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Kingdom Hearts 3 is out: Here's everything you need to know

Reviews are in and Kingdom Hearts 3 has our adult-teen hearts beating faster and faster.

Screenshot by Jackson Ryan

Dust off your Keyblade and iron your "I <3 Donald" shirts because after a 13 year wait, Kingdom Hearts 3 is now available for the PS4 and Xbox One. And the good news is that, so far, critics hearts have been full of praise for the latest installment in Square Enix and Disney's over-the-top crossover. 

House of Mouse fanboy and man-who-knows-all-the-words-in-The-Lion-King (not just the songs, the entire film) Jackson Ryan logged 40 plus hours with the game and came out feeling like a teenager again. That's totally a compliment. 

"It's absolutely bonkers that this game works at all," he said. "A Final Fantasy x Disney crossover should not exist in any meaningful way. It is absolutely designed to trade in nostalgia and leans into its weirdest aspects. Somehow, it remains a joy to play for 40 hours." 

Series newcomer Morgan Little took the plunge, too. After 10 hours, he's definitely confused but also having a whole lot of fun. 

"I'm still just barely getting into Kingdom Hearts 3 if it's close to as long as its predecessor," he said. "But despite still not having a clue on what's happening in the broader universe of the series, its exuberant gameplay and endearing tweaks to well-trodden Disney franchises have me hooked."

Veterans understand that's what Kingdom Hearts is all about. So we say, "Welcome to the fold, Morgan".

If, like Morgan, you've never spent time with a Kingdom Hearts game, you might be wondering what you are in for. With over 17 years of backstory and multiple games to catch up on, it's hard to know where to start. But that's what this guide is for! Here's everything we know about Kingdom Hearts 3 and how, exactly, we got to this point.

khheart

This is Kingdom Hearts.

Jackson Ryan

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 of Disney. 

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The first Kingdom Hearts game was conceived thanks to a chance meeting. 

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 Super Mario 64, the game that inspired it, 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 at times involve a little grinding.

As with most classic JRPGs, Kingdom Hearts games are long. Super long. You can't exactly knock them out over a weekend, unless you're a particularly dedicated gamer with a well-stocked fridge and easy access to a toilet. Main quests last around 30 hours, and you'll spend at least double that (probably triple, let's be honest) 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: Dream 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 may be able to 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 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, yes, we 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?

Now, dummy! What are you waiting for?!!?

Okay, so there has been 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 the ability to jump into a new, major Kingdom Hearts game, 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.

Now playing: Watch this: What's new in Kingdom Hearts 3
1:16

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. 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, 100 Acre Wood and Olympus, Kingdom Hearts 3 has a slew of new worlds based on famous Disney franchises. The ones we know so far are based on some of Disney's more recent successes and include: Pirates of the CaribbeanFrozenTangled, Big Hero 6, Toy Story and Monsters, Inc.

Summons: Summons are back in the form of Links, which references 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 The Little Mermaid's Ariel. And by the way, they look awesome.

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Square Enix

Run up, stupid: "Flowmotion" was a mechanic introduced in Kingdom Hearts 3DS, and it let you bound off walls and objects within the world. Kingdom Hearts 3 will feature this mechanic, where you can bound up walls and off objects to attack or zip around a battle.

Attractions: A new gameplay mechanic is Attraction Flow, which sees Sora and Co. conjure up one of six neon, Disneyland-themed rides. Splash Mountain, the Mad Tea Party, Astro Blasters and Pirates of the Caribbean all contribute to the Attraction Flow "summons", which work like ultimate attacks, dealing big damage to foes. The attractions we've seen so far will make your eyes explode. 

Keyblade transformations: If you chain together enough attacks in Kingdom Hearts 3, you can activate a keyblade transformation. Like previous installments, you unlock more keyblades as you progress through the game -- but now each of them has their own special ability. For instance, using Toy Story's "Favourite Deputy" keyblade, allows you to turn your blade into the Hyper Hammer, which pounds nearby enemies. Chaining together more attacks opens up the Drill Punch, which deals huge damage and can yank Sora around. 

Bearing new ships: The Gummi ship segments, which allow players to travel between Disney worlds, have been revamped again, changing up the formula from Kingdom Hearts II on-rails space shooter. It will provide a full 360 experience, allowing players to freely move where they wish as they travel from world to world. 

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 or Goofy 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.

Phone home: A new addition to the franchise is the Gummiphone, which is exactly what it sounds like: A Kingdom Heartsified version of a smartphone. It's a handy little in-menu item that allows you to play classic Game and Watch style games that you collect as you traverse the game worlds and it also keeps a record of all your heroic deeds, as well as a bestiary, diary entries on core characters in the series, treasures and other collectibles.

What platforms will Kingdom Hearts 3 be on?

At launch, Playstation 4 and Xbox One will be the only places you can get involved with the Keyblade Wars. While Kingdom Hearts has found its way to most major consoles, including Nintendo's handhelds, 3 will be the first game to be on a Microsoft console. No word on whether or not we will see it on PC, though. 

There's even the slightest hint of a chance that somewhere down the line we may get Kingdom Hearts 3 on Nintendo Switch, considering the way Square Enix has been porting Final Fantasy games over recently. I wouldn't hold my breath -- the game might just be a little too sparkly for Nintendo's hybrid console -- but there's hope. 

What about the Kingdom Hearts 3 trailers?

E3 in June 2018 brought with it the latest trailer sending the Kingdom Hearts hype machine into overdrive. It was perhaps the first real time in 12 years that fans finally believed it might actually find its way to release.

A suite of trailers detailing a little more about some of Kingdom Hearts 3's new worlds, including Frozen's Arendelle, Big Hero 6's San Fransokyo, Toy Story's Toy Box and Tangled's Kingdom of Corona have slowly trickled out, revealing your party's new looks, some of the characters they'll encounter and the wonderfully-realized 4K Disney universes that Square Enix are rendering.

Is gameplay more your thing? Our friends at Gamespot went through some of the new gameplay elements in Toy Story's Toy Box world.

But the final piece of hype comes from the "Final Battle" trailer, released by Square Enix in December, that has even more information about where that... uh... slightly convoluted plotline might be headed. If you've been keeping up (and, look, we have been trying), then you'll have your keyblade at the ready once you've watched below.

What is Kingdom Hearts 3 theme song?

If you've been following along, you'll likely know that Japanese pop sensation Utada Hikaru has been the female vocalist at the heart of the Kingdom. Her vocal stylings have backed the opening cinematics in both Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. In both cases, she has created some absolute bops for the franchise, with "Simple and Clean" (KH1) and "Sanctuary" (KH2) bringing adults to (happy) tears. 

With Kingdom Hearts 3, Utada has teamed up with emo-turned-dubstep-wunderkind Skrillex for an all new track "Face My Fears". You can see the song -- and the game's opening cinematic -- below. Warning: It is another bop.

We'll keep updating this article, and have our full review when Kingdom Hearts releases on Jan. 29, so check back in at CNET for more. 

It's good for your Heart.

First published July 31, 2018 at 3 a.m. PT.
Update, June 11 at 6:05 p.m.: Adds release date and E3 information. 
Update, Jan. 21, 2019 at 4:35 p.m.: Adds trailers, more gameplay information.
Update, Jan. 30 at 3:45 p.m.: Adds release information and review links