Friday, June 3, 2022

Kingdom Hearts III

A Mad Multiverse

Disney and Square-Enix’s Kingdom Hearts series began as a result of a meeting in an elevator between executives from both companies (when the latter corporation was still Squaresoft), and would receive widespread acclaim from critics and audiences with its crossover formula. However, similar to Capcom’s Street Fighter franchise, Kingdom Hearts really experienced stagnation between main numbered entries, and the second game, Chain of Memories on the Gameboy Advance, wasn’t a side-story, but rather an actual continuation of the first game’s plot, among a few other entries. The franchise really had it bad between the second and third main entries, given endless remasters, a prequel, and other side games, with Kingdom Hearts III finally releasing in 2019.

The third numerical entry serves as a conclusion to its respective plot arc of the series, with Mickey Mouse’s mentor, Yen Sid, preparing Keyblade wielders, among them being returning protagonist Sora, for a final conflict with the main antagonist, Master Xehanort, with Sora alongside “half-pints” Donald Duck and Goofy traveling across several Disney-themed worlds so he can regain his “power of waking”, the ability to restore lost hearts. While I personally didn’t have much trouble following the franchise’s overall narrative, those who haven’t played chronologically-prior entries will definitely be lost, and as with before, the humor that makes Disney’s films bearable for older audiences is virtually nonexistent, aside maybe for Hades from Hercules.

While the translation is certainly legible and free of spelling and grammar errors, the overall writing of the game feels incredibly infantile and has endless clichéd dialogue about hearts and darkness, with the localization team obviously not bothering to use a thesaurus to make the text less redundant. As with most Japanese RPGs in general, moreover, combat receives most of the worst dialogue, with occasional calling of commands and Sora shouting lines such as “Light!” and “Together!” There are also lines such as “No Organization!” when something like “Confound the Organization!” would have sounded better, and others such as “More, more!” Generally, the localization has plenty areas where the translators really didn’t seem to care about making the dialogue sound believable.

The general game mechanics somewhat compensate for the third entry’s narrative shortcomings, with the series’ signature Keyblade combat returning, Sora able to hack endlessly at Heartless and other adversaries with whatever key-shaped weapons he receives. As in prior games, the player can navigate the combat menu visible on the lower-left side of the screen, a new addition being the option where, if players open the magic or item sections, the action can significantly slow as they select a spell or consumable. However, players as in the second numerical entry can set shortcuts for magic and items, with the potential for three different shortcut sets.

When Sora attacks enough, the player can execute abilities based on his current Keyblade, use a special ability with Donald and/or Goofy (and world-specific characters now fight alongside instead of replace either “half-pint”), or perform an attack based on a Disney park attraction, such as a carousel ride requiring timed button presses with an expanding ring or spinning around in teacups to assault the enemy. While the battle system definitely has plenty fun moments, there are some issues with the camera as in prior games, and the player constantly has to retarget enemies after defeating one, with a system akin to the Tales games where the action pauses while changing targets definitely preferrable.

Outside battle, the player can visit moogles typically appearing near save points to purchase and/or synthesize items from materials occasionally gained from enemies, although odds are players will spend more time hunting materials than actually using the items or equipment resulting from synthesis. Kingdom Hearts III also seems to adore minigames, with one of the chief ones, requiring edible ingredients, being cooking with the help of “Little Chef” a.k.a. Remy from Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille, although it proved frustrating even in small doses. Mercifully, mastering the art of cooking is scarcely necessary to make it through the main quest, at least on Beginner difficulty.

Returning from prior numbered entries are abilities each character can equip with capacity points that dictate things such as how long combination attacks can execute, how powerful specific magical elements can be, and so forth; luckily, the third numerical entry is fairly generous in this regard. However, one issue that returns from the inaugural installment of the franchise is that combat doesn’t always mesh well with level design, with the potential for long falls and retracing of steps, although Sora can run up many walls. The endgame also feels fairly drawn out, although the often-lengthy cutscenes are mercifully skippable, minimizing wasted playtime should Sora die.

The convoluted level design is one of the main issues with gameplay outside battle, with occasional frustrating map layouts like in the Frozen world, although the game menus are easily navigable in spite of constant flashing exclamation points indicating changes in the many submenus. Another major issue with control, however, is that voiced cutscene dialogue is unskippable, definitely an unfriendly gesture towards hearing-impaired gamers, and which singlehandedly adds several hours of superfluous playtime to the game. Furthermore, while the game does sport autosaving, hard save opportunities, especially given the length of many cutscenes, can be over half an hour apart. Generally, the developers could have certainly made an effort to make the game more user-friendly.

Perhaps the high point of Kingdom Hearts III is its aural presentation, with just about all its music being solid, within and without cutscenes, and even some musical numbers from the films such Frozen’s “Let It Go” audible in their respective worlds. The voice acting is good, although the cartoony voices of characters such as Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and especially Donald Duck, can really be grating in a game largely devoid of comedy.

The visuals are definitely a step above those in remasters of the previous Kingdom Hearts games, with a semi-realistic style and even more lifelike disposition in the Pirates of the Caribbean world, although the dissonance in the framerate between gameplay and the cutscenes is especially noticeable, with occasional choppiness in animation and environment popup as well.

Finally, despite the padding, the third entry is a little shorter than average for a Japanese RPG, with my final playtime a little over twenty-four hours, and there’s a surprisingly-decent amount of lasting appeal in the form of Trophies and different difficulties, although the occasional frustrations within and without combat would definitely be deterrents to further temporal investment in the game.

All in all, Kingdom Hearts III is for the most part another run-of-the-mill entry of a series whose quality has largely been consistent, in other words, average in spite of some occasional high points. The Keyblade combat can be enjoyable, but doesn’t always mesh well with the level design; and the narrative can, especially for older gamers, be excruciating, with the unskippable, mostly-badly-written cutscene dialogue consequentially forcing it down the player’s throat. There are some agreeable high points, however, such as the solid audiovisual presentation, although the cartoony voices of certain characters definitely create a tonal dissonance within the game. The third installment isn’t exactly a masterpiece, although it could have certainly been worse, and only those who had an excellent time with prior entries will appreciate it.

This review is based on a single playthrough of a physical copy purchased by the reviewer on Beginner difficulty, without experience in the post-game content.

The Good:
+Keyblade combat can be fun.
+Solid audiovisual presentation.
+Decent lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Battle system doesn’t always mesh well with level design.
-Excruciating narrative and writing forced down the player’s throat.
-Donald Duck really annoying in noncomedic setting.

The Bottom Line:
Another run-of-the-mill Kingdom Hearts game.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 6.5/10
Controls: 3.5/10
Story: 2.5/10
Localization: 2.5/10
Music/Sound: 8.5/10
Graphics: 7.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 7.0/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 24+ Hours

Overall: 5.5/10

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