Last weekend my partner and I went on a date to one of the local malls. Our child, nicknamed Inkling, spent the day with their grandmother while we enjoyed some much-needed time to ourselves. During our date we stopped by GameStop and I started poking around for games in the $15-20 range for the Switch and PS4. While the Switch turned out to be pretty worthless on that front (thank you, Nintendo tax), I found a very cheap pre-owned copy of a game that’s been on my mind recently as a result of the Smash Bros news: Kingdom Hearts III. Other than a few random mobile-only entries into the series I have played every Kingdom Hearts except this one, the conclusion to Sora’s story arc. I decided that $10 was certainly reasonable to finally see the ending of a series that meant so much to me as a teenager and picked up the game.
Fast forward to later that evening when my mother-in-law brought my child home. Inkling walks in the door and looks at the TV, where I am sitting on the pause screen. “Is that Goofy? And Donald? What is this?” I explained that I had picked up a new game during my date that evening. Moments later, my playthrough of Kingdom Hearts III became Inkling’s playthrough. We didn’t get to make a lot of progress during that sitting because it was pretty close to Inkling’s bedtime, but they got a feel for the controls and we quickly found the rhythm that worked for us. Inkling does the exploring and deals with trash mobs while I handle the minibosses and bosses, and advance through the longer cutscenes.
The next morning felt like Christmas. It’s not unusual to be woken up by Inkling earlier than I would like to be, but rarely is there such singularity of purpose. “Dad, you have to beat Hades so it can be my turn again.” (We were on Mount Olympus, the first world in the game.) I booted up the PS4, flopped down onto the couch, and Inkling snuggled up beside me while we played through the rest of Mount Olympus as well as some of the next world, Twilight Town. Based on our experiences so far, this article will be sharing
my our first impressions of the latest entry in the Kingdom Hearts series.
Kingdom Hearts III is meant to tie together and wrap up the overarching plot of all the previous Kingdom Hearts games. So perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of the opening is dedicated to giving you opportunities to remember all the nonsense that happened in all those other entries. I anticipated the need to do that so I had already watched a refresher video during the time it took to update and install the game. That allowed me to jump into the action a little quicker after the traditional KH opening, the Dive into the Heart. Similar to the previous games, this is a stained glass arena where you answer questions defining the character traits for your playthrough. The choices this time are focused on the split between your HP and MP (either a focus on one or a balanced build) and then the typical warrior/guardian/mystic choice, which determines the learn order for your abilities. These details are familiar to me as someone who has played before, but it would be nice for newer players if the explanations for what exactly you are deciding were a little less vague.
KH3 picks up after the conclusion of Dream Drop Distance. After narrowly avoiding being used as a vessel by Xehanort, the main villain of the series, Sora is missing the many powers he had built up over the course of his previous adventures. The premise of the game’s opening section is that Sora is to learn how to reclaim his powers from someone else who has gone through the experience of losing all their strength: Hercules. He sets out for Olympus alongside Donald and Goofy, during which you get your first real taste of the Kingdom Hearts gameplay loop.
The setting of Kingdom Hearts is made up of a number of worlds, some from various Disney properties and others original to the series. You arrive at a world, learn about the core problems plaguing it, and explore while fighting plenty of Heartless. Environments are relatively linear but there are various types of secrets spread around. Treasure chests can hide useful items like potions, materials for upgrading your gear or crafting gear, and even hidden Mickey Mouse emblems that give a small reward when you take a picture of them with your in-game cell phone (called the Gummiphone). Exploration generally happens on foot but there are plenty of other movement options for Sora as you familiarize yourself with the game. Grinding rails, sliding on Goofy’s shield, gliding from higher places, making huge leaps by locking onto distant targets – these various abilities are introduced slowly and while some will make appearances in other places, others are somewhat locked to specific worlds.
Kingdom Hearts III is an action RPG and combat is the primary mechanism you’ll be engaging with while playing it. Your basic actions during combat are attacking with your keyblade, moving and jumping, and defensive maneuvers such as blocking and dodging. Basic attacks are all executed with the same button and your various combos and finishers are just natural extensions of hammering that button, so the basic execution of combat is rather simple – simple enough for Inkling to pick it up and be able to deal with mobs without too much trouble at the game’s standard difficulty. That said, there’s plenty more to fighting thanks to a variety of mechanics ported in from other games in the Kingdom Hearts series.
Remember forms from KHII? Those are back, with each keyblade having its own form change activated by pressing the special action button after filling a form gauge. There’s a bigger variety of forms than KHII and each one functions a little differently mechanically, as well as having their own unique finishers. Then of course you have flowmotion from Dream Drop Distance, allowing you to spring off of walls or fling yourself from poles and execute attacks using the momentum of your movement. That’s not all though – there are also shotlocks from Birth by Sleep, executed by highlighting multiple targets with a targeting reticle and unleashing a barrage of fire on everyone targeted. All of these mechanics which should be familiar to series veterans are blended with a large number of other special attacks sprinkled in, such as combos with Donald or Goofy as well as special attacks based on Disneyland rides. All of these abilities work together to make combat varied and give you multiple approaches to battle. And that’s not even counting other built-in abilities like casting spells or summoning Dream Eaters to your side.
Boss fights tend to take place on a grand scale in relatively unique arenas. The game does a good job of conveying the sense of scale and making these battles feel epic even when they aren’t particularly difficult. One example from an early area is the battle against the stone titan. The titan stands at the top of a mountain shattering rocks and sending them down towards you. As Sora, you run up the sheer cliffs leading to the stone titan’s position and dodge rocks tumbling down towards you until you reach the monster’s legs. Each leg has its own health bar and when you take out both, jump points appear up the monster’s body so you can climb up to the head and start getting hits in with your keyblade. Then you unlock a special which puts you on a rollercoaster, allowing you to fire blasts of light at the monster’s head from a distance. The titan launches boulders at you that you have to destroy to protect yourself, and if you time your attacks well you can finish the fight with a grand finale attack from the rollercoaster. I didn’t struggle against the stone titan, really, but the framing of the conflict and the sheer satisfaction of running up cliffs, jumping along the titan’s body, and then blasting it with a finisher from a roller coaster made the whole experience exciting to play out.
Kingdom Hearts excels at spectacle and these moments were the ones where Inkling was the most engaged, even if I was the one who was playing. However, there are plenty of cutscenes in the game too, long dialogue sequences that have a lot of information to convey to the player. Kingdom Hearts III has so much distance from the games it is trying to wrap up that a lot of dialogue is focused on bringing you into the fold re: the events of the previous games. We’ve been frequently reminded of what old characters have been through like Roxas, Ventus, Aqua, Terra, even Lea/Axel and the other members of Organization XIII, not to mention Riku and Mickey plus whatever nonsense Sora happens to be going through at the given time. It’s a necessary evil in a game that’s trying to do so much, but that doesn’t make it any more engaging.
This was a bigger problem for Inkling than for me. After all, as a kid you just want to jump into a game and experience the core gameplay and aren’t necessarily as concerned with the plot. This is particularly true when it comes to characters the little one doesn’t recognize – Inkling doesn’t particularly give two flying flips about *checks notes* Ienzo, the guy who used to be Zexion in Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories. (Not that I really care about that guy either.) Major plot points like “oh yeah, pretty much everybody who used to be in Organization XIII is a good guy now” barely get any airtime as the story tries to compete with itself to share everything you need to know from the past to even get the present moving. Playing it tag team with my kid has actually made this a bit easier to bear, as Inkling can check out and play with toys or something while I deal with the less spectacular elements of the game and I can do stuff like write this article while they fight the grindy battles against trash mobs. Experiencing it together is turning out to be a pretty solid approach for us.
We’re only a few hours in at this point and there is still a whole lotta Kingdom Hearts to play. I was looking forward to finally putting a pin in this series but doing so alongside Inkling has made the whole experience a lot more fun. Seeing my child learn the game, get excited about seeing familiar Disney faces, and then taking over to help them when things get tough or boring is a great experience. I think part of why it works so well is because Inkling appreciates the parts of Kingdom Hearts that have often fallen flat for me. Those parts are more fun now with someone else to enjoy them, and if this whole thing goes well I can see it being a fun father/child activity to go through the other games like this too. I’ll continue to share my thoughts on Kingdom Hearts III as I make more progress – assuming I ever get to hold the controller again of course. But even if I don’t, I think Inkling’s excitement has made this one of the best $10 purchases I’ve ever made.