Before I get into anything about this game specifically, what you need to know is I cannot review the story of this game properly without spoiling previous games in the franchise. Kingdom Hearts III is not a game for newcomers to the franchise, and if you are at least aware of the events of most of the other games, including all of the side games, the plot of this game will make no sense at all to you. If you have managed to avoid a lot of major spoilers thus far and are interested in checking out the other games, it's easy to get a hold of with 'The Story Thus Far' which contains all the games of the franchise either remastered in HD or all of the cutscenes of games whose controls don't translate well onto console.
That said, if you don't mind me spoiling previous games in the series either because you've been spoiled enough and just want to know if the series, in general, is worth checking out and sitting through till the end of Kingdom Hearts III, I will be talking a fair bit about the series in general in this review and the strengths and weaknesses of the series as a whole as well, and will be avoiding spoiling this game proper. With that out of the way, I can get on to reviewing the actual game.
Kingdom Hearts is largely the tale of a Keyblade Wielder named Sora, and this game picks up after the end of Dream Drop Distance. Whereas Riku completed his Mark of Mastery to be recognized as an official Keyblade Wielder, Sora failed and never managed to gain the power of Waking. While there will be scenarios where you take control of Riku, the vast majority of the gameplay you will be wondering the worlds as Sora in order to attempt to regain his lost powers and master the Power of Waking. The whole purpose here is to rescue the Keyblade Wielders from Birth By Sleep, a previous game in the series, from their fates. You have Aqua, who Riku and Micky Mouse are trying rescue from the World of Darkness, Ventus who is sealed away in a chamber of Castle Oblivion that only Aqua knows how to enter, and Terra. Terra is an interesting one in that by the end of Birth by Sleep, he was possessed by the series villain Xehanort. Once everyone is gathered, there is a fated battle to be had between Seven Warriors of Light and Thirteen Warriors of Darkness.
At first this sounds like you're going to be set up for a long and epic game, but quickly you realize it's the same formula as the rest of the main entries in the franchise, Sora travels to worlds and gets involved in short story arcs as he slowly comes to some kind of realization about the power and nature of hearts, and they are largely disconnected from the overall plot at hand. The actual narrative of the game progresses incredibly slowly.
This would be fine if the different worlds were all that interesting, but to be honest Kingdom Hearts has never been good at these short story arcs. They are best described as a heavily abbreviated version of whatever Disney-Themed world you are in, with the occasional exception of Toy Story where it seems entirely stand alone from the plot of the movie it's based on. The worlds they do that are generally the best written, and a case could be made for both Toy Story and Monster Inc. being the best worlds in terms of their writing. On the other hand, you have Tangled. I never watched that movie, so I miss a lot of the context, and by the end of that world I don't really feel a lot for the characters at all and don't really understand a whole lot about what's going on beyond a bare bone skeleton of a story. It relies too much on having seen the movies already to get a connection with what's going on. I feel really bad for anyone who didn't watch the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films because playing through that world is a hilarious mess of a plot that is basically thirty minutes worth of random scenes from two different movies and attempting to make it coherent.
Though all that being said, if you have seen the movies these worlds offer a fair bit of Nostalgia that is fun to play through. Yes, it may be really silly to see Sora, Donald, and Goofy following behind Elsa from Frozen as she sings 'Let it Go' while acknowledging she's singing and just kind of... appearing in backgrounds of that scene from the movie. But it's still fun to fight side by side with one of the show's characters, and seeing all the interesting enemies. There is a certain charm to seeing Sora ride around on a toy Rocket with Buzz and Woody crashing into enemies that can make the actual scenarios enjoyable despite being poorly written.
The overall narrative suffers from something, and it's kind of funny in a way that the game seems self-aware of it. See, I don't think the story of Kingdom Hearts is nearly as complex as some make it out to be, but there is this line of dialogue in the game, “Apparently everyone already knows everyone, and this is an insane amount to get memorized.” and that kind of sums up the problem. There are nine individual games in this franchise, and almost all of them are necessary to have played or at least looked up the plot too. Bizarrely if you skip out on playing Kingdom Hearts I and II, while only playing the spin-off games, you will have more of an idea of what's going in Kingdom Hearts III then if you had gone into it only playing the first two main entries. The Xehonort that acts as the main villain (Due to the time travel shenanigans in Dream Drop Distance, every version of Xehonort from every game is here), isn't even mentioned at all in games one and two and comes from Birth By Sleep. Even the actions you take throughout this game are mostly to restore the heroes of that game.
That said, if you have invested all this time into the franchise, they make use of a lot of that lore. You are dealing with elements that have been present in every game. The relevance of Roxas and Namine' from Kingdom Hearts II and Chain of Memories, the Unversed are back, the Duplicate experiments from the original DS game, some resolution to Luxu, they really do pull out all the stops when the story is actually in full swing. In a lot of ways they really do satisfy a lot of that build up, nothing really feels like it was forgotten. Considering how long it's been going, it's kind of impressive that's the case.
It is worth pointing out the borderline pointless inclusion of 'The New Seven Hearts', a plot point that exists solely to ensure that the heroes will fight against the Organization, and never again come up. Essentially you are told if you don't fight and start a new Keyblade War, they'll just use 'The New Seven Hearts' to open the way to Kingdom Hearts as they did in the first game. There is no more relevance to them than that, and they don't factor in at all in the later battle. I say borderline pointless, because without them.... there really isn't a reason to gather the seven warriors of light. Cause why would you, that's exactly what Xehonort wants. It's a mildly frustrating plot point.
The ending is interesting in that is simultaneously satisfying, lacking, and feels like it is borderline trolling you. Kingdom Hearts III was promised to be the end of the Xehonort Saga, and it does deliver on that. The scheming s of Master Xehonort do finally come to a close here, but for what was set up involving the story of Luxu and the Master of Masters? Well, let's just say Kingdom Hearts as a franchise that isn't about to go away. Master of Masters doesn't so much as make an appearance or get mentioned, and we know from other games that at some point Maleficent, who is seen searching for a Black Box which contains a book of prophecies, will get the book at some point in the future. She does not obtain it in this game, however, and this is not the only unresolved plot point.
This next bit really does determine what your thoughts on how much you enjoy the story of Kingdom Hearts. See, the theme here is the strength of heart and friendship. All sense kind of goes out the window at a certain point, and the more you sit back and think about how events unravel and why things happen the more ludicrous and stupid the whole thing starts to become. But despite all of that, there is a level in sincerity that kind of helps you overlook a lot of that. I'm not saying it covers it up completely, there is a level of stupidity that does drag the overall narrative down for me, but in all of its cheesy ideological spattering I feel a real heart behind it all, and dammit I end up caring despite all the issues. That really is what has driven the story of the main Kingdom Hearts games since the first, it's sincerity and charm. It doesn't care how silly and stupid it's messages of the heart are, it trudges forward full force because you get the feeling these games believe in that message.
There is also a lot of gameplay elements that get brought in from previous games. If you've played them before, the core remains the same a sit was in Kingdom Hearts II. Attack, Dodge, Block, use the right trigger to gain quick access to your spells and items and timed reactions to activate special abilities. Though with the addition of attractions, you will be activating special abilities a lot. Later in the game, it isn't uncommon to end up spending more than half of a battle in either a team attack, an attraction, or a special form of one of your weapons. Sadly this makes almost the entire game way to easy for an experienced player, even on proud mode. The final fight was the first time I actually had to make use of the games unique mechanics, specifically eating meals to give yourself stat boosts for a certain period of time. I completely forgot that was even an option until the end, adding to that I never used any of the stat boosting items you get along the way or even crafted the higher end weapons for Donald and Goofy.
And as normal for the series, despite its use of an action based menu in real-time combat, the action flows wonderfully. There are times it's easy to get lost in your actions mid combo and action, and the camera can fight you at times, but overall the experience is still pretty smooth.
There are some great things to say about the changes to the game, specifically upgrading Keyblades. One thing I disliked in Kingdom Hearts is how some of my favorite Keyblades to wield ended up becoming useless, but here you can upgrade as you play, keeping all your favorite Keyblades relevant as you progress. Considering how different the altered forms handle from the normal Keyblade, this makes this addition especially fantastic.
Though now we get to one of the big problems with Kingdom Hearts gameplay in general, mostly in relation to the main games and less so the spin-offs, and that is the absolute bloat in this game. There are so many boring side quests and activities to do in this game it is insane. For example the meals I mentioned before involve you going to the Bistro to make the meals after gathering ingredients. Gathering ingredients, outside of a few that come from special side quests, are just walking around grabbing items on the map like you would grab chests, so basically just a lot of busy work considering how many are just scattered about everywhere. Every recipe requires you to do a really simply timing minigame, of which there are three different varieties. These will be repeated several times over with no variation if you choose to do this side quest.
Then there is hunting down the Micky Mouse emblems and taking their pictures, and a few others that just feel like they are padding out the length of the game with little to no actual substance being added. It's been a running issue with the series, though if you are not a completionist and good enough at the core game you can largely skip it all. I did a fair share of it (Got an excellent rating on all recipes, found a majority of the emblems), but it's one of those things that could have been massively scaled back without any loss to the game at all.
The last big thing about the game I am a bit torn on, and that is the Gummi ships. Rather then the more rail shooter set up you had before, you now explore the open space in your gummi ship instead of just following along a path. While fun at first, it falls victim to the game's insistence on cramming in stuff just for the sake of having. There is just so much scattered around and so little you actually do to get it all, just fly around shooting things. Despite how wide and open the areas are, the only things fun to do are the enemy encounters that play out a lot more like the older Gummi Ship fights, only not quite as engaging. I wanted to like the additional freedom of it, but Kingdom Hearts has never been great with this kind of open world content. The series has always been at it's best the more focused it remains, it's the reason why Birth By Sleep remains my favorite in the series (It would be Fragmentary Passage if it wasn't so short, couple hours at most).
Visuals have improved a lot, faces looking way better than they ever have in the past. It was a problem where facial animations in these games have always aged poorly, and while I feel that's going to be true once again to an extent, they do look a lot better. Other then that enemy design has stayed incredible throughout the series, and that is no different here. Old and new enemies alike look fantastic.
In the end, despite still holding on to the same issues many past games had, as well some problems of its own, Kingdom Hearts III was still a lot of fun. It was nice to see how much of the past games they managed to incorporate into this one and really make it feel like a culmination of all that came before it.