While most people didn't actually believe Kingdom Hearts III was releasing until they had a physical copy in their hands, we can't say the 13-year wait was entirely worth it. Sure, the game is pretty much a copy of previous Kingdom Hearts titles with frenetic hack-and-slash gameplay, terrible camera controls, various appearances by beloved Disney characters, callouts to other Square Enix properties, and an original storyline that makes absolutely no goddamn sense.
However, in the process of trying to replicate the older games in the series while still moving forward with the confusing original narrative of the KH series, this latest entry feels a bit flat. Like its lost its heart.
Yes, Kingdom Hearts III is the Nobody of Kingdom Hearts I and II. So much of this game feels rushed and uninspired, from worlds with lackluster voice acting to nonsensical stories that don't get a proper resolution, to the endless parade of mini-games and stray features. However, the most frustrating aspect of KHIII comes down to the fact that this is the game which promises to host the final conflict of the series, but that "ultimate confrontation" between the forces of light and dark is pushed back to the final hours of the game.
There are good moments within it all, however. The gameplay is absoultely the best part of KHIII, because while there have been changes, you can still get away with spamming only one button. The combos are automatic, require little effort on the part of the player, and can be constantly extended with various abilities. The different Keyblades, with their second and sometimes third forms, help augment that by giving you the ability to completely swap your playstyle in the middle of a fight. You can equip three and change between them on the fly in most situations, which is incredibly useful. You also get some neat combo cast abilities with Donald, and a few interesting uses of Goofy's shield, as well as abilities with your followers, which add great twists to the endless fights with the Heartless, Nobodies, and Unversed.
Plus, since world-specific characters simply get added to your party as extras, you no longer have to go to a world and immediately slot Goofy out of the party, which is nice. Because let's be real, none of us ever got rid of Donald "healbot" Duck when limited to a party of three.
What's less useful is that the transformations and specials hinge on your focus gauge and combo chains. Which is fine for the various world-related Keychains you pick up, but for the base Keyblade it can be a bit of a pain. Sora's major Keyblade techniques like "sonic blade" and "ars arcanum" are only accessible in the Kingdom Key's second form after you chain a number of combos, so using them strategically is more difficult than it used to be in previous Kingdom Hearts games.
The most frustrating aspect of KHIII's gameplay, however, are the "attractions." For reasons beyond all of my understanding, if you attack a certain enemy in a given timeframe, you can pull up a special attack called an 'attraction" which basically pulls a random themepark ride and lets you use it as a weapon. You can hop on a river rapid-style flume ride, get in the car of a rollercoaster, hop on a swinging pirate ship, sit on a carousel pony, or get into a mad teacup. While you don't have to use the attractions, they can be devastating attacks. Sadly, they're also mini-games. Because you always wanted mini-games in the middle of combat, right? The carousel is probably the most frustrating, as it becomes a rhythm game and the forced perspective sometimes means you can't see the rhythm indicators.
And unlike most other aspects of gameplay, you can't turn them off or avoid them entirely. Attraction points will still spawn, and you might even trigger them by accident or while using an AOE attack. Which clogs up your specials menu. And you can't toggle them off. You can toggle off almost everything, including XP and MP regen. But not Attractions.
Kingodm Hearts III, also has the usual amounts of space exploration and flight simulation, though the space battles have been tweaked. They're more like a top-down version of Space Invaders than ever before. However, there are also rail shooter sections of traversal in a few of the worlds, because adding more mini-games is always a great idea.
On top of that, Kingdom Hearts III has a cooking system to augment the existing crafting system, and naturally cooking is a rhytym-based mini-game. Because of course it is.
You even get to take part in mech battles in the Toy Story world, because mecha FPS is another mini-game that we absolutely needed in this game filled with mini-games.
And that's not all, folks. There are certainly more traditional mini-games to be found. You can use your Gummiphone to play actual mobile mini-games in Kingdom Hearts III because Square Enix lives for that kind of insanity (see: everything about Final Fantasy XV).
However, the Gummiphone games are pretty easy to ignore, since you don't ever need to play them. They're not part of the exploration, narrative, or gameplay systems. They're just there in case you get bored wandering through one of the worlds. Sadly, you can't break them out during the cutscenes, though those are skippable.
While gameplay is where Kingdom Hearts III comes across best, its most inconsistent aspect is, unfortunately, the various Disney-themed worlds. While one criticism of earlier games in the series was that the worlds simply rehashed the same old Disney stories, KH III attempts to find more of a balance. Sora is no longer the hero of the Disney stories, but a side-character who wanders into the world and helps out that world's heroes. Sure, some worlds still follow the same plotline as always: Olympus finishes the Hercules story, finally, while the Kingdom of Corona follows the full plotline of Tangled. Arendelle includes the whole story of Frozen, but Sora and pals are only around for tiny bits of it. And, honestly, the version of "Let it Go" with Goofy's baffled "a-hyuck"ing in the background is quite possibly the best possible rendition of the song.
The absolute standouts, as far as the Disney worlds go, however, are the ones with original storylines. All three Pixar worlds have original plotlines, and the extra work absolutely pays off. Toy Box's story takes place sometime between Toy Story and Toy Story 2, and is full of character development, hilarious dialogue, toy versions of the Dissidia Final Fantasy NT summons, and even a fake ad for a video game (which looks suspiciously like Director Tetsuya Nomura's scrapped Final Fantasy XIII Verses). The Monsters Inc. story is set sometime after the first film and tries incredibly hard to make Randall a proper villain while also proving that Boo is the absolute best. However, San Fransokyo is quite possbily the best world, because the story essentially functions exactly how it should. Sora, Donald, and Goofy appear in San Fransokyo, meet up with the Big Hero 6 team, and run around as a super hero team. That's exactly what Sora would do given the opportunity. No meddling in half-baked rehashes of fairy tales necessary.
Once you're done with the Disney stories, the game then moves swiftly onto its original plotline which was essentially hamstrung for 20-odd hours while you grinded through 8 Disney levels. And that brings us to the worst aspect of the game.
The Kingdom Hearts story is a long and convoluted mess, which is only made worse by the number of characters who share the same name and face. Which would be one thing if the game was even consistent about naming any of them. Ansem, Seeker of Darkness, Xemnas, and Ansem the Wise are probably the most egregious example, but the similarities between Roxas and Ventus Sora and Vanitas are also problematic. As are the multiple versions of Xehanort at various ages.
And of course, we also get scenes like the one below where Riku interacts with his own replica, because we needed that Repliku fanservice I guess?
Which really just highlights the biggest problem with the game narrative: the player (theoretically) knows more of what's going on than any of the protagonists. So we spend the whole game waiting and waiting for the narrative to catch up to what we knew going into Kingdom Hearts III. We already know that Xion, Ventus, and Roxas are all trapped in Sora. We also know that Master Xehanort is attempting to create 13 versions of himself to stand against the 7 guardians of light in order to recreate the Keyblade War.
However, because Sora lost most of his abilities and power at the end of Kingdom Hearts 3D Dream Drop Distance, we have to sit through a lackluster grind of Disney worlds in order for him to regain his "power of waking" and become a true Keyblade Master. All the while Riku and King Mickey, actual Keyblade Masters, are off searching for people who don't have bodies or were lost to the Dark World.
So it's a whole lot of "hurry up and wait."
That forced narrative pause is excruciating, but that could pay off well if the final story arc of the game carried more weight. Or even took more than a short few hours to fly through. Instead, the whole game just feels like a lead-up to another 13-year wait for Kingdom Hearts IV.
Sure, there are great things about Kingdom Hearts III. It's got a great blend of innovation and nostalgia – many of the menus are familiar, and the damn menu sounds are the same. Some of the Disney worlds are a joy to play through and the updated gameplay is incredibly fun. It's also a complete game without any extraneous DLC.
But with so many extra features – a photo mode, a "hidden Mickey" scavenger hunt, tons of mini-games, and more specials than you can shake a stick at – the game feels lost. There are more bells and whistles than meaningful content, and that's a damn shame.