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Kingdom Hearts 3 hands-on: probably the best digital Disney theme park ever made

I've always had mixed feelings on Kingdom Hearts, but the third entry in the series feels like it might be the best yet - and it could very well make me a convert.

While Square Enix's pre-release promotion has focused on Kingdom Hearts 3's larger-scale levels, gorgeous visuals and the addition of Pixar-based worlds to the game, none of those features were the top stand-out in my Kingdom Hears 3 hands-on session. Instead what differentiates the sequel is this: it's probably the best digital Disney theme park ever made.

The previous games in the series were enjoyable RPG romps through a variety of Disney worlds linked by a convoluted original narrative. The combat was pretty simple - hammering one button to attack, only occasionally mixing things up with other commands. Kingdom Hearts 3 still has that - but there's a lot more besides to keep you entertained.

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Openness and player choice seems to be the name of the game, and not in your now typical open world way. Take a basic combat encounter, for instance: protagonist Sora can now switch between his various keyblade weapons on the fly with a tap of a button, and each keyblade has several unique transformations befitting of its origin world. One turns into a hammer, while another morphs into a magic wand that switches out physically aggressive attacks for elegant, skating maneuvers around the battlefield, Sora dancing this way and that as he lets rip magical attacks.

The 90-minute chunk I played made constant efforts to surprise with new and varying things to do, and in turn this pushes the series away from its previously repetitive combat.

At a basic level as you attack Sora builds up the ability to switch to higher level transformations or even launch into a special attack. Many of these are unique to specific worlds or even certain areas within those worlds. The 'Rocket Ruckus' attack is unique to the Toy Story world, for instance, and sees Sora, Woody and Buzz hop onto the back of a toy rocket. Witnessed in a trailer one might assume this is a cinematic attack, but that's not the case. You're actually handed direct control and are allowed to struggle to control the erratic boosting of the rocket to hit enemies before triggering a powerful finishing attack.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is full of stuff like this. Some of it has been announced before, like special attacks with teacups and pirate ships based off Disney theme park rides. Others are new, like a shooting mini-game that briefly turns combat into a first-person shooter. Some are just silly distractions, like how you can hop on a ball in the bedroom in the Toy Story level and roll it around by running on top of it. These things are absolutely all over the place, and how fun and interactive these brief interludes are didn't click for me until I actually played the game. Much of their luster comes from how they seamlessly weave in and out of the series' existing combat loop.

This seems to be the ultimate selling point of Kingdom Hearts 3 over its predecessors - that varied theme park feel. The 90-minute chunk I played made constant efforts to surprise with new and varying things to do, and in turn this pushes the series away from its previously repetitive combat. There's lots to do that makes your experience feel more unique and worthwhile.

Even some series staple features feel more different and unique. Link attacks see you summon a Disney icon to help you out, but you have direct control over their unique attacks. Summon Wreck-it-Ralph and you can build walls and obstacles to squash enemies or simply trap them in place. Trigger his finisher and those bricks explode, causing further damage. This makes this summon immediately more interesting, since there's a strategy and specificity to its use that allows you to plan ahead. The same is true of the other summon in this build, The Little Mermaid's Ariel.

It all looks great, too, with Square Enix managing to draw an impressive output out of Unreal Engine 4, with the vibrant palette of Disney giving the game a refreshing and embracing technicolor visual tone. The Toy Story world looks insane, with visuals and animations that really do look and feel a lot like the movie.

A few areas of the hands-on are a little rocky, however. The short snippet of the Hercules Olympus World is worrisome, featuring a gigantic boss that seemed to make the generally iffy camera and lock-on freak out all too much and a weird climbing sequence with clunky four-way movement. It looks cool, but playing it feels incredibly dodgy. Even in this section there's an impressive ambition on show, mind, a real hearty attempt to add a spectacle and scale to Kingdom Hearts that the series has never had a chance to fully attempt thanks to the last decade-plus being entirely dedicated to low-spec handheld games.

Square Enix has talked of a massively open game, with director Tetsuya Nomura previously having said that one world in KH3 is equivalent to all of another entry in the series. Based on what I saw of Toy Story that feels a little far fetched - but these are still significantly larger zones than in previous games. Rather than an all-new style of zone design this feels like a natural continuation of the design from the previous two numbered KH games.

It's easy to look at a screenshot of the area outside Andy's house and think there's a huge, open zone to explore, but in fact it's much more limited, with much of what you can see simply gorgeous eye-candy. This isn't bad - it just feels important to note to manage expectations. What's important is that every area is densely packed with things to do and a truly immersive attention to detail. The fact that these areas have hard edges, some invisible, doesn't matter; the areas that are there for you practically plead to be explored in detail, and KH3 welcomes that sense of exploration in a way that previous games didn't.

For the most part, it's all properly enticing and exciting stuff. There's still boring characters in black cloaks differentiated by haircuts and hints that the story will continue to remain entirely too self-serious, but in most other areas KH3 feels utterly filled with and driven by joy. It truly embodies that Disney mantra of trying to feel a little magical.

In a toy store location developers have clearly had a blast building out fake toy boxes and displays, including a Final Fantasy themed area featuring toys of iconic FF summons - and this sort of attention to detail is present throughout every area of the game. If you stop and look at character animations you'll see them move in ways that are slavishly faithful to their original incarnations - so Buzz and Woody will certainly animate very differently to Ralph, Ariel or Rapunzel.

I haven't mentioned my favourite bit of my hands-on yet, and it's another one of those unique combat gimmicks - the Gigas. Gigas are giant (by Toy Story standards) robots available in the toy store, and they're both enemy and ally. They're formidable, large foes for Sora, Donald, Goofy, Buzz and Woody, but once one is taken down Sora can actually jump inside it and take over. Suddenly, for a brief period, KH3 becomes a first-person mecha game.

There are three different types of mech, each with different attacks. You can fire ranged weapons, boost jump, tackle, punch among other things - and using these different attacks in tandem leads to some super satisfying stuff. I never thought I'd be boosting into the air and slamming down to knock foes on their ass before giving them a blast of energy weapons to finish them off. It feels great - and yet it's just a small thing you can do amidst all the other combat.

I've still got lots of questions about Kingdom Hearts 3. I'm curious about its balance between Disney fan service and original story elements, completely in the dark about its RPG elements and character progression, and curious about how the ideas that have impressed me so much in Toy Story will manifest in other worlds.

More information is set to come next month, but in the meantime know this from the first hands-on: KH3 is on track to be the best in the series. After all these years, that's an exciting thing to be able to say.

Disclaimer: VG247 attended a preview event for this hands-on. Square Enix provided travel and accommodation.

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