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Kingdom Hearts 3: Everything you need to know

Kingdom Hearts 3 is coming on January 29, 2019. Now is a good time to get keen.

Square Enix

If you're at all interested in video games you probably have a strong opinion about Kingdom Hearts. Some, like me, adore the series, a role-playing crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy developer Square Enix. Others find the complex (read: needlessly convoluted) story too much to handle.

Either way, Kingdom Hearts 3 (or Kingdom Hearts III, for purists) is one of the most long-awaited games of all time: Kingdom Hearts 2 was released back in 2006 (or 2005 in Japan), with KH3 coming on January 29, 2019 on the PS4 and Xbox One. If you're new to the series but want to get on the 13-year-old hype train, here's what you need to know. 

What is Kingdom Hearts?

The first question people have about Kingdom Hearts: Why is Donald Duck helping that weird spiky-haired kid fight monsters? Much like the franchise's story, it's complicated.

Let me set the scene. It's the late '90s, and Square Enix shares an office building with Disney in Japan. Tetsuya Nomura, who would go on to direct all Kingdom Hearts games, is working as a character designer on Final Fantasy VII when Nintendo releases Super Mario 64. Impressed by the revolutionary 3D world of Mario 64, Nomura wants to create a game to compete. 

Soon thereafter, a senior developer at Square Enix bumps into a Disney executive in the building's elevator, and a meeting is set up. Nomura presents the idea that would become Kingdom Hearts, a 3D adventure game that merged the storytelling of Final Fantasy with characters and worlds from Disney. 

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The first Kingdom Hearts game was conceived thanks to a chance meeting between a developer at Square Soft (now Square Enix) and an executive at Disney in an elevator, as the two companies shared an office building in Japan. 

Square Enix

Outside the absurd fusion of Final Fantasy and Disney, the franchise is also known for its combat system. While JRPGs have historically used turn-based combat, Kingdom Hearts is all in real time. That means combat is mechanically more similar to the game that inspired it, Super Mario 64, than Final Fantasy. Except you'll be using weapons and magic to kill enemies, not just the ol' jump-on-the-head trick. 

But while combat is a little hack 'n' slash, it also comes with plenty of bells and whistles that remind you of exactly who the developer is. You can employ a bunch of magical spells and summons and there's a long levelling up process that can involve just a touch of grinding.

As with all JRPGs, Kingdom Hearts games are long. You can't exactly knock them out over a weekend, unless you're a particularly dedicated gamer. Main quests last around 30 hours, and you'll spend at least double that if you're a completionist who wants to get every item and defeat every secret boss.

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Pictured: The good guys. Left to right: Donald Duck, Kairi, Ventus, Aqua, Terra, Sora, Riku, Mickey Mouse, Roxas, Xion and Goofy.

Square Enix

What do I need to know before I play Kingdom Hearts 3?  

A lot. You need to know a lot.

Kingdom Hearts 3's title is a little misleading, because it's far from the third game in the series. Here's a list of every title, in order of story chronology, not including remakes:

  • Kingdom Hearts χ
  • Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
  • Kingdom Hearts
  • Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories
  • Kingdom Hearts 0.2 (begins)
  • Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days 
  • Kingdom Hearts II
  • Kingdom Hearts: Coded
  • Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dreams Drop Distance
  • Kingdom Hearts 0.2 (ends)
  • Kingdom Hearts III

(Italics represent the core games in the series, while the rest are spin-off titles that are often fun but not essential.) 

As you can tell by this collection of absurdly titled games, Kingdom Hearts is a franchise with a convoluted story. If you walk into Kingdom Hearts 3 with no preparation, you'll surely find it incomprehensible. The lore of Kingdom Hearts is fun, even if it's become unwieldy thanks to all the spin-offs, but the franchise makes you work to understand it.

Here's the absolute minimum you need to know: There are seven good guys who can wield Keyblades, and 13 bad guys. The problem is, three of those good guys, Terra, Ventus and Aqua, are all trapped in different places. The remaining good guys, Sora, Riku, Kari and Axel, need to free the three trapped good guys and form a united front before they take on the bad guys. The bad guys are all incarnations of one guy, Master Xehanort, who's a Keyblade Master. Master Xehanort hopes to forge the χ-blade (which, confusingly, is also pronounced "keyblade"), a mythical weapon upon which all Keyblades are modelled and which opens Kingdom Hearts, the door that protects the heart of all worlds.

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Pictured: The bad guy. This is Master Xehanort. Do not trust this man. 

Square Enix

What games should I play before Kingdom Hearts 3?

You can find every Kingdom Hearts game, in one form or another, on the PlayStation 4. Square Enix last year released Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 Remix, a HD remastered collection that includes key games plus movie versions of less significant spin-offs, and Kingdom Hearts HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue, which features the most recent "main" game, Kingdom Hearts 3D, plus an important (but short) new game, Kingdom Hearts 0.2, which leads directly into Kingdom Hearts 3.

(Again, I know. Stupid titles.)

But if you're looking up last-minute guides to understand Kingdom Hearts 3, it's probably because you don't want to play every single KH game out there. You don't need to play them all, or any really, but if you've got time, you should:

Play: Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, Birth By Sleep, Kingdom Hearts 0.2

Skip: Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days, Coded

Read story highlights: Kingdom Hearts Dream, Drop, Distance

This sounds like a lot of effort. Is it worth it?

Totally.

toy-story

Hop on, no time to explain.

Square Enix

When can I play Kingdom Hearts 3?

This is the question that's plagued Kingdom Hearts fans for over a decade. We'll probably get the true answer at E3, which kicks off on June 12 in Los Angeles. Square Enix previously said the game will be released by the end of 2018.

January 29, 2019. The release date was officially announced days before E3 at the Los Angeles stop of Kingdom Hearts' Orchestra World Tour, which is absolutely a thing. It was then confirmed on Twitter.  

That's a bit of a delay, as the game was previously slated for a 2018 release. But even with that, it's a relief for fans to actually have a release date, as between 2006 and 2013 Kingdom Hearts 3 was a complete enigma. During that time, Square Enix kept releasing new games that seemed to be working up to something, but the true sequel to Kingdom Hearts 2 was an illusion at best.

Kingdom Hearts 3 was finally unveiled in at E3 2013 in a trailer which, outside of the game's existence, revealed basically nothing. Information has slowly, as in glacially, seeped out since.

Now Playing: Watch this: What's new in Kingdom Hearts 3
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What's new?

Kingdom Hearts 3 was shown off to a select crew of journalists, including CNET's own Ashley Esqueda, in May during sessions in Los Angeles. A demo of the game was playable, giving us our biggest look at what's to come, gameplay-wise, in Kingdom Hearts 3. We also got a new trailer at E3 that gave us some golden nuggets of info in the form of two new trailers.

New worlds: As well as returning favourites like Twilight Town and Olympus, Kingdom Hearts 3 has a slew of new Disney worlds. The ones we know so far are as follows: Pirates of the CaribbeanFrozenTangled, Big Hero 6, Toy Story and Monsters, Inc.

Summons: Summons are back in the form of D-Links, a reference to Dream Drop Distance. As with previous games, summons come in the form of Disney characters. We only know two so far: Wreck-It Ralph and My Little Mermaid's Aerial. And by the way, they look awesome.

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Square Enix

Run up, stupid: Flow Motion was a mechanic introduced in Kingdom Hearts 3DS, and it let you bound off walls and objects within the world. In gameplay footage from KH3, we see a modded version of this mechanic that lets you run up walls. 

Keyblade transformations: If you chain together enough attacks in Kingdom Hearts 3, you can activate a keyblade transformation. You'll get a different transformation based on what world you're in. For instance, in Toy Story's world your keyblade will transform into the Hyper Hammer, which pounds nearby enemies, and then into a drill punch that yanks Sora to far away enemies. 

Five is a party: Previous titles restricted your party to three members. Usually it's you (Sora), Donald and Goofy, with the option to swap either Donald (mage) or Goofy (defence) for the hero of whichever Disney world you're in. Kingdom Hearts 3 allows for a party of five, which means you'll have Donald and Goofy plus up to two Disney characters from each world. What a dream.

Attractions: Ultimate attacks work via a mechanic called Attractions. In KH3, it looks like each Attraction is inspired by the Main Street Electrical Parade, and a variety of rides are available for Sora to use. Big Thunder Mountain, the Mad Tea Party, Astro Blasters and Pirates of the Caribbean inspired the attractions we saw during our demo time. If you thought this game was already whimsical... wait until you see Attractions in action.

E3 brought with it a release date and a new trailer, and expect the Kingdom Hearts hype machine to go into overdrive as we draw closer to January. We'll keep updating this article, so check back to CNET for more. It's good for your Heart. 

Update, June 11 6:05 p.m. PT: Adds release date and E3 information.