Slowly, but surely, Kingdom Hearts III is coming.
At a closed doors event in Toronto, I was able to spend an hour with two of the Kingdom Hearts III worlds revealed so far, Olympus Coliseum from Hercules and Toy Box from Toy Story.
As someone who has been playing the Disney-Square Enix crossover series for nearly half his life, I’m happy to say I walked away quite impressed with Kingdom Hearts III.
While neither demo revealed much about Kingdom Hearts III‘s overarching plot — which is set to chronicle the end of Sora and friends’ battle against the villainous Xehanort — both did a brilliant job showcasing what to expect from the game’s revamped gameplay mechanics.
The first demo, Olympus Coliseum, doesn’t feature much in the way of regular enemy combat. Instead, it serves to showcase Kingdom Hearts III‘s larger-than-ever sense of scale. In this short segment, Sora is dashing up a mountain while dodging incoming boulders thrown by Lythos, the monstrous rock Titan summoned by Hades.
Once reaching the peak, Sora has to use his Keyblade to attack the towering creature’s feet in Kingdom Hearts‘ signature hack-and-slash combat. After stunning Lythos, Sora can leap up to its head to perform a magical finisher move called an Attraction Flow. As a nice touch, the Attraction Flows are inspired by popular Disney theme park rides. In this case, you can board the ‘Big Magic Mountain,’ a colourful Big Thunder Mountain Railroad-esque train that lets you finish off the Titan with powerful magic blasts while on-rails.
The entire sequence is far larger and more ambitious than anything we’ve seen in the Kingdom Hearts series to date, making me eager to see just what other sorts of impressive set pieces are in the final game.
However, I really got to sink my teeth in Kingdom Hearts III‘s new gameplay mechanics in Toy Story‘s Toy Box, which marks the first time a Pixar franchise has appeared in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Fans have clamoured to see Woody, Buzz and the gang in the series for many years now, making their grand introduction here feel immensely satisfying.
Right from the start, it becomes clear that the biggest change to combat this time around comes from Sora’s Keyblades themselves. Prior to Kingdom Hearts III, the only actual difference to Keyblades outside of their design was their stats and abilities. Sora’s attacks with each weapon were otherwise exactly the same. Now, Square Enix has designed completely different gameplay styles for each Keyblade, making your weapons feel more unique and useful than ever before.
With a quick tap on the D-pad, you’ll be able to switch between any Keyblades you’ve unlocked from the various Disney worlds mid-combat, each of which is able to transform into even more powerful weapons as you deal damage to enemies.
The Hyper Hammer, for instance, while having a bit of a slower wind-up that may leave you open to faster enemies, can deal massive amounts of damage with just a few earth-shattering swings. On the other hand, the Hammer can transform into the longer-range Drill Punch, which trades in larger damage for longer range. Each Keyblade having multiple transformations means you’ll never want to stick to just one weapon, making battles feel especially dynamic and engaging.
Further shaking up combat is the returning ability to summon non-party Disney characters, which are now more helpful and interactive. New to the Kingdom Hearts series is Wreck-It Ralph, who tackles enemies while creating a series of Super Mario-esque bricks that he will eventually smash to cause a large explosion.
Meanwhile, The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel returns (along with the catchy Atlantica battle theme from the first Kingdom Hearts) to dive in and out of the ground and bombard enemies with beautifully rendered water attacks.
Attraction Flows besides Big Magic Mountain can also be used in regular enemy encounters, including zany and powerful moves based on the Mad Tea Party (Alice in Wonderland) and Grizzly River Run (Disney California Adventure).
While it remains to be seen just how well the final game will reward experimentation with all of these various gameplay mechanics, I’m definitely looking forward to trying them all out based on how satisfying they currently feel.
Outside of moment-to-moment combat, I was also continuous in awe at just how visually stunning Kingdom Hearts III is. Now that the franchise has finally stopped releasing on older platforms, Square Enix has been able to produce incredibly vibrant and crisp visuals that truly make you feel like you’re actually playing through a Disney/Pixar film.
On top of that, each world is far more detailed and expansive than ever before. Andy’s room and front yard are lovingly and accurately recreated from the Toy Story films, but it’s the original Galaxy Toys location that lets Square Enix really get creative. Between multiple large floors, several differently themed toy departments and a number of easter eggs (including toys based on Final Fantasy monsters), Galaxy Toys is just begging to be fully explored.
Best of all, an instrumental version of Randy Newman’s iconic “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” serves as the default world music for Toy Box, evoking a wonderful sense of nostalgia for the three stellar Toy Story films.
How Kingdom Hearts III will wrap up the series’ admittedly convoluted Xehanort storyline is unclear, even after playing these demos. That said, the individual stories of each Disney world seem poised to be even more creative and faithful recreations of the films than we’ve ever seen.
Indeed, finally being able to play through a fully-realized Toy Story world is a childhood dream come true, and the final game is set to feature even more popular Disney locations inspired by such great films as Monsters, Inc., Tangled, Frozen and Big Hero 6.
Beyond that, Kingdom Hearts III is shaping up to be a rollicking good action-RPG game, with combat, exploration and attention-to-detail taken to the absolute next level. It may feel like Kingdom Hearts has been in development for an eternity, but so far, it’s shaping up to be well worth the wait.
Kingdom Hearts III will launch on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on January 29th, 2019.