'Kingdom Hearts 3' Preview: This Hands-on Proved Hard to Put Down

Resurrect those ambitious crossover event memes, Kingdom Hearts 3 is (kinda) here! Square Enix demoed the highly anticipated sequel for the first time yesterday and I was among the lucky few to get hands-on time with it. Full disclosure: I'm not a longtime Kingdom Hearts fan. But after a 60-minute demo, I think I could become one. There is a lot to like about this game, and new players will be welcomed with a strong entry point for the franchise given it's rather unconventional narrative construction and complex character backstories.

Let's start with what I liked most: the look. It's a vibrant, gorgeous game capable of running smoothly on PS4. While we don't have a release date yet ( that's coming next month ) the game appears to be nearly complete and has a noticeable level of polish. And when you're dealing with the Disney (and now Pixar) aesthetics, polish is key. I played two worlds: a brief boss fight on Mt. Olympus in the Hercules world, and a longer mission on the Toy Story world. Both environments served as a perfect showcase for the new features coming to the game.

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KH3 is fast and flashy and fun. Square Enix

Starting with Mt. Olympus, we jumped right in with Sora, Goofy and Donald under attack from a massive two-headed Titan. The gargantuan boss hurls boulders down sheer cliff sides as Sora & Friends scramble upwards with a bit of crafty wall running, a new feature this time around. This fight was all about verticality and it shows. There were a handful of Heartless minions along the way, and switching between Keyblades made for a few fun, frantic battles. Switching is a new mechanic coming to Kingdom Hearts 3, and it wasn't clear in the demo if we had access to the same blades players would have at this point in the story.

The Keyblades in the demo were the Infinity Badge, Smile Gear and Ever After. Infinity Badge is based on the Toy Story world, basically a large cactus in a cowboy hat with a small rocket ship keychain dangling on the side. Smile Gear comes from Alice in Wonderland's mad tea party, as evidenced by the special Attraction attack unleashed when the keyblade is fully charged (more on those in a sec) and is an ominous looking mish-mash of black metal and neon. Ever After takes inspiration from Tangled, and has the pastoral feel of a mouldering tower in a meadow.

The Attraction attacks are new, contextual and were a definite highlight of the demo. As with Smile Gear's tea cups, Attractions summon real-world Disney theme park rides that swoop in to offer special attacks and loads of damage. The concept is introduced in the titan fight with the Big Magic Mountain Attraction, which creates a fluorescent technicolor version of Big Thunder Mountain from Frontierland, allowing you to zoom around the titan and blast him with fireworks. It looks incredible.

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Big Magic Mountain is one of many dazzling Attraction attacks. Square Enix

The Infinity Badge spawns a cart from Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin and switches you to an FPS mode where you fire lasers at the Heartless. Ever After goes BIG by sprouting Rapunzel's tower straight out of the ground and dealing AoE damage. I also created a pirate ship ride (done with the same snazzy aesthetic as Big Magic Mountain) that swung like a pendulum and smashed foes and took a ride with Woody and Buzz on a rocket that dive bombs anything in its path.

These were just the highlights from the major set piece attacks. A dizzying amount of other, less powerful attacks capture all the animated eye-candy Kingdom Hearts fans crave. Given the truncated demo time (as well as a build that was likely fine-tuned to show press way more features than might be available in a normal battle), I couldn't discern exactly how each attack made its way into my UI. I couldn't determine which Keyblades granted which attacks, nor what environmental conditions gave rise to the Attractions. I button-mashed a bunch and then kept launching crazy attack after crazy attack. Pure, unadulterated video game fun.

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Things can get a little busy, but KH3 manages to not to overwhelm. Square Enix

I don't want to launch into too much story stuff, other than to say one of Xehanort's minions (Nobodies? Clones? This story is bonkers.) is up to no good in Toy Story world. Sora, Donald and Goofy team up with Buzz and Woody to get to the bottom of a series of strange disappearances. Wreck-it Ralph is hidden somewhere on the mission, but I didn't come across him in my playthrough. The Toy Story world we demoed was pretty big, and we were told it represents about 30 percent of the total size of all of the Pixar world. Given that we don't know exactly how many worlds we're going to get, it's safe to assume Kingdom Hearts 3 is going to be a substantial game, even if it's just a few.

As someone who knows the barest minimum about Kingdom Hearts, I walked away from the Kingdom Hearts 3 demo wanting to play more. Much more. That there's a complex story at the heart of it all is a huge bonus, and gives me the excuse to dive deeper into a franchise I'd only heard described with wide-eyed wonder from devoted fans. But you don't need to know the "why" behind the game when the "what" is so, so good.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is scheduled for release later this year on Xbox and PS4.