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Kingdom Hearts 3 is confusing, complex and ultimately wonderful for newcomers

Commentary: I bit off more of this bewildering Disney mashup than I can chew. And it’s delicious.

Morgan Little Senior Director, Audience
Morgan leads the teams managing CNET's presence and content across social media, news platforms and more after stints in the marketing world and LA Times. Eventually his last byline on the site will be about something other than Godzilla
Morgan Little
4 min read

Kingdom Hearts 3 is only a bit less intimidating than this trio of bosses.

Screenshot by Morgan Little/CNET

I'm steering a glittering pirate ship amusement park ride back and forth, crashing into bulbous plant monsters, while Donald Duck yammers about something off in the distance because dammit, Rapunzel needs rescuing.

Why am I in this situation in the first place? How did Donald and, for that matter, Goofy end up by my side? Why does every single person I talk to seem to be obsessed with empty hearts, strained hearts or a lack of hearts?

As you probably guessed from the headline, it's all because I started up Kingdom Hearts 3 with barely any knowledge about the preceding entries in the series. Especially the ones with crazy titles like "Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue," and "Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days." What I knew was pretty much limited to...

  • It being an RPG that mixed Disney and Square Enix together, throwing Final Fantasy, classic animated films and original characters into one complicated stew.
  • Fans were starving for Kingdom Hearts 3.

If you want to go right into refreshing yourself on the game's story, GameSpot has you covered. The game hits PS4 and Xbox One on Tuesday, Jan. 29, on disc and digital, for the usual $60, along with a more expensive Deluxe Version that adds a pin, steelbook case and an art book. There's also an even more expensive $229 version that comes with figures of Sora, Goofy and Donald, but orders for that will now ship after the game's release. (Disclosure: CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on this page.)

The first Kingdom Hearts surprised an unsuspecting world nearly 17 years ago, and it's been more than 13 years since Kingdom Hearts 2. For context, in 2002 you may have been playing the original Battlefield 1942, Metroid Prime or Warcraft 3. In 2005, we were still three years away from the first Iron Man and Disney's ascent into Total Entertainment Domination.

We can't talk about the game's opening moments or story beats, which is something of a relief because apparently there are people living inside of other people who are (kind of) alternate versions of people. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

But the game itself is open for discussion, and even as a heartless neophyte, I'm hooked. Despite the easy jokes that can be made at the storyline's expense -- especially when Mickey Mouse's nails-on-chalkboard voice tries to deliver serious dialog -- when the game steps back from melodrama and dives into the unique explorations of Disney worlds, there's an irresistible heart beating beneath the pretensions.

It's a simple nostalgia play, but jumping around Andy's room as the cast of Toy Story fights at your side, or being reminded of the excellent representation of Hades from Hercules, is a joy. Even the unfamiliar world of Tangled was executed with such classic Disney charm that the fact I had never seen the film didn't matter. I was sucked in.


Did I mention the loading screens are Instagram? Because that's a thing.

Screenshot by Morgan Little/CNET

It helps that Kingdom Hearts 3 is something of a sight to behold. Even on my standard PS4, its representation of multiple art styles pops off the screen. Fans were freaking out last year about how well its graphics compared to Disney animated films, and the game's technical feats are even more impressive when pushed to the breaking point during combat.

If you're coming into the game thinking that the combat is simple, well, that's because it is. Kingdom Hearts 3 doles out abilities and systems slowly, sometimes without any fanfare at all. That aforementioned skill system goes pretty much unexplained, but it lies at the core of what eventually makes the moment-to-moment gameplay interesting. Kingdom Hearts 3's story may be a guided tour, but its combat is entirely customizable.


Go to your abilities menu every time you level up. Seriously.

Screenshot by Morgan Little/CNET

Want to ditch the ability to perform acrobatic attacks to free up points for more potent magic? Go for it. Want to rely on cinematic theme park ride-based moves like that aforementioned pirate ship or Disney World's famous teacups? Hit the right enemy at the right time and you're there.

Want to rely on countering enemy attacks to build up toward more potent attacks? Stay in the fray, dealing damage and relying of anime power-ups as you complete combos to interrupt enemy attacks? You can pick... or just rely on both since you can switch between up to three Keyblades at any given time in combat.

About 10 hours in, I'm still just barely getting into Kingdom Hearts 3 if it's close to as long as its predecessor. 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. For the uninitiated, Kingdom Hearts 3 is worth a shot. And for the fanatical, well, you must already be anxiously counting down the seconds until its Jan. 29 release.

And finally, I can empathize with everyone who gets dragged into the Marvel Cinematic Universe halfway through without knowing why everyone's freaking about a Josh Brolin-voiced space Grimace.

For more info on Kingdom Hearts 3, check out GameSpot's full review, and a spoiler-free look at some early gameplay here.


I wasn't kidding about that pirate ship. It's as ridiculous as you can imagine.

Screenshot by Morgan Little/CNET

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