Kingdom Hearts captured my imagination way back in 2002. And it’s continued to do so in the 16 years between it and Kingdom Hearts 3 thanks to its unique ability to capture Disney magic, put me in the middle of it through the keyblade swings of Sora, and tell a ridiculous tale full of endearing characters. Square Enix has released one numbered sequel and plenty of spinoffs that deepened, and sometimes muddied, the mythology, but only a few have captured the magic that captivated me as a kid.
If the extended demo I played on both PS4 and Xbox One ahead of E3 is any indication, Kingdom Hearts 3 looks to be a true evolution of the franchise, recapturing that magic by taking all those various offshoots and experiments and melding them into a cohesive, exciting whole.
Playing through a small portion of Hercules’ Olympus, as well as a longer segment of the Toy Story-themed world Toy Box, Square Enix showcased KH3’s impressive scope. The first Kingdom Hearts introduced a level of a verticality and variation to its worlds that encouraged exploration, and though Kingdom Hearts 2 often traded that variation in for scale, Kingdom Hearts 3’s demo smartly blends the two.
Andy’s room and the exterior of his house form a large, open area with a number of treasure chests tucked away and enough space to let combat scenarios breathe. Scaling the wall of Andy’s room, flipping out the window onto his roof, and sky diving onto the pavement offers a satisfying, continuous experience that feels so much less choppy than the sectioned-off locations of previous Kingdom Hearts entries.
This world really opens up once you travel to Galaxy Toys, a massive toy store whose multi-level store makes for one of the bigger areas in a Kingdom Hearts game. You can be fighting a pack of Heartless on one floor, only to take over one of the Giga robot toys and fly up to another story to scour for treasure. You can fight among the columns of toys on display in the lobby, or ride a rail bob and tackle a horde of stuffed animal Heartless three levels up.
It’s easy to miss much of Galaxy Toys by just following the narrative path. (And if you’re looking for deep story revelations, unfortunately the demo provided very little on that front. One of Xehanort’s forms invading the Toy Story world speaks of splitting this world in two to better understand Hearts, but beyond that, little about Sora’s journey is revealed.) But exploring the fringes of the world rewarded me with additional items, enemies to fight, and cool details, like a “Dissidia” toy line full of Final Fantasy summons.
Of course, that sense of scale is helped by Sora’s toy-sized stature in this world, where a countertop can seem as tall as a cliffside, and the road outside Andy’s home can feel like an ocean of concrete. But that scope is fully on display in Olympus, too, and seems to be a key part of the full experience.
Climbing Olympus’ rocky mountainside is a rush, as Lythos the rock titan hurls massive boulders down on Sora, Donald, and Goofy. Employing a modified version of the Flowmotion introduced in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, Sora can directly run up a cliff wall — and can do the same on most flat, vertical surfaces in the Toy Story world. This mechanic becomes both a useful tool for uncovering treasure and a technique to help you maneuver during combat.
Hopefully the full game can make all of these more expansive Disney-themed worlds worth scouring every inch of, but at the very least, battling through them felt great during my time with Kingdom Hearts 3. There’s an engaging variety to the fighting that marries so many of the elements introduced in past entries with new aspects that come together in a familiar but fresh system.
Yes, you could probably make it through the world by simply button mashing with Sora’s keyblade, but it’s so much more rewarding to explore every aspect of the combat.
One of the biggest new additions are Keyblade transformations, which happen often and are a blast to use. Each world’s keyblade has its own unique set of limited-time transformations, activated after chaining together enough hits. Each new form comes with its own attacks and attributes. The Toy Story world’s keyblade, for example, becomes the Hyper Hammer, a punishing, close-combat weapon, and then morphs into the Drill Punch, which can forcefully pull Sora closer to enemies. They all have their own unique finishers as well, which are always worth taking advantage of before the transformation dissipates.
These attacks add an enjoyable variety to the combat, as some transformations are better suited to different enemies than others, but there’s also a spectacle to them that makes testing out Sora’s full arsenal a blast.
Kingdom Hearts 3 also adds in world-specific gimmicks, and Toy Story’s happens to be first-person toy mechs for Sora to control. Each of the three playable Gigas largely plays the same, save for one unique special attack apiece, but they’re not just an ancillary mechanic thrown in for fun. Taking on a Giga as Sora himself will likely lead to a punishing defeat, and the best way to tackle a gaggle of Gigas is to become one yourself.
Magic returns from its Kingdom Hearts 2 form, with attacks offering enhanced touches seen in later titles, like Sora being able to glide along the ice formed by casting Blizzard. Focus’ Shotlock is back from Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, and another returning mechanic — Summons — are now Link abilities (a term previously used solely for Dream Drop Distance’s Dream Eaters). They include the Ariel summon, as well as the newly unveiled Wreck-It Ralph Link attack.
These summons are beautifully realized and tailored to their characters. Ralph falls out of the 2D Fix-It, Felix, Jr. game into KH3’s 3D world, while Ariel can dive into and out of any surface, water cascading behind her and through all of her and Sora’s attacks. Fun to execute, they’re also beautiful to behold, bringing a real sense of Disney magic to fights, matched only perhaps by the newly introduced Attraction Flow.
Flashy takes on a Disney theme park ride, Attractions can be timely attacks tailored to specific battles, like the Big Thunder Mountain-esque Attraction offering a dazzling finisher for the titan on Olympus. Some can also be repeatedly employed throughout Toy Box. The Shooting Ride is useful but not all that different from fighting inside a Giga, but the Attraction based on Grizzly River Run offers an inventive battle solution. Sora’s raft creates a river of water behind it, which Sora then rides all the way back to its start as a finisher, hitting anything still in its path.
Mixing attractions, transformations, magic, links, and simple keyblade swipes offers such a rewarding variety to KH3’s combat. It’s unclear whether the final game’s difficulty will really require players to rotate through all of these attacks to be successful, but at the very least, doing so is a joy to watch.
That joy remained through practically my whole demo. As I mentioned before, there’s a sense of Disney magic, mixed with Kingdom Hearts’ friendship-focused earnestness, permeating through everything I played. That’s certainly true of the reverence paid to the Disney/Pixar properties inspiring Kingdom Hearts 3. While Toy Box offers an original tale in the world of Toy Story, the characters, tone, and humor ring true to their cinematic versions. Stepping into Andy’s room felt like a return to a group of old friends while offering a new spin, which is what initially grabbed me about the franchise over a decade ago.
That sense is aided by how gorgeous Kingdom Hearts 3 is. It’s undoubtedly the best-looking entry in the franchise, not just because of its platforms and engine but also because of the layers of detail and dedication to the source material imbued in each location. Kingdom Hearts 3 doesn’t sacrifice accuracy for beauty — the fur of a stuffed animal is noticeably different from the shiny plastic of a killer dinosaur. Woody’s run is noticeably floppy, while Buzz’s is more rigid, and the Green Army Men waddle exactly as they did in the movies. Attraction Flow often results in a dazzling array of colorful explosions, while a summon like Ariel’s produces a stunning water show worthy of the Bellagio fountain. And, for those with a keen eye, hidden Mickeys are scattered throughout the game, too.
Not every Kingdom Hearts has successfully evoked that magical Disney feeling, but Kingdom Hearts 3’s demo hints that the long-awaited third numbered entry may very well do so. I’ve admired past attempts to expand the narrative and gameplay of the franchise, but many of those were limited by platform or narrative constraints and largely never felt like the true next step in the series.
Kingdom Hearts 3 does feel like that next step. Its combat evolves what came before, a clever conclusion to every prior experiment, both successful and not. I just hope, after all the various steps into split identities, time travel, and franchise blending, Kingdom Hearts 3’s story can offer just as satisfying of a conclusion.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s News Editor. He loves Kingdom Hearts, a lot. Talk to him about it and ask your KH3 questions on Twitter @Jmdornbush.