Kingdom Hearts has always held a special place for Disney fans and Square Enix fans. It meshes the best of the Square RPG formula, with the fun and excitement of Disney.
The concept is simple, yet somehow they manage to not only draw in new players but have built a series that has lasted for well over a decade and maintained a dedicated fanbase. Now, Square Enix finally unveiled what fans can expect to see when they dive into Kingdom Hearts 3, and while it will not make everyone happy, those who enjoy the formula will have a lot to love in this latest instalment.
For anyone unaware of what the Kingdom Hearts series is (or anyone who may not have played the games in a while), the series is an action RPG series crossover between Square Enix and Disney, where the players follow main protagonist, Sora, as he journies between various Final Fantasy, Disney, and Pixar worlds whilst he battles between the series antagonists Xehanort and the Heartless. It utilizes an active battle system, features some of the most iconic members of various Disney franchises, with a variety of worlds and settings to explore, including, My Little Mermaid, Enchanted, Tangled, Toy Story and Monsters Inc. With Director and Character Designer Tetsuya Nomura of Square Enix at the helm, someone who has headed the Kingdom Hearts series since its infancy, it is guaranteed that fans of the franchise will find that everything they hold dear is still there, with tight gameplay and plenty of marvels to wonder over.
With a game that has been in development for so many years, it is hard to know what to expect. There is a lot of baggage Kingdom Hearts 3 is forced to carry as it pushes toward release, but as with anything, if it can nail the landing, all past mistakes will be forgotten. It was with this mentality I picked up the Xbox One controller in the premiere event in LA. Starting things off, I jumped into a short section featuring the world of Disneys Hercules. Sora, Donald and Goofy stand at the base of Mount Olympus as a Titan throws rocks on our heroes. It was up to our merry band to go the distance.
Vertical traversal and a major boss battle are the names of the game for this segment. After a rather quick section working your way up the mountain while avoiding rocks and minor enemies, it is up to you to take down the Titan Lithos. As with many action RPG’s you need to utilize all the tools at your disposal, relying on your team for some combos, and the use of magic and melee combat. With a series of well-placed attacks, you bring the Titan to his knees, moving up his body, eventually attacking his head with combos of attacks, along with an Attraction, in this case, a Disneyland Parade-inspired train soaring through the sky.
After you do this series of actions twice (at least in this demo) the Titan finally falls, and the segment is complete. While it was a short section of the game, it gives a good taste of what players should expect from bosses and traversal in the world of Kingdom Hearts 3. From the fluid character movement to the ease that combos can be strung together, the talent of the team is on full display. The team at Square Enix have managed to not only bring back this iconic series to modern systems but have built a world that feels as if it was plucked from a Disney Blueray. With the addition of the Toy Story world segment, it is even more obvious how much attention to detail was put into the overall experience.
Clocking in at around 45 minutes, the Pixar segment of the demo dominated the overall playtime at the event, but with that also comes a glimpse at how the team is utilizing the engine, and the attention to the world they are trying to create. Woody, Bud, Ham, and the gang all capture that iconic Toy Story look and feel. Even the voice talent manages to capture the sound that transports you back to the world of Pixar and the lives of these classic characters. What is more surprising is how well the Kingdom Hearts characters mesh into the Toy Story universe. Sora, Donald, and Goofy slip right in with these characters, especially with the addition of the toy-like aesthetic they have while in the Toy Story segment.
The basic premise of this section has Sora, Donald and Goofy helping the Toy Story gang save their friends and sort out what is going wrong in their world. To achieve this, they must fight back against the Heartless, the main villains of Kingdom Hearts 3, and find clues to determine who is behind the troubles plaguing their lands. Of course, the only way to do this is to travel to a massive toy store where they must fight giant killer robots, monstrous off-brand Godzilla-like enemies, and if there was any doubt, evil dolls.
While the segment that has players exploring Andy’s room works to give a sense of the scale of the characters (they are toy size in this segment after all), things really open up as you travel to Galaxy Toys. This segment gives an idea of just what the team has managed with the new engine, and the power of modern systems. The massive toy store paints a believable picture of what can be done in the new Kingdom Hearts world. Everything has impeccable detail, from the toys on the shelves, to the signs in the world. If you were disappointed with past instalments’ graphics, you have nothing to worry this time around. Even at this early stage, this is without a doubt the best looking Kingdom Hearts to date!
This segment also gave a clue at the variety of gameplay available to players when they dive into the full experience. From sneaking through ventilation shafts to hopping into mechs to fight robots, Square Enix has built a game that not only embraces the setting but runs with it, full force. There is also a good tone balance between fun and serious to craft a setting that makes it easy to care about the characters, even if it can be heavy-handed at times. The level of diverse segments also manages to never outlive their welcome.
While yes, you can get through most of the demo by mashing the attack button as you work your way through the segments, the battle system is far more complex than that. Part of this complexity comes from the Keyblade transformations, with each Keyblade having its own set of time-limited transformations, that once activated can cause devastating attacks. These not only work to break up standard combat but become essential during some of the bigger fights within the game. The Hyper Hammer, for example, managed a very effective AOE attack, and its level Drill Punch made for a very effective finishing attack when fighting harder enemies.
Sadly, if you were hoping for details on the world of Kingdom Hearts and how Sora’s fight against Xehanort was going, I am sorry to report there was little in the realm of a story within the demo. The focus of this slice was gameplay, and while it did manage to give a clear picture of how the game will work, and the evolution of how the game will look, nothing new about the overarching story was unveiled. Square Enix is playing this title close to its chest, so I don’t expect much to come out about the story until Square Enix is ready to share.
This being a JRPG, there are a few segments that may scare off new be players, at least if they are not tackled properly. First and foremost, at least for me, is the random battles and fodder you will have to cut through as you go about your mission. Yes, this is a staple of the genre, random battles come with the territory in this genre, but with a world as enjoyable as Kingdom Hearts 3 has on offer if these battles are not handled with care, they do have the potential to take away from the delicate balance of the experience. The story, characters, and settings are very strong, and while random battles can work to enhance the gameplay, if they occur at an unbalanced frequency they will become tedious, ultimately taking away from players enjoyment.
The next, and possibly biggest issues Kingdom Hearts 3 will face is the level of involvement and lore players will be up against should they decide to jump in. Yes, this is not fair, this is indeed a sequel, and builds upon what has been set up in previous games. But since many of them are long experiences, and the sheer number of games currently in the series (nine, with various re-releases at last count), it is a daunting task to expect new players to understand the lore and world set forth in Kingdom Hearts 3. According to Tetsuya Nomura, the game’s Director, the team has built Kingdom Hearts 3 with this concern in mind, but at least from the demo, I was lost on the lore, world and what was going on, and I have played a few of the previous instalments, at least in part.
In spite of this fact, Kingdom Hearts 3 managed to surprise me. The team at Square Enix have built something they have a passion for. From the visuals to the ease for players to jump in and pick up the core mechanics, there is a lot to love with this instalment. Combine that with a setting that captures with love and cares about the world of Disney, and you have a winning formula. It is now ultimately up to Square Enix to ensure they don’t stand in their own way. This instalment has the potential to draw countless people who love Disney or even just love JRPG’s, and if they can manage the balance it may even convert some people who may never have thought of playing this sort of game. But time will tell. At least for now I am excited to see more and see if this long-delayed sequel can live up to expectations and hype to deliver a knockout release.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is currently slated for an Xbox One and PS4 release, with a firm release date coming later in June 2018, potentially at E3.
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