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E3 2018 Hands On: ‘Kingdom Hearts III’ Carries The Heavy Weight of Expectation

It’s been over twelve years since the release of the last numbered main series Kingdom Hearts title (Kingdom Hearts II, 2005) and over six years since the last main series entry in general (Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, 2012).  Needless to say, the wait for Kingdom Hearts III has been a long one, one that has seen the release of an HD remaster of the rest of the franchise not once but twice in the many years waiting for the saga’s conclusion.  The immensely anticipated sequel was playable to the public for the first time at E3 2018, and, after some time with the two offered demos, it’s difficult to say whether Kingdom Hearts III will be able to support the impossible weight of fan expectation being placed upon it before it’s finally released next year.

It’s difficult to say whether Kingdom Hearts III will be able to support the impossible weight of fan expectation.

The demos featured two new Disney-themed worlds that fit right in amongst the plethora of kingdoms Sora and company have saved over the years.  The first was set in the world of Toy Story, one of at least two Pixar locales featured in Kingdom Hearts III, new territory for the franchise.  The other was Mount Olympus from Hercules.  Both were bright, vibrant, beautifully realized, and gorgeously rendered, a benefit of powerful hardware, but it was the attention to detail that was truly astounding.  The Toy Story stage, for example, featured an exact recreation of Andy’s room from the films, sure to delight fans of the film trilogy.  Character animations and movements are equally as exact whether in a cutscene or in-game, making the fan-favorite NPCs look and feel far more like their film counterparts.

This meticulous attention to detail paired together resulted in the serendipitous sensation that Sora, and by extension the player, had literally been dropped into a wonderful world from Disney, inspiring hope that the rest of the films captured by the game will feel equally as exact.  The worlds felt far more spacious and open-ended than any world I had experienced in any Kingdom Hearts title, again likely thanks to current hardware.  The Olympus stage made excellent use of verticality while Toy Story‘s had an immediate sense of scale.  If there was any shortcoming to the world designs, it was that the expanded scope and scale left certain areas, the street Andy lives on, for example, feeling empty, though that might be an intentional choice for the demo build.  Only time will tell.

Combat was as fluid as it’s ever been with a little more variety provided by additional combat systems.

Control wise, the demos were a familiar affair, for better or worse.  Combat was as fluid as it’s ever been, comprised of quick Keyblade combos and spells, though with a little more variety this time around provided by some revised and additional combat systems.  Sora’s form changes from KH II seem to be returning with at least one new addition in the shape of “Second Form,” empowering Sora and altering his available combos.  Keyblades also have their own transformations.  Operating like Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep‘s “Command Styles” or the similar “Style Changes” from KH 0.2, the prompts or “Situation Commands” for these incremental transformations appear above the standard command list once the player has filled three gauges of a meter.  The Keyblade in the Toy Story demo, for instance, could transform into the devastating “Hyper Hammer.”  Connecting even more hits, and the prompt appeared to transform the hammer into “Drill Punch,” which again altered Sora’s combos and enhanced attacks.  With thirty-second prompts, players are offered the opportunity to strategically hold on to their devastating transformations until the opportune moment, adding a new layer of strategy to the typical, trite hack and slash.

Considered a new system, “Attraction Flow” commands are more or less enhanced reaction commands from KH II, similarly spurred by certain combat conditions and featuring dazzling renditions of Disney park attractions.  Imagine the Main Street Electrical Parade married with off rails Disney park rides and you’ve essentially got a good idea what this looks like.  In Andy’s room, I summoned the “Mad Tea Cups,” rapidly spinning foes to their immediate demise.  On the street below Andy’s room, I decimated Heartless aboard the rocking “Pirate Ship.”  One of the most magical moments from either demo was taking on the rock Titan from Hercules aboard the “Big Magic Mountain” attraction, inspired by the real-life Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride, transforming the fight from the customary Keyblade combo hack and slash into a firework fueled shooting sequence.  The Magic Mountain sequence aside, spectacle did sometimes surmount skill within the demo, and in general, “Attraction Flow” commands felt a little over frequent and made combat overly easily, especially paired with the already killer Keyblade Transformations.  Hopefully, that means frequency rates were increased for the sake of the demo to ensure everyone experienced the new mechanic or perhaps that the demo was intentionally on easy mode, but it does raise slight alarm.

Kingdom Hearts III feels a lot like Kingdom Hearts II.

In general, combat and the controls felt incredibly clean and very familiar.  For some, they might feel a little too familiar.  Despite the reworked command systems and all of the new bells and whistles, Kingdom Hearts III feels a lot like Kingdom Hearts II.  More specifically, it feels like a slight evolution from Birth by Sleep and nearly identical to 0.2, the final prologue to IIIThe traditionalist will be right at home here, but those expecting even more of an evolution following the six-year gap between the last main series game, KH 3D, which itself had a more distinct, lightning-paced “Flowmotion” mechanic, might feel a touch of disappointment with the overall familiarity.  While the game does provide some new features, such as an autorunning mechanic, this and other new mechanics seem situationally triggered and more like reworks of existing mechanics.

 

In the end, it’s probably preferable that KH III feels like a continuation of what came before rather than an entirely new game.  However, with combat and general controls feeling like a continuation of the rest of the franchise, that presumably means the unbearable wait for the conclusion of the “Dark Seeker Saga” has essentially been to ensure the game looks pretty.  Granted, the worlds demonstrated in this demo were far truer to film and awe-inspiringly accurate than ever before to the point that it felt like I had been popped into a Pixar film, and that scope, scale, and fidelity come courtesy of the latest hardware.  Still, the question remains whether that’s a worthy trade-off, especially when other “new” features such as included worlds come off as incredibly predictable and expected.  Perhaps I’m being overly critical of a game that controlled brilliantly, looked impeccable, and was a pleasure to play.  If the game provides more magical moments like deleting a Titan in a train, the game will be better off and could be one of the most fun to date.  In the end, the demos left the impression that after twelve years Kingdom Hearts III is just more Kingdom Hearts.

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