Kingdom Hearts III Review (PS4, 2019)

Alright I went into this one with low expectations because of how mediocre Final Fantasy XIII and XV were. Some of these concerns turned out meaningless because at its core Kingdom Hearts III is still a proper Kingdom Hearts game. It's got the action RPG gameplay fans are used to, no overly focus on an open world and fetch quest shenanigans. Props for that. However the game feels really rushed towards the end, so much that I'd argue they had to finish the game earlier than planned to assign resources to the Final Fantasy VII remake. More on that later.

The presentation of Kingdom Hearts III is fine. Obviously they spent a lot of money on the graphics. However the game no longer has that distinctive Kingdom Hearts look to it. Instead every environment and model looks like a 3D movie, which isn't to my taste. It's noticable that the soundtrack is no longer entirely composed by Yoko Shimomura, as the music is not quite as memorable as it's been in the previous two main entries. But these days every game that even has a soundtrack does something right by default.

As usual the game has Sora travel from one Disney World to another with small Gummi ship segments inbetween. What's different now is that the game is in HD, so the game areas are noticably larger. To compensate Sora's movement speed is higher than in previous games, but for some worlds it's not quite enough and one finds oneself spending a lot of time just walking from one place to another (Toy Story comes to mind). There's some mini games here and there, but they're not too distracting - although Toy Box goes quite overboard with the mech gimmick. Unfortunately playing this game with the mini map turned off is no longer an option, as worlds have no clear play zone boundaries anymore. Without the mini map it can be hard to tell where it's even possible to explore and introduce a lot of frustration into the game when the player tries to explore every nook and cranny. There's a lot of cutscenes in this one, like it's been the case with nearly every Kingdom Hearts game since II and onwards. Too many of them for my taste. Some Disney worlds have their entire movies retold with Sora, Donald and Goofy as bystanders, while some of the Pixar worlds kind of do their own thing. All kinds of Kingdom Hearts original characters show up as well, but rather than for telling a story they show up to setup the finale. The first game still did the best job in integrating the Disney worlds and characters into an original story. Here it feels like not a single cutscene matters until the events near the end of the game, and even then the finale only serves as a way for the series to move on from all the characters and plots introduced with Kingdom Hearts II and onwards. A real new story is only vaguely hinted at and left for the next game. Whether that's a good thing depends on how much one liked the characters from all the side games. For me good writing was never even an expectation for this game, with the way each new game kept making retcons to past games.

Combat in Kingdom Hearts III plays much like its predecessor, with some improvements and one problematic new mechanic. A much welcome change is that world specific characters now join in additional slots, so no more need to remove Donald or Goofy for them. Limit forms have been removed. Instead keyblades have the ability to transform which also alters Sora's appearance. That's a change I didn't expect but like a lot. Grinding limit forms for abilities wasn't a strong point of KHII. What's not so good is that combat is really easy - even on proud mode there's not many challenges found in the main parts of the game (post game seems to be getting better). Then there's the new attraction flow feature. Attraction commands are mini games that pop up mid combat to deal damage to large enemy crowds. They turn the party almost invincible and ruin the regular flow of combat. The player can choose not to use them, but then they are stuck with having to slowly deal with enemies one by one unless they have MP for thunder spells.
Games today need to have a closer camera to compensate for the high resolution. That way there would be no need to create oversized play areas and to have the player swarm with absurdly large enemy crowds to compensate - and no more need to add gimmicky mechanics to compensate for those big spawn numbers.
Criticism aside I'm glad this isn't quite as braindead to play as the last couple of Final Fantasy titles. Proud mode doesn't compare to the challenge of previous Kingdom Hearts titles, but combat still requires some attentive play if one wants to succeed.

Now I didn't have high expectations for this game to begin with, so the issues mentioned so far didn't bother me too much. This is clearly the Kingdom Hearts game I like the least, but it's still fun and interesting to play. What weights down the whole experience is the lackluster endgame. Each world is only visited once, enemies don't get their proper power ups to make later (optional) revisits more interesting, there is no real playable original world akin to Hollow Bastion or the World that never was, and a surprising lack of original keychains. No Oblivion, Oathkeeper, Sleeping Lion and so on. Ultima weapon is back, but until the player obtains that one they're stuck with a selection of Disney themed weapons. Those are good on their own, but the game feels lacking regardless. While the Hercules world is in the game there are no obligatory arena battles. Not to mention the lack of Final Fantasy characters - there's not a single one save for a strange looking mogry in this one. The final boss shows up out of nowhere, no warning to the player that they're about to end the game. It's as if the developers didn't want to shatter the player's hopes for more content.

All in all Kingdom Hearts III is an alright game - especially for fans of the series. The gameplay and Disney worlds are something for everyone, regardless of whether they kept up with the series. Kingdom Hearts III has the potential to be a great game, but some bad design decisions and a strong feeling of incompleteness pull it down from an otherwise very high score. But these days this may be the best anyone can expect from a Square IP.