“They can take your world. They can take your heart. Cut you loose from all you know. But if it’s your fate, then every step forward will always be a step closer to home.”
In spite of its long wait, or more likely because of it, Kingdom Hearts III wastes no time in kicking things off. With A Fragmentary Passage having served its role as a disconnected prologue, Hercules’ Olympus serves as the most straightforward opening in the series. There’s no bait & switch character to play as, the tutorial is completely optional, and Olympus is treated like a full, proper world– not just the start of the game. In a franchise that loves nothing more than to take its time, Kingdom Hearts III opening in such a brisk manner is incredibly refreshing.
More importantly, cutting to the chase makes it easier to appreciate all the new goodies III brings to the table. Sora’s combat is smoother than ever, retaining some of Aqua’s floatiness and leading to snappy combat; larger worlds are paired with more intricate level design, leading to the Disney setpieces coming off more alive than ever; and the joint effort of Unreal Engine 4 & the Kingdom Shader result in a gorgeous looking game dripping in atmosphere, where seamlessly transitioning from sunny Thebes to a stormy Mount Olympus sets a precedent for dynamic world design which III mostly lives up to.
For as to the point Olympus is, however, the world does have the restraint to hold back Kingdom Hearts III’s juicier combat additions. Focus is instead placed on not only what Sora can do on a base level, but what the Kingdom Hearts III experience offers beyond its combat: lively storytelling, thoughtful exploration, and immersive environments. Olympia is showered with attention to detail that isn’t exclusive to itself, almost every world in the game receiving the same level of care. Emphasizing the world design’s intricacies over the combat is especially appropriate considering the grand sense of adventure at the heart of Kingdom Hearts III.
All the same, Olympia builds anticipation for when the combat finally does open up. Clothes make the man and Sora’s new duds bestow upon him some new abilities to work with– Formchanges, Attractions, and an overhauled Keyblade system. Formchanges are basically Drive Forms that can be integrated into a consistent gameplay loop. In Kingdom Hearts II, Sora would be able to trigger super forms in combat that would change his playstyle & buff his abilities at the expense of sacrificing a party member (most of the time.)
While Drive Forms added needed variety to the gameplay loop, there were a number of flaws with the system: forms are tied to a meter that fills too slowly and each form needs to be leveled manually, which naturally eats up a lot of time. As a result, most players will never make the most out of Sora’s forms on a single playthrough without stopping to grind. Formchanges remedy this completely. This time around, Sora’s forms are triggered by building up combos, operating in conjunction with Situation Commands which make their return from 0.2. In now being tied to combos, Sora can trigger his forms multiple times over the course of a single battle instead of the usual one or less.
Where forms were once unlocked over the course of the story, they’re now tied to specific Keyblades. Formchanges are also broken down into specific categories, but what ultimately matters most is how each form changes Sora’s weapon. The Kingdom Key allows players to trigger the Second Form, a formchange which switches Sora’s playstyle similar to how he played in KH II. It’s familiar and in-line with how Sora plays. Trigger Wheel of Fate’s Highwind, however, and Sora’s Keyblade will turn into a wickedly fast spear. Whack enough baddies with Shooting Star and Sora will pull out dual arrow guns to shoot enemies from long range.
Of course, anyone who’s played Kingdom Hearts II will realize that Formchanes being tied to Keyblades means players have fewer form options to choose from at any given time than they did in II. That said, not only are Formchanges in III better integrated into the core gameplay than Drive Forms were, on the fly Keyblade switching ensures variety is still present– arguably better variety since players need only equip the Keyblades with the forms they want instead of pretending Valor & Mystic don’t exist after unlocking Limit Form.
Sora can equip three Keyblades at any given time now, with players switching through their set by pressing left on the D-pad. Weapon switching is both instant and actually keeps track of when a Keyblade’s Formchange has been triggered. Keyblades can even be switched mid-combo, allowing players to create unique combat opportunities for themselves. Swap from Kingdom Key, to a transformed Wheel of Fate, only to finish things up with twin Yo-Yos courtesy of the Happy Gear. Worth noting, Keyblade switching actually requires some degree of foresight. To keep Sora’s chains seamless, it’s important to swap Keyblades only when there is an opening that won’t leave you vulnerable.
Keyblade switching and formchanges naturally make the already useful Keyblade an even more versatile tool, but Keyblades can actually be upgraded this time around. Through synthesis, each Keyblade can be leveled up, gaining increased stats and even passive abilities through the process. While formchanges being tied to Keyblades ensures even early game weapons could get late gameplay, being able to outright level Keyblades up addresses the series’ penchant for unbalanced weaponry in an engaging and creative way. There are, of course, Keyblades definitively better than the rest, but the Keyblade leveling system is a great way of allowing players to comfortably use the weapons they want.
Naturally, the revamped Keyblades system gives the combat a new energy. It’s faster, more chaotic than before. Sora can chain to and from enemies with greater ease, never needing to settle on one single string combo thanks to the potential of Formchanges. Toss in magic & the frequency of Situation Commands, and there is so much Sora can do at any given time. He has a solution to every single problem the game can throw at the player. Even Flowmotion makes a return, allowing Sora to weave in and out of combat easily should the environment allow it (which it often does.) It makes sense to give Sora so many tools to play with, but it becomes a problem when the additions extend beyond a better Keyblade.
For as strong as III’s bones are, the game as a whole can feel at odds with itself. Donald and Goofy have brand new finishers that can be triggered through Sora’s combos. Engage in a combo near one of the two, and Sora will transition into a new attack based on whether he’s closer to Donald or Goofy. This is an excellent idea in theory, one that gives Donald and Goofy greater in-combat importance, but these finishers eat up a just a little bit too much time, aren’t that useful, and have a nasty habit of interrupting combos at inopportune times. All one needs to do is turn the abilities off to circumvent this, but then Donald and Goofy lose a genuinely fun part of their skill set. That said, this is such a minor, inconsequential nitpick compared to Kingdom Hearts III’s actual fatal flaw.
Attractions are a disaster of game design and a slap in the face to all the great additions III brings to the table. Just conceptually, the idea is a mess. Showing up as Situation Commands during most battles (if not all of them,) Attractions spawn a massive theme park ride that jarringly changes the music, deals massive damage to multiple enemies at once, and generally keeps Sora invincible. They’re also painfully long and even if they can be canceled immediately, triggering one by accident– especially in battle– is an enormous nuisance that kills any and all gameplay flow. Attractions are a sour spot in an otherwise fantastic combat system, and their inclusion is as baffling as it is disruptive.
Beyond Attractions trivializing combat, the core gameplay is already quite easy. Gameplay variety is seldom a bad thing, but it’s almost as if there’s a get out of jail free card for just about any challenge that can be thrown at Sora– one that can be acquired with minimal effort. Kingdom Hearts has always had a problem with balance, but more often than not, the series tries to make players work for their OP goodies. Sora’s best abilities are either an inherent part of the gameplay loop (Attractions,) or unlocked naturally (the aggressively useful Ariel Limit.) This lopsided approach to game design– where genuinely good ideas are bogged down by glaring flaws– thankfully doesn’t extend into the level design, but there are a number of issues with the worse Disney worlds.
For the most part, the majority of worlds in Kingdom Hearts III are magnificently designed. As already mentioned, Olympia is a phenomenal opening, but it’s arguably overshadowed right away by Kingdom of Corona, a Tangled inspired world with an incredible forest setting, a lively town, plenty of optional story content with Rapunzel, and a brisk pace that keeps the world engaging from start to finish. Boss fights & cutscenes are sandwiched between lengthy chunks of gameplay, something that extends to almost every world in the game.
That said, Kingdom of Corona has nothing on The Caribbean. Much like in II, players traverse The Caribbean via ship. This time around, however, Sora’s pirate ship is controlled in real-time. The Leviathan can level up, engage in naval combat, and even has its own set of Situation Commands. Not just that, the entire ocean floor is explorable and there are roughly half a dozen (completely optional) islands filled with secrets to uncover. Even the At World’s End adaptation is handled well, with most of the plot development happening in the background, allowing players to be present only for the juiciest (and most important) moments. Davy Jones, the movie’s main villain & a heartless pirate, just lends himself well to the series and Kingdom Hearts make a great point of using him tactfully.
Unfortunately, worlds like Kingdom of Corona and The Caribbean don’t share their quality with the likes of Arendelle or 100 Acre Wood. Arendelle is by far the worst world in the game and one of the worst worlds in the series. Adapted from Frozen, the plot sees Sora simply watching the film from afar, never even speaking to Elsa after meeting her. In terms of level design, the Ice Labyrinth is interesting, but the rest of the world revolves around Sora scaling the same mountain multiple times, with little visual variety. Throw in an infuriating mini-game where players need to assemble Olaf (who refuses to shut his damn mouth) and there is very little to either like or appreciate about Arendelle.
As for 100 Acre Wood, the world is simply evident of Kingdom Hearts III’s distinct lack of care at times. Here we have one of the most beloved worlds in the series– one dripping in thematic relevance to both I and II– reduced to three of the most braindead mini-games in the series. It’s laughable, it’s insulting, and that 100 Acre Wood is over & done within 10 minutes feels so inappropriate. Especially because there’s a good story in this world! Sora feels his connection to Pooh weakening, showing how he’s growing up and maturing out of the need for a story like Winnie the Pooh. What could have been a poignant vignette about the pains of growing up (in an entry of the series most fans literally grew up waiting for) is instead an afterthought.
At their best, the Disney worlds are the strongest they’ve been since the first game, but another major issue is that worlds structurally style themselves after Dream Drop Distance, where players are expected to go through typical Disney fare only to be confronted by an Organization member at the end of the world who Sora neither fights or defeats. It was tiring when it was just Young Xehanort in DDD, it’s exhausting when it’s half a dozen different characters who aren’t actively being developed like YX was. To punch down on Arendelle a bit more, one only needs to look at the world’s main villain, Larxene, to recognize the problem.
Two very important things to note about Larxene: she was a villain in Chain of Memories, a game Sora has no memory of, and she has lightning powers. So not only is she a bad natural fit for a purely ice world, Sora has no established relationship with Larxene that he knows of. To him, Larxene is a complete and total stranger. Couple this with the fact Sora doesn’t meaningfully interact with any of the Frozen characters, and Sora has zero meaningful interactions across all of Arendelle. Larxene herself barely even interacts with Sora, instead existing in the background to throw out a few toothless taunts that no one in the cast pays any mind to. Compare Larxene (or anyone in III) to Young Xehanort in Dream Drop Distance.
While Young Xehanort as depicted in DDD is far from the franchise’s best villain, he has an incredibly interesting arc and actually forms a connection with both Sora & Riku over the course of the game. The time travel makes it confusing to grasp, but this is Xehanort’s coming of age story. He’s seeing the scope of the world for the first time and coming to understand what he wants to dedicate his life to. This arc flies in direct contrast to both Sora and Riku’s, gradually making Young Xehanort a more compelling character the more often he appears. DDD’s Disney world pacing is still mediocre, but it at least uses its mandatory villain scenes for more than just surface-level plot progression.
Frustratingly, III doesn’t even follow through on the arc it seemingly wants to give its main character. Stripped of his powers, Sora is naturally insecure about not only his newfound weakness but the fact there’s no easy fix to get his powers back. He’s a liability, but he resolves by the end of Olympus to work at it and find his strength naturally– a thread the game all but drops, never mentioning it again. You can read Sora’s arc as simply the natural act of playing the game, but it’s disappointing to see III set up such a personal storyline for Sora only to bench it– and for what? For Kairi and Axel to form a superficial friendship? To watch Mickey and Riku make no progress within the Realm of Darkness? The material the main cast is given to work with is often so uninteresting, which is especially a pity considering III is an otherwise interesting end to a saga.
“Is this the end of your journey?”
As the last game in the Dark Seeker saga, Kingdom Hearts III is tasked with resolving a number of plot points: Aqua’s rescue from the Realm of Darkness, Ven’s awakening, Terra’s reclamation from Xehanort, Roxas & Xion’s revivals, Sora regaining the Power of Waking, Sora finally thanking Naminé, and the natural end to Xehanort’s story once and for all. To its credit, the story does wrap up these beats nicely; only to weave in too many references to Union X & Back Cover along with a considerable amount of set up for the next major story arc, to the point where III doesn’t even feel like the end of the Dark Seeker saga half the time. The Birth by Sleep and Days trios are reunited and all alive, but narrative missteps are made on the road to the finale.
The most egregious misstep has to be Axel and Saix’s revised backstory. Prior to III, all what was known about these two was that they were once two best friends named Lea and Isa who somehow found themselves turned into Nobodies alongside Ansem the Wise’s apprentices. As members of the Organization, Saix and Axel seemingly conspired together to take control from within only for Saix to lose his direction & values, falling into Xemnas’ hands. It’s a good, unobtrusive backstory that leaves just enough to the imagination while inferring Axel and Saix’s past relationship with some poignancy.
Come III, however, and suddenly Axel & Saix are referencing a girl who they’ve apparently been doing this all for. Late series retcons are nothing novel, but this is a massive backstory shift right at the very end of the Dark Seeker saga that fundamentally changes everything we as an audience have come to know about Axel and Saix. In many respects, it also invalidates their original friendship. They were never just working together because of their close bond. Now, it was because of a girl they wanted to rescue. Saix still loses his way, but it’s far less interesting now that the betrayal isn’t contextualized solely through Axel.
Worse yet, Kingdom Hearts III really wants the audience to buy that this isn’t being pulled out of the script’s ass– which it blatantly and shamelessly is. This unknown girl removes depth from Axel & Saix, and honestly just serves as a glaring distraction whenever she’s mentioned. Lesser evils include Vexen’s uninteresting, out of nowhere ‘redemption’ arc, the unearned & unjustified focus given to Ienzo (essentially a non-character,) and the mass villain revivals that Dream Drop Distance set a precedent for. To say nothing of Riku Replica having more of a character arc than Riku himself, and Xehanort’s inappropriate pseudo-redemption at the end of the game.
Worse than just feeling like yet another entry in the series’ canon, disconnected for most of the story, Kingdom Hearts III throws too much at the wall, hoping fans will blindly accept what sticks. Vexen’s redemption is surprising, but it isn’t interesting because this was never an idea at all rooted in his character. Same with Ienzo. He’s one of the least consequential Organization members in Chain of Memories as far as screen time goes, but III acts as if audiences would have any attachment to him as a character. It doesn’t help that III basically acts like what these characters did as Nobodies doesn’t count. It doesn’t gel together well at all, and overcrowds an already crowded script.
All that said, the moment Sora steps foot onto the Keyblade Graveyard, it’s as if Kingdom Hearts III becomes a new game entirely, even managing to reconcile the end of the Dark Seeker saga with the start of the next arc in a way that’s genuinely very intriguing come the Secret Endings. Well, perhaps not the very moment Sora lands in the Keyblade Graveyard. Before the last act really ramps up, audiences are unfortunately forced to endure one of the most embarrassing scenes in Kingdom Hearts history: a Heartless tornado consuming all the main characters while everyone sits on their thumbs, putting in minimal effort to stay alive. This is a series where, in gameplay, Sora can slice buildings in half. The Demon Tornado as a plot device, and the time travel that comes with it, is sloppy and it’s a miracle at all the end of the game lands in spite of this.
Boy does it land, though. While the original last act left in some noticeable blanks, Re:Mind (although nauseatingly overpriced) fills in those gaps very nicely– offering an even more emotional finale that adds insight into all of the main characters’ psyches during the final battle. Something that feels appropriately Kingdom Hearts. Why does Aqua, one of the strongest characters in the franchise, let herself be taken by the Demon Tornado? Because she understandably has severe PTSD from being trapped in the Realm of Darkness for years. Sora feels her fears and anxieties, and while this scene isn’t necessarily made better, Re:Mind adds an important emotional layer that was originally missing.
The logistics and presentation of the time travel in the last act (encompassing the main heroes losing only for Sora to turn back time and change the tide) may bring little of value to the table, but it’s followed by great boss fights, plenty of emotional resolution for story arcs years in the making, and a great final dungeon in Scala ad Caelum courtesy of Re:Mind. Sora taking down Xehanort’s hosts is a great lead in into the final battle, and Re:Mind allowing players to control Riku, Aqua, Roxas, and Kairi in place of Sora is a fantastic change of pace that not only adds gameplay variety to the last act, but intelligently gives over-leveled players an opportunity to still engage in a fair challenge with Re:Mind’s bosses.
Post-boss cutscenes take a page from Metal Gear Solid, giving the Organization members relatively sympathetic death scenes. While they don’t all land, most do a nice job at reminding the audience that these characters do have layers to them, with Luxord’s death standing out in particular. With no hard feelings between them, Sora and Luxord recognize an important theme at the heart of the story: darkness isn’t evil. Luxord may be associated with dark, but even Sora recognizes that he’s a decent person, someone worth meeting again when they’re “just guys.”
In general, the Organization deaths are handled well, with each one meeting their fate in different ways. Xemnas finally regains his heart, agonizing over the loneliness he’s created for himself; Ansem, Seeker of Darkness uses his death as an opportunity to say farewell to Riku & the journey they shared; Vanitas passes on with an ambiguous smile, seemingly accepting his fate. For a game that doesn’t use its villains well 95% of the time, the Keyblade Graveyard does a lot of work in justifying why all these villains came back- even if just for a single, memorable scene.
Where the original release lacked a final dungeon, Scala ad Caelum is a nice addition on Re:Mind’s part, adding more meaningful gameplay to the last act that goes beyond just combat. Even the content itself has weight, seeing Sora trying to piece together Kairi. As a final dungeon, Scala ad Caelum is quite unlike anything that’s come before. It isn’t as combat heavy as The End of the World or The World That Never Was, nor is it as narratively dense. Scala ad Caelum interestingly prioritizes exploration and puzzle-solving, with fights littered about and a fairly unique take on the traditional Darkside battle. The world might not feel as epic as other final worlds, but Scala ad Caelum nonetheless gives III an incredibly memorable finale.
Although Scale ad Caelum is a huge improvement on Re:Mind’s part, its biggest contribution comes from finally adding meat to Sora and Kairi’s relationship for the first time since the original Kingdom Hearts. Sora’s entire journey has been contextualized around his desire to find Kairi and his inability to stay with her once found. Re:Mind challenges that idea in its purest form, offering Sora an opportunity to definitively save and reunite with Kairi after her death at the end of the base game.
At the same time, it’s made clear that Kairi is more than just a damsel. Re:Mind makes it a point to show Kairi holding her own (something the original III failed tremendously at depicting,) even allowing players to defeat Xehanort as Kairi. For the first time in a long time, Kairi is depicted as a genuine equal to Sora– a partner. Of course, bringing Kairi back is no easy task, and Re:Mind promises Sora that he won’t be making it back from this adventure.
“One sky, one destiny.”
All of Sora’s interactions in the Final World have an air of finality to them, but the last act– both in the main game and in Re:Mind– makes it clear there is much more to come. So much is dedicated to ensuring there are active threads left at the end of III, something that flies in direct contrast to both I and II. Who are the Foretellers? What is inside the Black Box? Just who is Luxu? Questions that Kingdom Hearts refuses to answer at this time, knowing full well a new story arc is on the horizon to explain things away. It’s immensely disappointing III decides to lump the end of the Dark Seeker saga with the start of a new story arc, but it actually isn’t handled too terribly.
Nonsense like Axel and Saix’s backstory does Kingdom Hearts no favors, but the Foretellers are immediately more interesting than faceless characters in black coats. Granted, material like Back Cover and Union X help fill in the blanks, but they come with an air of mystery to them in III that helps build intrigue for what’s to come. Luxu themselves is one of the more fascinating characters in the franchise. It can be frustrating when a story reveals even the main antagonist was being played the whole time, but considering how undercooked old man Xehanort ultimately was, him being manipulated to some extent not only adds a layer of weakness to his character, it’s kind of cathartic.
To say nothing of the Master of Masters, who is seemingly being built to be a direct antithesis to Xehanort as far as the series’ villains go. Kingdom Hearts III didn’t bring the Dark Seeker saga to the most graceful of ends, but it at least wraps up in a place where the next major story beat should prove to be very interesting. As far as cliffhanger endings go, Kingdom Hearts III embraces its more than I or II did. Many consider the first game to end on a cliffhanger, but everything the story establishes is resolved. Sora may not be home and he still needs to return to Kairi, but that in itself is an ending– and a complete one for the story the first Kingdom Hearts is telling.
Kingdom Hearts III doesn’t even bother resolving itself, not really. The base game leaves Re:Mind to wrap things up concisely, only for the DLC to transition into a brand new chapter, Limitcut, which takes place a year later. Sora’s been missing for a year at this point, and everyone’s working diligently to find him: Aqua, Ven, and Terra are searching the Realm of Darkness; the Twilight Town gang are up to something; Riku’s more or less taken Sora’s role in his absence; and the Fairy Godmother’s presence suggests that a new game likely starring Kairi and Riku in the lead roles is on the way.
Limitcut isn’t even narrative DLC. It sets up all these plot points and mentions them, only to immediately ignore them as Riku controls Data Sora in a brutally hard series of simulation fights against the real Organization XIII’s digitized members. What story Limitcut offers is the equivalent of what the average Secret Ending has come to offer, but completing Limitcut in full unlocks one final chapter and arguably the piece that’ll be the most important in understanding Kingdom Hearts’ next puzzle: the Secret Episode.
Awakening in The Final World, night fallen, Sora calls out to anyone he can. Much to his shock, he hears a voice, and much to our shock, who appears is none other than Yozora– a fictional video game character referenced a few times in the Toy Box, III’s Toy Story inspired world. Yozora not only knows Sora, he’s apparently tasked with saving the Keyblade master by any means necessary– even if that means beating him into submission. As the two begin to fight, it seems as though the battle will take place in Sora’s Dive to the Heart only for the environment to change and match that of Shibuya. Not the real Shibuya in real-life Japan, mind you, but the Shibuya as depicted in 2007’s The World Ends With You.
Nothing that’s currently in the games can help make sense of who Yozora is, why he’s so ferociously powerful, and what he actually looks like. The Secret Episode is pure insanity that asks more questions than it answers– but that’s exactly what Kingdom Hearts needs heading into its next story arc. If nothing else, Kingdom Hearts is more mysterious than ever after III. It may have been at the expense of the Dark Seeker saga’s conclusion, but it’s been so long since the series had a genuine air of mystery over it. Yozora is immensely fascinating, as is the notion of Riku and Kairi taking over as the main characters while Sora is out of the picture. There’s so much left to understand and discover in this series. Anything can happen.
Kingdom Hearts was never going to end with III, but this was an important opportunity to give a story arc the weight it needed at the finish line. KH III does not pull this off, but it makes an important statement all the same: the series is still growing. It’s maturing, evolving, and experimenting with each new entry. Not always successfully as evidenced by Attractions and a few new plot points, but this is a franchise that has never been afraid to take risks and try something new. Honestly, it’s one of the most commendable aspects of the series. Kingdom Hearts III may not end with the finality the Dark Seeker story arc demanded, but it sets the stage for a refreshing future.