There’s a reason we’re still talking about Kingdom Hearts: It was a collaboration between two titans of industry that shouldn’t have worked, full of inexplicable crossovers and glossed-over plot details. But Disney and Square Enix’s partnership proved to be a winning one — at least for a while. Kingdom Hearts has since evolved from its simpler beginnings: It’s a tangled, dense mass of plot lines and backstories. And Kingdom Hearts 3, the culmination of more than a decade and a half of games, fares much worse than the previous entries did with keeping up and keeping us engaged.
Its knotty lore often intimidates newcomers, and has become a punchline to its more skeptical critics. But for those of us who are invested in this series about a boy with big feet and a key for a sword who makes friends with Disney princesses and Mickey Mouse, overwrought complexity is half the fun.
I’ve waited a long time for a proper conclusion to that boy’s story. The space between Kingdom Hearts 2 and Kingdom Hearts 3 — a full 13 years — has been a test of patience. I’ve hoped for a game that would bring Kingdom Hearts into 2019. How crushing it has been to discover the end result is little more than a lackluster leftover from 2006.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is not the affirming experience I wished it would be for more than half my life. It’s a whimsical but tepid action-RPG romp through Disney worlds, with a flat story, repetitive gameplay, and very few surprises.
Because of a timeline convoluted by spinoffs, Kingdom Hearts 3 doesn’t pick up where Kingdom Hearts 2’s story concluded. I could burn my entire word count summarizing what’s happened in the fiction across the series. So here’s the most concise summary: Sora, Riku, and Kairi were three island kids when we met them; now, Sora and Riku are two of the strongest wielders of the legendary Keyblade weapons in the universe. That universe is connected to numerous others, including worlds populated by Disney characters like Hercules, Buzz Lightyear, and Simba.
Each of these worlds suffers at the hands of Organization XIII, which aims to use the hearts of good people like Sora and his friends to consume the world with darkness. It must be stopped, and Sora, Riku, and their Disney companions are the ones to do it. That sounds simple only because I excluded the time traveling, cloning, and frequent lapses into comas.
The capper of such a grandiose saga should carry a sense of urgency, but Kingdom Hearts 3, from the start, stumbles toward its big finale with the pace and intent of a plastic bag in the wind.
The game at least tries, at first, to be inviting with its storytelling: Cutscenes do a lot of the heavy lifting in catching me up on what I may have missed in preceding spinoffs, along with what happened in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2. But as I refresh my memory on all the bodies sacrificed to darkness, and the lives still under threat from it, I’m a little bit shocked to find that the game opens with the same buoyant tone as the previous two core games.
Kingdom Hearts’ marriage of Disney’s family-friendly spirit with a Final Fantasy-like sense of grandeur (and battle system) has always been one of its best qualities, but that combination doesn’t sit as well with me this time. The contrast is too stark. The story within these worlds, about love and friendship, is at odds with the story outside of them. All of these villains in black are talking about removing hearts from bodies, but Elsa of Frozen still has time to sing the entirety of “Let It Go,” and I, apparently, still have time to sit through the whole dang thing.
Much of the dissonance stems from who’s at the helm of this ship. I once again play as Sora, who always smiles in the face of danger and just wants to eat ice cream after a big fight. He’s got big, spiky hair (the classic Square Enix cut), bigger pants, and the world’s biggest shoes. Sora is the perfect representation of the pairing that brought Kingdom Hearts together, and it’s comforting to jump back into the fray with him. At first.
With the sinister Organization drawing ever closer to accomplishing its goals, Sora is still running around smiling and laughing and goofing off. This is who the character always has been, and he helps add levity to what would otherwise be straight melodrama. But it feels off to have him so jovial here — as if all of those years and games I spent as Sora have had zero impact on him. Characters grow and change, but Sora just keeps smiling, world be damned. The franchise’s story has built to a grim conclusion in direct conflict with the sugary, happy, sterilized worlds of Disney lore.
And then there’s the series’ notorious narrative density. The story stretches in so many different directions, with so many different characters, pieces of lore, and rules, that there’s no way to fit the Disney bits into Kingdom Hearts 3 without them feeling like a roadblock to something more important. The Disney mega-verse has always felt a little inexplicable, sure, but I’m surprised to now be asking for justification of why Sora needs to hang out with Anna and Elsa for so long before we can get back to the business of the life-and-death story that already spans numerous games and dozens of hours.
I keep wondering what’s changed here. Is it the game? Or is it me? Is this what growing up feels like? Am I an old now? Because it’s suddenly so confusing and frustrating how little rationale I get for this journey through Disney’s catalog, despite the characters and venues being the bulk of the franchise, and despite the script having so many words.
Sora will fly to one of the worlds in his aircraft, mutate into a form that fits in better with the environment, befriend the main character of whatever movie it’s based on, then fight through hordes of monsters and an end-level boss, maybe completing some side missions on the way. In previous games, all of this was a showcase for charming character redesigns, interesting levels, and fantastically diverse boss battles. In Kingdom Hearts 3, these are much more lifeless dioramas. The eight Disney worlds here — of which only five are new — are comparatively empty, with fewer details and references to the films themselves, making more room for waves upon waves of battles.
The Frozen world is the most glaring example of this. Arendelle is a snow-covered labyrinth in which I spent an absurd number of hours running up and down and back up again a mountain that leads to Elsa. There’s nothing more to it than that: just a whole bunch of the color white on top of the color gray. It’s drab to look at and miserable to play, because the whole world is predicated on repetition. The only thing to break up this dry rhythm of climbing, jumping, fighting, repeat is a numbing time-waster of a quest to repair a busted Olaf.
I’m not knocking modern Disney movies or anything, but the recency bias shown in the world selection here produces a small handful of very bland environments. Even the world based on Toy Story — my favorite Pixar movie — forces me into a mall, a dark runaround that is largely forgettable and lacks the series’ appeal.
Sure, it’s not all bad: A return to the realm of Pirates of the Caribbean actually makes for an engaging land-and-sea fighting ground; San Fransokyo, from Big Hero 6, is a bustling city like no other Kingdom Hearts world. But few things in Kingdom Hearts 3 feel as inspired, affecting, and unforgettable as the world based on Steamboat Willie in Kingdom Hearts 2, for example, or each game’s version of The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Halloween Town.
With so much space set aside for battle — plus the whole “epic finale” thing — I had high hopes that at least the copious boss fights would make up for whatever the worlds themselves are missing. This is rarely the case. Kingdom Hearts 3 mostly lacks strategy, with its battle system simplified to a few buttons.
Sora can attack with his Keyblade and cast magic spells, which become stronger as he levels up. But he also can, and is encouraged to, use his Keyblades’ unique abilities, team attacks with his party members, and new attacks based on Disney theme park attractions. (For these, Sora and the crew will jump into a Splash Mountain-style raft, or a merry-go-round, for example.) These each do additional damage, but at the serious cost of my time and desire to continue playing the game.
Pressing the highlighted action button initiates an automated attack, sending me through a lengthy scene that sets up Sora and his companions performing a move together, one that requires minimal interaction from me. It’s all lights and colors, flashy for the sake of being flashy. Seeing an attack like this pulled off a small handful of times in an important fight sounds like a neat idea. But the amount of times that the game prompts me to unleash these event-sized special moves renders them not so special. It makes me resentful of the extra time I’m spending killing off the weakest, tiniest enemies.
Grand, choreographed battles sadly arrive fewer and farther between, with most of the memorable fights stacked toward the end. For the bulk of Kingdom Hearts 3, the journey is smooth sailing (while playing on its standard difficulty mode, at least). More often than not, I die only because I’m not pressing the same button I’ve been pressing the whole time fast enough.
Kingdom Hearts has always had a joyfulness that differentiated it from its contemporaries. Despite its reputation for complex story, its simple action and positive energy felt like an antidote to so many other RPGs of the past couple of decades.
But Kingdom Hearts isn’t simple anymore; it isn’t just joy and bright colors and Disney heroes. Instead, the conclusion of this story is tangled up in so many conflicting threads, each one a heavy burden on its hero, whose smile now feels unnerving. Kingdom Hearts 3 is an example of what can go wrong when a series that once stood in contrast to its peers as a lighthearted alternative loses its way.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is available Jan. 29 for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by Square Enix. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.