The basic building block of the structure of Kingdom Hearts is the “world.” Worlds are unique settings with their own cast of characters, one or two narrative arcs to resolve, and sometimes new mechanics to experience. These locations break up the Kingdom Hearts games into largely episodic adventures tied together in between by brief references to an overarching plot. For this reason the worlds can make or break a Kingdom Hearts title – a series of weak worlds with little to offer makes it a slog to complete Sora’s adventure, while strong worlds with fun characters and interesting narratives keep the experience fresh. Naturally every player has their own thoughts on what makes a world engaging and what makes it lame – in this article, I’ll be exploring my own thoughts on the subject based on my experiences so far with Kingdom Hearts III.
Note: This article will include spoilers for KH3 up to the first visit to San Fransokyo.
The first aspect of a compelling world that I’ll be focusing on is mechanics. For the most part the worlds in Kingdom Hearts have a lot in common on that front – after all, they may be separate settings from distinct films but they are still part of a single game. A world generally features an explorable overworld with a mostly-linear path, though particularly in KH3 the areas are much more open than they were in previous titles in the series. These areas have a few NPCs to speak with but these conversations are rarely important, with any important dialogue saved for voiced cutscenes that trigger when entering specific areas or defeating specific enemies. A few breakable objects in the environment and dead-end paths lead to treasure for the player to collect. In KH3, these include crafting materials you can use to cook meals, synthesize items, or upgrade Keyblades. Exploration is broken up by battles against mobs of enemies, with combat mechanics being generally consistent from world to world.
I tend to prefer worlds that keep these mechanics consistent. In past KH games I haven’t enjoyed places like Atlantis or The Hundred Acre Wood that changed up exploration (via constant swimming) or removed combat from the gameplay, respectively. This continues to be true in KH3 where The Hundred Acre Wood and its focus on puzzle minigames felt like a waste of time as it didn’t give rewards that felt meaningful. In terms of movement mechanics around the world, The Caribbean was less appealing to me because much of the overworld exploration was delegated to sailing, a form of movement that feels slower and clunkier than running around as Sora. Conversely, it was fun to explore Monstropolis because it built on a mechanic that already exists in the game (rail-grinding) and simply added some complexity to it by giving you the ability to hide behind doors hanging from the rails. In San Fransokyo, while I didn’t love that you were separated from the city by using Hiro’s garage as a hub, once in the city it was fun to use the full breadth of Sora’s movement capabilities to get around the space: running up buildings, grinding along guard rails, and air-stepping from blimp to blimp made moving around that space exciting to do.
Worlds are often less likely to mess with how combat works, but when they do that can be a really hit or miss circumstance. Building a world around a combat mechanic that feels clunky can be a huge turnoff. Remember that sailing I didn’t like in The Caribbean? Roughly half the battles in that world take place on your boat, including one phase of the boss battle for your first visit to that world. Trying to fire cannons from your ship while making long, slow turns in combat is significantly less engaging than the normally high-octane, high-spectacle fights in Kingdom Hearts. And while the world offers opportunities for you to upgrade your ships capabilities, it feels worthless to invest time and energy into a mechanic that is only going to exist in a single world. Compare that to the mechs (called Gigas) in the Toy Box. The mechs are slower than Sora’s normal movement but still control similarly to him, and they feature the ability to boost forward or to fly temporarily with rockets. In addition to the ranged attack, the Gigas features a melee hit that can temporarily stun bigger opponents and give you an opening to use the ranged cannon more safely. You can also jump into a new Gigas if your current one gets busted, creating interesting moments of trying to escape a giant robot on foot while you search desperately for a new ride. It better fits the combat style of the game and makes the Toy Box stand out from other worlds from a mechanical standpoint.
The other major component for me – and often the more important one – is the storytelling. Kingdom Hearts may be an action game but it is a cutscene heavy one, and if those cutscenes aren’t interesting then the time you are spending in one of the game’s worlds can feel like a slog. As described before, these worlds tend to be largely episodic but may sometimes have ties to the broader narrative taking place. In Kingdom Hearts III, most of the worlds feature at least a cameo from one of the series’ original villains but otherwise focus on the story of the world itself. This means that each world attempts to connect to or expand the overarching story but the degree to which each one does that successfully varies wildly in quality.
In general, the more a world strives to do little more than retell the story of the original film but with Sora in the background, the more dissatisfied I am going to be. Arendell is particularly egregious in this regard. So strictly does your time in that world adhere to the film that you actually hear “Let It Go” in its entirety, as well as bits and pieces of a couple of other songs from Frozen. The events of Elsa and Anna’s story follows the same beats as the film, with the only meaningful difference being that the darkness inside of Hans for some reason makes a dark portal for Sora to fight a boss in. Corona (the setting of Tangled) is almost just as bad, including a weird recreation of the emotional finale with Sora, Donald, and Goofy just watching the events unfold dumbstruck from Rapunzel’s windowsill. Just watching weird, lower-quality recreations of scenes from Tangled and Frozen in between battles with generic Heartless made my time in those worlds feel like torture. In The Caribbean, that agony was compounded by the lousy mechanics of piloting the ship around, and the fact that from both a technical and thematic standpoint that world is such a poor fit for Kingdom Hearts generally.
The worlds I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones that deviate meaningfully from their source material to tell a new story about likeable characters with elements of the world of Kingdom Hearts worked in. Olympus was a solid introduction in this regard – while the evil plot in that chapter was focused on Hades trying to overtake Olympus using the titans, the overarching story dealt with the fact that Sora was trying to understand how to reclaim his lost powers. Since Hercules had lost his powers before, it was logical to ask him for advice. This is a simple concept but it helps Olympus feel connected to Sora’s journey in a meaningful way. San Fransokyo in my mind was the best example of this type of storytelling. Set after the events of Big Hero 6, this story reintroduces the Riku Replica as a villain with an understandable motive: he’s trying to learn how to place a heart into an empty vessel. This has been teased in other scenes throughout the game but is given a sinister context in San Fransokyo, where Repliku is able to use the violence program that Hiro developed in the film as well as the old body of Baymax to create a dark Baymax in an effort to complete his research. It’s a short but compelling emotional arc for Hiro, who has to deal with the consequences of his previous actions as well as being forced to face his beloved companion in battle, but it also engages Sora by pitting him against the clone of one of his best friends – all while actually advancing the overarching narrative. While places like The Caribbean or Arendell simply felt like filler, San Fransokyo is compelling both as an episodic entry as well as a key piece of the larger puzzle.
Speaking broadly, I’ve been pretty disappointed with the worlds of Kingdom Hearts III. San Fransokyo has felt like a breath of fresh air after a lot of boring filler, but I don’t think in the long run it is going to be enough to convince me that KH3 is as strong as its predecessors. Then again, the whole experience has me wondering how much of my positivity about previous entries and the worlds within them is ultimately tied to nostalgia. I think about some of my favorite worlds in Kingdom Hearts II – locations like ancient China, the Underworld, Christmas Town – and I wonder if they would hold up were I to revisit them today. Did those places contribute to the grand story of KH2? Were they mechanically compelling with stories that felt worthwhile rather than being a waste of time? Or would I see them differently as an adult with new critical skills in my toolbelt and a higher standard for game design? Someday I may have to conduct that experiment, but now I’m going to focus on pushing myself through the rest of Kingdom Hearts III so I can finally see how this all comes to an end.