Feature Article

Kingdom Hearts 3: How Do You Review The Unreviewable?

"Tl;dr: It was daunting."

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Welcome to our first ever Review Q&A, where GameSpot reviewers and friends take a deep dive into our review process (and hopefully answer some of your biggest questions). First up: Kingdom Hearts 3! Reviewer Tamoor Hussain and superfan Lucy James talk about the 14-year wait for Kingdom Hearts 3, the hardest parts of the review, and how nostalgia factors in to it all. Make sure to let us know if you'd like to see more behind-the-scenes reviews features like this one and how we can make them even better--but first, enjoy!

Tamoor Hussain is UK Editor and Global Head Of News for GameSpot. He reviewed Kingdom Hearts III, giving it an 8/10. On top of working at GameSpot, he’s got a side hustle as a full-time weeb. More importantly, he has been a lifelong fan of Kingdom Hearts since the series began.

Lucy James is Senior Video Producer at GameSpot. She's a part-time weeb who cried in the audience of the Sony 2013 E3 press conference when Kingdom Hearts III was announced. She can and will explain the plot of the series to you if you ask nicely.

Tam: When you walk away, you don't hear me say, "Pleaaaaaaaaaase, oh baby, don't go." Simple and clean is the way that you're making me feel tonight. It's hard to let it go….

Lucy: Hi Tamoor. Thanks for that Simple And Clean intro. We both have a very storied history with Kingdom Hearts. We're probably the biggest fans on staff, and we've both been very excited to play III for… jeez, well over a decade now. I think my first question to you has to be: Just how the hell did you prepare to do this review?

Tam: Like this:

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Lucy: Oh good grief.

Tam: Okay so, let’s break that picture down. Left hand: Full-size Keyblade that lets the world know that I’m a Kingdom Hearts fan. Right hand, flipping the bird to the world to say, “Yeah, I love Kingdom Hearts and I don’t care what you think.” Up top: Sunglasses because I’m quite sensitive to light and the brightness was giving me a headache.

Lucy: Fair. San Francisco was pretty sunny that day. I wore a leather jacket and remember deeply regretting it.

Back to my question: what kind of mindset were you in when you tackled the review? When we played the game at a preview event back in June 2018, we both came out of it saying, "That's a game Kingdom Hearts fans will love, but I wonder how people unfamiliar with the series will react to it." We didn't say that in unison, though. That'd be weird.

Tam: Honestly, I was very nervous. I remember when our all-powerful reviews editor Kallie asked me if I'd be up for it and I knew I wanted to do it. I wanted to take on that challenge, but a part of me did think about how stressful it'd be. Now, let's be clear, I was reviewing a game--hardly a thing to get upset about, but I was thinking about what that game represents and how much it means to fans. I feel okay saying this because I am a Kingdom Hearts fan, but Kingdom Hearts fans are INTENSE. Like, in my review I open by saying how hearing Dearly Beloved emotionally cripples me every time, and there's loads of people saying I'm not a fan and I don't have any experience with the series.

But anyway, I started second-guessing myself, thinking, "Do you really know everything you need to know about Kingdom Hearts? Because if you get one thing wrong, you will hear about it." In the lead-up I thought it would be a good idea to refresh myself on everything, but that turned out to be a bad idea because then I started treating it like studying for an exam. I am not good in exams. I threw up in my GCSE maths exam and got sent out. Also I am not good at maths.

Lucy: I was going to make a maths joke about 358/2 Days here, but thought better of it.

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Tam: Eventually I just stepped back and reminded myself that I love this series, I've played the games, I know the characters, I've followed the story, and all I needed to do was approach it in a genuine way. I focused on taking my experience as a reviewer that's critiqued and analysed many games and properly balancing that with my passion for the series.

I hope that comes through in the review, which echoes what you said and what we discussed after the preview event. I think fans of the series will love it for sure, but one of the strengths of Kingdom Hearts as a series is there's always something to enjoy regardless of whether you're a long-time fan or not. Since publishing the review I've talked a lot of people who, for one reason or another, are considering playing the game. Many of them say they don't know Kingdom Hearts, but I tell them that the Disney worlds are still fantastic on their own, the combat is a lot of fun, and it's overall just a joyous game. Sure, it does get a bit tied up in its own mythos and has some rough patches, but as a whole it's still a fun and charming game.

Tl;dr: It was daunting. You've got it now, how are you finding it?

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Lucy: I think daunting is the right word for it. I'll say that it wasn't an easy start. It honestly took me a couple of hours to get into the swing of it. The game starts with a pretty scrappy prologue, Kingdom Hearts 2.9 (I'm not joking), where it's dropping in story beats, and getting the player up to speed with the combat changes, etc. Honestly, I was pretty worried for a second, because the whole thing didn't feel very cohesive. I think while I was mid-music video (the second or third), I texted you "REALLY??????", because I genuinely thought it was going to be indicative of the rest of the game.

I hit the Kingdom Hearts 3 title screen, and it just felt like everything… eased, and I'm really enjoying it now. Pretty familiar to the start of Kingdom Hearts II in that regard, really. I feel like because I did the History Of Kingdom Hearts recently, I'm as familiar as I can be with the intricacies of its story, and I'm starting to get these payoffs, and they're really hitting. I know in your review you called out the game for getting bogged down in its own lore--how intense is that stuff going to get?

Tam: So one of the things I tried to do is to think about how the game would feel to people with various levels of familiarity. I think that was important to do because, like you, I know the story, so how “intense” it felt was different from someone who doesn’t know it. And also there’s sure to be plenty of people who are attracted to Disney that decide to play the game, with little to no prior experience, so I think that was an important consideration.

The funny thing was, even with my familiarity it felt very intense at times. Like I said in my review, I think the problem is that it tries to do too much and resolve--or at least reference--every narrative thread or lingering question about a character, and that’s to its detriment. Thankfully, for the most part these moments are bookends to the Disney world and stories. You’ll arrive on a planet, have the Kingdom Hearts story, then play through a nice little Disney adventure, then have another Kingdom Hearts story. That made it way more manageable. However, the final third of the game is pure Kingdom Hearts bants and it is very overwhelming.

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I’m going to put my cards on the table here and say, in hindsight, I think Organization XIII is the worst part of the game. In previous games they’ve been likable characters--I know Axel is your guy--but, for me, in KH3 they dilute the story and there’s just far too many of them. They also enable the laziest kind of storytelling, where a character waffles on about nothing in particular while acting shady and mysterious. To me, that just says the character didn’t really serve any purpose in the story and is just there for the sake of being there. That’s particularly evident in this game, which tries to give fans of all of these lads and ladettes some time in the spotlight. Honestly, I didn’t need it--it just made the overall story worse.

Lucy: I know that diehard fans will appreciate that though. To me, Kingdom Hearts 3 seems to be all about the story payoffs so far.

Tam: I’m suddenly very aware of how negative that sounded and the fact that you’re very early, so I’m going to temper that by also saying there’s wonderful stuff throughout, even at the end. The story has some really nice moments too, so don’t feel discouraged by me being a grump.

I’ll be honest, there are some games that I just needed to enjoy.

So one of things I think about a lot, especially for a series as storied as this, is at a certain point people are so invested in something that they’re able to ignore a lot of the issues with the thing they love and have loved for years. When you’re reviewing a game, you don’t have that luxury. You’ve reviewed games before, so it can be difficult to switch that part of your brain off, but for something like Kingdom Hearts I imagine you might be able to--I certainly can with stuff like Metal Gear. I’ll be honest, there are some games that I just needed to enjoy, like MGS4, which is a flawed game in many respects, but I needed to love it, if you get what I mean.

Lucy: Metal Gear is such a fantastic example of what you're talking about, because the highest of the highs totally outweigh the lowest of the lows, and that's what you end up remembering about those games. When I think of Kingdom Hearts 2, for example, I immediately think of a dozen incredible things I loved in that game: the music, the varied Disney worlds, fighting Sephiroth, battling Organization XIII, etc., before things like the slow opening or Atlantica's daft music mini-games even come into my mind. It's like a rising tide raises all (Gummi) ships.

I know that you got through Kingdom Hearts 3 pretty quickly so that everything would be ready for the review embargo. Do you think you lost anything from the experience? And for someone who's been waiting just as long as I have, were you sad that you had to play it that way?

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Tam: I did have to get through it quite quickly, but I don’t think I lost anything from the experience because of that. In fact, I think it helped me push through rougher spots where, without a deadline, I probably would have walked away from it for a day or two.

Whether I was sad about having to do that goes back to what I said earlier. This is one of those games that I also needed to enjoy, but since our wise and benevolent reviews editor Kallie asked if I wanted to review it, I had to pick between that and taking on the challenge of writing a review for it. In the end, I felt that it would be better and more beneficial for me to do the review. I didn’t mention it above but, at the same time as being nervous about the whole thing, the challenge of reviewing the game was also very appealing. I knew that it had to be on point, and since there would be a lot of people reading it, both internally as part of QA and externally by the general public, it was also an opportunity to kind of get a measure of how I’m doing as a reviewer--it doubled up as a reviewer exam, in a way.

Lucy: So you're saying this review was your Mark of Mastery exam?

Tam: Hahah, very good. Yeah--but did I pass like Riku or am I still an apprentice like Sora? That is the question! [Wise and benevolent editor's note: He passed.]

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So, yeah. I would have loved to have played at my own pace, but like I said, I don’t think I lost much by not doing so. Also, playing it for review meant I could play it early and make myself impervious to spoilers, which was big factor too. I do think that playing it in smaller chunks like you are is a good way to go about it. Like I said previously, each of the worlds are neatly contained--as with past entries--so it makes it easy to split up sessions. A Disney world a day keeps the Heartless at bay.

One of the things I was thinking about for the review, but didn’t end up using as an angle in this exact way, is nostalgia. A lot of people came to Kingdom Hearts because of their love for Disney or Final Fantasy and their nostalgia for it. But over time that element of the series has shifted in different ways. For Final Fantasy, it’s completely dropped off, and for Disney, the emphasis is more on the modern era, for which the nostalgia isn’t as potent. How do you feel about that? Is that important to you? Or do you think Kingdom Hearts as a whole has distinguished itself enough to no longer rely on those elements?

Lucy: That's an interesting point about nostalgia, and to be honest, I think it does still rely on it to an extent. Square has been really clever about the choice of Disney worlds, and I feel they've struck a good balance between older versus newer movies. I certainly feel less of an emotional connection to Frozen and Big Hero 6, y'know, but at the same time, flying around with Baymax is cool as heck, so I'm glad they're experimenting with new worlds. I'm also incredibly glad they've put new twists on returning worlds. Not just that they look better, or have a better layout, but in the case of a world like Olympus, it's a completely new side to that place that we haven't seen before.

I think that's nice that it's come full circle--a game that could only exist because it's built on nostalgia now inspires its own.

Kingdom Hearts has been around for so long now that my feelings of nostalgia are less about the Disney and Final Fantasy parts and more toward the little threads between the games. The menu sounds, movement, combat, in particular the music. Like said in your review, when you hear the opening bars of Dearly Beloved, it's like this gut punch that opens the nostalgia floodgates. I think that's nice that it's come full circle--a game that could only exist because it's built on nostalgia now inspires its own.

With that all said, with everything riding on Kingdom Hearts 3, do you think it lived up to expectations? Was it worth the wait?

Tam: It did live up to expectations for me. It gave me the same feelings that I had when I played the original on the PS2 and fell in love with it--and that’s quite an achievement if you ask me. Ultimately, the issues the game has are overshadowed by everything else. Though they can’t be discounted, they don’t get in the way to the point where they ruin the experience. I had a blast playing it, so, yeah, it was worth the wait for sure.

I just hope that, now that the Dark Seeker Saga is complete, the wait until the next chapter of the Kingdom Hearts story isn’t as long.

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