No game launching in 2019 has as much baggage as Kingdom Hearts III. It’s coming out 13 years after Kingdom Hearts II, and during that extended layoff, the series was quite busy. The ensuing decade was filled with spinoffs with bizarre names like 358/2 Days, Birth By Sleep, and 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, each of which further complicated the franchise’s ever-growing mythos. The series may have started out as a relatively lighthearted mashup of Disney and Final Fantasy, but over the years, it only became increasingly convoluted. The impenetrable nature of the plot has become an ongoing joke to the point that even series creator Tetsuya Nomura can’t keep things straight.
Where does that leave new players? While Kingdom Hearts III is saddled with an unenviable history that makes it incredibly daunting to jump into, it’s also one of the biggest games of the year, mashing up two pop culture behemoths into something strange and fascinating. For years, I’ve been on the outside, curious about the series but not willing to invest in playing all of the supplementary material required to understand what’s going on. Over the years, I would idly wonder how Goofy and Cloud Strife could exist in the same universe. I pondered why Donald Duck was a mage and questioned the zipper-laden outfits that Nomura designed for Mickey Mouse. With Kingdom Hearts III, I finally caved to curiosity.
So how does Kingdom Hearts III play out if you’re brand-new to the series? Get ready for a long, confusing ride.
The game doesn’t ease you in all that well. Things start with a bleached-white oceanside city full of windmills and towers before shifting to a pair of spiky-haired characters playing some kind of chess variant. (I assume this is a very subtle metaphor for the battle between light and dark.) A voiceover asks, “Have you heard of the ancient keyblade war?” before everything descends into a melodramatic music video where dark tendrils of clouds pull people into seeming nothingness. Sora, the perpetually peppy protagonist, falls into darkness before landing on a stained-glass window of his own likeness. Then, a bunch of mirrors ask him questions about his personality. The shifts are fast and jarring, and when that’s all done, a title screen appears that says “Kingdom Hearts II.9.”
A few minutes in, and I was completely baffled. But after some more lengthy bouts of exposition, I was able to start piecing together something resembling a plot. Though the finer details escaped me (and, to be honest, they still do), here’s what I surmised: an evil organization called The Organization is collecting seven hearts for some kind of apocalyptic plan, and it’s up to Sora and his allies to save things. Unfortunately, due to events in the previous games, Sora lost much of his power, and he needs to get it back in order to save the day. But he doesn’t know how to do that, and so, joined by his faithful companions Donald and Goofy, he sets off on a rather directionless adventure to get something called the power of “waking.” That’s the high-level view as far as I understand it. I know because a wizard told me.
For reasons that aren’t quite clear, this leads to Sora and crew heading to the world of Disney’s Hercules where they fight alongside the titular hero against Hades and the invading forces of the “heartless,” the main enemies in Kingdom Hearts. As confusing as the overarching plot of Kingdom Hearts III can be, once you’re in a Disney world, the smaller-scale stories are generally easy to understand. And the game can be a lot of fun. Kingdom Hearts III is an action role-playing game with an emphasis on the action; battles are fast and over-the-top, and you take out swarms of enemies with huge combos and screen-filling magic attacks. It’s not particularly challenging, but the battles are exciting, especially when it comes to the massive bosses, which are like family-friendly versions of the violent behemoths from God of War.
In a way, Kingdom Hearts III reminds me of the Assassin’s Creed series. Though they’re vastly different in terms of themes and gameplay, they share a similar narrative structure. In both, there’s a needlessly complicated mythos that holds the world together that you can only really understand if you’re paying exceedingly close attention. Outside of that, the games are filled with interesting characters and worlds to explore. In order to enjoy either game, you need to embrace the idea that you won’t understand everything.
Even after more than 30 hours with the game, the core, overarching narrative of Kingdom Hearts III never made much sense to me. Listening to its exposition was a bit like reading one of those Twitter accounts that posts context-free quotes from TV shows. This is especially true when you’re confronted with the idea of parallel worlds and digitally created versions of characters and places. Here are a few notable head-scratchers:
- “A heart can live anywhere. Even inside data.”
- “In this world, toys have hearts, and those hearts come from a powerful bond.”
- “The darkness of being alone is a power… even greater.”
- “Even empty puppets can be given strong hearts. I’ll have to remember that.”
- “[His] heart left his body in order to voyage back through time.”
And that’s just a very small selection. There’s a moment in the Toy Story-themed world where an evil villain is explaining his plan, and Woody yells, “Whatever you’re talking about, I don’t care!” And honestly, I couldn’t agree more.
The thing about the overly complicated plot, at least for a new player like me, is that it gets in the way of what Kingdom Hearts III actually does really well. Each of the Disney-themed worlds is wonderful. Some, like Tangled, hew a little too closely to the source material for my liking, following the original movie beat by beat, but others let you explore new moments in familiar stories. I loved sliding around the slopes of Arendelle and running across the rooftops of San Fransokyo. Seeing Sora and his crew turned into strange, furry creatures to fit in in Monstropolis was incredibly charming.
These worlds aren’t especially big or open. For the most part, you’re following a set path, pushing through narrow corridors before coming to large spaces where you fight off waves of enemies. It helps that the game looks gorgeous; these are detailed, vibrant re-creations of familiar places. Even something like Pirates of the Caribbean, which isn’t an animated movie, looks incredibly faithful to the source material. (The incoherent lore of Pirates is also a surprisingly good fit for Kingdom Hearts.)
If you’re a Disney fan, just walking around is a joy. It feels almost like you’re an extra in your favorite movies, except, eventually, you become the hero. It helps that, despite ostensibly having the same structure, each world feels distinct. You’ll partner with different Disney heroes, and they all act very differently. Rapunzel uses her hair to swing you around mountains, and she pummels enemies with her trademark frying pan. You can fly around on Baymax and team up for sword fights with Jack Sparrow or sing along with Elsa. In each world, you’ll also unlock a new keyblade — Sora’s main weapon — which opens up a range of new abilities and potential play styles. The fact that you regularly unlock them means that you can keep the combat feeling fresh.
The main problem is that you have to put up with a lot to get to that good stuff — and not just confusing monologues from villains in leather cloaks. Kingdom Hearts III is absolutely stuffed with content, and most of it isn’t nearly as interesting as the action-RPG core. I appreciate the developers trying to keep things varied and interesting, but I could do without the halfhearted attempts to turn the game into a cover shooter or naval battle simulation. A few of these moments are fun — like the Toy Story mech battles — but most are not. The most egregious example of these underbaked modes is the toy spaceship that you use to fly from world to world. It’s intolerably boring; the expanse of space in the game is huge and empty, aside from some treasure and tedious battles, and navigating it is soporific. Yet, in order to get each new world, you’re forced through it every time.
After playing through all of Kingdom Hearts III, I’m still not sure whether it’s a good place to start for newcomers. It plays well, looks amazing, and there are a lot of great moments for Disney fans. But so much of that is buried beneath lengthy cutscenes that explain little, and halfhearted gameplay modes that don’t add anything to the experience. There’s just so much of everything, most of it unnecessary, and the game makes few, if any, real concessions to new players. That said, I’m not entirely convinced I would understand things any better even if I had actually played all of the previous games. So much of Kingdom Hearts III’s dialogue is the kind of convoluted nonsense I can barely pay attention to, so doing my homework might not have helped much.
Maybe this is actually the ideal way to play: you’re going to be confused no matter what, so you might as well embrace it.
Kingdom Hearts III is available now on the Xbox One and PS4.