Kingdom Hearts 3 has been in development for what feels like an eternity, and though there have been various teases, trailers and hints dropped over the years, we've somehow yet to see anything substantial about the game. Until now, as yesterday in Santa Monica Square Enix invited us to go hands on with the latest mainline instalment of its bafflingly complex Final Fantasy/Disney mash-up series. There were two playable sections on offer; one short section in the Olympus Coliseum world battling a huge Titan boss, and a much longer, expanded section in Toy Box, the Toy Story themed world. The demo in Olympus Coliseum heavily featured the new wall-scaling autorun mechanic, with Sora, Goofy and Donald scaling sheer cliff faces as the Titan pelted rocks at them from above, and culminated in a boss battle with the Titan on the summit, with Sora summoning the Big Magic Mountain attraction to finish it off, which looked pretty incredible. There were some camera issues as the framing struggled to keep up with Sora in confined stretches of the cliff face and when it was vying for space with the Titan at the top of the mountain, but it was a fun showcase of the new features in KH3's combat, including key blade transformations and the bombastic attractions.
The real star of the show is the Toy Story-themed Toy Box world. This is the first time a Pixar property has been featured in a Kingdom Hearts game, and it works - there are lots of cool little details and secrets tucked away throughout the world, from hidden Mickeys to mini-games to Final Fantasy Easter eggs. In attendance with the Square Enix development team at the Kingdom Hearts 3 Premiere event in Santa Monica was Jason Katz and Tasha Sounart from Pixar, talking about their experiences collaborating with Square on the game. Sounart is an associate creative director at Pixar, having worked in the animation department since June 1997 starting with A Bug's Life. She's also worked in games, directing Costume Quest at Double Fine before returning to Pixar where her current job melds all of her past skills together - she's also a big Kingdom Hearts fan. Jason Katz is a story supervisor at Pixar and has worked in the story department there since Toy Story, and most recently he spent six years as story supervisor for Coco.
They both said Pixar was involved in Kingdom Hearts 3 from the very beginning, giving notes on the script to make the Pixar characters felt authentic to how they would actually act in these situations. Katz said it took time and trust to understand what both companies could collectively bring to the table for the finished game, and that early on, one thing they talked about was the Toy Story universe, and what it meant. Katz explained that a big part of the Toy Story films is nostalgia; nostalgia for toys that you remember growing up, or that feeling of playing with a toy as a kid, and he remembered having really great conversations talking to the people at Square Enix and asking them, "What were the toys you remembered? What were the toys from your childhood?" From those conversations, Square brought back the ideas for the Gigas, pivotable Gundam-style robots in the toy store section of the game, "And that was when it really started to click," Katz said, "that both teams were really speaking the same language. That's when you really take advantage of the time it takes to develop a really quality story."
Sounart also said that Pixar gave Square Enix some of their actual character models to use in the game. "They weren't shaded, Sounart said, "our software has some limitations where we don't have the ability to give shaded models, so they had to add shading and Sully's fur and things like that. But then it's just a conversation, a back and forth with lots of notes. We had our original character designers on Monsters Inc. and Toy Story help out and give notes just to make sure everything looked as true to the films as we could make it." Katz added, "Very similar to how we would make it if we were doing it in-house - the person who designed Buzz, the person who designed Mike from Monsters Inc. is involved to make sure the integration of Sora and Donald and Goofy into monsters feels right. It's an easy thing to say and it's a tough thing to realise - what is the 'monsterisation' of Donald? What does Sora look like as a toy? But it's so important because not only does it help the story along, but it helps bind them into the world and give them a reason for them to be there."
Kingdom Hearts 3's combat is similar to previous main entries, but it's just... more. It's full-on spectacle all the time, with magic, links, attractions and now multiple keyblade transformations to utilise, meaning it's very rarely a case of just mashing X to attack. The biggest change to combat is the keyblade transformations - this was a feature in birth by sleep, where it was something you were able to do if you mastered the usage of a keyblade, and according to Nomura, since Sora has now become more skilled, he's able to use that feature in Kingdom Hearts 3. Different keyblade transformations have different properties - for example the Toy Story-themed keyblade transforms into a hammer, which hits hard, while the Tangled Keyblade transforms into a magical staff which casts spells. This introduces new strategy to combat, especially since you can switch between keyblades while you're battling, and keep the current level of transformation. The Toy Story blade evolves from a hammer into a drill, and the drill allows you to evade enemies by digging holes in the ground and going around them. The Monsters Inc. keyblade evolves into Agile Claws and then into a Twin Yoyo, so it's fun for moving fast, keeping your distance and dishing out heavy DPS. Mostly though it's just fun to cycle through the different weapons, creating new combos and trying out the skills available at each level. Between those, Attractions and Links, or summons, it's rare you'll ever not have a special ability available for deployment at any time during longer battles, which definitely helps keep things interesting. The skills and finishers all look very flashy too - our favourite was the Tangled-themed keyblade, which could create a tower attack as a finisher.
There was no firm release date announced at the Kingdom Hearts 3 Premiere event, but Nomura's official statement was that an announcement should be coming "early next month," so, probably just before E3. Nomura continued, "Kingdom Hearts 3 is a title with many people working on it, so we are making final adjustments, but we are pretty firm on a certain date so we hope to reveal it next month." And as far as we can tell, they're sticking with a 2018 window, so if we were to guess, we'd say a November release date is looking fairly likely at this point.
So, what did we think, given that we were some of the first people in the world to play Kingdom Hearts 3? We were impressed - it certainly still has the heart that the series is so loved for even after all these years, and the combat, which was never really Kingdom Hearts' strongest suit, is much improved. We're a little concerned the story is going to continue the tradition of being a whole load of convoluted nonsense about interchangeable men in black hoods, but really, the interactions between heroes old and new is and has always been the real draw - and if Toy Box is anything to go by, the introduction of Pixar settings and characters is going to make those interactions even more fun and knowing. We especially enjoyed the borderline meta chat between Hamm and Rex about their new 'famous video game character' friends, and the knowing nods crammed into the toy store level (there was a shop with a Dissidia Final Fantasy display and a game stop selling such well-known titles as Wall Street Ninja 2 and Herd of Zombies) really carries on the series' sense of fun and adventure. We're excited to see more, in other words.