Kingdom Hearts III is a game that needs little introduction. The latest title in the famed crossover franchise between Disney and Square Enix, the story of its humble creation in an elevator of the shared offices of Squaresoft and Disney Japan is well known at this point, and the journey of Sora, Donald, and Goofy to a variety of Disney worlds is at least recognized if not understood. This new adventure, the conclusion of a saga that began with the first title in the series, sees Sora and his friends working together to stop an attempt from Master Xehanort to open Kingdom Hearts and shroud the entire world in eternal darkness.
Before I even played Kingdom Hearts III, I wondered how I would be able to go about translating my thoughts on the game into words. To be honest, I wondered if I was even capable of doing so. I wondered if it would even be possible to write anything resembling a review at the end of my time with the game.
I’m a huge fan of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Somewhere along the way, though, I think I managed to forget just how much this series meant to me. You see, my initial introduction to the series ended up being a rather formative experience for me that fundamentally changed the way I looked at games.
Despite being the perfect age for the series, I never actually played Kingdom Hearts when it initially released. I have these vague memories of renting the title from Blockbuster and never even getting past the tutorial, but I’m not even sure whether these memories are real or something I made up.
In any case, my first proper experience with the series didn’t come until 2009, when I bought a second-hand copy of the original game. I’d been fascinated by the series for a while, but it was around this time that my pre-teen self began to read gaming publications and magazines, and in general began to take more of an interest in gaming as a whole. The magazines I poured through at the time had adverts for Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days on the DS, and the hand-drawn art of King Mickey, Roxas, Xion and Axel drew me in. I knew I needed to play it, and I knew, in turn, I needed to play the original game… so off I went.
As I recall, I got most of the way through the game this time, but I found myself unable to defeat a particular boss in Hollow Bastion no matter how much I tried. I can still recite the preceding cutscene to this day; a testament to how many times I was forced to view it in retrying the fight. In the end, I gave up, watched the ending in low-quality online videos and moved on to 358/2 Days.
I was a bit confused as to what was going on in that game, but I loved it all the same and became heavily invested in the story of Roxas, Xion, and Axel, laughing and crying alongside their burgeoning friendship and tragic partings. I eventually returned to the original game and completed it a few months later, all while my passion for the series had grown to the point that I scoured the internet for AMVs of the various characters I had grown to adore.
These memories are ones I look back upon with fondness for a variety of reasons, but mostly because this series was responsible for expanding my horizons and changing my perception of gaming itself. Not only that, I kept the series’ core themes close to my heart for many years, which my outlook on the world around me.
While the messages of these games can be muddled and lost between a web of interconnected stories and allegory, at its core Kingdom Hearts was – and always will be – a story of friendship. More specifically, it’s about the connections between people, and how the memories we share can have a power all of their own. They can bring people together who are apart, and they can keep people around long after they’re gone. There have been times when this message has provided me with the warmth and comfort I really needed.
I recount these memories here because of that aforementioned latest entry, Kingdom Hearts III. When I booted up the game for the very first time, a relaxed, celebratory yet somber piano began to play. It got louder and louder as the strings joined it before reaching a crescendo with the piccolo; a familiar yet entirely new arrangement of the instantly-recognizable “Dearly Beloved” title screen music bellowed from my TV speakers. Without even realizing, these memories, all the memories I had with this series over the years all came flooding back at once, and tears streamed down my face unabated. I couldn’t help it.
Look at that, 700 words and I haven’t even got past the game’s title screen. Why am I even writing all of this? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure myself. I initially planned to write a review of this game, but I don’t think I’m capable of doing that. I had a lot of doubts surrounding how exactly I should write about my experiences with the game in some methodical and well-thought-out way, but I feel like playing the title only confirmed to me how impossible such a task is.
When does a game stop being a game? You could argue that this is a rather silly thing to be asking, yet it somehow feels like the perfect question to be asking in this particular moment. Before Kingdom Hearts III was even announced, it stopped being something you could reasonably label as a video game and become something much larger than that.
There’s an unspoken rule that expects a story to be a trilogy. With Kingdom Hearts I and II developed and released on PlayStation 2, the immediate expectation was that the next game would serve as a conclusion. After Kingdom Hearts II blew people away with its smooth combat and more mature and complex story, there was an expectation that a third numbered title would conclude everything these games had yet to answer. Every passing day, the looming presence of what Kingdom Hearts III had the potential of being grew ever larger.
I was one of those people who clamored for the title as soon as I became a fan of this series. And yet, the more that time passed, the more the concept of Kingdom Hearts III began to outstrip whatever it could possibly ever hope to become. For me, and for many other fans of the franchise, the title morphed from a game that I really wanted into a destination in and of itself – an endpoint that we were always journeying towards, yet never could quite reach. Perhaps we shouldn’t have even aimed to reach it. To reach this game would require you to close the door on a chapter of your life you weren’t perhaps ready to let go of yet. In many ways, Kingdom Hearts III was the forbidden fruit you weren’t supposed to eat.
When a game morphs itself into something so much more than a game, when it transforms into something that would result in an emotional climax to an important chapter of your life, how do you even talk about it as a game? In my view, you can’t.
At the very beginning of this article, I wrote about how, somewhere along the way, I’d managed to forget just how much this series had meant to me. I feel like in recent years I’d forgotten how much of an influence this series has had on my life, and Kingdom Hearts III reminded me of that.
Some may find its story of friendship unbearably childish, yet I feel it has lessons for everyone. It reminds you that the people you care for and the people who care about you are always with you, as long as you don’t forget about them. Kingdom Hearts always seems to come about at just the right time for me, reminding me of messages like this, reminding me to reconnect or keep connecting with those I care about in this world that never slows down. It also reminds me to enjoy the moments I can with those people, since they inevitably can’t last forever. In this context, the series holds a level of maturity that betrays its external appearance.
In Tetsuya Nomura’s own words, “the reason as to why this series has lasted this long is because is because of the feeling that it leaves you with after you finish playing the game.” In regards to Kingdom Hearts III specifically, I could speak to you now about how the gameplay brings together new ideas such as Disney attractions and transforming keyblades together with returning mechanics such as flowmotion to create a satisfying gameplay loop.
Alternatively, I could talk about how fun it is to explore the many different Disney worlds over the roughly 30 hours of playtime it will take you to reach the game’s credits. I could talk about the gameplay, or the frame rate, or the controls, or the story, or countless other things – all things that I would perhaps be expected to talk about here.
However, I feel like discussing this title in such a way is reductive. After all, your emotional attachment to game’s message and the broader series itself can act as a barometer on how you will respond to this title, and what you will feel once those credits begin to roll. I also feel it’s rather reductive to speak of these things if I want to speak of my own experiences, as while they are influenced by these elements of this title, they also transcend beyond them.
When I think about Kingdom Hearts III, I think of the twists and turns of its story and how it gives resolution to many of the characters’ problems stemming from a plethora of previous titles. When I think about Kingdom Hearts III, I think to the past, and other games in the series just as much as I do about this latest title.
I apologize if you came here looking for a review of Kingdom Hearts III. While it may be a wonderful experience I would wholeheartedly recommend, I don’t feel like a review could accurately portray what this game means to me. I don’t feel like I could write a review on this game, and I don’t feel like I should.
Should you play Kingdom Hearts III? Perhaps. If you’re a fan of the series, I should think that you’ve already embarked on your journey. You might have already completed it. If you aren’t a fan though, I would still ask that you at least give it a chance. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Let yourself be dragged along by this eclectic cast of characters. Let its messages fill you with hope.
Let your heart be your guiding key.