Kingdom Hearts 3 hands-on: Improved combat and a confusing plot

Kingdom Hearts 3
Kingdom Hearts 3 (Image credit: Square Enix)

Kingdom Hearts 3 received a brand new trailer at E3 2018 this year that revealed a world we've all logically assumed was in the works: Frozen. We also saw a January 2019 release date at last, and with that date have come multiple playable demos for press, reassuring us that the game is at last nearing completion.

I went hands-on with Kingdom Hearts 3 at E3 2018, playing through a boss battle segment of the Olympus level. Though the Toy Room was an option that I didn't get to try, I did watch multiple other people in front of me play it through and got an idea of the overall tone of the story too, as there were no dialogue breaks in the Olympus level.

From watching Toy Room and playing Olympus, I came away with a very, very mixed opinion of Kingdom Hearts 3; one that was just the opposite of what I expected. I walked in hoping to love the story and praying the combat was more interesting and fluid than in the past. I walked out rolling my eyes at the story, but wanting to pick the controller back up and smash some more dang Heartless!

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Simple and clean

Ever since Kingdom Hearts 2 (well, Chain of Memories, if you count the card system as anything) I've felt this series had a combat problem. The first game's combat was fairly simplistic, true, but it was up to the technological capabilities of the time. It also respected that its audience may not want to do anything too difficult while allowing for greater challenges if you picked certain options. In Kingdom Hearts 2 and subsequent games, Square Enix bogged down combat with unnecessary weirdness that didn't develop the system further beyond a magic "Kill the enemy" button that appeared on screen every so often. Dream Drop Distance came the closest to making things interesting with its Flowmotion system, but even that was just imprecise enough to frustrate.

All that aside, Kingdom Hearts 3 finally seems to marry the good ideas at the hearts of all these systems in a way that's actually enjoyable to play. Sora's special abilities charge and activate at a quick clip, the animations don't take so long they detract from the fight, they're satisfying to use, and there's enough variation in them that I don't get bored using them. Lock-on seems to have been refined as well, as I had no trouble actually hitting enemies, even in the air! Sora floats up to them nicely now if you're locked on and remotely in the vicinity and will stay with them without making stupid moves in the wrong direction.

The Light...

Sora can also run up walls now, which was used as a mechanic specifically in my fight against the Rock Titan. This multi-stage boss fight began with a race to get up to where he was perched, dodging and knocking boulders out of the way as I went. This particular rendition of wall-running was interesting for this one fight, so I'm interested to see how it might be used for other fights in more varied ways.

Once I reached the Titan, I had to break up both his feet to gain the opportunity to climb him and hit his weak point on the head. Here, camera controls got a bit finicky in a small space as the huge feet tried to crush me and obscure my view. I eventually got enough hits in to open a path to the Titan's head, which Sora mercifully leapt himself with little guidance for me. This was one of my favorite mechanics — instead of doing a QTE-type event for big, scripted boss moments, Sora followed my guidance with the analog stick while doing the leaps himself so I felt in control without hitting the same button over and over. Even outside of scripted sequences, Sora now vaults smaller ledges without prompting, which made all movement feel far more fluid than in past games.

After getting a few hits in on the Titan's head, I was prompted to summon...something. I found myself in a huge roller coaster of a light-up train, circling the boss. I was able to use the right analog to aim cannon fire from the train at the titan for massive damage, but had to pause and jump from the train occasionally to avoid his huge fists. The whole sequence was gorgeous, and culminated in a final blast of fireworks from the train as I landed the killing blow.

Kingdom Hearts 3's combat was a blast, and a far, far cry from my distant memories of button mashing through packs of Heartless in earlier games. But for as fun as the combat was, I'm less impressed with what's going on in the story.

...and the "Darkness"

I know many Kingdom Hearts fans are cynical about the confusing direction of the plot over the years, and I can't blame them. I can't speak to what's going on with the Organization and the Darkness and all of that in Kingdom Hearts 3, but I did get to see the basic plot of Toy Room. Sora visits the locals, kills some Heartless, makes friends, finds out some of their friends are missing, goes after them, and discovers the Heartless/Organization is up to No Good.

So, the same plot as every other dang Disney world from past Kingdom Hearts games.

To Square Enix's credit, they are opting for a slightly more original angle rather than just retelling the Disney movie plot (though judging by the trailers, they're retelling Frozen and Tangled). But the line that gets Sora through this particular Disney adventure is the same one that always has, and leaves me completely uninterested in what's going on with these characters. I have very unfond memories of mashing my way through Disney worlds in games like Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2, eager to get to the next Sora-centric story beat that would tell me what was going on in this dark world. I don't want to do that again.


Where once I loved Kingdom Hearts' story and found its combat a bit dull, Kingdom Hearts 3 has weirdly reversed my feelings on the subject entirely. I want to bust up some Heartless, but I could care less what's going on in Toy Room or, frankly, in any of the Disney worlds I've seen in trailers so far. Square Enix has known for years that they had a monumental task on their hands tying together all the Kingdom Hearts story threads in a way that was both satisfying and sensible, and while their past work speaks to their ability to tackle it, the bits I've seen of Kingdom Hearts 3 so far haven't convinced me they'll actually manage it.

But you can ride a light-up train roller coaster that shoots fireworks, so it'll probably be worth it anyway.

Kingdom Hearts 3 launches on January 29, 2019 for PS4 and Xbox One. You can pre-order the game on Amazon.

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Reb Valentine