Getting a first look at Kingdom Hearts 3 is a bit daunting. It’s a game series that reaches the highs and lows of the JRPG genre, and honestly we didn’t know what to expect at this point. After all, it’s been 13 years and two console generations since the last true sequel. After numerous games that have drifted away from the original conceit, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels like a return to form, in large part because it reembraces its love for the Disney properties that set it apart.
Square Enix is definitely riding the line between familiar and fresh as hard as it can. The preview event was adorned with imagery from all the previous games, a gallery of fair skinned teens, keyblades, and black cloaks. But the focus was on new content. Eschewing the familiar locations and characters (fingers crossed Traverse Town is nowhere to be seen in this game), Square Enix gave us a glimpse into new worlds, characters, and very flashy attacks.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is a constant spectacle. It’s a bombastic barrage of literally weaponized nostalgia in the form of Pixar characters, Disneyland rides, and anime haircuts. Interestingly, one of the most iconic elements of Kingdom Hearts, the keyblade itself, feels like a footnote on the game, due to the fact that Sora’s iconic weapon can now transform into new weapons, each with powerful special attacks.
The Toy Story keyblade becomes a massive hammer, and the Tangled keyblade becomes a projectile firing staff. Every weapon has multiple unique special moves, making Sora exponentially more versatile as a character.
What’s more, Sora can flip between these different keyblades on the fly. It’s a small change that has a big impact on the game. In fact, Kingdom Hearts 3 is full of these seemingly small but impactful changes, like how your party size can increase to five members, meaning you never have to kick out Donald or Goofy to use a world specific character like Woody or Buzz (FINALLY).
On top of the keyblade attacks there are summons, party member special moves, and a seemingly random new thing called Attractions, wherein Sora summons Disneyland rides like the teacups, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and a pirate ship, all done up in the technicolor lights of the Main Street Electrical Parade.
It’s… a lot.
Special moves activate every few seconds, so our playthrough was a nearly constant barrage of rockets, fireworks, water spouts, and lightning. It was quite a sight to behold. Every special move controls differently, making each battle feel infinitely more robust than previous games.
The unintended side effect is that the basic keyblade combat now feels a bit stale by comparison, having not evolved much since its PS2 era. In fact, a lot of Kingdom Hearts 3 feels like it’s still a PS2 game, most notably the camera, which is arguably the game’s true antagonist.
As is apparent from the screenshots and videos, Kingdom Hearts 3 is freaking gorgeous. Part of the reason Square Enix showed Toy Story was because the developer is particularly proud of the work they did with Pixar, using the official character models and working with animators to get the lighting, and fur textures just right. The end result is very apparent, especially compared to other games that have tried to do Pixar’s style and ended up in a strange uncanny valley space.
As far as the plot itself, only time will tell if the story of Kingdom Hearts 3 can reign in the confusing timelines, duplicate characters, and straight up nonsense, but we’re not holding our breath. The only glimpse we got of the story involves Sora literally shouting in confusion, “What are you talking about?!” to what appears to be one of the game’s (many?) Xehanorts.
We’re excited to play more of Kingdom Hearts 3, and honestly we came into this with some trepidation. The sheer amount of exciting and colorful summons and special moves has given the demo a freshness we weren’t expecting.
Kingdom Hearts 3 is still slated for a 2018 release, and Square Enix has hinted they will announce the release date at E3 in early June.