I did it — I played Kingdom Hearts III, or the finely-polished vertical slice of it that Square Enix is willing to show off, anyway. What I found was in no way surprising: It's another mashup of Disney movies and Final Fantasy tropes sure to delight fans of either, but doesn't seem like it will solve any of the issues the series has dealt with since day one.
Screenshot: Square Enix
First, the bad news: Square Enix did not take this opportunity (a "Kingdom Hearts Premiere Invitation Event" in Santa Monica on Thursday evening) to announce a release date for this long-awaited game (announced five years ago). Better news: its director Tetsuya Nomura was on hand to announce that a release date will be revealed "early next month."
Until then, I can tell you what it was like to play the demo, which was divided into two parts: One was a brief journey into Olympus, the setting of Disney's Hercules. The second was a much deeper dive into Toy Story, the first-ever Pixar film to grace a Kingdom Hearts.
In Kingdom Hearts III, protagonist Sora can wall-run alongside or straight up most smooth vertical surfaces. Runnable walls have an unmistakable shimmer to them, to make it really clear which ones will let you defy gravity.
The Olympus portion of the demo showcases this. After a few basic fights against trash mobs, you start running up the side of a mountain while a red-eyed rock titan hurls boulders down at you. This is more in service of creating a spectacle than a challenge; it's not difficult to get to the top.
At this point, it's time to start hacking away at the Titan. This part is much less impressive, as you're standing on a tiny platform that's mostly taken up by titanic feet that are roughly the same colour as the environment, so it's pretty much just Sora slashing a canvas of dark blue. Once you do enough damage to his feet by wildly hacking, a glowing sparkle appears on his body and the game instructs you to move towards it to start leaping up to the titan's head.
This being Kingdom Hearts, and this being a platforming section, my first attempt did not go well; the camera was not in the right position and I had no idea where I was supposed to be aiming Sora as he flew through the air. I ended up back at the Titan's feet, slashing away some more. I was able to get up to his head on Try Number Two, although I have no idea how exactly I did that.
Once I slammed him in the face with the Keyblade some more, just basically hoping that I didn't fall off his jaw as Sora zoomed around, the game then informed me that I could now trigger an Attraction, which would be a powerful attack of some sort. The menu now showed the words "Big Magic Mountain" and the triangle button icon.
Unleashing this Attraction brought out a floating roller coaster, with a glowing multi-coloured light pattern as if it were part of the Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland. This coaster automatically circled the titan as I shot fireworks into its face via a reticle. It was beautiful to behold. The boss battle ended shortly thereafter, and that was it for Hercules-land without so much as even a glimpse of Danny DeVito.
Fortunately for my desire to get some one-on-one time with Disney characters, the Toy Story segment that followed was much heavier on special guest stars. Things kicked off with Woody, Buzz Lightyear, dinosaur Rex, and piggy bank Hamm squaring off against some Heartless. The voice acting in the demo was in English, and if they didn't actually get John Ratzenberger to play Hamm, well, then they got the best darn Cliff Clavin impersonator that money can buy.
Sora, Goofy, and Donald then join them, discovering that they have been turned into quasi-Lego-ish action figures themselves. (Rex mistakes them from characters from a popular video game. "I got you to level 47, but that Bahamut boss is tough!" he says.)
The conversation transitions smoothly and without cuts into a battle sequence. Afterwards, the gang decides they need to hoof it over to the local toy store to continue the investigation into where the Heartless are coming from and why these four Toy Story characters are seemingly the only ones left in the world.
The toy store turns out to be an impossibly grand amusement emporium that would make even the Times Square Toys 'R' Us look like the toy aisle at a Walgreens. The game's co-director, Tai Yasue, said the setting came out of discussions between Square Enix and Pixar. "They told us they wanted us to create a toy store that only we could create," he said, "a mixture of all of our ideas and cultures."
True to this goal, the toys on display in Kingdom Hearts III's idealised toy store are a mix of American and Japanese playthings, from giant robots to kaiju monsters (that's what the game's text even calls them in English) to Barbie-like dolls. Look hard enough and you'll even find a shelf full of Dissidia Final Fantasy NT toys, with statues of famous Final Fantasy summon monsters.
In this way, the setting of the toy store isn't just a good place to have a Toy Story vignette — it's also a symbol of Kingdom Hearts itself, a mashup of two cultures, the only game series that could pull off a blend of Steamboat Willie and Utada Hikaru.
The three-floor toy store, full of grind rails and climbable walls, is a fairly large area to explore by Kingdom Hearts standards. But exploring it also brings back that old Kingdom Hearts feeling of being alone in a vast, colourful, seemingly inviting space with nothing to do. Once the first battle is over and you can explore the massive toy shop's first floor, you'll find that there's precious little on those shelves to interact with.
It's not that the game doesn't want you to go looking around. You can walk all the way over to the cash registers (remember, you're an 20cm-tall toy so it takes some doing) and smash them to get some resources. And you can look up at the tops of doors and awnings to maybe find a treasure chest with an Ether. But mostly it's all a Potemkin toy store, with colourful shelves full of non-interactive playthings, and you'll spend a lot of time walking through nothing to get to the little bits of something.
There is quite a bit to do once you get into a battle. As you're fighting, special abilities will occasionally become available. I'm guessing the frequency of these were cranked up for this demo, because it seemed like every few seconds there was some new power I could unleash on the enemy by pressing Triangle. "Rocket Ruckus" would put Sora, Buzz, and Woody onto a rocket that I could then control around the battlefield, pressing X to smash into enemies and pressing Triangle again before a timer ran out to do a big "Finish" move.
There were also more Attractions that occasionally popped up. In the street outside Andy's house, I could summon the pirate ship Disneyland ride (you know, the one that swings back and forth until it's horizontal?). In Andy's room, it was the Mad Tea Party teacups, which whirled around the battlefield. These, too, could be ended with a big Finish move if you hit Triangle in time.
And there's also the Link command, which you select from the menu. This lets you pull in other characters, like Wreck-It-Ralph, to do big moves. When you bring in Ralph for his move "8-Bit Blast," you can control him directly to place some Marioesque building blocks all around the battlefield, which you can then blow up with your Finish move.
As if that weren't enough, the toy store also features giant robot enemies that, once defeated, can be climbed into and piloted in first-person. There are actually four slightly different robots with differing special moves (one throws bombs, one rushes forward in a tackle, etc).
What with all the special moves, Links, Attractions, FPS robots and assorted other abilities, I didn't really spend a whole lot of time actually fighting on foot and hitting enemies with the Keyblade. Even this, though, has more options now: Sora can swap between different Keyblades throughout his adventure, which totally changes his fighting style. In the demo, we could use the original sword-like weapon, but also switch to claws that enabled a two-fisted melee style combat and also a giant hammer for slower, more punishing blows.
The toy store segment took me through three floors of amusements, then a series of air ducts that led to the closed-off doll department. This sequence, and the demo, ended with another scene straight out of Japanese pop culture: a ball-jointed doll dressed in Gothic fashion, possessed, come to life, and very mad at our heroes. Creepy stuff, although nothing beyond what Pixar might put in its own films.
Kingdom Hearts has never looked this good. I thought this while I was admiring the perfectly-placed scuffs on Hamm's nose. Or the woven thread of Woody's elbows. Toy Story was a great way to show off Square Enix's graphical prowess, and it will surely attract new Disney fans to the series whenever it's finally out.
But will new fans get it? While director Nomura said at the event that he hopes that even players who've never picked up a Kingdom Hearts could use this entry as a starting point, it is still just the latest part of an intricate, some might say inexplicable, plotline that's been going on for well over a decade now.
And of course this demo hints at the weirdness behind the curtain, with Sora at one point proposing that perhaps the reason for the disappearance of the rest of the characters is because the world has been split into two parallel ones. (Hey, it worked in Final Fantasy V.)
Buzz Lightyear is sceptical of this strangeness, and at first, calls Sora out on his wacky notion. But then he remembers something.
"Oh, that's right," he says. "You're from a video game."