Kingdom Hearts 3 Takes The Series Back More Than Forward
As a die-hard Kingdom Hearts fan, Kingdom Hearts 3 left me wanting more from its story and gameplay, despite everything I loved about it.
Editor’s Note: This feature will dive into spoilers for the story of Kingdom Hearts 3, so come back and read through after you’ve finished the main game if you haven’t yet.
It hurts to say, but Kingdom Hearts 3 was a disappointment. It took a lot in me to write this because the Kingdom Hearts franchise is my favorite series. Being a fan since the original, of course, I had to wait a very long time for the final entry of the Xehanort Saga.
Just in case some readers don’t believe how much I love this series, I invested over $700 for Kingdom Hearts 3 including the Limited Edition PlayStation 4 Pro, the Bring Arts Edition on PlayStation 4, and the Deluxe Edition for Xbox One. Outside of that, I own the official Kingdom Key Replica as well as numerous figures. I LOVE Kingdom Hearts.
So why am I disappointed in Kingdom Hearts 3? First off I need to preface that I loved Kingdom Hearts 3. With that being said, it is not because it didn’t meet expectations, and it didn’t. Let’s be honest, this game met no one’s expectations because everyone who is a fan of the series had them so high. It was never going to meet them, which is fine. If you’re reading this and are thinking “it met my expectations,” then you probably decided to go in and suspend all disbelief possible. There are numerous reasons as to why I’m disappointed. The gameplay and story weren’t bad per se, it just felt like a weird mixture of how Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2 were executed. This led to what I felt was that the game takes a step back more than forwards for the Kingdom Hearts series.
In the first Kingdom Hearts, Sora and Co. were out to find Kairi while Donald and Goofy had to stick with Sora being the Keyblade wielder, which gave them reasons to travel to the different Disney worlds. You would visit each world one time as you progressed through the story; for the type of game it was, it made sense. You were new to the universe and lore that there was really no reason to go back after visiting once.
In Kingdom Hearts 2, the quest is similar: find Riku and King Mickey, and then later Kairi…again. You would visit most Disney worlds twice. The first would normally focus on the world’s story that it is based on, and the second time would focus on the game’s story while still implementing the Disney characters and progressing the plot. It was perfect.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is different though: it is switched back to one world visits like the original. You are sent to different worlds by Master Yen Sid in the hope that Sora will unlock his “Power of Waking.” This power was going to be unlocked following the completion of Sora and Riku’s Mark of Mastery Exam in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, but Sora failed. However, the thing that is frustrating about it is that there was no guarantee that he was going to find the power in general. It feels like an excuse to justify going to these worlds.
For the most part, when you go to these worlds…you’re kind of just there? For example, when the group goes to Arendelle, the world based on Disney’s Frozen, soon after entering the world you try to follow Elsa and–thanks to the antagonist Larxene–you are trapped in an ice labyrinth for about half of your time in the world. While this portion was extremely fun to explore, it felt random: just something for us to do instead of focusing on the Disney characters. Once you eventually get out, you continue to follow/find Elsa. By this time, we have already reached the “Let It Go” portion of the film’s story. By the end of the world, you don’t even fight Hans, the main antagonist of Frozen, for the final boss (which is a reoccurring problem throughout the game). In the past Kingdom Hearts games, one of the really unique things that players would experience was fighting various Disney villains in boss battles. However, in Kingdom Hearts 3 it just feels like you’re completely disconnected from what is happening in most worlds you are in.
One of the elements that I have always loved most in the mainline Kingdom Hearts games is the gameplay, even though in most instances all you have to do is pretty much mash X/A (depending on what system you are playing) to win. While that is a fair and true statement it still just so satisfying. The choreography, the flashiness of it all: the best way to describe it to me is that it feels like something you’d see the main character do in a cutscene of any other game, but in Kingdom Hearts, you do it yourself.
Looking back, the first Kingdom Hearts is definitely rough around the edges nowadays. Kingdom Hearts 2‘s gameplay, on the other hand, has aged like fine wine: it was tight and felt right, not too floaty and not too heavy. The game also introduced “reaction commands” a combat mechanic where Sora will attack enemies uniquely based on the enemy type and timing. Lastly, we cannot ignore the form changes and dual-wielding keyblades, as it made me feel even more supremely powerful. But in Kingdom Hearts 3, it feels like you are moving in reverse.
Kingdom Hearts 3 has a number of new mechanics for Sora, but I am going to focus on three of them: Keyblade Transformations, Shotlock, and Attraction Flow. The Keyblade Transformations allow Sora’s keyblade to change into different types of weapons, like a hammer or guns, for example. Each Keyblade will switch you into a different “form” based on which keyblade Sora is wielding: Power, Magic, Speed, Guardian, Rage, Second and Ultimate. What is unfortunate about these “forms” is that you do not get the benefits that Sora got in Kingdom Hearts 2: there is no unique ability list for each form, and Sora does not eventually gain any abilities for using them.
Shotlock was added to Sora’s arsenal where you can scan enemies by using the focus bar and attack enemies that way. This is a mechanic that was first introduced in Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, but it is dumbed down a bit in KH3. In BBS, you could level up your Shotlock to make it more powerful and last longer, which is not an option in Kingdom Hearts 3.
The final mechanic, Attraction Flow, allows Sora to summon different rides based off amusement park rides like a Carousel and a Pirate Ship. There really isn’t a problem with the mechanic itself: it is a fun addition and adds to the tone of the series, but the option that allows you to use it pops up way too often in battle. Thankfully, they added an ability in the newly-added Critical Mode that allows you to remove Attraction Flow completely.
What is most disappointing about all these new mechanics is that you just start with them right away. In Kingdom Hearts 2 all the new mechanics that you gain, like the different forms, you unlock early in the game through the course of the narrative, but in KH3 you just have them with no explanation as to how you got them already.
In Kingdom Hearts 3, you fight significantly fewer bosses compared to the other two mainline games. There are only two returning worlds, and those house two of the four Disney boss fights. In the Olympus world, you fight the Rock Titan part way through, and then the rest of the Titans at the very end. In the Caribbean, you fight Davy Jones with the Kraken, which for me was the boss fight that I was looking forward to the most going into the game, and it did end up being my favorite. However, it still felt weird because you don’t really interact with Jones until the boss fight at the end of the world. It just wasn’t as well-executed as Barbosa in Kingdom Hearts 2, for example. For the one new world where we have a Disney boss fight, we encounter the original Baymax who was corrupted by Darkubes in the Big Hero 6 world. So with all these new worlds and the potential for fighting cool characters like Emperor Zurg from Toy Story, we only received so little.
This is a good amount of how the first two-thirds of the game progresses. While there is main plot progression when you are in-between worlds, nothing really meaningful happens until you finish all the Disney worlds. This is where a big problem arises in the story: with Sora being the main protagonist in the Kingdom Hearts series, it makes sense that he does most of the work. Throughout the time when Sora, Donald, and Goofy are going world-to-world to unlock Sora’s Power of Waking, Riku and King Mickey are on their own adventure to save Aqua in the Realm of Darkness.
There is a point earlier on in the game where you play as Riku in the Realm of Darkness which was really fun, albeit short and limited. We play as Riku again later in the same setting against Aqua, who has been consumed by the darkness after her long stay in the realm. Partway through the fight, a prompt comes up which leads to Sora intervening and fighting Aqua instead.
This is frustrating for more than one reason. I get it: Sora is the main character, but that does not mean that he has to fight everyone that poses a threat. Additionally, Riku is a Keyblade Master, something that he was able to achieve over Sora in Dream Drop Distance. We also knew that Ventus had to be awakened, which Sora had to do with Ventus’s heart sleeping inside him. So why not give Riku a time to shine?
Throughout the series, Riku has had a great redemption arc which could have been incorporated with saving Aqua, or literally anything else. We know that other characters in the series have the capability of doing these feats, so why not use them instead of Sora? It’s just because he’s the main character. Sora didn’t even have the Power of Waking at the time of fighting Aqua, which Yen Sid told him that he needs the Power of Waking to save Aqua. So either that was a lie or an assumption. Regardless, it proves my viewpoint that Yen Sid sending Sora to worlds for the chances of awakening his power was a flimsy excuse to justify going to them.
These are the biggest issues that I personally had with Kingdom Hearts 3. There are obviously more: Kairi got shafted — again — and the difficulties that were given for the game at launch were way too easy. Xehanort ended up backing down after his best friend Eraqus told him to stop what he was doing, which is after manipulating Terra, Eraqus’ pupil, to kill him. It just made no sense.
Despite all this, I love the Kingdom Hearts series, even with its highs and lows. Though it has its flaws, Kingdom Hearts 3 still had incredible moments that I think about all the time. I loved my experience with the game and (so far) is currently my Game of the Year for 2019. Some of the critiques that the series is given can be over-exaggerated, but as a die-hard fan of the series, I can’t in good conscience ignore the faults of the game and the series at large.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have more Kingdom Hearts 3 to play.