Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One

I’m going to wager that you already know whether or not you are going to buy Kingdom Hearts 3. You either stuck around for the numerous spinoffs, time travel, and the complete lack of understanding of how numbered sequels work, or you only know the series as “that weird Disney/Final Fantasy crossover.” It seems like Square-Enix also made that wager, as Kingdom Hearts 3 barely makes any attempt to draw in new players, and is instead unashamed to dive into its convoluted plot set up by the many handheld spin-offs.

The obvious caveat when it comes to this title is that it’s not a great experience if you are coming into it fresh, and a wonderful piece of fan service if you’ve stuck around, but if you know anything about this franchise, that’s pretty obvious.

The real question the, is how this compares to the rest of the Kingdsom Hearts series.

It’s a complicated Aanswer. On the one hand, there is a near perfect game hidden within the gameplay of Kingdom Hearts 3. One the other, there’s a whole lot of other game elements that smother all the good parts, and that’s KH3’s biggest problem.

It suffers from a major case of “too-much-game-itis.”

What was Kingdom Hearts about again?

The plot picks up right after Dream Drop Distance. After Sora was nearly turned into the thirteenth Xehanort, he gets Metroided and loses all his powers. So he is sent on a journey to regain them and awaken the “power of waking,” that should allow them to conveniently bring back anyone who met a bad fate in other Kingdom Hearts games.

Of course this means visiting a whole bunch of Disney worlds, but here we see Kingdom Hearts 3’s first flaw: the pacing.

First of all, every Disney world is paced very oddly. In past Kingdom Hearts titles, the game would spend a little time on each Disney world’s backstory. Here is just assumes that you are familiar with all the Disney properties. So when, say, Hans from Frozen shows up to be evil without being introduced in the first place, it’s a little jarring. I noticed this pacing concern mostly when it came to Disney properties I wasn’t current on, like Pirates of the Caribbean, whereas every other property was just a rapid fire succession of “I get that reference!” moments.

Second, the pacing of the game’s main story is also very strange. While, yes, we get to see some things happening behind the scenes between each Disney world, not enough happens to actually count as plot development. Also, the plot likes to jump around a lot. You’ll be trying to save Roxas at one point, saving Ventus the next, and helping a rat make a sandwich after that. The plot never quite prepares you for these jumps. Rather, it feels like Sora and the rest of the protagonists have a bad case of ADD.

And since the game spends so little time on the main plot between Disney worlds, the entirety of the important plot has to be condensed into the final levels of the game. This, unfortunately, means that very little time is spent on resolving any of the threads that the franchise has spent so long teasing out.

The story that is there is really good, at least for a hardcore Kingdom Hearts fan.

It is amazing to see resolutions to the BBS and Days arcs. It’s fantastic to see all the fan theories confirmed. Everything I saw was exactly what I wanted to see, I just wanted to see more of it. I wanted more time to be spent on the revival of Roxas and Ven. Heck, the mystery of the thirteenth Organization XIII member was… not really that much of a mystery, and it allowed us to solve yet another conflict that seemed unconnected. This would have been an absolutely amazing plot arc if any more than 10 minutes was spent on it.

And this is sort of what I mean by hiding a perfect game underneath a whole lot of other game. If KH3 focused more on these plot elements, it would have been so much better. That’s not to say the plot that it does have is bad, quite the contrary, the plot as it stands is pretty awesome despite its convoluted nature.

The core gameplay of KH3 is overall really solid. They took the best parts of every previous Kingdom Hearts game, and smashed them together into something that really works.

Most of the familiar trappings are here: magic, summons, abilities, equipment, and the like. If you have played any of the main-line Kingdom Hearts titles, you’ll get the gist of the system here.

Sora can now trigger “form changes,” which are kind of a fusion of drive forms from KH2 and command styles from Birth By Sleep, and all of them are super fun. They change his keyblade into a variety of different weapons from spears, to guns, to giant yo-yos.

The same system is used for a variety of different context sensitive commands. Use a lot of magic and you’ll be able to cast “Grand Magic” for free. Fight alongside your buddies, and you’ll be able to use team up attacks. Hit a specific enemy and you’ll be able to summon a Disney World style attraction, though there are only five of these, and they get kind of repetitive by the end of the game.

The only significant weaknesses in general battle design is the way you get abilities. The summons and abilities from previous Kingdom Hearts games were all tied to the story somehow. For example, you got the ability to glide after finishing Neverland in Kingdom Hearts 1. However, Sora’s abilities in this game unlock in a completely arbitrary fashion. You’ll gain Simba as a summon after a random boss fight I literally can’t remember at this point. You’ll gain the ability to double jump and glide at other arbitrary points. In fact, none of Sora’s abilities, other than his keyblade transformations, are tied to the story in any fashion, and that’s a little disappointing.

Area design is also top notch. Each world has its own gimmicks, and they really shine.

The Big Hero 6 world is a huge open world city that relies on vertical design. There are many points when I found myself climbing a building to search for my objectives, similar to Breath of the Wild. The Pirates of the Carribean world asks you to sail a huge open sea to get to your objectives, complete with naval combat. You’ll be scaling a gigantic mountain in the Frozen level, and weaving your way through the undergrowth of a forest in the Tangled level. Every second you are exploring and fighting your way through these different worlds is a blast…

Except that KH3 doesn’t seem content with letting you do that.

Instead, it forces you to stop what you are doing and participate in inane busy-work over and over again. Getting engaged in the battle against nobodies in Twilight Town? Too bad! Now go find nine lemons. Breath taken away by the sight at the top of Arendelle’s mountain? Too bad! Go search for Olaf’s white body parts in a field of white snow. Enjoying your ship to ship combat? Too bad. Now go find 300 crabs! These distractions could literally be cut out of the game without affecting the plot or gameplay whatsoever. It’s another symptom of “too-much-game-itis.”

Then there’s the Gummi Ship segments, which are kind of a blast. Flying around a large open space is super fun, and while the enemies you fight have limited designs, I definitely got those good Star Fox vibes every time I launched into the space between worlds.

Once you’ve completed the game, there are a bunch of side activities to partake in, from secret bosses, to using your new gummiphone to find all the hidden mickeys, to combat arenas, to scavenger hunts that allow you to synthesize the best weapons in the game, and so on.

I didn’t do any of this. Yes, these activities are something completionists will enjoy, and if you are looking to squeeze a little more out of your KH3 experience you might have fun exploring the game further, but the rewards were never quite compelling enough to be worth it for me.

A spectacle worthy of the Disney brand

Kingdom Hearts 3’s presentation is pretty amazing. Graphically, the game is just about perfect. It runs at 60FPS most of the time, and there are a ton of really cool context sensitive animations that make the whole experience feel real. Sora will vault over small objects with parkour skills, and rebound off walls just as easily as he will blow up the surroundings with huge screen filling attacks.

The voice talent is also top notch. It’s astounding that Haley Joel Osment can still make Sora sound like a naive teenager when he is a full grown man. All of the rest of the series regulars also do a great job, though some replacements just don’t make the cut. Rutger Hauer cannot hold a candle to Leonard Nimoy’s Master Xehanort. Heck, some characters, like Phil from Hercules or Hans from Frozen don’t even have voice actors. They’re just eerily silent, and that makes the game feel unpolished at times.

And this too is an example of “too-much-game-itis.” Phil didn’t really need to be in Olympus, nor did Hans need to be in Frozen with the plot they were trying to tell. The cast is so big and the characters so numerous that some voice actors only had two or three lines to say. They probably could have gotten better performances out of their actors if they just cut everything down.

Worth the wait?

Like I said before, I’m not going to pretend that there’s even a question in your mind whether you are going to play this game or not. If you are a hardcore Kingdom Hearts fan, like me, who has played all of the installments (including the mobile titles) then it’s obvious you are going to play, and beat, Kingdom Hearts 3 and enjoy it the whole way through.

But when comparing it to the rest of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, it’s not one of my favorites. It’s not bad by any means, but it just feels inconsistent. I wish there were fewer stupid distractions. I wish they spent more time on the overall meta-plot. I wish there were more attractions, and more summons to make use of. I wish the Gummi Ship sections had more enemies to fight, and better rewards to earn. Kingdom Hearts 3 could have been better, considering how long we have been waiting for it.

And you know what? Maybe it will be better! Maybe when Kingdom Hearts 3 Final Mix comes out we will be able to skip the dumb mini-games, flesh out the story with more cut scenes, and use a whole bunch of new skills and abilities that will give this game the perfect score it so desperately wants. For now, however, I’ll say that Kingdom Hearts 3 was a good time, but was not nearly the most fun I have had with the franchise.