Today marks the fourth anniversary of Kingdom Hearts 3’s worldwide release – excuse me for a second while I turn to dust. I, along with every other Keyblade-owning dork on the planet, imagined a perfect version of Kingdom Hearts 3 that would be the greatest game ever made. The one that would answer all our questions, play better than the first and second main entries combined, and set up the series for even more adventures. Maybe Donald would even heal us this time.
Well, judging by the "Kingdom Hearts 3 is the WORST GAME EVER" YouTube videos I still get recommended to me to this day, that's not exactly what happened, is it? Sure, Donald was a little bit more proactive in doing his one bloody job, but Kingdom Hearts 3 ended by setting up as many questions as it answered and didn't quite match up to Kingdom Hearts 2, let alone the first and second games combined.
In the four years since, most of the community seems to have slowly accepted Kingdom Hearts 3 for what it is, instead of what it could have been. There’s still a decent chunk that views it as the worst thing to have happened to their precious JRPG series, but that’s a real shame when one big update changed things for the better not too long after launch.
I can understand where most of that disappointment comes from. Even if I was here for all the batshit story twists, after my first playthrough of Kingdom Hearts 3, I remember feeling let down by the cliffhanger ending, the lack of original worlds, and the frosty kick in the nads that was the Kingdom of Arendelle.
Combat was another mixed bag. Although it was satisfying in its own right and a major improvement from Osaka’s work on Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance, it felt like a shadow of Kingdom Hearts 2’s masterfully crafted moveset, stuffed to the gills with mechanics that felt tacked on like cooking and Keyblade upgrades. Chief of these was Attraction Flow, a new move that let Sora summon Disney World rides for powerful attacks that were essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card awash with repetitive, unimpactful animations.
Attraction Flow was just one example of Kingdom Hearts 3’s biggest problem – it was far too easy. Except for a few boss battles, like Angelic Amber from the Toy Box and the final encounter with Xehanort, Kingdom Hearts 3 was a total cake-walk and felt like it was on auto-pilot throughout the whole adventure, even on its hardest difficulty.
While these issues hindered Kingdom Hearts 3 in the end, I still ate up the slop like the Sora-loving pig I am, but it felt like something big was missing.. As it turns out, there was – Critical Mode, which was added to the game four months after launch.
Critical Mode is the hardest difficulty that Kingdom Hearts has to offer, cutting Sora’s Defence and Attack drastically while making enemies strong enough that a couple of hits will take you out. Since Kingdom Hearts 2, Critical Mode has been the best way to play the series, and it’s no different here.
This added challenge suddenly makes some of Kingdom Hearts 3’s biggest combat issues disappear. Those Attraction Flow attacks once drew groans were suddenly your best friend after a shadow cut your health in half. The same goes for cooking with Remy for temporary status buffs, which now feel essential for getting by rather than letting the game play itself.
Keyblade Transformations benefited the most from Critical Mode, turning from a pale imitation of Drive Forms to a mechanic that I’ve come to prefer. They’re far too powerful and easy to access in the main game, but like with Attraction Flow, they become a way of evening the odds and a true life-saver in pretty much every encounter.
Rather than busting them all out and unleashing finishers every second, you need to carefully consider how you use them, down to whether the starting animation might give you some invincibility frames from a tough boss. Considering Keyblade Transformations are one of Kingdom Hearts 3’s big gameplay mechanics, Critical Mode making them so important to learn practically reinvents the combat compared to the base game. It’s that much of a difference.
Kingdom Hearts 3’s problems can’t all be fixed just by playing it on Critical Mode. Its story is still, well, Kingdom Hearts, Frozen still sucks snowballs, and that cliffhanger ending is still a slap in the face. However, Critical Mode does turn the simplistic combat and its many many bells and whistles into something that lives up to Kingdom Hearts 2, and that’s a mighty accomplishment.
Casual fans of the series have already made up their minds that Kingdom Hearts 3 is the worst, but I’m surprised to find that some of the more hardcore followers have never returned for another run. As someone who expected the world from this game and finally got close to that wish by giving it a second chance on Critical, I couldn’t recommend it more in the lead-up to the next big chapter.
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