SANTA MONICA, California—Through Japanese interpreters, the director and co-director of Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts series introduced the first-ever playable version of Kingdom Hearts 3 by talking about the series’ legacy. In particular, the duo, clad in Mickey Mouse-logo shirts, said they expected people to dive into older games and spinoffs in the 16-year JRPG series based on the quality and scope of this major new sequel.
From my admitted outsider perspective, Kingdom Hearts is two things: an action-RPG series that injected speed and Disney cuteness into Squaresoft’s sluggish early-’00s period… and a mess of confusing plots and spin-off games that combine underwhelming mechanics and nonsensical developments to make my head spin. Nothing could make me want to rewind time and relive that uneven Kingdom history, I thought.
That may still be the case after playing roughly 80 minutes of Kingdom Hearts 3. But this brand-new demo was so self-assured—so massive and polished and bombastic—that I forgave Director Tetsuya Nomura and Co-director Tai Yasue for their full-history boast.
It’s unclear exactly when KH3 will arrive on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One consoles; Nomura and Yasue said we can expect a hint about the game’s launch window “in early June.” One thing’s for sure: the lengthy chunk I got to play is already polished and technically sound, as evidenced by nearly rock-solid 30 frames-per-second performance on an Xbox One X hooked up to a 4K TV. Square Enix representatives could not confirm whether the game was running at full 4K resolution on XB1X, but the worlds I played through—a tiny taste of a Hercules-themed world and a much longer Toy Story romp—certainly ran at a resolution higher than 1080p.
For the uninitiated, Kingdom Hearts‘ mainline games star a boy named Sora who teams up with Disney’s Donald Duck and Goofy for… well, the reason doesn’t really matter at this point. They have battled alongside and against so many recognizable Disney and Squaresoft characters in their other two mainline games that their strange fiction-crossover bond is inextricable at this point. Perhaps more relevant is that the series’ action-RPG mechanics, with real-time run-and-slash action and wild, magical superpowers, have since found their way to other major Square Enix franchises, particularly Final Fantasy XV.
The KH series’ quick-yet-complex combat elements have returned in this sequel and will look quite familiar to fans of Kingdom Hearts 2. Players still take control of the spiky-haired Sora while running around a battlefield and delivering basic button-mashing attacks. Just like last time, his additional options can be accessed in real time by tapping through a simple d-pad menu and selecting things like items and magic spells. In this sequel, he has more super-charged attack options by way of “link” attacks, which will vary based on the weapon you’re wielding, the allies you’ve gathered, and the skills you’ve equipped.
Some of this combat felt all too simple and button-mashy, which was a particular KH2 gripe for more serious RPG fans, but a few of the link attacks offered surprisingly high-level battlefield management options. The best of these allowed me to lay down giant blocks that temporarily pinned enemies to particular points; once I’d laid enough of these blocks down, I could blow them all up for a wave of damage. This attack, by the way, let me summon Ralph—as in, the star of Wreck-It Ralph—who put down giant, pixellated blocks to pin down baddies. Why’s Ralph here? Square Enix representatives didn’t say (and they also shrugged their shoulders about other link-attack characters like The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel and the puffy, psychedelic cat Meow Wow from other KH games).
“You’re from a video game”
Because this appeared to be an early, simpler portion of the KH3 experience, I didn’t get to manage any equipment or power-up abilities, so it’s hard to say whether crazier enemies or more menu-driven decisions will offer enough satisfaction for older, strategy-hungry KH fans. Either way, I have to be frank: if this game turns out as simple and button-mashy as KH2, yet also maintains my preview session’s mix of quality writing and ridiculously over-the-top effects, I just might tolerate the whole package.
The demo’s primary mission, “Toy Box,” starts with Sora and his pals appearing in the Pixar universe of Toy Story. Most of Andy’s toys have disappeared, Woody explains to Sora, and the few that remain (Buzz Lightyear, Hamm, Rex, and some green, plastic Army men) want to know what’s going on. Midway through the mission, Sora puts two and two together and figures out that a baddie from other Kingdom Hearts adventures is disrupting the known universe and is thus splitting reality in half.
“You can’t be serious,” Buzz says after Sora offers his explanation. Then the talking toy pauses and offers a raised, smiling eyebrow. “Oh, that’s right, you’re from a video game. Well, maybe in your game, that’s how things work, but here in reality, you can’t split worlds. This is ridiculous.”
By this point in the mission, I am absolutely tickled by this fourth-wall break. What’s more, it’s soon followed by one of the most heartfelt brothers-through-adversity moments I’ve ever seen between Woody and Buzz, when they see their friendship in a new light through the playfulness of Sora, Goofy, and Donald.
Every character who appears in the mission—from the spiky-haired Sora to the terrified Rex, not to mention the constantly bantering Woody and Buzz—has grounded him or herself with solid, well-performed dialogue and a reasonable number of cheeky lines. Just in terms of writing and acting, the production lands somewhere between a feature-length film and straight-to-DVD Pixar fare. I offer that as a compliment. That’s danged high quality compared to many popular RPGs’ efforts.
All the while, between cut scenes and in-mission banter, I found myself performing one insane special attack after another. At one point, I transformed into a giant pirate ship ride from Disneyland and tapped action buttons at the apex of my motion, as if I were a murderous carnival operator and attacking all nearby baddies with my back-and-forth motions. Soon after that, I became a bunch of explosive spinning tea cups—and then a giant rocket on which Buzz and Woody rode, slamming into all nearby enemies—and then an operator of a giant toy robot that could punch, tackle, and shoot lasers and grenades all over the place.
Now I’m a flashing ghost train
My 80 minutes with KH3 was heartfelt, silly, funny, adventurous, and dizzying. I was bowled over enough with its presentation that I admittedly forgave its simplest mechanical issues. It didn’t hurt that the rendering power of PS4 and XB1 consoles resulted in two impressive worlds to traverse.
The first, that Hercules-themed boss battle, felt like a cartoony, JRPG version of the Prince of Persia reboot, as it asked me to wall-run up giant cliffsides to face a rock titan boss character. Once I reached this boss, I impressively jumped all over his limbs, body, and face to deliver a flurry of punch attacks… and then transformed into a massive, light-covered ghost train to pummel him with giant orbs of light.
After that WTF-ness subsided, I got to hang out in the admittedly milder Toy Story world, where polygons and character animations were arranged with incredible care. You don’t have to look too hard at the game to see cracks in its visual armor, with occasional splotchy characters and minimal-geometry elements giving away the fact that this is a real-time video game, not a Pixar film. But the faces and bodies of the main characters are right up there with the original Toy Story film. Woody’s richly textured felt body and Buzz’s shiny, smooth surfaces repeatedly made me wonder whether I’d landed in pre-rendered cut-scene territory.
Attending press at the event received hints at how much more polish we can expect in other KH3 worlds to come, with teases of impressive hub worlds for the films Monsters, Inc and Tangled. In the latter case, we got to see an early, in-development look at how Square Enix is developing a robust physics system for Rapunzel’s long mane of blonde hair as it drags over in-game objects and is used as a crazy weapon. We didn’t see as much of the former hub world, but the peek was long enough to see Sora transform into a furry, yo-yo wielding monster who throws big-eyed Mike like a bowling ball.
I’m already surprised at how good Kingdom Hearts 3 is thus far. The promising preview event leaves me wondering what else to expect, of course, and it won’t make me rush back to the series’ back catalog; I’m still happy to leave a layer of dust on confusing games like 358/2 Days. But this first-blush experience might get me to buy a KH anthology for younger gamers in my family and get them primed for a sequel that, in this state, will at least leave them satisfied, if not the Pixar-loving kid-at-heart who wrote this article.
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