Saturday, March 2, 2019

Kingdom Hearts III

Thirteen years after the US release of Kingdom Hearts II and over five years after its surprise announcement at E3 2013, Kingdom Hearts III, the twelfth game in the Kingdom Hearts franchise, has finally been released to the world. Within that time, wild fan speculation turned into hype that grew with each new trailer released, though an early leak did cause some to initiate a media blackout for a month as opposed to only four days (the game launched in Japan on January 25, 2019, with a release in the US on January 29, 2019). I played for as long as I possibly could at every opportunity as soon as I picked up my copy of the Deluxe Edition, though once I finally finished, I took some time to process my thoughts before writing this review. As someone who had been genuinely waiting thirteen years for this game, I generally enjoyed my time and don’t regret it, but the experience was ultimately not completely satisfying.

Immediately following the events of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, Sora has yet to learn the Power of Waking, an ability that will allow him to unlock people’s hearts and rescue those of Terra, Ventus and Aqua, the remaining Guardians of Light necessary for the final battle with Master Xehanort. To learn this power, however, he first needs to regain his strength and heads off to Olympus to meet up with Hercules, who had managed to regain his own strength after a previous battle with Hades. While there, the Real Organization XIII is preparing for their part in the final battle and Maleficent is searching for a mysterious black box with her subordinate, Pete.

Maleficent (Susanne Blakeslee, left) and Pete (Jim Cummings, right)
are searching the worlds for a mysterious Black Box.

Before I address the quality of the story, I first need to address the fact that Kingdom Hearts III is the finale to the Dark Seeker Saga, which has spanned the entire series up to this point. As a result, the story will make the least amount of sense to anyone who isn’t familiar with the story of all of the other games. For those who aren’t hardcore fans, this confusion will most likely stem from either jumping straight into Kingdom Hearts III or only playing Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II.

Fortunately, Kingdom Hearts III attempts to rectify this with the inclusion of Memory Archives, a series of videos that explain what’s happened so far, as well the core concepts of the games. Unfortunately, these videos are highly ineffective, as they don’t go into enough detail about prior events for someone looking to pick up and play this entry without taking the time to play or watch all of the other games. As it stands, I’d recommend taking the time to familiarize yourself with the other games first if you haven’t already done so and are looking to invest in the overall story. The most effective way of doing so is by playing through Kingdom Hearts: The Story So Far, as well as Kingdom Hearts Union χ [Cross], or finding a comprehensive enough summary online.

The most cost-effective way to play through the series.

With all of that said, as someone who has actually been waiting thirteen years for this game to release (technically only around five for its actual development), I have very mixed feelings on the execution of both the meta story and the stories of the individual Disney worlds.

To begin with, there are ten playable worlds within the game, eight of which are based on existing Disney properties. In general, there was obviously more of an effort put in to make the worlds feel like they mattered to the meta story, as opposed to solely retelling/reenacting the plots of various movies. The story attempts this by placing various members of Organization XIII within the worlds and having the themes of the various movies tie into the main themes of Kingdom Hearts III as a whole. This, interestingly enough, felt like a throwback of sorts to the style of writing in the original Kingdom Hearts, aided by the numerous references to said game, an approach I highly enjoyed and appreciated, at least at first.

As I played on, however, the stories of the worlds on their own felt increasingly lacking. What doesn’t help is that there seemed to be two different approaches going on at once. The worlds based on Frozen and Tangled, for instance, very strictly adhere to the plots of their respective movies, but feel as though many major scenes were skipped, which creates a very rushed presentation that makes Sora and friends feel more like bystanders. This is perhaps highlighted in the “Let It Go” sequence from Frozen, which is lifted wholesale from the movie and, while beautifully rendered, has Sora’s contribution amount to standing around and reacting.

The story of Arendelle follows that of Frozen a bit too closely.

The other approach, as was the case with worlds based on properties such as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc. and Big Hero 6, was to have the stories act as a sort of sequel to their respective movies. Though not unheard of in a Kingdom Hearts game, this idea added some much-needed variety to the storytelling and allowed for some highly memorable scenes, especially in the Toy Box and Monstropolis worlds. However, much like in the previous paragraph, this approach couldn’t prevent the feeling of a rushed presentation, most noticeably in the Big Hero 6 world, San Fransokyo. Though this world was particularly hyped as a sequel story that explores what happens after the end of the movie, the events of this story end much faster than anticipated, which left me wanting something more substantial.

All throughout Kingdom Hearts III, in fact, there is a feeling that the story simply isn’t substantial enough, even with regards to the meta story involving Xehanort. As the player progresses through the game, it slowly builds up to the final confrontation by having Sora encounter the various members of Organization XIII and receiving cryptic hints about their plans, all while the story addresses several dangling plot threads from previous games and introducing new plot points in an attempt to help flesh out the answers. However, some of these new threads end up ultimately going nowhere and the bulk of the main story is placed within the final world, which only exacerbates the rushed feeling of the story, even when it actually does bring closure to a lot of long-standing unresolved plot lines.

While processing my feelings about the game for this review, I read an article which suggested that Disney and Pixar were pretty strict and exacting about how the various properties could be represented, including how lenient they were with portraying the events and characters of the various movies or how the loaned movie assets could be used. The degree to which this occurred varied by which animation team the developers would communicate with, as each team had their own standards and guidelines. This may actually explain how the Disney worlds turned out the way they did, however, it does not fully excuse the final result, including what felt like more than a few missed opportunities for Organization XIII to leave a bigger impact on the worlds they themselves visited.

The members of Organization XIII are almost superfluous to the worlds they visit.

As per tradition with a Kingdom Hearts game, this entry features a variety of gameplay mechanics and optional side content for the player to indulge in. As such, this portion of the review will go into the different gameplay elements concerning combat and exploration while trying to explain them as simply as possible.

When it comes to combat, Kingdom Hearts III mixes and introduces mechanics that add a lot of variety and depth, at least on paper. Starting with the return of the Combat Menu from Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, the game also throws in Shotlocks, Situation Commands, Athletic Flow (a toned-down version of Flowmotion) and Keyblade Transformations, along with the ability to equip three Keyblades at once and switch between them during combat.

Keyblade Transformations and Situation Commands offer new options in combat.

Situation Commands seem to combine elements from Reaction Commands in Kingdom Hearts II and Command Styles in Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep. Attacking enemies with the Keyblade or magic will fill up a meter above the Command Menu and, once full, will add a new command above the Menu that can trigger a Keyblade Transformation, activated by pressing Triangle. Related to Situation Commands are Grand Magic, signified by magic with a -Za suffix, and Attractions. As the game goes on, it gets easier to stack these Situation Commands on top of each other, which can easily result in long strings of activations and flashy combat moves. The only thing that balances this is the fact that Situation Commands have a time limit for activation, meaning that players need to choose when they want to use them.

Keyblade Transformations are triggered by Situation Commands uniquely named for each Keyblade, with some able to transform a second time. Transformations can allow the player access to stronger attacks from each Keyblade, as well as potentially alter the behavior of both Physical and Magic attacks, such as shooting a ball of Thunder instead of summoning the attack from the sky. Each Keyblade has enough thought put into them that they feel distinct from one another, though some optional Keyblades feel like reskinned versions of those unlocked during the story, with some difference in their abilities and attack properties.

One of the more powerful Keyblade Transformations.

Attractions are a type of Situation Command enabled by striking an enemy with a green circle icon within a certain period of time. Once activated, it will summon an Attraction based on those found in Disney theme parks depending on the space available in the area of activation, including ones based on Big Thunder Mountain, Mad Tea Party and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. Attractions all behave differently according to the rides they’re based on, which helps to give each one its own identity.

Similar to Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A fragmentary passage, walking forward automatically becomes a run after a few steps, which helps the player more easily traverse the large worlds. Supplementing this is Athletic Flow, a mechanic similar to Flowmotion from Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance, which allows Sora to interact with the environment for mobility and alternative forms of attack. Sora can now also effectively skydive when falling from a high enough ledge, which can allow him to attack enemies and certain breakable objects from high above and deal some early damage in combat.

Kingdom Hearts III also introduces some much-needed Quality of Life improvements. The Command Menu has returned to a single-menu system with non-Attack selections acting as a folder for different options. It is now possible to not only assign multiple sets of Shortcuts, but also select between sets in the field. Upon death, the Continue screen now includes an option called Prepare and Retry, which allows the player to change their equipment and shortcuts before returning to battle. With the introduction of Situation Commands, there’s an option to prioritize older or newer Commands. All of these serve to make the experience more customizable and remove the frustration from death.

There is now also a cooking system, which feels ripped straight from Final Fantasy XV. Throughout the different worlds, the player can find and obtain ingredients that can allow Little Chef, aka Remi from Ratatouille, to prepare a dish. Consuming these dishes grants Sora’s party different stat boosts, though unlike Final Fantasy XV, it is possible to consume multiple dishes for a “Full Course Bonus” to get the best possible boost. When cooking, the player goes through a brief mini-game depending on the type of food being prepared, though the challenge of each is a bit imbalanced to where merely cracking an egg is a herculean effort without one or two Gourmand Rings (which lower the difficulty of cooking) equipped.

The cooking mini-games can be surprisingly difficult (pictured: the easiest one).

With all of that said, combat in Kingdom Hearts III still felt a bit lacking. While playing through the game on Proud Mode, the highest difficulty and easiest way to unlock the Secret Movie, I found myself hardly dying at all outside of a handful of bosses, and even then, not nearly as much as in previous games. In fact, I could’ve conceivably counted the total number of deaths on one hand until I got to the final boss fight with Xehanort. With so many enemies onscreen at once, the number of available combat options to the player compensates for this, but the game then overcompensates by making it a bit too easy to stack up several lengthy, flashy and powerful Situation Commands in a row. These occur so often, in fact, that combat eventually feels repetitive and borderline boring during the late game.

What also doesn’t help is how the combat seems stacked very hard in favor of the player due to the prevalence of four separate systems for maintaining full health during combat. Apart from the standard Cure series of spells, the player can also purchase a Kupo Coin, which prevents death once and revives the player with full health; activate Rage Form, which can be triggered as a Situation Command at low HP and puts Sora into a state similar to Anti Form from Kingdom Hearts II; or activate a Link, a system which replaces and acts similarly to Summons. All of these can be activated within the same fight, which lowers the chance for the player to see the Continue screen. While this sounds great for players coming fresh off of Dream Drop Distance or people who don’t normally play Action RPGs, these systems help to actively remove a lot of the challenge, and subsequently a lot of the fun, from combat.

With how easy the general combat is, I ended up not eating any of the dishes I prepared from the cooking mini-games because I simply didn’t need to. If the combat were more challenging, I’d likely feel more incentivized to do so, much like in Final Fantasy XV where eating specific dishes at the right time could make all the difference with tougher dungeons.

Outside of combat, a very notable addition to the game is the Gummiphone, basically the Kingdom Hearts equivalent to a smartphone. Like in Final Fantasy XV, the player can take photos and store them in a photo album, including the ability to take selfies. Photography is more than just a throwaway feature, as completing Photo Missions unlocks additional Shop items and finding the Lucky Emblems scattered throughout the different worlds fulfills the criteria for unlocking the Secret Ending. In addition, the Gummiphone acts as a functional replacement for Jiminy’s Journal and also allows access to Classic Kingdom mini-games reminiscent of LCD handheld games from the 1980s. I personally didn’t mind the inclusion of a smartphone in a Kingdom Hearts game, since an increasing number of modern games have done so, so I just got used to it.

One of the many Classic Kingdom mini-games the player can find and play.

In addition, each world has its own unique game mechanic in an attempt to give them their own identity. While I felt that this attempt worked out for the most part, the most impressive to me was the ability to sail a ship in The Caribbean. Not only does Sora get his own ship, with the ability to level it up by collecting white crabs, he can engage in naval combat as well. I’d describe this style of naval combat as a more actionized version of that featured in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, with a somewhat simplified cannon system combined with a magical shield and ship-specific Situation Commands. As I enjoyed the Black Flag style of naval combat, I found myself enjoying the Kingdom Hearts spin on it.

One last notable change is in how the Gummi Ship missions are incorporated. Like in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, the player has to travel to new worlds initially by Gummi Ship, only now the format has shifted to one more resembling an open world. While traveling through the Ocean Between, the player is encouraged to explore around to find hidden treasures, such as Gummi Blocks and ship blueprints, and level up by defeating Heartless ships that are flying around. Taking the time to find hidden items can be rewarding, especially if you’re trying to photograph the hidden constellations, but I didn’t find myself caring about this section of the game until I was already running out of things to do in the main game.

Gummi Ship missions have been completely revamped to make them more exciting.

If there’s one thing I can most easily praise, it would be the graphics. Back when I had originally played Kingdom Hearts II, I had always wished for a game with graphics that actually resembled the pre-rendered FMV sequences as opposed to the polygonal look of the actual game. Thirteen years later, that wish was finally granted thanks to the power of Unreal Engine 4. Not only is this game’s style a noticeable improvement from 0.2 Birth by Sleep, it’s able to fully capture the look and feel of the worlds and characters from the CG-animated Disney films to the point that they look nearly indistinguishable at times. Even the Pirates of the Caribbean world is refined from its last appearance in Kingdom Hearts II, with Sora, Donald and Goofy no longer clashing as heavily with the aesthetic of the live-action movie.

The game also boasts 60 FPS gameplay, however, this didn’t seem to always be the case. When a particularly large number of enemies are onscreen at once, some of them will move as though missing every other frame, creating a slightly choppy effect; this same result applied to specific moments, such as a combat animation of Hercules preparing to throw a boulder at enemies. I’ll also admit here that it seemed like Yen Sid’s mouth wasn’t always synced properly when speaking, which proved mildly distracting during cutscenes. Outside of this, it seems that the change to Unreal Engine 4 also allowed for the characters to be more expressive and allow the cutscenes to generally have more humor, which felt like a welcome change of pace.

As always, Yoko Shimomura’s score is a standout. While the music did seem to borrow a bit from previous games, mostly when appropriate, the original compositions fit the tone and themes of each world and, when able, do a good job of incorporating iconic music from the original Disney and Pixar films. One example would be the instrumental take on Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” that plays throughout the Toy Box world outside of combat. Similarly, the score for The Caribbean captures the spirit of the music from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Of course, two of the more notable songs are the themes by Utada Hikaru. The opening theme, “Face My Fears,” was created alongside EDM artist Skrillex, a longtime fan of the series. This theme plays to both of their strengths alongside the intro cinematic and, at least to me, does a good job of getting the player in the mood. The other theme, “Don’t Think Twice,” plays over the ending and serves as a good bookend to “Face My Fears.”

Utada Hikaru's "Face My Fears" is a strong opening song for Kingdom Hearts III.

I also have to generally praise the voice actors, who help bring the characters to life as well as they have before. This applies mainly to the recurring voice actors from both the Kingdom Hearts games and the respective Disney and Pixar films. Of course, not all of the big-name voice actors could reprise their roles, but their soundalikes are generally very convincing. Two voices that stood out, however, were for the roles of Woody and Master Xehanort. While Woody is largely associated with Tom Hanks, his brother, Jim Hanks, voices Woody here, as he has done for most non-movie Toy Story productions. While he does an admirable job imitating his brother in Kingdom Hearts III, his voice is close enough to Tom Hanks that it’s obviously not the original.

In a somewhat similar vein, Master Xehanort received a new voice actor after the passing of Leonard Nimoy, who had voiced the character in both Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance. For Kingdom Hearts III, Master Xehanort is now voiced by Rutger Hauer, best known for his role as Roy Batty in Blade Runner (1982). Rutger Hauer does a generally good job trying to emulate the tone and inflections of Leonard Nimoy and I have to respect his willingness to take on such a high-profile role. However, his voice is still a very jarring shift from Nimoy, including the lack of his distinct gravel, that it was difficult, at least initially, for me to get past the change for most of his screen time.

Rutger Hauer gives a good performance as Master Xehanort,
though it's a jarring change from Leonard Nimoy.

Kingdom Hearts III is a good game, but pretty underwhelming after the long wait. The Disney and Pixar worlds have some memorable moments, though the worlds based on Frozen and Tangled followed the plots of their movies a bit too closely. The meta-story does bring closure to a lot of unresolved plot threads from previous games but does so in a very rushed way mostly towards the end of the game while also introducing new plot points that obviously won’t be resolved until a future installment. The combat is more varied and provides the player with new options to mess around with, not to mention the welcome quality-of-life changes, but eventually feels too flashy for its own good with strategies devolving into the same few attacks over and over. Newcomers to the franchise, and probably Xbox One players, will no doubt find themselves completely lost without knowledge of the stories of all of the previous games. Hardcore fans will have more specific criticism of the game, but even then, the result will be highly subjective upon finally playing it.

As for me personally, I would still recommend this game to people who have been following along with the story and would encourage newcomers to also check out Kingdom Hearts – The Story So Far to get a better understanding of what this series has to offer. While my overall feelings on Kingdom Hearts III are certainly not without criticism, I generally enjoyed what I finally got to play after all this time and would gladly play a Kingdom Hearts III Final Mix, if only to see how an improved version of this game would play.

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