Many games over the years have suffered long development times, making players question if the title would ever be released. Kingdom Hearts III, the first main entry in the series since 2005’s Kingdom Hearts II, has finally been released, but does it justify that 13-year wait?
In terms of plot, Kingdom Hearts III continues directly from where both Dream Drop Distance and A Fragmentary Passage left off. King Mickey and Riku are attempting to search the Realm of Darkness for the lost Keyblade Master, Aqua, while Sora, Donald, and Goofy attempt to recover the power that Sora lost during the events of Dream Drop Distance.
Several plot threads are twined together through Kingdom Hearts III, as the story tries to follow the progression of at least three different groups. While the main focus is clearly Sora’s journey, the game features regular side-trips to examine what Mickey and Riku are up to, as well as Kairi and Lea/Axel’s attempts to learn how to wield keyblades. These additional segments of plot are doled out slowly, giving the player just enough to spark intrigue as to what is going to happen next as they wait for the subsequent appearance of these secondary characters.
In common with regular criticisms of Kingdom Hearts, the plot does remain fairly convoluted. However, the game has made attempts to get players up to speed with the Memory Archive available on the main title screen. In contrast to previous games, the antagonists also seem to be forthcoming about motives and are refreshingly straightforward about their plans.
The game has narrative problems, however. Frozen and Tangled both get stripped-down adaptations of their source movies instead of receiving their own original plotline, which is disappointing as the characters could have much more to offer the Kingdom Hearts series, particularly Elsa and Anna.
Unlike previous titles in the series, all the cutscenes are voiced, instead of being a mixture of voiced and text-only. This change gives a better sense of flow, though some of the voice actors sound significantly older and rougher than in previous titles, which is particularly noticeable in the Olympus world. Haley Joel Osment as Sora has managed to find a good medium where he sounds older and more confident, but still convincingly young-sounding without coming off as whiny: an improvement over his performance in Dream Drop Distance.
As in Kingdom Hearts II, the cutscenes are all rendered using the in-game engine. The engine switch to Unreal Engine 4 undoubtedly contributed to the long development time, but the results are worth it. Graphically, everything looks amazing. One may find themselves getting distracted admiring the spectacular scenery, amazing texture work and gorgeous, fluid animation.
The engine switch and other technology improvements have also served to eliminate some of the more baffling elements from previous titles, like the empty seats in Olympus Colosseum despite the chorus of rousing cheering. Players will also find NPCs wandering around the towns, making the locations look like real places that people live in, instead of eerie, empty ghost towns. In general, the worlds themselves have much more depth than in previous games, with much more landmass to explore and collectibles to discover.
In terms of gameplay, Kingdom Hearts III acts like a ‘greatest hits’ of the series. The Shotlocks and keyblade transformations from Birth By Sleep make a return, with the latter playing a significant role in how combat evolves throughout the game. The Flowmotion system from Dream Drop Distance also makes a return, though in the less powerful form of Athletic Flow, which allows a dynamic exploration of the worlds as well as being useful in combat.
Combat in Dream Drop Distance and Birth By Sleep had been criticised for its reliance on puzzle-like bosses who needed to be hit at very specific times or with specific attacks to be taken out of action, while also locking players into combos and making the attacks impossible to block in mid-air. Those problems have been addressed in Kingdom Hearts III. Players can have up to three keyblades equipped at once, and can switch them out on the fly, even in mid-combo. This makes for a far more dynamic and strategic form of combat, where choosing the right blade, transformation, and combo for the right situation can prove critical.
The Situational Reaction Commands are also back, but unlike in Kingdom Hearts II, they can not just be spammed endlessly until victory is obtained. Instead, during combat players can get access to multiple combo finishers, reaction commands, party combination attacks, and the Attraction Flow theme-park ride attacks, all of which can be activated with the same button. Timing an attack right can make all the difference in a tricky boss battle.
In terms of combat and graphics, Kingdom Hearts III is a big improvement over previous games. In terms of storyline, however, the game tends to be something of a mixed bag. Only those truly invested in the sprawling meta-plot will be likely to get closure and satisfaction from the story, despite efforts to make it easier for new players.
Kingdom Hearts III is a long way from perfect, but the improvements on the formula make it a compelling experience to play, and those who have sunk time into discovering the nuances of the plot line will get a lot out of it.
Was Kingdom Hearts III worth the wait? For those truly invested in Sora and his friends, yes. For everyone else… probably not.