'Kingdom Hearts 3' Reviews Might All Suffer From the Same Problem
Kingdom Hearts III is set to launch next week in the U.S. (it’s already out in Japan), and early reviews haven’t been exactly kind. Polygon called the game a “test of patience” while Kotaku mocked the series as a total narrative mess in a video mostly meant to celebrate the series.
It’s no secret that the plot of the Kingdom Hearts games is total nonsense, but that’s not the only reason KHIII isn’t getting just praise from critics. There’s a larger disconnect between our memories of the Square Enix-meets-Disney series — which hasn’t released a core entry since 2005’s KHII — and the gritty details about the actual games.
When Kingdom Hearts is good, it is damn good, but a lot of it is just okay. So everyone who picks up Kingdom Hearts III should expect a lot of good-natured romps through familiar Disney worlds that are fine, but not great.
For every incredible moment in previous games — like the protagonist Sora sacrificing himself to become a Heartless or defeating a thousand enemies in a single battle — there’s fluff and filler that doesn’t move the plot forward much. Sora chats with Hercules about the strength of heart. Donald Duck teases Sora for being a scatterbrain.
So when Kingdom Hearts III shows a long cutscene full of complicated exposition or slows the story down to let Sora tickle Winnie the Pooh, you might be tempted to put down your controller. It also doesn’t help that Sora is perhaps the least interesting human in the cast. (C’mon, Riku has always been the cool friend, and even Kairi has more spunk than Sora.)
None of this is new. It’s been an issue with Kingdom Hearts right from the start. But a lot can change in 13 years. Critics reviewing the new game were likely children when the first two games came out. The concept of tackling a giant, imperfect game might not bother most kids, but as an adult, it becomes a lot harder to sink dozens of hours into something just because of nostalgia.
Many critics, this one included, can’t help but look at the experience of Kingdom Hearts III as a milestone in their own lives.
I was 13 when Kingdom Hearts came out in 2002. As I approach 30, I feel a bit like Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon. Am I too old for this shit?.
So if Kingdom Hearts III can’t deliver for fans of the series, what about newcomers? The story is so complex and convoluted that even diehard fans might need to watch a 30-minute recap before jumping into the new game. If you’re starting fresh you’ll probably be totally confused by the plot, though perhaps that doesn’t matter if all you’re interested in is having fun with Mickey Mouse and Goofy.
This isn’t just an issue for Kingdom Hearts, it speaks to an oft-ignored problem with beloved genre series: The incredible emotional beats punctuate downright mediocre filler throughout.
How much of Dragon Ball Z is just characters standing around screaming and showboating? Is it worth it for those epic moments like when Goku went Super Saiyan for the first time or when Gohan beat Cell? How many Doctor Who stories are just okay? Do mind-blowing stories like Blink or Heaven Sent make up for the rest?
Those that love Kingdom Hearts love it for the high moments and all the implied depth that come with then, even when so much of the series offers so much less.
The very premise of Kingdom Hearts was totally absurd. Mashing up Square Enix storytelling with Disney characters was never supposed to make sense. It’s always felt more than a little absurd, but the barely comprehensible structure of its plot simultaneously hurt the franchise while also breathing life into it.
In short, everyone loves Kingdom Hearts precisely because of its ridiculousness and flaws.
Kingdom Hearts III launches January 29 for PS4 and Xbox One.*