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Kingdom Hearts 3 review: Disney's bonkers crossover shouldn't work (but it totally does)

Kingdom Hearts 3 doesn't want to grow up -- and that's perfectly fine.

Screenshot by Jackson Ryan

Kingdom Hearts 3 is absolutely bonkers.

I mean that in the best possible way. It's the most Kingdom Heartsy that Kingdom Hearts has ever been and that, too, is a compliment.

My relationship with this video game franchise is an unusual one. I played the first Kingdom Hearts as a 13-year-old enamoured with Disney movies. Kingdom Hearts 2 came out when I was in my final year of high school in 2006 and I took the morning off to line up outside the local game store. I didn't even wait for the shutter to roll up, I just barrelled in at opening time and slapped down AU$100 for it.

I sobbed with joy when the opening scene, backed by Utada Hikaru's soft hums, kicked the game into life. Kingdom Hearts baby, it's back! This Disney cross Final Fantasy action adventure RPG hybrid was everything in 2006. I should have been studying chemistry exam papers, but I was sitting at the edge of my bed, literally bouncing in anticipation.

But Kingdom Hearts 3 (or III, for purists) took 13 years to make. It's 2019. And in that time, I worked for Disney as a kids' TV host. I got to peek behind the curtain and not everything I saw was smiling-Mickey-faces and delightful bluebirds singing morning songs.

Kingdom Hearts 3 comes to me -- and a generation of fans -- growing older and more cynical of all the nostalgia trips we've been fed in the past five years. The Disney behemoth steamrolls everything in its path. We have Marvel films galore, Star Wars is back and we can stream it all for $10 every night, if we so desire. Thirteen years ago, when the last major Kingdom Hearts game was released, none of that was true. I was a kid.

I'm 30 soon. Am I meant to grow up now?

I think so, but Kingdom Hearts 3 doesn't want me to. 

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This is a screenshot. Bonkers.

Screenshot by Jackson Ryan/CNET

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Expectations are astronomically high for Kingdom Hearts 3. A half-baked finale would see vulnerable hearts shattered. So it was with great relief that I hit the credits on Kingdom Hearts 3 after 42 hours, with plenty left to explore.

That was my first take-away: Kingdom Hearts 3 is as big as any game in the series has ever been. After 13 years, it kind of needs to be. The game is so full that it requires several tomes of knowledge to get you up to speed with the story.

At the centre of Kingdom Hearts' convoluted plot is your playable character, Sora, and his two travelling companions, Disney mainstays Donald and Goofy. Sora is The Good Guy who wields a key-shaped sword known as a Keyblade. Your trio travel across worlds based on Disney and Pixar films such as Frozen, Big Hero 6, Monsters Inc. and Toy Story, battling obsidian creatures without hearts. Those worlds are so full you'll spend hours in every nook and cranny, seeking out collectibles and new items.

Eventually, you get to the Big Bad Guy and beat them down.

That's the short version -- Kingdom Hearts is like the alien species in Arrival and you need your own Amy Adams to even have a chance at translating the Proper Noun soup the game shovels at you for 40 hours. Remember, it has had 17 years of backstory, spread out across multiple spin-offs and video game consoles.

Amy Adams wept.

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The three back for 3.

Screenshot by Jackson Ryan/CNET

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Kingdom Hearts' story is buffeted by each world -- hours-long segments of Disney-laced nostalgia and joy, dripping with colour and sound. It jumps from watching Elsa belt out Let It Go, complete with full rendering of the famous Frozen scene, to sailing the High Seas in your own pirate ship and helping Jack Sparrow face down Davy Jones in a matter of hours.

Leaning into that weirdness and diversity really helps push the game forward because the thrill of uncovering the next Disney world never fades. That doesn't mean each world is particularly thrilling, especially when you compare Frozen's Arendelle with Big Hero 6's San Fransokyo, for instance.

But it's that feeling of what the next world might bring that makes it easy to forget you've recently put your controller down for a 15-minute cutscene to watch two hooded figures yell random exposition at each other about a Keyblade War.

Still, this is the best looking Kingdom Hearts game, taking full advantage of this generation's powerful consoles. But the feeling that kept creeping up on me is how badly I wanted to get back to the combat: that dazzling ballet of light and carnage, where your weapons make the most satisfying pop off an enemy's skull and the tinkling sound of collected "munny" jangles against your ears. 

There are a lot of words on screen, I know -- but combat is easy to learn and complex to master.

GIF by Jackson Ryan/CNET

For all my love of Disney films, Kingdom Hearts is still, at its core, a solid action RPG, where each battle is like an Olympics-level figure skating competition with a gigantic weapon and confetti cannons constantly exploding in your face. It sparkles, but behind it all, the series still relies on the same mechanics it always has -- press X to attack, over and over again.

The mechanics within those battles have evolved from Kingdom Hearts II, with new ideas ripped from other nonmajor instalments in the series. These new additions, with ridiculous Proper Nouns like "Flowmotion" and "Shotlock", enable the simplistic button-mashing of combat degrees of variation while sustaining the series' penchant for going OTT. You have the ability, like always, to smack that X button, but you can also run up big combos, casting your magic or summoning allies such as Wreck-It Ralph, Simba and Ariel.

On top of that, new Disneyland-themed attractions finally get their day in the sun, with Sora being able to summon a variety of theme park rides like the carousel, the famous tea cups and blaster rides, to devastating effect. The Attractions are powerful end-the-battle-quickly attacks, bursting with neon yellows, pinks and blues -- an assault on your senses and the enemies on-screen. Over time, they become a little less appealing, and 40 hours in, you might not even be using them all, except to get you out of a pickle.

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I played through Kingdom Hearts 3 in 4K HDR on the Xbox One X. Tell that to my 16-year-old self and you will likely find him puking into a bucket laden with stickers of Bill Gates sensually laying in front of a PC.

I can't speak to how it runs on the PS4, which some might deem its "home" console, but it is a delicious 40 hours of eye-numbing graphics. There's little slowdown, even when the screen fills up with towering Heartless or swift Nobodies zipping in and out of existence in various parts of the screen. The Disney worlds practically beg to be photographed and like any game worth its salt these days, there is a limited in-game photo mode that lets you do just that.

The Gummiphone, Sora's handheld, would have been described as a record-keeper, glossary, bestiary and GameBoy in 2006, but now we simply call it a "smartphone". The always connected device stores a variety of collectible Game and Watch-style games and tracks all your treasures and records, but its most important feature is its camera. Yes, you can take selfies. I keep telling you, it's 2019.

This is not a Disney movie. This is Kingdom Hearts 3 doing Let It Go.

GIF by Jackson Ryan/CNET

The camera plays a huge role in the overall narrative though -- for the diehards. Throughout the game, Mickey Mouse logos are scattered on walls, in buckets and obscured by shadows throughout each world. If you photograph these Lucky Emblems, you get to see the game's "secret ending". In Kingdom Hearts parlance, that's kind of like a Marvel after-the-credits scene, except you don't just have to sit in the cinema an extra 12 minutes laughing at the peasants who leave the film early, you have to investigate every nook of Kingdom Hearts' bulging worlds.

It's not a horrendous task, considering everything is a delight to look at, but getting the required amount of Lucky Emblems is another of Kingdom Hearts' design choices that rips you away from doing the best thing in Kingdom Hearts: whacking things with a giant key.

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As destiny would have it, I played through the back half of Kingdom Hearts 3 in my childhood bedroom. The same bedroom I hadn't spent a night in for six years, after venturing out to take on the big, wide world by myself and make new friends in other cities. That Kingdom Hearts tells a similar tale is not lost on me.

Looking at the play timer slowly tick over to 43 hours, it's hard not to think back on the difference 13 years makes. This game is a time-warp back to 2006. Sinking that amount of time into a video game seems kind of like an affront to productivity now, as a 30-year-old. When I was finishing high school it felt more like an escape. I could retreat to this familiar room and play for hours, lengthy cutscenes be damned!

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Screenshot by Jackson Ryan/CNET

But Kingdom Hearts 3 sticks doggedly to what made Kingdom Hearts successful in the first place, for better or worse. It's both the poison and the antidote. It's more than happy to let you swim in its best bits of unpredictable, epic combat set pieces and then sit you down for an extended fireside chat about a Keyblade War with four antagonists that all share the same hair colour and only slightly varied haircuts.

And if you didn't get it in 2006, you're not going to get it now. But what is it? What makes this game so appealing? Trying to nail down that feeling, I'd say it comes from the way I'd grown to love the Disney franchises of old.

I more readily drunk that nostalgia down in 2006, but it's 2019 and Disney has swallowed up megafranchises and taken cinematic universes to a whole new level. In many ways, Kingdom Hearts is a cinematic universe unto itself, a video game that tries to thread together years of different Disney nostalgia into a neat package. If you can connect with Kingdom Hearts 3, it's mostly because you connect to the stories from the House of Mouse.

It's absolutely bonkers that this game works at all. 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.

And so, over and over, Kingdom Hearts 3 will say "remember this?" and I will nod, forgetting that I'm 30, have a mountain of writing to do before the end of the week. Instead, I just sit and smile like a 16-year-old kid who should be studying for his chemistry exam.

Kingdom Hearts 3 refuses to grow up and it doesn't want me to grow up, either. So I'm going to sit on the edge of this bed and hum Let It Go for just a little while longer.

I told you. It's bonkers.

When judging a book by its cover is OK: Kingdom Hearts had to hit you just right.

Kingdom Hearts, for the newcomer: A delight, even if you have absolutely no idea what is going on.