For anyone who’s been a fan of Kingdom Hearts from the very beginning, staying in love with the series has literally meant growing up with it. Kids who hadn’t yet celebrated their 10th birthdays when the original game debuted on the PlayStation 2 back in 2002 are now in their 20s; if you were already a teen back in the day, you’re now in (or near) your 30s — and you might even have game-loving kids of your own.
Despite lore-expanding releases that have bridged the gaps between the main games, there have only been three mainline titles, the last coming in 2005 with Kingdom Hearts II. The expectations, and the thirst, for the long-developing third installment in Square Enix’s unique mash-up of Disney and Final Fantasy worlds have been great … to say the least.
Now that Kingdom Hearts III is almost here, reviewers have gotten a chance to dive into Tetsuya Nomura’s ultimate vision for how Sora, Donald, Goofy, and King Mickey have made the long-awaited transition into the new generation of consoles (and the more refined gaming sensibilities that nearly two decades of maturity have brought). Was it worth the long wait?
With few exceptions, the answer from the gaming pros appears to be a resounding collective “yes.” Nearly every critic who’s weighed in on the game gives it high praise for deftly straddling today’s console horsepower and the nostalgic feel of the PS2 era that helped define the franchise (and, to a great extent, the entire PS2 generation of action-JRPGs). Oh, and the game reportedly puts a thorough and touching bow on all those long-dangling plot threads and relationships.
Read on for a sampling of why, after nearly 17 years, most reviewers think Kingdom Hearts may just now be hitting its stride.
"Kingdom Hearts 3’s story is meant to serve as a culmination of everything that’s happened in the series so far – which is a lot. I’m pleasantly surprised by how well it wraps up this story of the power of friendship and the bonds we make with one another, but I didn’t find it particularly surprising. With so many years having passed between games, I — and the rest of the Kingdom Hearts fan community — have had so long to think about how events might transpire that I was able to easily call some of the story twists from a mile away." — Jonathon Dornbush
"Kingdom Hearts 3 is an all or nothing sort of game. I loved every second of it … It's a PS2 game with better combat design, more to do, and best of all, its PS2-styled character models looking incredible in HD. That spiky hair has never looked better. Sora's keyblade has never shown brighter. Those crowd enemy physics have never been more astounding— occasional frame rate hitches be damned. Kingdom Hearts 3 may feel like a game of yester-decade sometimes, but that's what makes it truly memorable in 2019." — Caty McCarthy
"I'm fighting a giant dragon with Frozen's snow golem in the magical kingdom of Arendelle. Do I really know why I'm doing it? Not a clue. Do I care? No. All that matters is that Elsa needs me and I'm hitting things with a massive key that spits out flowers and slaughtering monsters with a teacup made out of fairy lights. It's been 13 years since the last big release for Kingdom Hearts, and now I'm not sure how I lived without its Mickey Mouse shaped madness in my life." — Rachel Weber
"The story is a dream come true for devoted fans. Kingdom Hearts III explores plot points that wind through 358/2 Days, Birth by Sleep, Re:coded, and more; the narrative picks up where Dream Drop Distance left off, with Sora attempting to regain and enhance his lost power to stand a chance against Xehanort. So much has happened to so many different characters in the franchise, and spotting these familiar faces in Kingdom Hearts III and learning what they’ve been up to is exciting and makes the years of investment feel worthwhile." — Kimberly Wallace
"Kingdom Hearts isn’t simple anymore; it isn’t just joy and bright colors and Disney heroes. Instead, the conclusion of this story is tangled up in so many conflicting threads, each one a heavy burden on its hero, whose smile now feels unnerving. Kingdom Hearts 3 is an example of what can go wrong when a series that once stood in contrast to its peers as a lighthearted alternative loses its way." — Allegra Frank
"It almost goes without saying given its pedigree but Kingdom Hearts III is a stunning game to behold. The simplistic, yet visually engaging designs from Nomura and his team alongside iconic Disney imagery have always made for great-looking games that hold up even today, but the jump to the current generation of consoles brings with it some of the richest and most beautiful views in modern gaming." — Kieron Verbrugge
KHIII is the kind of game that reviewers roll up their sleeves and approach with a seriousness, knowing their task is a weighty one. The reviews for games like KHIII tend to be long, extremely well-considered, and detailed in a way that leaves nearly no stone unturned. Under that kind of scrutiny, then, it’s a huge relief, if not an outright joy, to know that it lives up to — and perhaps even exceeds — all the hype.
Mark this space for more critics’ impressions as the reviews continue to pile in. The long wait’s nearly over: Kingdom Hearts III arrives for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Jan. 29.