Kingdom Hearts III
E3 Third Party PlayStation Previews Xbox

Kingdom Hearts III Preview: Olympus and The Toy Box Demo Impressions

December 22nd, 2005. That was the day Kingdom Hearts II dropped. I had turned fifteen years old just before the game’s release and was spending winter break with my best friend at the time. I had played the first Kingdom Hearts, and so I watched her play the entirety of the second. At the end of the game, when the ground separated parting Kairi and Sora, we felt like our lives were over. Our hearts broken, completely devastated about the story’s end, and immediately yearned for Kingdom Hearts III. We were kids… These games, along with Final Fantasy games, were what we looked to for stories of love and adventure.

It is June of two-thousand-fucking-eighteen. Thirteen years later, and I’m twenty-seven years old. I am a grown ass woman. When I graduated high school ten years ago, I used up money I had saved up to buy a PlayStation 3. Why you ask? For Kingdom fucking Hearts III, that’s why. Come 2013, and the PlayStation 4 dropped. “Yeah, it’ll happen soon,” I told myself. We finally got to see it, and we finally got to play it. But we won’t get our hands on it until January 29th, 2019… Assuming it actually comes out on time.

Fourteen years after the initial release. I’ve graduated high school, I’ve gone to college, gone through plenty of different jobs, made a career for myself, all while wondering when I’d finally get to play the – what I can assume is – final game in a franchise I grew up with and loved so very much. Yes, it is finally going to happen. However, was it worth the wait? Is Kingdom Hearts III going to hold up? While I’m sure the story holds up, other parts of the game, I’m not so sure about.

[alert type=”blue”] Kingdom Hearts III was playable on the E3 show floor with two demos: Olympus, and The Toy Box. Olympus was combat-focused while The Toy Box demo was longer, and got deeper into the story. I played Olympus, and Kats played The Toy Box.[/alert]

Kingdom Hearts III
The weird boss fight in the Olympus demo. Photo: Square Enix

Olympus, played by Tatjana

Maybe I need to go back and play the previous Kingdom Hearts games. I don’t know if I need to whip out my PlayStation 2 copies, or the remastered versions, but holy shit did the combat feel clunky as all hell. I felt like I really had no control in the boss fight, and the rest of it seemed, well, boring. Everything combat-wise was very loose, for a lack of better terms. It was like going into your mouse settings, cranking the DPI up to 2500, and expecting precise accuracy.

In Kingdom Hearts III, Sora can scale walls. These scalable walls are shown with a flashing animation, and it’s honestly the tackiest looking mechanic compared to the beauty of the rest of the game. Could you imagine playing one of the Pirates of the Caribbean levels only to be faced with giant, flashing walls with pixellated animations? It just felt super out-of-place. The rest of the environments, however, fit well with whatever Disney realm you were exploring; the art styles were true to their original form.

Depending on which Disney realm you were exploring, you would build up Sora’s “second form” which is shown by a meter over your command menu, and initiated by pressing Y [on the Xbox One controller]. From there, Sora unlocks an ability within that second form. In Olympus, it was an area-of-effect shockwave attack, as well as the train from the Disneyland electric light parade back in the 90s. And quite honestly, I don’t know why one popped up instead of the other when it did happen, and that to me feels like a big issue. My assumption is that it was more of a tutorial issue than a game issue, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Fighting the Titan in Olympus was frustrating. The camera whipped around mad crazy, and I could barely see anything during the boss fight. Points I was supposed to attack were marked by small circular icons, which were difficult to see depending on the camera angle. Sora’s attacks took him all over the place, which made his movements difficult to keep track of. Once you did enough damage to both of the Titan’s feet, glittering areas appeared for you to jump towards and scale up to the boss’ head. You did this cycle three times, and the boss went down.

The fight was predictable, boring, and quite frankly, I felt the AI partners (which in this case were Donald Duck and Goofy) did less than they did the last two games. While I’m sure the story will be as good as I remember the last two being, the rest of the game felt clunky, unpolished and not very fun. And if you’re wondering about the voice acting… It’s best I don’t go into it.

Kingdom Hearts III
A glance at Andy’s bedroom. Photo: Square Enix

The Toy Box, played by Kats

The Toy Box scenario was described by our Square Enix representative as “more story-based” than the Olympus scenario, and I had about twenty minutes to get through it. Rather than jumping straight into the action, I was greeted with a cutscene where Toy Story favorites Rex, and Hamm were gathered around a T.V. watching what looked to be an advertisement for a new video game. Woody enters the frame and lets the two know that this is no time for T.V. as he has spotted the return of “the masked intruders” who have invaded Andy’s room. Any Kingdom Hearts fan would recognize these intruders as the Heartless, who in the Toy Story world are now sporting helmets, goggles, jetpacks, and space blasters.

Woody, now joined by Buzz Lightyear, surveys the field and looks to rally the other toys for an assault on the Heartless. Just as the toys are ready to make their move, Sora, Donald, and Goofy appear not knowing how or why they’ve ended up in Andy’s room. Our three protagonists have gotten a make-over as they enter the Toy Box realm. All three have a half-action figure, half-LEGO look to their design, with Sora noting that they’ve been shrunk down from their normal size. Donald notes that they have been sent to this realm to “protect the world order” and our three heroes immediately notice the Heartless that have invaded. Sora, Donald, and Goofy spring into battle while Woody and his companions watch from above and that’s where our gameplay begins.

Gameplay transitions seamlessly from the cutscene, and Sora is tasked with defeating the Heartless. Here I was able to immediately jump in and get my combo meter going with the hack-and-slash gameplay Kingdom Hearts has been known for. Although it’s running on a new engine, (Unreal 4) for better or worse, the feel of the game hasn’t been changed from previous titles. Sora still has a very floaty movement that is primarily driven by your attacks rather than pinpoint dashes or rolls.

Having just played Insomniac’s Spider-Man, Kingdom Hearts III felt more haphazard rather than calculated, lacking in the flow of combat when moving from one enemy to another. One solid mechanic that makes its return is the shortcuts menu, whereby holding down LB [on an Xbox One controller] you can access mappable spells for quick attacks and healing.

What’s not lacking in Kingdom Hearts III is art direction and style. The characters are beautifully rendered, the UI is gorgeously colored and themed, and the animations have all the bombastic qualities we’ve come to expect from this series. As the characters lunge, spin, and backflip, particle effects pepper the battlefield, creating a whimsical tone that further immerses you in whichever world you’re playing in. Sora and friends look like they’re putting on their own Disney/Pixar themed Cirque Du Soleil show when attacks, spells, transformations, and ultimate attack “Attractions” come out.

Inspired by Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade, Attractions are an ultimate attack mechanic that is able to be unleashed after filling a gauge, (indicated by arrows filling up above the command menu) by performing various attacks and combos. Once the gauge is full, an Attraction becomes available for a limited amount of time. In the case of this gameplay section, I was able to unlock the Mad Tea Party Attraction, which gave the forty-second window to press the Y button and unleash the attack.

Kingdom Hearts III
Fighting Heartless outside Andy’s house. Photo: Square Enix

Once unleashed, there was about a one-second-long scripted animation that summoned three teacups that Sora, Donald, and Goofy jumped into. As I jumped into the Attraction, a new submenu was accessible, which in tandem with ramming the spinning cups into enemies could do additional attacks, cancel the Attraction, or finish the attraction with an ultimate attack. The ultimate attack brought all three cups together, spinning at high-speed and creating a buzz saw effect that tore through all enemies on the field.

The demo continued with another cutscene where Sora, Donald, and Goofy are introduced to Andy’s toys. Hamm and Rex recognize the trio from a video game they had been playing but believe they are characters named Yazora, Magia, and Aegis. Rex even drops an awesome Bahamut reference saying that he has gotten “all the way to level 47” but hasn’t been able to defeat him. After introductions, we learned that the majority of Andy’s toys vanished along with Andy, Molly, and their mother.

After their disappearance, the Heartless appeared and began to wreak havoc accompanied by someone from the Organization. Sora asks the Toys to let him handle the Heartless, but Woody insists that they must all work together to find their missing friends. After a quick chat about where to head to next, the Army Men chime in with some recon, stating that a hooded man was last seen at Galaxy Toys.

Gameplay resumed as we headed out of Andy’s bedroom, down the roof, and into the street encountering more Heartless. Our party now increased from three to five with the addition of Woody and Buzz. The A.I. controlled characters did their part in the ensuing fights but never felt like more than just background noise. While it was nice to team up with Buzz and Woody, I didn’t feel like their addition to the party added any new dynamic to the gameplay. Hopefully, this isn’t indicative of the final product, as most of the time all the A.I. party members would run around in circles not doing much of anything. With no option to have attacks done in tandem, these extra characters ultimately just felt tacked on for the sake of having a little more resonance with the realm I was in, rather than bringing something new to the fray.

Moving into Galaxy Toys, I was greeted with another cutscene revealing the character “the first of the Xehanorts” (HUH?) has been the one to blame for all the problems in the Toy Box realm. This unnamed character has the ability to control toys that have not become self-aware and possessed a handful of Gigas mechs for me to deal with. Before throwing us into battle he states “There’s a darkness we are missing and must reclaim. The way hearts connect in this world can provide us with a clue. We made a copy of the world and then pulled those hearts apart.” My reaction to this story explanation, as well as most of Kingdom Hearts’ storylines throughout the years, was the same as Sora’s in-game reaction: “Wait! What does that mean?”

In order to combat the Heartless controlled Gigas, Sora jumped in the cockpit of a Gigas of his own and we were back into gameplay. Controlling the Gigas mech was fun and simple with a wealth of attacks at my fingertips. There were three different Gigas mechs for me to try out, each with their own color and style. I only ended up trying two of them, the Exploder and Tackle Gigas, with the third unused Gigas being called Cannon. The basic attacks were the same for each: Blaster, Punch, Booster, Danger Dash, and Eject.

Kingdom Hearts III
Battle scenes are loaded with gorgeous colors and special effects. Photo: Square Enix

The differences between the mechs were related to their special abilities coinciding with their name. Tackle does just that, with a large ramming thrust through multiple enemies, and Exploder caused big bursts of damage while flying around using a jetpack. Overall, piloting the mechs was the most fun I had playing the demo, but it was all too short. If the Kingdom Hearts III team have more of these change of pace scenarios in each realm, then count me in.

After clearing out the last Gigas, my demo time expired and I was sent on my way with mixed emotions. At first glance, Kingdom Hearts III looks like it prefers style over substance. The game looks beautiful and although I felt some frame dips, the action was mostly smooth. The animations are what you would expect from any Square Enix RPG and go above and beyond with their magical feel much like everything Disney does. On the combat side, this early slice leaves much to be desired as battles felt more for show than mechanically tight. Animations can take more than a second to trigger and while it’s nice to see your keyblade turn into a giant hammer, waiting for the transformation multiple times gets old very quickly. The Attractions mechanic are a nice addition that feels fun and fresh but don’t feel as rewarding when they’re available every 15-20 seconds.

Sound-wise, Yoko Shimomura’s score drives the game just as much as the action. Her tracks in the demo felt playful and earnest, giving the player the right nudge emotionally from scene to scene. The voice acting was, unfortunately, hit and miss as some of Sora’s lines comes across as extremely forced, although, most of the Toy Story characters (minus Woody) sound dead on to their movie counterparts.

On the story front, I still have no new idea what’s really going on in relation to Sora, Organization XIII, and the rest of the Disneyverse. Kingdom Hearts has never been too clear about its overarching multi-game, multi-timeline story, but was clear in the demo why the Toy Story characters were getting involved and gave them a solid reason to be on the journey rather than just throw them in your party and send you on your way.

Given the above, it’s not hard to look towards January 29th, 2019 (pending any delays) with hopeful optimism. Even if the game isn’t going to be a mechanical combat masterpiece or have the most straight-forward story, it still does enough to keep your attention occupied and be enjoyable in other ways. Whether this sensory overload and fan service will become tiresome after 20+ hours is anyone’s guess. However, with the potential scenario and gameplay mix-ups for each Disney realm, (Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean, Frozen, and Wreck-It-Ralph have all been recently announced) I’m extremely excited to see what Tetsuya Nomura and his team have in store.