character tells Sora he can use his Gummi Phone to take photographs, it fully hits me: Kingdom Hearts II came out two years before the iPhone. When Kingdom Hearts I came out, I didn’t even have a phone.
The Gummi Phone thus serves two purposes. First, it canonically explains the presence of Kingdom Hearts III’s industry-standard in-game photo mode.
It is also the crystallization of a lurking threat inside the player’s subconscious, that any moment of high-speed game action can turn into a long family drama conversation with literally any character in this entire universe of games and movies. Over the course of Kingdom Hearts III’s thirty-two-hour run time (I didn’t exactly rush, though I didn’t come close to 100% completion), I kept thinking the game might freeze-frame just as I’m in the midst of smacking a boss with my Key To The City, and then I’d have to talk to my kid nephew for a half an hour. That didn’t happen. It sure never stopped feeling like it might happen.
An entertainment product as big as Kingdom Hearts III does not come along every day. Heck, it barely comes along once per decade. While it’s only the third numbered entry in the series across seventeen years, there are also several other offshoot games, which this one takes into account. Somehow, it satisfyingly ties up a billion narrative threads pertaining to bakers’ dozens of characters who thrive and suffer both cosmically and comically across a dozen spin-offs, mini-episodes, micro-episodes, and exclusive downloadable or unlockable cutscenes. If you’re a fan of this series, chances are you are not even reading this review. You don’t need this review to know that you need to know what happens in this game, even if it winds up being the worst game ever made.
Good news: it’s not the worst game ever made. Not by a long shot. It just has a lot of baggage.
Staring At Walls
Kingdom Hearts’s reputation for narrative convolution will always precede it. This reputation is largely unearned. You only need to watch one or two summary videos to learn enough to follow every relevant plot beat in Kingdom Hearts III. The game even does a good job of reminding you what characters’ names are and where they came from. There’s a helpful cutscene very early on where you learn everything you’d need to know about series antagonist Xehanort.
While the series isn’t actually as complicated as its reputation indicates, it does have its weird gatekeeping aspects. Try Googling “How many Kingdom Hearts games are there” and not getting a headache. It’s also unclear what order you should even play them in, and which ones are skippable, if any. Series director Tetsuya Nomura has been notoriously performance-arty about the structure and flow of his opus. New entries in the series often exist seemingly to plug a single plot hole in a past episode of the series.
Kingdom Hearts I was a cute and experimental action game with role-playing elements. It tied up a dozen Disney-film-themed planets into a crossover universe wrapped up with a neat little Final Fantasy-flavored narrative bow. Eleven years and a dozen games later, Kingdom Hearts χ [Ki] came out to depict and explain the lead-up to events leading up to events leading up to events hinted at in Kingdom Hearts II. Kingdom Hearts χ [Ki] began as a browser game, by the way, yet contains lore details absolutely crucial for understanding the full scope of the plot of Kingdom Hearts III.
Therefore, it is perfectly and even hilariously on-brand for Tetsuya Nomura to say that Kingdom Hearts III’s epilogue movie is not included in the pre-release data download provided to me as a critic.
Being a Japanese role-playing game with its roots in the PlayStation 2 era, Kingdom Hearts III would arguably be incomplete without the promise of a “True Ending.” True Fans will hold their heads up high as they begin the experience, knowing they possess the will to see the True Ending no matter what, while casual players might be in it just to see their favorite Disney characters beat up monsters.
It is even further on-brand for Square Enix and Tetsuya Nomura to provide only cryptic hints to the press about the method for unlocking this True Ending.
Apparently, the True Ending requires players to use the Gummi Phone’s photo mode to take photographs of what the game calls “Lucky Emblems.” These are shaped like the iconic three-circle Mickey Mouse head. Every once in a while, these emblems may catch your eye, etched into otherwise inconspicuous walls. Sometimes Donald or Goofy will quack or gawrsh about how maybe there’s a Lucky Emblem nearby. Dutifully, the believer in the True Ending whips out their camera.
As a player romps and frolics through lovingly rendered Disney film action experiences accompanied by the genuine heroes of these respective films, they’re free to photograph anything they want. You can flip the camera around and take a selfie. You can get Woody and Buzz Lightyear in the selfie. You can get Rapunzel in there. You can point the camera at Donald and hear him perfectly quack, “You want to take a picture of me?” It’s perfect.
As I approached the end of the game, on the cusp of confronting ultimate evil, in a backward-looking frame of mind, I opened the camera menu and looked through my photo album. You can keep a maximum of 100 photos. I knew this as I began documenting my journey through Kingdom Hearts III. There’s me and Buzz Lightyear. There’s me and Woody. There’s Donald. There’s Goofy. There’s Rapunzel.
At first, photos of Lucky Emblems stick out as punctuation marks between sentences of jocular selfies. Over time, that changes; the pleasure fades and the business takes over. I never took a selfie with Anna from Frozen. I never took a selfie with Dollar Menu Johnny Depp. A forensic scientist leafing through my Kingdom Hearts III photo album would likely declare the deceased as possessing an obsession with walls.
Is this a mockery of completionist video game behavior? Is this a representation of Sora’s perpetual smile just barely masking a struggle to focus on the good memories and not allow the weight of his fate to crush him psychically dead? By requiring the player to photograph a few dozen walls if they want the True Ending, is Tetsuya Nomura trolling us?
Not necessarily. The True Ending only requires that you take the photos. You can always delete them right after.
Or can you? Given the wildly messy nature of Kingdom Hearts’ complex system of rules regarding body possession and time travel, I decided it wouldn’t surprise me if I had to keep the photos. So I kept them all.
In Tokyo in 2005, two years before the iPhone, I met a woman in a bar. As was popular bar conversation in those days, we compared our phones. She showed me her photographs. Every photograph was a picture of a tiny cake or cupcake. Every photograph in my phone was a picture of a band playing music. She asked, “Do you see bands every day?” and I said no. I asked, “Do you eat cake every day?” and she said no.
Therefore when assessing Kingdom Hearts III we need to decide if we are seeing bands every day, eating cake every day, or staring at stone walls every day. The truth is, all of us are always doing all three of those, all day every day.
We only pick which one we photograph.
I want the True Ending. So I have a lot of pictures of walls.
The “Unreviewable” Video Game?
The other day, on this very website, I called Kingdom Hearts III “The Unreviewable Video Game.” Today, I’m reviewing it. Many other critics have already reviewed it.
It remains unreviewable for me personally. Long ago, I wrote (for my personal blog) a negative review of Kingdom Hearts I in which I described the game as like being “alone in nuclear Disneyland,” despite that I had played and thoroughly enjoyed the game as a controller-passing activity with friends. Three years later, while working at Sony Computer Entertainment Japan, I scored a copy of Kingdom Hearts II one month before its release in Japan. I blasted through the game. I loved every minute. Then I wrote an evil, cruel review on my personal blog. I gave it zero out of four stars. I did this for the attention, and it worked. That review got me about four million hits and six thousand comments from terrified, irate fans.
Perhaps I can’t play and enjoy a Kingdom Hearts game without writing a hateful angry review afterward. Or perhaps I can.
I do know that I can’t experience Kingdom Hearts as just one person. There’s the part of me that loves the games and yells about that love constantly to any close friend who will listen—let’s call him “Goofy.” Then there’s the part of me that constantly complains about the experience of playing these games, yet definitely loves them deep down. Let’s call him “Donald.”
Somehow, when it comes time to put thoughts to paper, my Donald steps forward and takes over. Donald is a feisty, annoyed quacker, though he only quacks so loudly out of love: he complains because if nobody complains, how does anything get better?
Yet sitting here at the end of Kingdom Hearts III, seeing the story conclude with both loud and quiet and always luxurious melodrama, I only recall a fond warmth for the long-ago Sunday morning that I bested the Maleficent Dragon in Hollow Bastion in Kingdom Hearts. The party stood on standby as I took a moment to breathe. In a sun-hot living room in northern Tokyo, one of my roommates sat next to me in stone-cold hungover silence. The other roommate stood behind the sofa in his bathrobe, toothbrush in his mouth. He was so hungover he was technically still drunk. They had both watched the fight in silence. “If you don’t do it this time, I’m going to bed,” the roommate in the bathrobe had said. He had put his toothbrush in his mouth to solidify the threat.
The roommate sitting next to me on the sofa spoke for the first time in an hour.
“Just look at that dude, man.”
“Which dude?” said the other roommate.
“What about him?”
I was equipping my Sora with potions.
“I look at him and I’m like, ‘That guy right there just looks like he is always up for stuff.’”
“Oh heck yes dude I know exactly what you mean.”
“‘Hey Goofy, let’s order a pizza.’”
“‘Hey Goofy let’s get hiiiIIIiiighhh.’”
“Heck yeah, dude.”
“Heck yeah, dude.”
And inside of my brain, as I reflected on how the hitbox on that mother hecking dragon had been a pathological liar, I quacked.
Donald vs. Goofy (or, The Good Time Hat)
In my early thirties, I developed the idea of a “Good Time Hat.” This hypothetical hat, if I put it “on,” allowed me to see only the good in any piece of entertainment media. The Good Time Hat is why I never don’t tell anybody to watch the film Gods of Egypt as soon as possible.
If I apply the Good Time Hat retroactively, a moment early in Kingdom Hearts I occurs to me as the spark of the joy that guaranteed I would always play all of these games. It’s nothing too showy. It’s just Goofy and Donald walking together through King Mickey’s castle to the Gummi Ship to begin their adventure. We see them in their court attire. Donald is a wizard; Goofy is a knight. Instead of the little hat he usually wears atop his head, Kingdom Hearts’ Goofy professionally wears a knight helmet. Except it doesn’t cover his face. No, it sits gingerly atop his head, with a closed beaver visor, feather plume, and all. When I first saw this, my inner Donald quacked about such a helmet not offering any protection at all. My inner Goofy lolled himself three quarters of the way to death: this is exactly the sort of thing I love to yell about loving.
Last week, I put on my Good Time Hat and replayed Kingdom Hearts I. I kept the Good Time Hat on and played Kingdom Hearts III. Out of respect for my previously more active inner Donald, I kept my laptop open on the sofa next to me while I played. Every time the game pushed me to vocally express frustration, I paused the game, took a deep breath, and wrote a lazy analogy into the document in the vintage style of my ancient blog.
“I don’t like the Gummi Ship. This is like a canceled Dreamcast game no one remembers. The Gummi Ship is the video game equivalent of salad. The Gummi Ship is the video game equivalent of a thirteen-dollar takeout salad from that place that people in the office always talk about how long the line is. The Pirates of the Caribbean ship battles, on the other hand, are cookie salad with chocolate pudding dressing.”
Allow my inner Donald to continue. During one Gummi Ship boss fight, I got so bored that I started fantasizing about a power surge destroying my TV. In my line of work, we call that “The Perfect Excuse.” I had upgraded my ship. I was doing significant damage. I was avoiding taking a single hit. The boss just took so long to kill that I had begun to consider that if I fell asleep I would have more fun in any randomly selected nightmare. During that boss fight, my inner Donald became industrial noise pollution.
My Donald and Goofy presided over every critical molecule of Kingdom Hearts III. When the game’s rousing, straightforward, triple-A-as-all-heck, action-packed intro level ended and was then followed by two cutscenes, we proceeded to spend a half an hour scouring sleepy, beautiful Twilight Town for nine ingredients boxes. My inner Donald was like, this is the exact kind of stuff you had to do in Kingdom Hearts I—just walking around the world and pressing a button until you’ve pressed the button in the right place.
At one point, the game asked me to find literally 300 of something. I might have screamed more than twice in the next hour.
Goofy, meanwhile, loved the vintage-style black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoon being projected onto a movie screen while townspeople watched.
The Toy Story world asks us to leave Andy’s house and walk down the street for about half of a block, and then it teleports us instantly to the interior of a toy store after hours. Sora is the height of a toy doll and cannot easily see the tops of what the player recognizes from real human life as household objects.
My inner Goofy found this hilarious. He said it made the player feel literally and figuratively like a kid again. Donald, however, was instantly disappointed that after all these years, Kingdom Hearts was once again evoking the feeling of being locked alone in Nuclear Disneyland. Just one level into the game, the player is literally locked in an empty toy store. As far as metaphors go, this one’s pretty good. On the other hand, there’s only so much credit you can give most things before you’re giving them too much credit.
Fifteen hours later, Sora has fallen head-first into a snowdrift. As he battles unconsciousness, he sees Olaf, the snowman from the film Frozen, wandering about and talking to himself. After Olaf toddles off, Sora wakes up. Enter Goofy and Donald. Sora tells them that he just saw a snowman talking to itself before it walked away.
“Sora!” quacks Donald in a rage. “Everyone knows that snowmen can’t walk!”
Donald has just called Sora a liar.
My inner Donald is twice as angry as the Donald in the television. How can Donald doubt the idea of a walking, talking snowman? They just visited a planet with walking, talking toys! They are battling an organization of thirteen evil wizards who are also all parts of the same person! There’s time travel! There are two people living inside Sora’s heart! How can Donald, in this writhing rat’s nest of a plot situation, doubt anything?
My inner Goofy, meanwhile, says “lmao this owns.” My inner Goofy goes on to postulate that Donald, in being a talking duck refusing to believe in a walking snowman, is a quaint little acknowledgment from the developers that their game is weird and wild.
My inner Donald yells, “Did you not just hear me? They visited a planet where toys were alive and Donald literally said ‘Toys here in this world have hearts!’ How was he not surprised by that, yet surprised by this?”
And my inner Goofy says, “You know, now that you mention it, I only just now appreciated that we can explain Sora’s Japanese-animation-inspired character design’s difference from the character design style of the worlds based on animated Disney films, because it’s like Star Trek, and they’re all just subtly different humanoid species!”
My inner Donald and Goofy are complex characters.
Looking back at the Donald-fueled “frustration” section of my notes, I wonder how all this negativity never crystallized into the straw that broke the camel’s (my) back. These notes chronicling the occasions of my loudest frustration amount to an impressive twelve pages of 18-point Verdana font. Any rational reader would behold this list and deduce that Kingdom Hearts III killed the writer’s father.
It’s a testament to the hushed joy of my inner Goofy, as well as the voluminous utter spectacle of Kingdom Hearts III, to its protagonist’s unwavering smile, and its constant messages of hope and love that I find the ability to forget my past frustrations and tell any asker without a lie in my voice: “Yeah, I liked that game.”
I’ve always loved Donald the most in Kingdom Hearts.
Today, however, I embrace my inner Goofy. Goofy wins. I loved my experience with Kingdom Hearts III.
By the time Elsa from Frozen was singing the entirety of “Let It Go” in a CG cutscene that, if I’m not mistaken, might just be the exact musical scene from the film, except the camera is repeatedly cutting over to Sora, Donald, and Goofy gawking from afar and chattering breathlessly to each other (“Is that Elsa?” “Is Elsa singing?”), my inner Donald Duck had laryngitis. Reduced to a hoarse whisper, he tugged my pant leg and quacked, “Isn’t the whole point of this song that Elsa is shedding her ties to society and seizing her independence, literally abandoning the castle over which she reigns so that she can build her own castle of ice, ditching her royal vestments and crown in favor of a new dress and tiara made of ice? Do we really need, like, three dudes skeezing around the corner voyeurisming up at her like ‘wowee g’hyuck look at that independent woman lettin’ it all go all the way up there’? Isn’t calling this an ‘homage’ sort of like calling a tapeworm a ‘pet’?”
Meanwhile, in my other ear, Goofy’s voice has only gained in volume and critical bravery. At the top of his weird bipedal dog lungs, he gawrshes, “THIS IS F**KIN METATEXTUALLY HILARIOUS AND I LOVE IT!” And I’m like, “Goofy! Watch your language!”
By this point, seventeen hours of non-stop playing had baked my brain. My hate and my love were each one another’s Heartless and Nobody.
Gawrsh! Look At Them Graphics, Sora
My Goofy had never been more proud of my purchase of a 4K HDR television and an Xbox One X. As of right now, today, no game looks good in anywhere near the same way that Kingdom Hearts III looks good. It is a triumph of art direction. The character attack animations are Bayonetta-tier.
On the Xbox One X, the action stays at 60 frames per second for a healthy percentage of the time. There’s going to be one guy in chat who knows where his caps lock key is and woke up wanting to harangue someone about how stability is preferable to a fluctuating framerate. I apologize to that guy: I love the unlocked framerate. I don’t care if the framerate drops during heavy battles that are full of too many tasty particles. I grew up playing the NES. The closer to 60fps a game is at its best and the more closely it grinds to an absolute halt at its worst, the more fondly I remember my country home.
All kidding aside, Kingdom Hearts III stays at 60fps for a remarkable percentage of the time.
Except the Gummi Ship, which has both the graphics of 2019 and the stop-motion framerate of 1919.
I realize it’s ironic to talk about any framerate higher than 24 frames per second on a game that takes place across worlds based on Disney films. My inner Donald quacks angrily at the artistic whiplash effect when a 30fps cutscene transitions directly into 60fps gameplay. My inner Goofy jumps for joy, witnessing this as a perfect example of Kingdom Hearts’ clearly visible separation of game and film.
Kotaku’s Maddy Myers was telling me earlier today that she appreciates how the in-game graphics and the cutscenes are of indistinguishably equal graphical fidelity. She played the game on a regular PlayStation 4, so the framerate difference didn’t occur to her, and maybe that’s ideal for some players.
Back in Kingdom Hearts I’s day, we could only dream that cutscene and in-game graphics would ever converge. Kingdom Hearts III brings CG cutscene and in-game together. We have, at last, achieved Peak Playable Cutscene. Sure, Sora’s hair changes during the transition from CG to in-game, et cetera. Let’s not nitpick. My inner Goofy would get sad.
Kingdom Hearts III’s eight Disney-themed worlds skew toward their more modern, computer-animated films. This tees up a huge win for Kingdom Hearts III’s artists: the Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. worlds as represented in this game make their respective films look like PlayStation 2 games. Heck, the Toy Story world here makes Toy Story 2 look like a PlayStation 3 game.
Tangled, meanwhile, already looked like an Xbox One X Enhanced game upon its release in 2010, so a qualitative assessment of Kingdom Hearts III’s Tangled world’s relative graphical fidelity won’t cut it. Let’s just say that the Tangled world in Kingdom Hearts III is home to some of the most gorgeous lighting effects I have ever seen in a video game, and the neanderthal part of my vegetarian subconscious longs to get down on my knees and eat all of that grass.
The Pirates of the Caribbean world is hyper-real and baked in filth in what suffices as one of the most jarring tonal trapeze-backflips in video game history. Sure, there was a Pirates of the Caribbean world in Kingdom Hearts II, though wait till you get a load of the Detective Pikachu-lookin’ as heck Donald Duck in here. You certainly couldn’t count the specks of scum on Jack Sparrow’s goatee on your CRT in 2005. (If you had an HDTV in 2005, you were a narc. Also, for the record, I got my HDTV in 2006.)
The Frozen world, meanwhile, just looks like a lot of snow. In the dark. Most of the snow is in the dark, because snow in the daylight is migraine fuel, and modern TVs with their 4K and their HDR are magnitudes brighter than even the best HDTVs of 2006. The daylight snow segments in Kingdom Hearts III literally required me to put sunglasses on. The title screen, also, requires sunglasses.
Console game developers, please don’t make white UI backgrounds. Make them “night mode” all the time. (Kingdom Hearts III’s title screen menu has a full-screen white background.)
For Those Who Came In Late
At this point, you might be wondering “What’s all this talk about Frozen, Tangled, Toy Story, and Monsters Inc? What kind of a video game is this?” And I’m like, wow, you read a lot of words without knowing what Kingdom Hearts is!
Kingdom Hearts began in 2002 and was a collaboration between a massive game franchise—Final Fantasy—and Disney, rather than a competition between them. Some of the most critically esteemed films in history were extending a gesture of friendship toward the medium of video games. It was a good friendship that happened to make popcorn buckets of money.
That friendship gesture continues to power the beating organ at the core of Kingdom Hearts today. You need only attend fifteen minutes of the first lecture of a archeology 101 course to unearth Square Enix’s elevator pitch:
“An original character goes on a quest to find [MacGuffin]. They have a spaceship and can travel between planets. They search each planet in turn for [MacGuffin]. And, oh yeah, the planets are all based on Disney films.”
This concept was crystallized at some point during Kingdom Hearts I’s development. The original character, Sora, is a plucky kid with the energy of a young Mickey Mouse. His companions are immortal classic Disney characters Donald and Goofy. Sora’s MacGuffin is his friends. Donald and Goofy’s MacGuffin is Mickey Mouse.
Upon visiting each Disney-themed planet, the heroes will land improbably close geographically to the protagonist of that world’s respective film. The events of that film will already be in progress.
Donald Duck is a stickler, so he constantly reminds Sora of The Prime Directive: no meddling in the affairs of the film. Thus the producers at Disney get a video game in which events from their classic films are presented in loving detail, and the game designers get to not struggle with the task of making an entire 60-hour video game about finding something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.
Meanwhile, the bad guys meddle in the affairs of the film. They meddle a lot. The bad guys are sinister wizardly wielders of sword-sized key-shaped magic weapons. From shadows darker than evil itself, they manipulate grubby little darkness gremlins into subverting the efforts of any and all Disney princesses to live happily ever after. Sora and his buddies must thwart the bad guys’ attempts to thwart each and every Disney plot. They achieve a percentage of our MacGuffin. Then they go to another planet.
This concept fits in a nutshell.
The villains remain in the shadows of Kingdom Hearts I until the last segment of the game, in which the onyx iceberg that is Kingdom Hearts lore breaks the surface and stuff gets wild. Kingdom Hearts gave the players all the Disney in the beginning, knowing that if they’re still paying attention by Hollow Bastion, chances are, they’re now a Kingdom Hearts fan as well as a Disney fan.
This structure also dropped a heavy weight on the shoulders of Kingdom Hearts II.
When Kingdom Hearts I arrived, Tetsuya Nomura’s artistic style had yet to reach its apex, though by Kingdom Hearts II he had gone utterly wild with confidence. Now that the aforementioned white whale of the evil organization had punctured into the Disney action, there was no stopping it. Tetsuya Nomura began to flood Kingdom Hearts with black-robed zippers-and-pleather connoisseurs and teenage youths looking like they shopped at Hot Topic on the exact day ska was “normal.”
A dozen games have come out since 2002, and you’d need to have undergone a PhD or at least an MBA’s worth of studying to have kept track of all of the goings-on of the series. Or you could just be like Elsa. (I’m saying you could “Let It Go.”)
The structure of Kingdom Hearts III remains fundamentally unchanged from Kingdom Hearts I and II. You arrive on a Disney planet. You identify the doings of the dark masterminds: it’s easy to spot them, because they have a uniform dress code no matter what planet they’re on. You meet a Disney hero. You traverse a massive spectacular action stage, all the while helping the Disney hero fight the gremlins and achieve their happily ever after. At various points in the world, you clash with a member of Organization XIII—one of the yellow-eyed, zippers-n-pleather dudes and/or dudette. Your heroes trade words with the villain. The Organization XIII villain portends cosmic ramifications, then insinuates the Disney villain into summoning an impressive, large boss. You kill the boss and then you get to hear Woody and Buzz Lightyear tell each other they’re always going to be friends forever.
Though Kingdom Hearts has hit points and numbers and stats and equippable abilities and weapons and item synthesis and potions and everything a Final Fantasy game has, I never think of it as an RPG. It’s more of a lower-stress character action game. It’s Disney May Cry. (Someone has definitely called it that before.)
Kingdom Hearts games have more in common with 1990s licensed Konami arcade brawlers than Final Fantasy. The 1990s saw Konami acquiring the rights to make a game based on the X-Men, so they made the same game they made when they acquired the rights to The Simpsons, which was the same game they made when they acquired the rights to make a game about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Those games were always about big art, expressive characters, and gallons of superfluous animation. If you have enough quarters in your pocket, you and three (or five, in the case of the X-Men arcade game) friends can plunk your way through without pain.
Each Disney world of Kingdom Hearts is like quarter-plunking through a Konami arcade game. Even in 2019, each cutscene arrives with the momentary joy of seeing an arcade brawler ending for the first time. Except you don’t need real friends to get there, because you’ve got Donald quacking and Goofy gawrshing all the way. (Though, really, why doesn’t Kingdom Hearts III have campaign co-op?)
All through each of these experiences, the expertly rendered and excellently voice-acted Disney cutscenes respect the source material as much as the dark, portentous interstitial dialogues trust the fans who have paid more attention than the casual Disney fans.
I say the voice-acting is “excellent,” though that adjective comes with a couple of caveats.
The Disney voice acting is excellent—if you can stop comparing Woody’s voice actor to Tom Hanks. I confess, I almost couldn’t. “Which yard sale did they find this Tom Hanks at?” my inner Donald Duck asked my television aloud, in the dark.
On the other hand, you get to literally hear Wallace Shawn say “Bahamut.” That’s the guy who had dinner with Andre!
The Kingdom Hearts voice acting is excellent—if you, like me, played much of Kingdom Hearts II in a room full of weirdos and game developers who came to consider the very “morose anime” cadence of dialogue (with its frequent ponderous pauses, tag questions, and responders repeating key phrases) as being endearingly hilarious all the way back in December of 2005.
Here’s an actual excerpt of dialogue from Kingdom Hearts III. I promise it contains no spoilers.
Character 1: “It worked last time!”
Character 2: “That was then. This is now.”
Character 3: “Before I forget, some troubling news.”
Let’s break this down. I’ll do this by rephrasing the dialogue.
“Why doesn’t this thing work? It worked before!”
“As a matter of fact, some stuff in this world and/or video game doesn’t behave the same way twice no matter what your expectations desire.”
“Hey, hi, I’m someone else and I’m still in the scene. I’m going to make us talk about something else, and by using the word ‘troubling’ I’m indicating that I’m going to speak in portention, not in exposition.”
My inner Donald Duck beheld this exchange and quacked that this conversation might as well be about Kingdom Hearts’ famously loopy and cryptic level design.
My inner Goofy yelled “THIS IS THE F**KIN ROSETTA STONE OF VIDEO GAMES AND I LOVE IT SO MUCH.”
And I was like, “Goofy! Watch your language!”
I analyzed a 36-line dialogue from Kingdom Hearts III. My goal was to calculate, based on the small sample I chose, how many lines transpire, on average, between references to proper names of characters or places in the story. In other words, mathematically, how long can characters talking in Kingdom Hearts III go without mentioning the name of another character? I found that, n average, 1.3 lines stand between references to names. That’s less than one exchange (one exchange = 2 lines).
I apply this test to many dialogues. Most films—even the Marvel Cinematic Universe ones!—go about five exchanges between proper name references. David Mamet’s films go longer, given that he did once say “Anytime two characters talk about a third character who isn’t in the room, there is no drama.”
Kingdom Hearts, meanwhile, is like getting beat up by Wikipedia.
Getting beat up by Wikipedia is, it turns out, my inner Goofy’s favorite thing ever.
The Battle System
My legit, honest favorite thing ever is a good character action battle system.
Kingdom Hearts III has a good one. (Sorry: I like Kingdom Hearts II’s more.)
A common opinion is that Kingdom Hearts combat is all about spamming an attack button, watching cool stuff happen, and hooting and hollering as the situation requires and your heart desires.
This isn’t entirely false. You can play these games this way. This only strengthens my impression that these games are the truest successor to the old Konami arcade brawlers.
However, the games reward attention to technical detail and mindfulness.
Kingdom Hearts III, more than any title of the series, bombards the player with stuff to do. The user interface becomes a simulacrum of a modern Japanese casino, with button prompts and big loud uppercase words begging you to try such-and-such within the next X seconds. You can let your eyes glass over and hit whatever button it tells you to hit when and, depending on your difficulty setting, experience level, or raw luck, you might pull off a victory eight times out of ten.
However, the attentive player can crank the difficulty up, equip a “Zero XP” anti-ability, and let the game beat them to within a millimeter of death over and over again, somehow scraping by every battle. I didn’t do this because I needed to complete the game on a deadline, though I might start up a new save tomorrow and do it that time around.
The player in Kingdom Hearts III needs to constantly be aware of what sort of enemies they’re fighting, where those enemies are, and what those enemies can do. Likewise, the player requires awareness of what their player character can do at any given time, what things they might become able to do, and which abilities require a perfect situation to align.
Some battles make me really wish they would turn Kingdom Hearts into a three-on-three esport, so other people could play it and I could watch, or so I could play it online and lose a lot.
My inner Donald Duck quacks at the esports invocation. He wants to say, yeah, just like an esport, it’s full of nebulous attack animations wherein enemies rotate or move or attack in a way that makes no sense given their character model’s size and position. Just like an esport, my inner Donald Duck says, sometimes attacks just explode loudly and randomly, immediately and everywhere, juggling my character up into the air one, two, three times, rendering my mastery of in-air recovery and blocking completely useless.
My inner Goofy says that the chaos is part of the action. It’s the DNA of ancient RPGs, wherein the player chooses to fight and then they let the enemies attack. This is not just a game about fighting. It’s a game about taking damage.
My inner Goofy then says, plainly, that gawrsh, my inner Donald Duck might not be very good at esports.
Now my inner Donald goes on a tirade: why do big battles keep giving me new abilities and then whisking me immediately into a cutscene, after which another battle begins, meaning I have no opportunity to open the menu and equip the new abilities, and by the time all the battles are over, I forgot I even learned the new ability?
My inner Donald Duck sometimes fails to, amid the casino chaos of on-screen prompts, recognize which ability is currently selected, and so sometimes he summons Splash Mountain when he’s trying to open a treasure chest after a battle.
My inner Donald Duck can’t figure out air-stepping. My inner Donald Duck asks, why do all of the keyblades look like toddler teething toys? My inner Goofy rebuts: it’s fun. It’s cartoony. It provokes the casino atmosphere.
My inner Donald Duck crosses his arms and says if Kingdom Hearts’ battle system is a casino, it’s a casino where the slot machines occasionally dispense gumballs.
My inner Goofy says, well, if you say so. Though isn’t it nice that every time you kill an enemy, in addition to telling you how many experience points you earned, it also flashes the number for how many more you need to level up?
My inner Donald Duck says, well, yeah.
Goofy has won this round.
It’s Still Kingdom Hearts
Numerous shortcomings and frustrating foibles bedazzle Kingdom Hearts III’s sleek elephantine hide like Big Lots rhinestones. Despite its ultra-modern graphics and luxurious presentation, something ancient lurks in the background, pulling the strings: the Cell Processor.
What I mean is, Kingdom Hearts III is a PlayStation 2 game.
It has brilliant graphics and its opening action stage shows every single type of modern particle effect happening at once all of the time.
On the other hand, many times you’ll walk into the exit of an area, the screen fades to black and then immediately comes back up, and you’re in a completely different location with no visible connection to the last area you were in. Or, even worse, you fall out of an invisible hole in the sky and land in the middle of a room with an unknowable entrance.
On the first hand, Sora leans realistically as you turn corners when running. He runs at a skateboard pace, briskly and effortlessly parkouring up sheer walls and cliffs. On the other hand, some levels ask you to do a menial task (usually “Find inscrutable item and press a button on it”) and then make you do it two more times, because Game Designers Love Threes. Once would be enough. Zero would be better.
On the one hand, sometimes Goofy or Donald tell me where to go. On the other hand, they’re so cryptic I’d swear they were PlayStation-1-era From Software designers. Also, sometimes I wander an area for forty-five minutes because the entire level is just one huge hallway and I can’t find the right pixel to investigate. My inner Goofy says that this recalls the legacy of ancient games. This makes it feel like an NES game! Both my inner Donald and I tell Goofy to shut up about this one.
On the one hand, Kingdom Hearts III is an ultra-rarity in video games: a sequel thirteen years is the making. They thought of everything, and then they spent twelve years thinking of more than everything. It bursts with micro-luxuries. The Instagram-like loading screens are elegantly cute. When the game has finished loading on one of these screens, a flowery chime sounds. It’s the user-interface equivalent of an old English butler saying “Your video game is ready, your grace.”
On the other hand, the music and sound effects sometimes sharply fade out before the screen fades to black between transitions from one part of a cutscene to another part of a cutscene, even when that next scene also takes place in the same environment.
On the one hand, a lovely fashion-brandy logo pattern of extreme taste adorns many menus. When a character gives you a suitcase at one point, you know that somebody who doesn’t play video games would pay maybe $3,000 for that suitcase if it were real.
On the other hand, the menus are locked at 30fps even on the Xbox One X. I feel like that’s a bug. Hey, Square Enix, I hope you see this.
On the one hand, you play a lovely mini-game to cook actual French cuisine items. You can then eat the items individually, or as a full-course meal. On the other hand, this fancy food only gives you temporary stat bonuses, and the placement of save points and battles often obscures your opportunity to eat it.
On the one hand, all the main characters wear plaid. On the other hand, why not?
Voice-actors, perhaps working from a script that was always in flux, still emphasize the wrong word or syllable every other sentence. They still pronounce character names multiple subtly different ways.
Kingdom Hearts III still does the thing where a cutscene ends and then I walk forward for literally less than one second before there’s a fade to black and another cutscene.
Kingdom Hearts III still has screen-spanning, background-usurping bosses which seem to move backward as the player moves toward them. The floors in these boss fights are often animated in a state of constant people-mover flux. Some giant enemies can still turn 180 degrees around upon a frame’s notice, with a speed that seems impossible given their size, to launch an attack which has no perceivable cooldown period. Even my inner Goofy hates this.
Many of the Disney levels still evoke that “Alone In Nuclear Disneyland” feeling at times: just empty places free of life, with beautifully expensive CG Disney wallpaper. My inner Donald calls this lonely, though it does make sense in the big picture of the plot, wherein worlds are being rewritten and duplicated.
My inner Goofy says it evokes the vaguely unsettling atmosphere of artificiality that defines a Disney theme park. My inner Goofy has it on good authority that this atmosphere is intentional. After all, look how much of the game’s original character content involves discussions of death and darkness.
Both Donald and Goofy agree that it’s all about the fights you get in along the way, anyway.
It’s still Kingdom Hearts. So, it’s still a PlayStation 2 game at heart.
It is a museum exhibiting its own architecture. Its decadent spectacle is the closest games have come yet to giving me the catharsis of walking into a Louis Vuitton store and neither buying anything nor being asked to leave.
I challenge Metacritic to extract a number from that last paragraph.
I loved every second of Kingdom Hearts III, even the seconds during which my inner Donald would not stop quacking. As I arrived at the loud, dramatic conclusion, all my frustrations dissipated and my inner Goofy stood victorious.
Kingdom Hearts is and always has been a product of the labor of omnidirectional love. Its creators pour love into it, and its fans spray love all over it. Without either of those loves, Kingdom Hearts would be a ghost. If you are a fan of this series, you are most likely not even reading this review until maybe days, weeks, months, or even years after the game came out. In that intervening time, you eventually decided that no negativity about it could hurt you.
If somehow you have arrived here at the conclusion of this review without having decided whether you want to purchase Kingdom Hearts III or not, allow me to summarize for each category of reader.
Fans: you will play this game and love it. Its opening CG movie hugs each one of you personally with its visuals, and it features what is Utada Hikaru’s best song in a decade. Somehow that song is a collaboration with with Skrillex. And you know what? Skrillex is okay. I don’t hate that guy. And yes, fans, I said “Utada Hikaru.” I had a Livejournal and Napster in 1999. Apple Music calling her “Hikaru Utada” is not going to break that particular chain of my memories, and it probably won’t break yours, either. This game is not as good as Kingdom Hearts II, though.
If you have never played a Kingdom Hearts game or do not particularly like them, I say to you that Kingdom Hearts III is a PlayStation 2 game made in 2019. Kingdom Hearts has a reputation as a butt of jokes. It’s the Transformers Movies of Video Games. I propose we upgrade it to The Fast and the Furious Movies of Video Games.
Kingdom Hearts III features graphics that’ll make you prouder of your 4K TV purchase than any game yet has, even Red Dead Redemption 2. The Disney content is even thicker and more luxurious than Rapunzel’s hair. You might learn to laugh really hard at unnatural pauses and improper emphasis in the kooky Baker’s Dozen of Wizards cosmic conspiracy cutscenes. The combat is complex and rewarding, if you like struggling with multiple simultaneous unknowable factors. It’s big and loud. Donald is hilarious.
For those who owned a PlayStation 2 and cherish their memories of it: I visited a doctor the day before I got Kingdom Hearts III. I wanted the go-ahead to begin training for a marathon. The doctor gave me the OK. Then I asked, “Am I healthy enough to play all the way through Kingdom Hearts III in a weekend, though?” He actually laughed. He said, in a knowing tone, “You’re gonna wanna take your time with that one. Just stay away from spoilers and you’ll be fine.” And I thought, wow, a cardiologist practicing in Manhattan knows about Kingdom Hearts. He told me he had a PS2 in medical school. He was probably my age. Oh god. I’m the same age as a cardiologist. He’s a cardiologist and I’m not. The PlayStation 2 was great, though. My life was so much better back then, when I played Kingdom Hearts I. I did not yet know that I would never be a cardiologist.
For those who just skipped to the bottom of this text somehow expecting a number, I say this: Imagine you went to a doctor. He ushers you into his office. He asks his assistant to close the door. He’s sitting across the desk from you. It’s like one of those scenes in a TV show where a guy learns he has a terminal illness. The doctor tells you he’s going to put it to you straight. Then he reaches under the desk and produces a bowl of delicious, hot popcorn. He puts it on the desk. He says, “I’m going to step out of this office. Once I’ve closed the door, I want you to eat one piece of this hot, delicious popcorn. Then I want you to stare at this bowl of popcorn until, improbably, all of its kernels rot, and eventually its molecules scatter to the dust.” The doctor gets up to leave. He closes the door. You eat one piece of the hot, delicious popcorn. It is hot and delicious. Now you fold your hands, gaze into the bowl, and allow the rest of your life to begin.
This is how Kingdom Hearts fans felt waiting for Kingdom Hearts III. Now that it’s here, they’re ready to be force-fed hot corn by a cartoon duck and a hillbilly dog. To accompany the popcorn, the game gives you a bathtub full of champagne. Then, it serves you a chocolate-chip cookie salad with chocolate pudding dressing. It feeds you an hour of candy and then ten minutes of pizza. It dunks a Gatorade cooler full of Kool-Aid on you. Eighteen seconds of spinach here and there as punctuation. 92 seconds of all-you-can-eat Sour Patch Kids. 88 minutes of unlimited breadsticks. Two gallons of ice-cold water-drinking at gunpoint. Three hours of picking up Skittles off a factory-spotless carpet. Two hours of eating the Skittles.
What I’m saying is, Kingdom Hearts III kinda sucks and that’s why I love it. If Kingdom Hearts III kills you, you will at least not die hungry. 32 hours of total mainline campaign gameplay. 4K and 60fps most of the time on Xbox One X. Video games forever.