Square Enix’s fan-favourite Kingdom Hearts franchise has made itself at home on no shortage of modern gaming devices. While the series began and maintains a particular homeostasis on PlayStation platforms, plenty of Kingdom Hearts games have made a place for themselves on Nintendo platforms and mobile devices as well. Up to this point however, the series has completely shied away from the Xbox ecosystem, despite the popularity of the Kingdom Hearts games among Western RPG enthusiasts. That will change for the first time early next year, when Kingdom Hearts III becomes the series’ first-ever game to release on an Xbox console, alongside its expected flagship PS4 edition.
While in attendance at Square Enix’s Suite Spot event in Toronto recently, I was given the chance to go hands-on with Kingdom Hearts III, which is pretty exciting by itself, considering how long-in-development this highly overdue follow-up has been, and how monstrously anticipated it naturally is among both Disney fans and RPG enthusiasts. Better still however is that I was actually set up with an Xbox One kiosk, giving me the opportunity to become one of the first people outside of Square Enix to see how Kingdom Hearts III is shaping up in the series’ debut on Xbox hardware! Since the surrounding kiosks were almost entirely for the PS4 version of Kingdom Hearts III, I could still easily peek over and see if there was any noticeable technical difference between the two console builds of the game, but in terms of direct gameplay, I was exclusively previewing the Xbox One build.
So how does Kingdom Hearts III actually handle on Xbox One? Well, for a longstanding Kingdom Hearts fan like myself, it was definitely a bit surreal to be manning the game with an Xbox button scheme at first, but it wasn’t long before I got comfortable. The button layout is pretty much laid out exactly as it is on PlayStation consoles, with players still being able to use the D-Pad and face buttons to cycle between attacks, items and magic spells throughout the real-time combat, while you could handily use the bumpers to lock on and off of enemy Heartless that spring up in your way. The main difference in Kingdom Hearts III however is the Attraction Flow mechanic, which allows player character, Sora to summon Disney Parks-inspired super attacks, including spinning tea cups, flying magical trains, and a few super flashy team-up attacks with NPC allies, when players press the Y Button, assuming that they’ve filled up the Attraction Flow gauge by dealing enough damage with Keyblade combos in combat.
Another key difference in Kingdom Hearts III compared to prior games is the way that Sora can move and navigate around environments. Square Enix has aimed to refine the speedy, but somewhat loosely-controlling Flowmotion system from 2012’s Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance in Kingdom Hearts III, introducing a new ‘Athletic Flow’ system that gives Sora more freedom of movement, without necessarily cranking up his movement speed. Both of the demo areas showcased this mechanic at length, with Sora being able to run up certain shimmering walls, and easily grind on coloured rails, among other context-sensitive environmental prompts. Donald and Goofy effortlessly followed along all the while, and like the previous games, they didn’t really need to be babysat, since they could easily take care of themselves in combat with the Heartless. Donald didn’t seem all that inclined to heal me at anywhere near the rate of the series’ former games, but fortunately, the demo gave Sora a handful of his own magic spells, including Cura, so fixing Sora’s HP myself was never truly an issue.
The demo showcased two partial worlds to experiment with, with the first being the somewhat familiar Hercules world, a series mainstay, and the second being the all-new Pixar world, “The Toy Chest”, which is naturally the setting of the Toy Story movies. The Toy Chest preview was much more expansive, with the Hercules area mostly highlighting the combat, culminating in a surprisingly intense battle with the gargantuan Rock Titan, after Sora, Donald and Goofy smacked around a few Heartless on the neighbouring cliffs. Many familiar Heartless enemies from the Kingdom Hearts series showed up to try and slow down the trio on the way to the Rock Titan, namely Shadows, Large Bodies, Soldiers and Red Operas, but thankfully, combat is smooth, and feels just as enjoyable on an Xbox controller as it usually does on a PlayStation controller. The lock-on targeting was sometimes a bit fussy with the Xbox bumpers, resulting in a few instances of Sora awkwardly swinging at nothing while the real Heartless battles raged behind him, but this didn’t happen often enough to be a particular issue, and will likely be refined a bit more in the final release.
As much fun as it was to battle familiar Heartless villains, it was the sweeping, destructive battle against the Rock Titan that really served as a highlight moment in this section of the game! Once I finally came face-to-face (to face?) with the two-headed monster, I had to race up a cliff using the new Athletic Flow system, while the Titan threw a rain of boulders down at Sora. The movement up the sheet rock cliff, which is negotiated entirely and easily with just the left thumbstick, was just as natural and responsive as it is on the ground, and the thrill of dodging boulders, which came fairly quickly and furiously, was certainly very exciting! Things didn’t get easier once I finally got up to the Rock Titan’s level either, with the Titan trying to stomp on Sora, even if this did give me an opportunity to attack its feet. This also served as a handy opportunity to try out the new Second Form mechanic, which allows Sora to temporarily mutate his Keyblade into a different weapon, adding new combat capabilities and unique attacks when players activate it with the Y Button. This mechanic was especially useful when certain sections of the Titan lit up with sparkles, which you can leap between by pressing the B Button continually, mimicking an extra agile, wired version of a God of War boss fight. Eventually, knocking around the Rock Titan enough allowed me to leap into the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad Attraction Flow attack, wherein I assaulted it with a series of light blasts before crashing the train into it for a powerful final strike, finishing the boss off, and concluding this section of the demo in very exciting fashion!
The Rock Titan section would likely prove to be a very tough act to follow, since it allowed me to really flex the potential of the flashier, more multi-layered combat mechanics that have been developed for Kingdom Hearts III. Fortunately, the exploration is just as much fun, which is what the Toy Chest section of the demo largely entailed. After an intro cutscene that showcases Sora, Donald and Goofy in their shrunken-down toy forms, in turn meeting familiar Toy Story personalities, Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Rex and Hamm, some Heartless quickly attacked on the floor of Andy’s Room, including some all-new toy-like variants that required a bit more combos to fell than the regular Shadows! After dispatching the Heartless, it also became apparent that not only have Andy, his sister and his mother seemingly disappeared (note that these events appear to take place between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, with Andy still very much a child at this point), but so have most of the toys in Andy’s collection! With evidence pointing the group to Galaxy Toys, an all-new location made for the Toy Chest world of Kingdom Hearts III, Woody and Buzz team up with Sora, Donald and Goofy, with Rex, Hamm, Sarge and some Army Men also tagging along, and everyone makes their way to the street, automatically warping over to Galaxy Toys once we fight through a few more platoons of Heartless.
An especially big batch of dialogue unfolds at the entrance to Galaxy Toys, which includes several amusing references to the first two Toy Story movies, including the events at Sid’s house in the first movie, and the confrontation with the Emperor Zurg toy in the second movie. There’s certainly a continued effort to be authentic even in Kingdom Hearts III’s new Pixar worlds, with a lot of great personality and humour throughout the voiceovers, and the same lovable banter also being shared between Sora, Donald and Goofy. Personable elements like Buzz Lightyear not trusting the new toys as Woody vouches for them also rings true, and this sense of charm isn’t even lost when the young Xehanort incarnation comes to greet everyone at Galaxy Toys! Much of the story in Kingdom Hearts III is obviously not being shared at this point, but the demo did offer a tease that Xehanort is duplicating worlds to some unknown end, and it appears that Andy, his family and the other toys have somehow ended up in the second Toy Chest world, with no clear indication of which world is actually the real one.
There wasn’t much time to ponder this however, as we were quickly attacked by more Heartless, this time bringing in some toy mech suits to really deal heavy damage to Sora’s crew! Fortunately, after enough Keyblade strikes (and a new team-up attack that allows Sora, Woody and Buzz to ride a rocket together and speed through enemy Heartless forces!), Sora could climb into one of the three toy mech variants, with all of them being able to fire a blaster with the Y Button, or get up close and punch their way to victory with the A Button. Each mech has a different specialty that you can activate after charging it up, similar to the Attraction Flow attacks, with one mech being able to lob a flurry of bombs, another being able to charge through enemies for a limited time, and the third firing an especially devastating laser blast! The first-person view of the mechs provided another great way to keep mixing up combat and keeping it fresh to boot, with the mechs themselves handling a bit more heavily than Sora normally does when he’s on foot, but still having enough responsiveness to be useful, especially since you can quickly weave about to dodge enemy attacks with the X Button, and can lunge at enemies with the B Button, giving you plenty more mobility options than just stomping around.
After we were done clearing away Xehanort’s ambushing Heartless, I was able to experiment with the extensive verticality offered throughout the Galaxy Toys area’s lobby. The worlds feel akin to their exploration-friendly, but effectively marked design in Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, only on a considerably bigger scale here, since this latest Kingdom Hearts offering is designed fully around the power of current-gen consoles. It was easy to hum and bop along to the cute instrumental rendition of iconic Toy Story song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” playing in the background as I leaped, ground and dashed through Galaxy Toys, now having to locate Rex, Hamm and Sarge, after they became separated during the initial Heartless attack. Each toy was found in a different section of the store, guarded by more toy Heartless, mechs, dragons and even a creepy possessed doll later on! The Athletic Motion mechanic made traversing toy shelves and striking at enemies a breeze though, and the environments of the toy store were a consistent delight to experience. My personal favourite section was when we had to save Rex from some toy Bahamut enemies, only to soon after find that there is an entire shelf dedicated to Final Fantasy-themed toys from this year’s crossover strategy-fighter-RPG, Dissidia: Final Fantasy NT! This is a bit canonically confusing, since many Final Fantasy characters exist within the Kingdom Hearts universe, but the fictional toys largely focused around the summon monsters such as Ifrit, Leviathan, Odin, and of course, Bahamut. Not only that, but this was an amazing Easter egg for Final Fantasy fans in general, and helped to make up for the lack of Final Fantasy personalities in the demo!
The rest of the demo simply involved moving through more toy sections, running and leaping through a network of ventilation shafts, and eventually rescuing Sarge from being stuck inside a musical frog display (it makes sense when you see it), before concluding after fighting one of those freaky Heartless-possessed dolls! This definitely feels like Kingdom Hearts as you know and love it, and the Toy Chest world fits in effortlessly with the style, tone and fun factor that’s present throughout the in-house Disney-themed worlds that the series has delivered in the past. I suspect that there is a proper boss to the Toy Chest world in the final release that I didn’t get to fight in the demo, but even just sticking to regular Heartless (outside of that amazing Rock Titan boss fight in the demo’s other section), I found that Kingdom Hearts III is one of the most fun and polished entries yet in the series if this demo is any indication, and the simple, but powerful refinements to the action-RPG battle system make this game truly feel like the biggest and flashiest Kingdom Hearts game to date!
This magic doesn’t appear to be lost on Xbox One either, even with this being the first time that the Kingdom Hearts series has made its way to an Xbox console. The controls are still clearly designed around a PlayStation controller, and this is occasionally evident with passing nuisances like the somewhat finnicky bumper-controlled lock-on targeting, which you need a bit of extra digital dexterity to consistently utilize well in the Xbox One version of Kingdom Hearts III (treasure chests in Kingdom Hearts III also still use the PlayStation-inspired triangle prompt when you can open them, even on Xbox One), but beyond that, the game feels just as comfortable and fun to play on Microsoft’s console as it always has on Sony’s hardware. Even if you’re an avid Xbox gamer, and this is your first time attempting a Kingdom Hearts game, Kingdom Hearts III feels intuitive and easy to control with an Xbox One controller for the most part. While it’s still a bit obvious that the PS4 version of Kingdom Hearts III seems to be the flagship build of the game, the Xbox One version definitely doesn’t feel like a compromised port, and operates as if Kingdom Hearts games on Xbox platforms have always been commonplace, rather than a first-time experiment.
I must stress that the native 4K resolution that’s seemingly been achieved when playing Kingdom Hearts III on an Xbox One X (which I was thankfully playing my demo on), is absolutely stunning as well. The Xbox One X hardware definitely seems to present a clear visual advantage over playing Kingdom Hearts III on a PS4 Pro, which appears to instead cap the graphical resolution of Kingdom Hearts III’s PS4 build at 1440p Ultra HD, rather than the Xbox One X’s full native 4K capability. In the case of Kingdom Hearts III’s demo builds however, a caveat to the otherwise gorgeous full 4K visuals on Xbox One X is that they do appear to scale down to a more noticeable 30fps performance clip during cutscenes, whereas the PS4 Pro units seemed to offer a smoother cutscene framerate at a glance, though both the PS4 and Xbox One builds appeared to perform at a mostly consistent 60fps during actual gameplay sequences. The higher-end visuals on Xbox One X did lead to a few slight framerate hiccups during hectic combat sequences, as well as some slightly lengthened load times, which I didn’t seem to notice on the PS4 Pro units, but it’s possible that these small technical blemishes may be smoothed out before the final release of Kingdom Hearts III’s Xbox One build.
Given the proudly convoluted story threads of the Kingdom Hearts saga, and the inability to access any of the series’ former entries on Xbox consoles, hardcore Xbox gamers will definitely be thrown in the deep end during Kingdom Hearts III from a narrative standpoint, but gameplay-wise at least, Kingdom Hearts III feels right at home on Xbox hardware. The 4K visual advantage on Xbox One X even provides a pretty cool visual edge for those who happen to own Microsoft’s premium 4K-powered game console and a 4K television to truly take advantage of it, even as the rest of the design template in Kingdom Hearts III is clearly built around the PS4 interface most of all. Still, if you’re an RPG fan with a preference for Xbox consoles, and Kingdom Hearts III is to be your first foray into the series, you’ll experience the same vibrant action, the same charming presentation, and the same memorable adventure as any of the series’ former entries on competing hardware, creating a surprisingly potent opportunity for Kingdom Hearts III to be a deceptively strong gateway drug to the rest of the series for Xbox gamers, especially if you can crank the visuals up to native 4K on Xbox One X!
Now if only we knew when the rest of the Kingdom Hearts series will be able to join the Xbox library!
Kingdom Hearts III releases on January 29th, 2019, for PS4 and Xbox One