Tips For Playing Kingdom Hearts III

Tips For Playing Kingdom Hearts III
Image: Square Enix

I played all the way through Kingdom Hearts III. I played it extremely underleveled. I did this because I love a challenge and because I was in a hurry. I also did this for you: my struggle forced me to play the game well. That means, buddy, I got tips.

Hey! I explain all of these in a rapid-fire fashion in the *SPOILER-FREE* gameplay video at the top of this post! If you want to watch that, wow, that’s nice of you! If not, that’s OK.

Almost all of these tips focus on the battle mechanics. I presume you don’t need my help to enjoy the Disney moments or the cutscenes. Therefore I’ve included no story spoilers in here, except in the very last section, in which I talk about something which happens to Olaf from Frozen both in the film and in Kingdom Hearts III.

Watch The In-Game Lore Explainer

Even if you’ve already played every game in the series, you should watch the in-game lore explainer available on the title screen under “Memory Archive.” You could also watch it right now on YouTube on your phone with one earbud while sitting in the bathroom stall at your office, though what fun is that? Settle down with a beverage and watch it from Kingdom Hearts III’s title menu immediately prior to choosing “New game.” The high production values of the explainer mesh wonderfully with the lovely musical cutscenes that open the game. It’s like they made it that way on purpose!

Check Your In-Game Phone

Furthermore, Sora gets a smartphone in a ten-minute cutscene very early in the game. The game is trying to impress you with the importance of the phone. By opening it from the pause menu, you can read concise explanations of all major plot points and characters introduced so far in the game. You can rotate all the character’s models! You can sit on your sofa with a buddy and talk about their clothes for like an hour! It’s lovely.

In more utilitarian aspects, the phone also keeps track of the treasure and Lucky Emblems (Hidden Mickeys) that you’ve found so far in all the available worlds.

All in all, the phone feels like something straight out of an ambitious PlayStation 2 game like Dark Cloud 2: just a whole bunch of nice, helpful stuff crammed into one convenient place with cute graphic design throughout.

Don’t Grind Too Much!

I mean, don’t use this “Zero Exp” ability, either, unless you want to scream a lot.

As I said up top, I played Kingdom Hearts III underleveled. I played straight through. I barely stopped. I arrived at the final boss on level 40. This was probably too low of a level.

Well, I loved it.

All of the tips I’m about to give you about battling are thus based on the experience of me, a person who suffered in those final battles. I was in pain. And this really made me feel in touch with Sora’s experience, you know?

Also, I was in a hurry.

On the world map, every area has a “Battle Level” number. This number is usually the level I was on after beating the big boss of the next world. That’s how underleveled we’re talking here.

I like to play underleveled in a game with a levelling system because it forces me to learn to play well. The little things I learn might then be useful even to someone who does not wish to play underleveled.

Here’s two defining aspects to being underleveled in Kingdom Hearts III:

1. The bosses are beatable even on stupid-low levels, sometimes without even taking damage! The secret is blocking, reprisals, effective camera movement, and efficient shortcut management.

2. You get every one of your necessary abilities and all of your magic spells by beating bosses, not by levelling up.

Furthermore, Kingdom Hearts III features a “Zero Experience” ability unlocked from the start. If you equip it, it prevents you from ever earning experience. That sounds like a challenge!

I’m saying the game doesn’t seem to want you to grind. Or, at the very least, it’s proud of the fact that someone on the development staff can beat every battle on level one. I totally respect that.

Grinding Even A Tiny Bit Makes You God

By hinting so often that you don’t need to grind, the game designers are also hinting at the power of grinding. If you grind you can become monstrously strong and obliterate bosses. Maybe that’s your style.

If you don’t want to necessarily break the game though you also don’t want to get your clown shoes thrown down atop your bones in a shallow grave, I’d suggest this: there are a lot of enemies in Kingdom Hearts III. Fighting is pretty much the whole point of every level. Just fight all of the regular battles you encounter as you progress through a level. If—oops!—you get lost and come back around to a place you’ve already traversed and you trigger a battle there again, just fight it again! Consider it practice for the wild trials to come.

Also, every time you reach a save point, it restores your HP and MP completely. This makes grinding perfectly easy in every level. Wow, I’ve played so many Kingdom Hearts games recently that I’ve forgotten that’s a thing some people might not take for granted!

There Is No One Correct Approach To Loadouts

This is difficult to position as advice: I did not settle upon any one strategy or configuration of equipment or abilities that worked even half-perfectly for more than a handful of boss battles.

I was always considering a way to take down bosses more efficiently, so I was always considering different loadouts.

This is actually a huge part of the fun of a modern RPG, and of Kingdom Hearts III in particular: constantly min-maxing your personal tactical satisfaction is as fun as battles themselves.

Kingdom Hearts III gives you access to all of your magic spells all of the time, though it buries them deep in a menu.

Luckily, you can configure shortcuts. By holding the left bumper, you can open the shortcut menu. This displays a list of the four shortcut commands, mapped to each of the face buttons. By pressing up and down on the d-pad, you can swap between up to three decks.

What you end up putting in those three decks is up to you. I experimented with having a deck of support spells, a deck of attack spells, and a mixed deck, though that wasn’t right for every situation.

As you unlock higher levels of attack spells, you’ll naturally want to use them, though you won’t always want to rid your decks of the weaker versions, which cost less magic.

You can’t change loadouts once a battle starts, so you’ll need to do your configurations before a battle. If you’re in a dungeon and you see a save point, there’s almost always a big fight nearby. Now is the time to look at your ability decks and equipment.

Learning From Failure Is Easy (In This Game, At Least)

If you die in battle, you’re immediately offered the opportunity to “retry.” This is one of the many elements that makes Kingdom Hearts feel, to me, like an old-school arcade brawler.

If a boss has little baby gremlin minions that hassle you during the battle, guess what? Even if you die, you keep the experience points you got from killing them! That’s generous.

One of the death screen options is “prepare and retry.” This is excellent. Maybe you had forgotten to give Donald potions before the fight. You can do that here.

The further I got in my purposely underleveled playthrough, the more I encountered the utility of the “prepare and retry” screen.

I was short on money for most of the game because of my devotion to staying underleveled, though wherever I could I had made time to buy multiples of each new armour and accessory.

Sora, Donald, and Goofy can each equip multiple pieces of armour and multiple accessories. As they progress through the game they’ll earn more slots.

When you buy new equipment to put in these slots, you’re choosing from a few broad categories. Accessories might increase the wielder’s physical strength or magic. For some hard battles, I gave Sora three of the strongest available magic-enhancing ring, and for some, I gave him three of the strongest strength ring. For some, I gave him two of one and one of the other. Sometimes I stacked elemental defences.

The key takeaway is, battles got easier when I committed to choosing a side—for example, magic or attack—and tipping my equipment loadout in its favour. Trying to achieve a perfectly balanced statistical profile is not the way to win, here.

Equipment in Kingdom Hearts is as fiddly as the combat is explosive and unpredictable.

Increase the camera movement speed

I generally like my cameras to be operated by moving a mouse, and I generally like my mouse to be on the highest sensitivity possible, so if that’s not you, maybe ignore this advice: go right into the menu the first chance you get and crank the camera speed up by at least 10 points (I put it up to 100).

Again, maybe you’re not as seasicknessproof as I am, though I could swear the camera in this game is far slower than it should be. And given how fast the battles are, you’re going to want to be able to whip the camera around 360 degrees in less than one second to get a visual sweep of the battlefield sometimes.

Of course, you can’t whip the camera around 360 degrees easily when you’re locked on to an enemy.

Don’t Be Too Reliant On Lock-On

Soft lock is a yellow reticule. Hard lock is blue. Here I’m facing a big group of enemies, so I’m staying soft locked. Over time you’ll realise soft lock is the champion. You can’t turn soft lock off, so just consider it an indicator of what you’ll hit when you attack.

Lock-on is good, and convenient, because it assures that your magical spells are always hitting the right guy. And I’m locked on a lot when I play Kingdom Hearts III. Though I’m not locked on all the time. At some point I had to actively start telling myself to disengage lock-on.

As the game goes on and battles get bigger and more busy, you might want to have more control of the camera.

When you’re close to an enemy, you’ll see a yellow soft-lock reticule. The hard lock reticule is blue, so this makes the yellow reticule a perfect contrast. I’d encourage you to familiarise yourself with the automatic selection logic of the yellow reticule early so that it’s second nature later. If you’re good enough at knowing where that yellow reticule is going to snap to, you can battle while wheeling the camera wildly around to perceive attacks. This is crucial when you’re idiotically underleveled like me.

Try turning the lock off sometimes and letting Sora lock on using his instincts. He’s a good boy, and getting used to that will make you mentally stronger later.

Elite Shortcut Loadouts

I played Kingdom Hearts III on Xbox One X with my Xbox One Elite Controller, and because (as I have said a hundred times already) I was playing purposely underleveled, I needed to maximise the use of my hands. So I used all four rear paddles on the controller.

Press the shoulder buttons hyperextends my index fingers, making my analogue stick movements less precise. So I put the shoulder buttons on the upper rear paddles, giving me access to lock-toggle with my right middle finger and shortcuts with my left middle finger.

I put the bottom face button (attack) on the bottom-right paddle and the left face button (block) on the bottom-left paddle so that I could press those with my ring fingers. This way I could run and rotate the camera while attacking, blocking, or using two of my four shortcuts. This exploded my efficiency in battles.

Later in the game, some bosses start to actively troll your dependency on lock-on by including way, way too many minion-gremlin buddies. By this point in the game, I was good enough at playing without lock-on that I totally owned these punks.

For my second paddle-mapping toggle on my controller, I had shortcuts on the top left paddle and the down directional button on the bottom left paddle, so I could flip through three decks. Then I put two of the face buttons (attack and block) on the right paddles so that I could quickly access six different shortcuts without taking my right thumb off the analogue stick.

In summary: if you don’t have a controller with paddles, know that this game thoroughly inspired me to play it like an esport. Let this serve as an example of how important your shortcut selection is.

Again, alternately: grind a lot and just stomp over Xehanort’s minions in your big weird rainboots, if that’s your style.

Blocking Is Hard

In the first 10 playable minutes of the game, Sora receives the ability to guard by tapping the leftmost face button.

Kingdom Hearts III’s combat is so electrically fast and Sora’s block has such a long windup (I eyeballed it at about six frames!) and short duration that blocking might feel like a crapshoot to you the first couple times you try it.

Heck, it might feel like a crapshoot for several hours.

Don’t give up! You can block almost any attack in Kingdom Hearts III, because Sora is just that good a boy. It’s all about figuring out the exact timing and just nailing it. Make sure your display is on the lowest latency setting, or “game mode,” if you have one of those.

Later you’ll unlock the ability to recover from a hit in mid-air by tapping the right-most face button when falling. Landing on your feet means faster recoveries, and you want that. There’s never an occasion where you don’t want to recover in mid-air.

Once you get enough hours into the game, you’ll unlock “reprisals,” which are follow-up attacks you can perform in a short (around 48 frames) window after a successful block. These are often tide-turning, combo-ending, boss-breaking maneuvers that position good boy Sora in the prime position to cheese a boss into a pile of trash.

Super-late into Sora’s ability progression you’ll unlock the ability to perform special reprisals after performing an in-air recovery. These are wildly game-breaking in your favour.

If you feel like using these conflicts with our good boy’s pure heart, don’t. Don’t feel sorry for the enemies, because…

You Are Going To Get Hit A Lot

It’s OK. Save your frustration. Don’t scream. Save your throat. Kingdom Hearts is as much of a quarter-munching vintage 1990s arcade brawler as it is a role-playing game. I mean this lovingly. Enemies hit you with cheap shots a lot. And I gotta say: there are no cheap shots like Kingdom Hearts cheap shots. Enemies can teleport directly behind you on a frame’s notice. Enemies can spawn deadly stalagmites which elevator up beneath your feet all day long whenever they want.

All your moves have risks attached. The AI, however, is reading the inputs straight from your controller. Yes, the AI quote-unquote “cheats” sometimes.

It’s OK. They’re guided by an all-seeing cosmic wizard. So it’s contextually appropriate. You gotta let the narrative designers win some.

Because, you see, this game has its roots in the crustiest, oldest RPGs. Kingdom Hearts is the living legacy of prestigiously musty old games that weren’t just about doing damage—they were about taking damage. In RPGs I call this “taking your medicine.”

In Kingdom Hearts, medicine is delicious.

While an underleveled playthrough of the game is possible (bragging a bit: I’m living proof) it is excruciating to deal with these attacks in the endgame without red-eyed frame-perfect blocks and dodges.

And you know what? Maybe you need to just accept that blocking is a crapshoot for you. Though never stop trying to do it. Allow a successful block to feel like a break-even slot machine pull. And always be ready to deal with damage.

Healing Is Fiddly

Using curative magic in Kingdom Hearts III requires you to use all of the magic remaining in your magic meter. This is preposterous. This is wild. This will not stand.

That is what you’ll say the first couple of times you die because you forgot about this.

When all your magic is gone, you have to wait for a magic regeneration bar to fill in. This can take a painful amount of time. You might get killed the heck dead during that waiting time. Well, maybe not if you just healed.

“Healing magic eats all your magic power” presents you with a unique assortment of brain frictions. Let’s run down these:

  • When you get the next level of a healing spell, well, why the heck is that old one still in your shortcuts when they’re all cost-equal? Get it out of there, friendo.

  • When you need to heal, it’s best to pump off a bunch of attack spells in a flurry before doing so. Of course, this might get you killed. Though buddy, as soon as I learned how to always successfully do this, the money flowed like wine. I was murdering everything moving.

  • At some point you’ll unlock an ability called “MP Safety.” Except in extremely min-maxed cases where you’re confidently battling down a corridor teeming with hordes of enemies, you’ll want to leave this on. “MP Safety” makes it so that if you have only exactly enough MP to cast a spell, it won’t let you cast it. The only spell it will let you cast is a healing spell. Thus “MP Safety” prevents you from zeroing out your magic gauge and then being in a situation where you’re unable to heal.

Waiting for your magic gauge to refill can be painful, so you have to be ready for when it happens.

Endgame Sora has six item slots in his equipment inventory, so I like to keep two Ethers (to refill magic) in there, and two Hi Potions (to heal when my magic is empty and a boss has just cheesed me).

To speed the magic gauge’s recovery up, you can put on an ability called “MP Haste,” or equip some accessories that grant it. The effect stacks, so stack it up! This is how I turned my Sora into a god monster.

Furthermore, Sora can equip three Keyblades at any given time. The menu clearly describes the blades as being “Balanced,” “Strength,” or “Magic” types. Each type enhances the attributes of its respective category. Though you don’t need a magic-type Keyblade to cast magic, magic is noticeably stronger if Sora is holding one.

You switch between Keyblades during battle by pressing left or right on the d-pad. There’s about 48 frames of inactivity while switching, so getting the hang of quickly switching to the magic-type Keyblade immediately before healing or using attack magic takes time, though it’s a good skill to get into the hang of.

Embrace The Chaos

Eventually Donald and Goofy will get riled up and yell about a cool thing they wanna do right now in battle. They’ll be like, “Sora, let’s make these freaks bleed!” And you’ll be like, “D-Donald…!?”

These are called “Command Actions.”

I advise you to treat the beginning of Kingdom Hearts III like a MOBA: every time a special move is available to you, point yourself immediately in the general direction of something you can affect with that special move and execute it. You need to get into the habit of using your specials before you get into the habit of using them expertly. So just let loose and go wild.

Sometimes Just Shake The Chaos’s Hand

Command actions all have big loud video-poker-like countdown timers on the screen. Once you are super-familiar with what all of your command actions do (and buddy, there are a lot of them) you’re going to want to get picky.

Use the left trigger to cycle between available commands. Execute when you feel like it’s ready. My gambling experience tells me that in Kingdom Hearts III, except in dire emergencies, using your abilities at the absolute latest possible relevant moment is always best.

Yeah, if you time it right, you can upgrade a Thunder through Thundara and Thundaga straight up to Thundaza.

The best example here is “Grand Magic.” When you use one spell multiple times, you stand a good chance of triggering a “Grand Magic” command. This allows you to use, at the touch of a face button, a one-level-higher version of that magic spell exactly once at no MP cost. Late in the game this is a tide-turner. If you use Thundaga (the highest lightning-type spell) three or four times, and damage a wide enough field of enemies, you have a great chance of tripping a “Thundaza” command. “Thundaza” is just hyper-murderous. Use it to absolutely scorch the earth with a hideous HDR lightning bolt.

Of course, you want to scorch as many idiots as possible. So you will keep a steady eye on the availability bar as it depletes. Using it at just the right time during a multi-wave post-game battle is wildly rewarding.

I’d recommend to start playing with Grand Magic the first time the game tutorializes it.

The same goes for the “Lockshot” ability, with which you can hold the right bumper to first-person aim and tag targets for Panzer-Dragoon-style homing missile destruction. Each Keyblade has multiple Lockshot behaviours, depending on the number of targets and the “formchange” state of the Keyblade. You want to figure out which ones of those are things your playstyle appreciates. Personally, I liked the ones that did big ugly damage.

Lockshot uses the “Focus” gauge which, look, if I keep talking about all the little cockpit instruments in this game we’ll all be in a retirement home before I’m done. The Focus gauge’s recovery is fiddly. You want to use it when you mean it. I save it for scenarios in which I am able to target about 20 direct hits on a boss’ stupid face.

Don’t Forget Your Parkour!

Wow, I got all the way through these tips and a perfect simulacrum of my actual game-playing style manifested: I forgot about Sora’s parkour moves.

If you press the dodge button and tilt the analogue stick in midair, Sora will do what the game calls “Flowmotion.” It means he dash-slides toward an interactable object with a flair for style. Any glinting object in a battleground is a target for “Flowmotion.” Do it against a tree and Sora will gymnast-swing upon a branch. Press an attack from this state to deal much more damage than in some boring on-the-ground state.

Flowmotion against a wall and Sora will stick to it for a generous moment. Press the attack button from this state to do a sort of electric super jump attack. Of course, this does more damage than an attack from other positions. This works best if you’re locked on to the victim.

So that’s lock on, jump, dash, cling, then attack.

I found myself forgetting about these stick-shifty techniques until dying for the third time on a tough fight, when I realised I could be wall-running a lot more.

So: maybe you could be wall-running a lot more?

Use The Blizzard Spell To Go Fast

The game gives you the Blizzard spell very early. It’s not until much later in the game that you’re required to use it to move super-fast to catch up with something. It took me exactly this long to realise this little perk.

Basically, just face in the direction you want to go. Use the Blizzard spell. It leaves an ice rail on the ground as it moves. Jump on it and freak out, buddy.

Getting Lost Sucks

Ah, heck. I took my time and spent all day writing this tips posts so that I could hopefully think of some perfect advice to give you about getting lost.

I’m sorry. I got nothing.

You will get lost in Kingdom Hearts III. A lot. This is, after all, a game descended from a proud lineage of PlayStation 2 role-playing games from Japan.

At some point in Kingdom Hearts III, Olaf, the snowman from the film Frozen, is going to have his body parts scattered. Just like he did in the film Frozen!

You are going to have to look for him. A character from the movie who has known Sora for less than one minute and talked to him for less than eight seconds is going to say, “Sora, why don’t you look for him?” Sora will then call this character by name when he says, “Sure!” I don’t know about you, though the way Kingdom Hearts characters so immediately take to a first-name basis with each other reminds me of the time a “date” took me to a Cutco knives seminar at a hotel by the airport in Indianapolis.

Yes, you’re going to be looking for a snowman. In snow. White on white. If you have a big TV, and if it’s got HDR, you might have to wear sunglasses.

Look, I’m sorry. I just—I can’t even tell you what I did. I just know that after an hour it was over and I wasn’t crying anymore.

Well, this got twisted.

Have fun, everybody!

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