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Kingdom Hearts III: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

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Like many people, I’d waited almost thirteen years to play Kingdom Hearts 3.

Technically, you could say that I’ve been waiting since 2012, when I beat Dream Drop Distance. But thirteen sounds more impressive, and it’s been that long since Kingdom Hearts 2 came out in Japan. And ever since then, we’ve all hoped to hear Square-Enix announce development on Part 3. Instead, we got hit with a number of smaller titles on different consoles. All have proven to be important to the story to varying degrees and I enjoyed playing all of them. (Well, except Coded. Sorry, Coded.)

But now, here we are. I can say that I beat Kingdom Hearts 3 at long last. Many have asked, and many more have their own opinions regarding this one question: was it worth the wait?

My answer: yes and no.

Kingdom Hearts 3 was an emotional rollercoaster for me, a lot of ups and downs. When it’s good, it’s phenomenal. It surpassed some of my wildest hopes and dreams. But when it’s bad…yikes. It’s worse than I could have imagined. I’m not even really trying to be dramatic here. That’s really how I felt as I played this game.

Let’s start with the high points.

Sora, Donald, and Goofy are back! These characters are the best that they’ve ever been. Their friendship is so strong in every scene, whether they’re teasing each other, reminiscing about past adventures, or having each other’s backs in battle. Donald and Goofy love Sora and they’re prepared to go anywhere with him to the bitter end. And while Sora is the hero of the story, his two companions got to have plenty of “awesome” moments all on their own. That was a pleasant surprise. 

The Disney worlds look, sound, and feel fantastic. They’re enormous in size compared to previous games and they’re all beautiful. Each location presents a unique environment to explore, from the lush forests in Tangled to the wide, open ocean from Pirates of the Caribbean.  The attention to detail is just wonderful and I keep finding new things to appreciate.

And best of all: the game has NPCs! Sora no longer runs through empty streets! You can actually see people in the cities and towns!

Unfortunately, while I adore all of Yoko Shimomura’s work in the Kingdom Hearts series, I have to admit that I came away with mixed feelings about the soundtrack this time. Kingdom Hearts 3 recycles and remixes a lot of music from the previous games, when I would have liked to have heard more new tracks.

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But I can’t complain too much because both the new and old music sound just as good as they always have. And I was extremely impressed by the new field and battle arrangements for each world. They each reflect the style of the scores from the original Disney films. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn that Alan Menken composed the music for Corona.

Now, you’ve probably heard that Kingdom Hearts 3 is too easy. Speaking as someone who’s not a very skilled gamer, I can confirm that these fans are correct. Most of the game is a breeze, even on the hardest difficulty level. Usually, I need to put in some level grinding at various points in a Kingdom Hearts game. Not this time.

Why is it so easy this time around? I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the number of options at your disposal when you’re fighting. As you attack with your Keyblade, you fill up a gauge that allows your Keyblade to change form and unleash more powerful attacks. Then, after a certain period of time spent fighting, you can trigger a joint attack with one of your party members, i.e. throwing Mike Wazowski at the enemy like a bowling ball. You also acquire Links, which are characters you can summon into battle using magic, i.e. Ariel and Wreck-It Ralph.

But wait- there’s more! On top of everything else, attacking certain enemies will trigger a type of attack called Attraction Flow. These attacks are designed to mimic popular rides at the Disney theme parks: a swinging pirate ship, the spinning tea cups, Prince Charming’s Carousel, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, etc. They are a lot of fun to unleash…the first couple of times. And they can be great for crowd control. But after a while, I got tired of using them.

And wait- there’s more! If you’re low on health, you might trigger an attack called Rage Form. Similar to Anti-Form, this turns Sora into a humanoid Heartless with faster, powerful attacks. His Rage attacks do significant damage at the cost of his own health.

Add it all up, and you can see why it’s not so easy to die in this game. I’d come close, only to trigger a slew of special attacks that allowed Sora to stay alive until the fight ended. Although you do not have to use any of these commands, you can’t disable them either, so they will keep popping up as you play.

Last of all, Kingdom Hearts 3 adds a very welcome option when you do fail at a battle or similar objective: “Prepare and Retry.” This allows you to access the menu before restarting a boss fight, so you can restock items you might’ve forgotten to equip, change your abilities or customize your spells differently. I hope that’s an option that’s here to stay for future Kingdom Hearts games.

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So, what didn’t I like about this game, besides the difficulty?  On paper, it doesn’t look like much.  However, the story has some problems and some of them bothered me so much that they almost tainted my feelings about the whole experience.

Granted, there’s actually a lot to like about the story of Kingdom Hearts III. The Disney characters get so many opportunities to shine. There’s a nice balance between worlds that strictly follow the plot of the movie and worlds that follow an original story that ties into the central conflict between Sora and Organization XIII. The Organization members have actual conversations with one another about their personal goals, their motivations, and their opinions of one another. One member gets a whole subplot that I won’t spoil, but it’s fantastic.

But, I reiterate: when this game goes bad, it goes bad. The biggest problem lies in the treatment of the female characters. It’s not a new problem for Kingdom Hearts, given that the games introduced us to dozens of engaging male characters and a handful of ladies. Yet many fans hoped that this would get rectified, especially for poor Kairi- the girl who is supposed to be one of Sora’s two best friends, but constantly gets pushed aside in favor of giving Riku more character development.

Kairi gets a couple of good moments in this game, but by and large, what Tetsuya Nomura decided to do with her was abysmal. I won’t spoil anything, but something important happens to her that left me feeling shocked, disgusted, and angry.  It’s not so much that I want Kairi to become a Strong Female Character who fights with a sword and doesn’t need a man in her life.  I just want Nomura to write her the way that he writes the male cast: as a person with her own goals and character growth, not an accessory to Sora.

To a lesser extent, there are twists in the game that seem to exist just for the sake of confusing/shocking us and getting the fans talking, not because they contribute to the story or characters. I know that some of this comes down to personal preference, and that if I want to continue with this series, I need to accept that this is how Tetsuya Nomura likes to tell stories. Still, I wish he’d stop pulling things like, “THIS character is secretly connected to THIS thing or person ALL ALONG!” When he just lets the characters play off of each other, Kingdom Hearts III shines. When he starts to go into the Lore, that’s when I begin to tune out.

I recommend Kingdom Hearts III to people who have stuck with this series for all of its installments. I would even recommend it to people who have never played a Kingdom Hearts game before. If you are willing to embrace the odd story and you think running around beautifully recreated Disney worlds sounds appealing, you should have a great time.

However, I do not recommend this game to anyone who has only played Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. Weird as it sounds, I think you’ll have a harder time enjoying it than people who have never picked up a Kingdom Hearts game in their lives.

Why? Because you know just enough about the world and its characters to find certain ret-cons and new characters/information all the more confusing. The game doesn’t offer a clear, concise explanation for why some characters have returned from the dead, like Axel. Whereas, if you’ve never played one of the games before, you don’t know that they’re supposed to be dead.

Overall, I rate Kingdom Hearts 3 a 7/10. It’s not a perfect experience. The treatment of Kairi and certain parts of the ending left a bitter taste in my mouth. Yet the game also provided a lot of joy and I don’t want to throw that away. Sora, Donald, and Goofy: thanks for the ride. I look forward to playing future installments.

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