Kingdom Hearts 3 still didn't feel real until I witnessed Haley Joel Osment's voice coming out of Sora's mouth. In that magical moment - and the many that followed during my hour-long hands-on session of the long-awaited sequel from Square Enix and Disney - it was like reuniting with old friends I'd first met over a decade ago. We've been treated to plenty of gorgeous gameplay footage of Kingdom Hearts 3 in months past, but hearing the English voiceovers is when all that childhood nostalgia really hits home. Sora, Goofy, and Donald sharing a chuckle, Woody and Buzz Lightyear talking about strange goings-on after the enemy Heartless showed up, Hamm and Rex cracking corny jokes - it's all a constant reminder of how playful, fun, and enchanting it feels to explore these beloved Disney and Pixar worlds in a playable JRPG.
Two areas were on display for this demo: a brief clash against a colossal Titan in Hercules' Mount Olympus, and a treacherous trip through a toy store in the Toy Story world, entitled Toy Box. Devotees who completed Kingdom Hearts 2.8 will know that Hercules' realm is the first stop on this long journey through Disney and Pixar's cinematic universes, which will also feature worlds based on Monsters, Inc., Big Hero 6, and Tangled, among unnamed others. And even in this brief introductory fight against Lythos the Mountain King, it's immediately apparent that Kingdom Hearts 3 plays just like its PS2 predecessors, for better or worse depending on your familiarity with the series. Longtime fans should be plenty comfortable with its unique action-RPG combat by now, where your basic Attacks and Magic spells are all mapped to an ever-present D-Pad menu, and comboed hits unlock the potential for flashy special moves. But those who didn't grow up with these games (and their many spinoffs) may be taken aback by the touchy third-person camera and rudimentary lock-on system, as well as Sora's squirrelly movement whenever you're trying to jump to a precise spot or dodge incoming fire.
While the controls and gameplay are just like you remember, the graphics are a colossal step up from your fond but aging memories. In a brief panel presentation before the demo, longtime series director Tetsuya Nomura said "I wanted to have a Pixar world in this game from the beginning, and I really thought that Pixar was necessary for Kingdom Hearts 3. I've been negotiating with Disney since the beginning of Kingdom Hearts to include Pixar, and we were able to realize it with Kingdom Hearts 3." The timing is perfect thanks to the marvels of modern console hardware: the visuals in Kingdom Hearts 3 can hold their own with the smooth animations and silky textures of Pixar and Disney's 3D films. The series has always showcased vibrant colors and eye-catching character designs, but I was stricken by the many finer details in Kingdom Hearts 3. Things like rain pelting puddles amidst the slick rock of Mount Olympus, the lifelike scuffs on Hamm's snout, the careful crimps in Woody's limbs, even a miniscule "(C) Disney/Pixar" stamped on Buzz's butt. Just about everything - save for a few grainy textures and some blurriness on distant objects I occasionally spotted on Xbox One - looks pristinely polished, just like you'd expect when cut-scene connoisseurs team up with monolithic movie makers.
Just remember what your old pal said
The playable section of the Toy Story world - which felt pretty dang giant, and was reportedly a mere 30% of that area - sees Sora, Donald, and Goofy shrunken down into action figure form, teaming up with Woody and Buzz to investigate a Heartless-sparked disturbance at Galaxy Toys, a three-story emporium that's the stuff of childhood dreams. But before that, you get the chance to explore a stunningly spot-on recreation of Andy's room (something I haven't had the pleasure of doing since Disney's Extreme Skate Adventure). Poking around nooks and crannies often turns up chests housing helpful items, but it's also a reward in itself to simply run around freely in these environments you've seen countless times, whether on the silver screen or (dare I date myself) VHS. If the brief snippet in Andy's room is any indication, you'll also be treated to fully-voiced dialogue even outside of cut-scenes, as I was delighted to hear characters actually talking during optional bits of chit-chat. Square Enix recruited some excellent soundalikes in place of Tom Hanks as Woody and R. Lee Ermey (RIP) as the green army man Sarge, but I'm certain that we're getting some genuine articles like Wallace Shawn as Rex and John Ratzenberger as Hamm. And unless my ears deceive me, that might actually be Tim Allen doing Buzz Lightyear's voice.
Levels are structured in a pleasantly familiar fashion: you have the freedom to explore the spacious areas at your own pace, and every so often you'll step across the right spot that triggers a bunch of varied Heartless enemies to spawn in. After some brief scuffles around Andy's front yard and down his street, the gang made it to Galaxy Toys for the real fight against a mysterious hooded figure who reveals himself to be another incarnation of Xehanort. Speaking of, you can probably expect Kingdom Hearts 3's story to have just as many mind-warping twists and turns as all the games that got us here; if you need a refresher like I did, here's the best story recap I've seen so far. The main gimmick in Galaxy Toys is the Gigas mech, a giant robot action figure that Sora can pilot once its Heartless driver has been neutralized. It's a treat getting to dash around in a big (by toy proportions) 'bot, firing lasers and punching enemies in a first-person perspective akin to N64's Mystical Ninja, and it helps keep the combat feeling varied so that you don't succumb to mere button-mashing.
A new mechanic that helps spice up the combat even further is the introduction of Attractions: brightly lit super moves modeled after Disneyland's many rides. They may not bear their exact names, but it was always a treat to bust out the Big Magic Mountain train, go for a spin on the Mad Tea Cups, or take aim aboard the Buzz-inspired Shooting Ride. My favorite was the Splash Run, which I'm pretty sure is actually a take on California Adventure's Grizzly River Run: you paint a trail of sparkling water around your enemies, then activate the finisher to send Sora, Donald, and Goofy careening along the path, soaking (and likely destroying) everything in their wake. There's also the return of the spectacular Link specials, which tag in guest characters like Wreck-It Ralph, Ariel, and the adorable Spirits from Dream Drop Distance. And even in those moments when you can't trigger some dazzling animation, there are plenty of Keyblade transformations to activate via continuous attacks, like the Hyper Hammer that has a rocket for a mallet, the spinning Twin Yo-Yos, the spell-flinging Mirage Staff, and the enemy-grinding Drill Punch.
My limited time with Kingdom Hearts 3 was, in a word, delightful. Kingdom Hearts has always been a series where the people who love it really love it, and even those who don't can plainly see the appeal of exploring such a meticulously built, splendidly presented crossover of worlds and characters that shaped your childhood. With how long it's taken to finally make this game, there's a generation that must feel like the series was just as formative as any Disney or Pixar film. And I'm thrilled to say that, from what I've seen, Kingdom Hearts 3 is going to be everything you've been waiting for. You'll be able to see for yourself when it debuts on PS4 and Xbox One sometime in 2018; expect a final release date to be announced at long last during E3 2018.
If you're looking for something to play while you wait for Kingdom Hearts 3, check out the best games of 2018.