‘Kingdom Heart III’ hands-on preview
Back when the first Kingdom Hearts came out in 2002, the word “crossover” was a rarity among mainstream blockbuster entertainment.
Now we live in the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when crossovers are not only widespread but the golden goose for every major studio — regardless of medium. Enter the new, upcoming Kingdom Heart III, the newest full release of the 15-year-old video game series that brought characters like Little Mermaid and Final Fantasy‘s Cloud together before many of us even imagined that was possible.
Being ahead of the curve isn’t the only thing Kingdom Hearts III has going for it. It’s the first major title in the franchise (meaning not a remix or a .5 entry) in a decade, and after the 2006 Disney with Pixar. That means it gets to play with beloved Pixar and Disney and Square Enix properties. The gravitational pull of the nostalgia embedded in the promise of those three worlds clashing is certainly not lost on this millennial — or any other who grew up with them.
In the hour-long demo we played, we visited the Hercules world Olympus to battle a Titan, and also Toy Box world to try and help Woody and his pals get to the bottom of why everyone disappeared (including even humans like Andy) when these shadowy bad guys showed up.
The actual story of the overall Kingdom Hearts franchise is, by and large, negligible. Unlike the precise mathematics of Marvel’s well thought out phases that carefully stitched together dozens of superheroes together, Kingdom Hearts III is more of a free-for-all.
There’s a basic premise of the big baddies called the Heartless, who protagonist Sora must stop in order to save all the worlds from total darkness. It looks like people have gone missing from these worlds because of The Organization, which appears to have split worlds in two: one real, the other a sort of simulation.
But it’s your standard archetypal good and evil story. And the real star is getting to watch legendary Disney characters like Donald Duck and Goofy hang out with Buzz Lightyear.
If you’re looking for depth in terms of both story or combat, this is not the Disney crossover you are looking for. For one, there are always so many characters and worlds in a Kingdom Hearts games that none of them feel particularly fleshed out as a result. The game is also very clearly marketed to a younger audience, keeping difficulty and controls simple. The biggest addition to combat being highlighted by the team is the “Link” system, where you can use special moves from characters you’ve helped previously.
The 8-bit Blast move summoned Wreck It Ralph, for example — a particularly mind-bending addition to the Kingdom Hearts crew, since he originated as a video game parody. But, there he is, in a real video game. The team also promises to bring even classic Disney shorts to life through minigames.
The same thrills of nostalgia remain, despite the somewhat superficial updates. Sora, Donald, and Goofy transform their appearances depending on which world they visit, like turning into Lego-style toys in the Toy Box world.
But at times, the forces of nostalgia work against it too. Again, it’s been over a decade since the last major title, which means we’re older, and more accustomed to seeing the seams of a massive crossover — like replaced voice actors.
The basic structure and experience of Kingdom Hearts remains unchanged, which also makes it feel a bit ancient in the context of other games currently on the market. The Link and Magic moves, for example, are cumbersome to use, requiring you to scroll through a D-pad side menu in the middle of a fight to activate.
Still, fans of the series will find no objections to be had with its unchanged core. And there’s plenty of delightful distractions to help you forget about its somewhat outdated gameplay — like taking a trip through the Galaxy Toys Store to save Hamm from his Barbie Dream House-esque prison, or Buzz casting shade on the illogicality of video games.
Square Enix has also promised to announce the release of Kingdom Hearts III next month, so keep your eyes peeled for that.