A hands-off look at the Pirates, Tangled, and Frozen worlds.
It’s weird to think about my expectations for something I’ve waited, knowingly and un-, over a decade to play. I thought a lot about what I hoped to see from Kingdom Hearts 3 when I played it back in June, and for the most part it delivered in its first impression. Seeing three more levels of Kingdom Hearts gameplay in a hands-off demo, I’m even further impressed how well the long-awaited sequel not only continues to meet my expectations, but surprise me in delightful ways.
Demoed for us by Kingdom Hearts 3 co-director Tai Yasue, I saw in-depth gameplay of three worlds — Pirates of the Caribbean’s Port Royal, Frozen’s Arendelle, and Tangled’s Corona.
(These impressions are spoiler-free — as I know many fans of the series, like myself, are cautious of leaks related to Kingdom Hearts 3, this preview has no significant story spoilers, and only briefly details one boss battle.)
A Pirate’s Life for Me
Going in, I had the least enthusiasm to see Pirates’ Port Royal. I worried about its realistic look compared to the other worlds, I don’t hold particular fondness for the franchise’s level in Kingdom Hearts 2, and I’ve lost such interest in the movie franchise thanks to its quality decline.
And I’m so happy to say Port Royal, acting like a mini Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, looks to be one of the most intriguing Kingdom Hearts levels yet.
Port Royal offers land, air, and sea (both naval and underwater) combat, but its coolest aspect is your ship. Sora, Donald, and Goofy comprise their own adorable pirate crew, sailing the seas on the hunt for treasure. Sora can hop off the ship at any point and explore a number of islands populating the sea. Treasure can be buried below the surface, as well, but each little island can hold its own secrets worth exploring for, and I’m excited to find out how much there actually is peppered throughout the world.
The setup for this world positively delights me. While hardware limitations are understandable, most of the non-console entries in the franchise have strayed away from the light platforming that encourages exploration in the same way the numbered entries have. This level theoretically allows for an incredible level of scavenging, and while we only visited a couple of islets, I can’t wait to search above, below, and around every one of them.
Traveling on your ship, jumping off into the water, and then running onto land looks like a seamless process, with underwater travel much more agile than in Kingdom Hearts games past. You’re also thankfully not locked into aerial combat — witnessing the steampunk bird boss fight first seen in other trailers, you can hop from one heartless to the next for better vantage points.
Because of its depth of variety, Port Royal also offered a great chance to see how combat mechanics can shift from world to world. Goofy’s bombardier special attack, when launched against a Beetlejuice-esque sand worm heartless, doesn’t just slam into the foe. Goofy gets swallowed whole by the beast to attack from within. (It’s best not to consider what’s going through Goofy’s head in these moments, especially when Sora makes him do it multiple times.)
Similarly, magic attacks like Blizzard, Thunder, and the new Water spell behave differently underwater than they do in the salty air, and fish of the sea can be collected to bring back to Remy (from Ratatouille) in his Twilight Town restaurant.
The ambition of the level surprised me, and I hope its potential for exploration is matched by a rewarding world actually worth investigating.
Let It Snow
Warning – This section does briefly discuss a boss battle from Kingdom Hearts 3. If you would not like to know about the battle (no mention of any significant story elements are made, though), skip to the next headlined section.
One of the centerpieces of Arendelle also assuaged my question about whether Kingdom Hearts 3 will deliver on some of the epic, long boss battles the franchise has included before. Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Marshmallow faced off with a giant wolf who looked like Fenrir covered in icicles during our demo. (Yasue told us the development team worked in concert with members of the Frozen team to come up with the enemies to keep them true to the world of the modern Disney classic.)
The wolf had enough health to last it at least a winter or two in Arendelle, with a horde of ghostly mini-wolf heads to assist in the battle from time to time. Oh, and it could transform into a black sun, which Marshmallow would need to prevent from crushing everyone.
I love some of Kingdom Hearts’ biggest battles, and it’s nice to see the scope being employed in the levels at large also applies to these encounters. Even a fight with a handful of Arendelle Heartless, who behaved differently in air than on land, felt like a boss-sized battle thrown into the midst of exploration.
As with the ship combat of Port Royal or the Giga Mechs of Toy Box, Arendelle’s big gimmick mechanic is extreme downhill sledding, the closest you’ll probably get to a Kingdom Hearts eSport. Yasue showed us one of the earliest sledding sections, a massive, surprisingly lengthy portion that offered various branching paths and treasure to collect along the way. The section felt a tad too long for how sparse the mountain seemed — it’s unclear whether the challenge will increase or if there will be more to discover along the routes, but at the very least Arendelle’s hills are a beauty to glide through.
Sora Knows Best
Tangled’s showing was decidedly less flashy than Frozen’s or Pirates’, but did showcase how the little details make Kingdom Hearts 3 such a more robust experience than its predecessors.
The first level we were shown of the demo, cutscenes in Corona we watched naturally segued into exploration. All of the side characters – Rapunzel, Flynn, Donald, and Goofy – started exploring the forest on their own while Sora idled for a moment. And, most enjoyably, interacting with small bits of the environment resulted in cute, interstitial cutscenes.
Given that Rapunzel hasn’t enjoyed the everyday aspects of life we’re all used to — well, “used to” if we live in a fairytale forest setting — casting Aero on a bunch of dandelions causes the wisps to fly into the sky, triggering a sweet scene with Rapunzel. Similarly, she’ll run off on her own into a nearby lake, and following her triggers an interaction between her and Sora about the delights of the world.
Yasue said finding and activating these moments builds trust with Rapunzel, though it’s unclear how that will factor into the level as it progresses. Following Rapunzel on these flights of intrigue occasionally led to additional combat scenarios and treasure opportunities, appreciably adding some character building into that exploration.
Corona’s fights, especially in Yasue’s hands, also showcased the variety to combat. I spoke about the many systems at work in Kingdom Hearts 3 back at E3 2018, and how using them in concert well does take some getting used to. But with a little practice, they become a crazy ballet of oversized household items swiping through the air and Disney characters hurling themselves at baddies. Some of Corona’s enemies also had armor rather than HP at first to whittle down, while the designs of some of the more humanlike Heartless in this world, coupled with the ice dragons of Arendelle, demonstrated just how much variety there will be to the enemies. (As someone who poured over Kingdom Hearts bestiaries in the past, this prospect has me very excited.)
Our gameplay demonstrations of Kingdom Hearts focused very much on just that – the gameplay. I can’t speak to how well the stories of the world play out, nor how the overarching narrative fits into them. But, the three, brief snippets of gameplay renewed my excitement for the sequel. I honestly went in expecting to enjoy but pretty much know what the demos would hold.
Thankfully, I was proven wrong. And now I don’t know what quite to expect for Kingdom hearts 3’s full release, and that has me more excited than before.
Jonathon Dornbush is IGN’s News Editor, PlayStation lead!, and Beyond host. Talk to him about his KH3 experience on Twitter @jmdornbush.