Kingdom Hearts III: Organised Chaos
By Shannon Haegler
My father once tried to describe the game of AFL to me and landed on the phrase “organised chaos”. After spending 35 hours with Kingdom Hearts III this is the only way I can describe this weird and wonderful game. Kingdom Hearts unfortunately doesn’t feel like a culmination, rather it feels like a quick overview and wrap up of events before it sets up the future of the series. I enjoyed my time with this game but always felt like I was missing something and therein lies the difficulty in reviewing this particular game and franchise.
Kingdom Hearts did away with the conventional idea of side stories or spin off games. In the incredibly large story every single piece of content from the main series to the mobile game and movie are essential to the overall plot. Fans may consider this brilliant, as no part of the games is filler or throw away but for those casually observing it can make the story obtuse and overall less impactful. I’ve been keeping up with the series as whole and felt I had enough prep work to enjoy this game. However, I still found myself asking, “who’s that?” and “what are we doing again?” several times during my playthrough.
The pacing is not one of the strong suits as the game begins with lengthy cutscenes and music videos, which to be honest is half the reason I’m here but still this is a video game, let me play it. The issues start with the title card showing up about three times before then showing another title card marking Kingdom Hearts II.9, because even this game can keep it simple. Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t start until about an hour or so into the game and then the story begins. The initial frustration comes from a crucial part of the plot revolving around three characters Aqua, Terra and Ventus who are only seen and discussed at length in the game Birth By Sleep for the PSP. Those who unable to play this entry will be left without any bearings on the beginning of the story. Even those who finished Kingdom Hearts II may be left scratching their heads on what is going on until the gameplay begins. And even then the game does little to help those less fortunate through the murky waters of the plot.
Combat in this game is as you’d expect from the “main series” of Kingdom Hearts. A drop-down menu provides all the available actions for your character and these are selected in real time to move combat along. The major difference this time around is the Keyblade forms. Each new version of the Keyblade has up to two transformations that be initiated in battle after enough damage is dealt using that weapon. The form changes provide new abilities, mobility and finishing moves to open up the combat a bit more. There are defensive Keyblades that allow for the user to stand and parry the incoming blows to deal the damage back, as well as long range forms that allow you to deal damage from a distance. You’re able to equip up to three Keyblades at once and this gives the player the ability to customise their style or balance the approach. Discovering the right loadout for yourself can be very fun and rewarding however my issue still stands with the series progression.
Standard RPG stats are present coupled with a basic levelling system. Gain levels, get stronger. The problem has always been with the equipment and the way in which the player can gain more power. This remains here as well. New Keyblades are given to the player at the end of every level and then there are a couple hidden ones for collection. Even with this the majority of the useful combat items aren’t unlockable until late game and by that point you’ve found yourself with a combination of blades that works for you, so why fix what’s not broken. Armour and accessories can be purchased and synthesised, but I’ve never touched the synthesis mechanic in Kingdom Hearts and I’m not about to start now. This game also introduced a cuisine mechanic, much like Final Fantasy XV where eating meals will give your party a temporary buff in certain stats. This seems interesting, but the buffs aren’t that noticeable, I did it once or twice and always forgot I had them. The timer would expire, my party would return to normal and I was none the wiser. The ingredients for these meals are found in the world and your party will often speak to let you know their nearby. For me this less served as an indicator for hunting good food and more of a reminder that the mechanic still existed.
It continues to get more complex with the introduction of more finishing moves based on famous Disneyland rides. These can be overpowered, imprecise and occur with too great a frequency to allow for natural challenge in game. The main concern comes with the button prompt being mapped to ∆ or the Y button on Xbox One. The same button as your form change, party abilities, general finishes and interaction with NPCs and chests. Maybe I missed the prompt, but it wasn’t until half way through the game I realised that I could hit the left trigger and cycle the options. In my defence the game never stops throwing new mechanic boxes in your face. It feels as though every level or major encounter introduces a brand-new mechanic specific for this fight or level that you never need to engage with ever again. Flying bosses, shield sliding, dancing mini-games and match the fruit games pop up and that’s not the half of it. By the end of the game I was overloaded with new ways to play I started to relish the regular mob fights for a taste of the mundane.
This feeling sums up the entirety of my experience with Kingdom Hearts III. I enjoyed playing the game but each time I was getting invested the game felt it necessary to throw something new at me. Either a new plot point from some side game or a new mechanic that I needed to learn and master to progress through the story. Every level has a mini-game and every mini-game is as superfluous as the last. So, this brings me to the actual worlds of Kingdom Hearts III, the big selling point of this original concept. The worlds are pretty, well structured and great deal less linear that previous games. For the first time in the series PIXAR joins the fray but this brings a new drawback I wasn’t ready for. Since PIXAR was amalgamated into the Disney family a lot of the art design and direction has melded into a similar style. This has caused a feeling of sameness across the entire game. From Toy Story to Frozen, Monsters Inc. to Tangled the art style sticks and doesn’t give you wow factor of the previous games. An added draw back is all the longer levels are backloaded at the time where you just want to get through the game to see its conclusion. Traversal between the worlds is by way of the Gummi ship again and again, the Gummi Ship sucks.
I’m going to try and avoid spoilers for this review for the few who may be simply looking for a basic breakdown of the game. However, I will say that if you have not kept up with the greater Kingdom Hearts story you need not apply. This game delights in the fact that its fan base is rabid for small moments, twists and turns. It knows that the consensus among fans and critics is that the story is impenetrable and nonsensical, so it goes out of its way to lean into this as much as possible. The story has this layer of meta-commentary that runs through much of the dialogue. From Woody telling Sora he looks like a video game character to the Organisation XIII members brushing off major plot developments with “it’d be too confusing to explain.” All the big moments of the game tend to be undercut by the fact that prior knowledge is needed or that the localisation is just off. And I do mean just. Moments are held for just a hair too long and the writing is standard Disney levels of corny. This is compounded by the fact the game feels like the last 15 minutes of a movie. Major character arcs a sewn up and if you didn’t play Birth by Sleep you have no idea who they are and it all leads to the climactic battle at the end.
The finale of the game is something to behold. For a second, I did find myself saying, “haven’t we done this before?”, but that quickly washed away as this piece’s strength is shown in full force… spectacle. Kingdom Hearts III knows how to put on a big set piece show for its fans and delivers that in full force in the closing moments of the game complete with time travel plot twist. Sorry Spoiler. But after the journey I went through I did find a sense of closure having finally completed this nearly two-decade long journey with this franchise. And then it kicked the door open with two more secret ending videos.
This is the never-ending frustration of the Kingdom Hearts fan. At any point during the game the developers could have chosen to close off the story and continue forward with new characters and new setting but instead, they have chosen to make everything that came before just as important to Kingdom Heart IV as it is to III. And yet still, I had fun with this game. The wacky, weird and wonderful creation brought hours of joy despite itself. The combat never felt quite right, not because its bad but because the game refuses to let you get into a rhythm with a mechanic smorgasbord that never ends. Its plot felt rushed, not because its badly paced or written but because it is dependant on previous material to make any sense. In the end Kingdom Hearts III is a love letter to the fans and a promise that there is a future for this chaotically organised franchise.
A game for fans of the series; newbies need not apply 7/10