If there's one thing that's harder to grasp than the complex story of Kingdom Hearts is that the original game will be 16 years old this year. But with Kingdom Hearts III coming to PS4 and Xbox One in 2018, all those years of putting together the most unlikely groups of characters from the Disney pantheon with others from the Final Fantasy series will reach a conclusion. We recently had the chance to go hands-on with the game at a premiere event with the developers, and there was a lot to see when it came to series' growth over the years, and just how much things stay the same.
While we still don't know how the incredibly dense story will tie up in this game, we do know it picks up after the side-story Dream Drop Distance, with an older Sora continuing his travels with Goofy and Donald in tow. There's nearly twenty years worth of some intricate plot to be resolved in this conclusion, which will be a big undertaking. But in a strange way, the next game did show a sense of growth about it, giving a feeling that it's aware of its legacy and impact it's had over the years by showing more of Sora's maturity.
Much like the previous games, Kingdom Hearts III is still a celebration of all things Disney. This also marks the first time that Pixar-themed worlds will be in the game, which includes Monsters Inc. and Toy Story. In the demo, we got to play through portions of the early worlds you'll explore, which recontextualizes the iconic locales of Disney films to fit the space of an action-RPG. As the first Kingdom Hearts game on modern consoles, the next game takes advantage of the new hardware, featuring some impressive visuals. Playing on Xbox One X, performance was mostly solid, save for some dropped frames during some of the hectic combat encounters.
First up was Olympus, a more combat-focused section, pitting Sora and the gang against a massive Titan. In order to reach the Titan, you'll have to run up the cliff-face while raining down large boulders from the mountaintop. This section also helped introduced many of the more stylish contextual abilities and skills in Sora's repertoire. One such ability is to call in various Attractions, allowing Sora to conjure vehicles themed after Disneyland rides--such as the train from Big Thunder Mountain and the rideable tea cups from the Mad Tea Party ride. These Attractions are not only gorgeous spectacles to watch in battle, but also offer interesting ways to switch up your tactics while dealing damage in rapid succession.
The Toy Box world--based on the Toy Story series--was where things really opened up. Transforming the trio into action-figures based on characters from a video-game, they team up with Woody and Buzz Lightyear to stop the Heartless from taking over toys as they search for their missing owner, Andy. But in familiar Kingdom Hearts fashion, similar events from the film clash with the conflict dealing with the Heartless, resulting in some bizarre, yet oddly satisfying encounters. You'll start off by exploring Andy's room, before eventually moving onto the Galaxy Toys store to battle Heartless-possessed toy robots and kaiju action-figures.
Kingdom Hearts III maintains Kingdom Hearts II and Dream Drop Distance's focus on movement, and it utilizes a number of special combat moves that change depending on the location and party makeup. One of Sora's new skills is to transform his keyblades into new weapons for a limited time, allowing him to open up new combo attacks and special crowd-control moves. One such Keyblade can transform into mage's staff, summoning a large sand tower to damage all enemies nearby. Moreover, team-focused attacks also make a comeback, including the standout Rocket Charge special where Sora, Woody, and Buzz ride a firework rocket as they ram and spin into enemies before jumping off as the rocket explodes. And of course, summons are still present, but now a part of the Link system. With it, you can call in support from Ariel and even Wreck-It-Ralph, who places special blocks that can stun nearby enemies.
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These were undoubtedly fun to use--and a bit surprising to see how off-the-wall many of these skills are--they can be tough to keep track of, with all the moves and skills you have at your disposal. This might have been because the Toy Box level is a little later on in the game, where you'll have new weapons and abilities to use, but it felt overwhelming and somewhat daunting to try and figure out the mechanics of these moves, how to activate them, and which ones to use exactly for certain situations--which has me worried that some younger fans may find themselves lost with certain aspects of gameplay.
Diving into these two worlds for Kingdom Hearts had me wishing I could experience more, especially with the new visuals and increased scale of each world. While it was overwhelming to get a handle of the new mechanics, and the frame-rate drops during some moments felt jarring, I did feel some reassurance that things were looking good for the next game in the action-RPG series. Perhaps it was nostalgia playing into it, but there was an extra twinge of excitement in seeing these characters come back in a big, if somewhat bizarre way. Which seems to be the norm for the series.