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‘Kingdom Hearts 3’ has a baffling backstory but is a treat for fans of Disney and Pixar

Kingdom Hearts 3. (Square Enix)
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Kingdom Hearts 3

Developed by: Square Enix

Published by: Square Enix

Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Whenever a popular, story-infused video game is released and has a few numbers in its title, the question, “Do you need to play the previous ones in the series?” usually pops up. The vast majority of the time I say “no.” No, you don’t need to play the earlier Elder Scrolls, Red Dead Redemption, Assassin’s Creed, The Witcher or Persona games to forge a deep connection with the latest incarnation. But if you ask me this question about “Kingdom Hearts 3,” well …

To the uninitiated, the first thing to know is that “Kingdom Hearts 3” is the tenth entry in a series which mashes up characters from the Final Fantasy and Disney universes. The series has accumulated enough knotty story lines since its debut in 2002 to make studying a summary of the events a bit of a chore for anyone with only a slight interest in the ramifications of the Keyblade Wars.

Suffice it to say, “Kingdom Hearts 3” stars Sora, an unflappable, good-natured kid who befriends Donald, Goofy and a certain royal mouse named King Mickey. All are capable keyblade wielders (keyblades being the material incarnation of warriors’ hearts). Together, they and a bunch of allies fight against those who want to forge a powerful keyblade that can access Kingdom Hearts, the haven of all the hearts in the world. Catching up on the backstory requires keeping track of characters — some with similar names — who have a habit of dividing themselves into different incarnations, losing control of their wills, getting stuck in different worlds or forgetting important events. Listening to the characters discuss this stuff left me with the impression that they weren’t so much chatting with each other as summarizing and advancing plot points.

If this sounds too close to an invitation to wade into the waters of delirious fan fiction, you have my sympathies. But, however eye-glazing “Kingdom Hearts 3’s” overarching narrative may be, it’s worth stressing how easy it is to get swept up in the broad strokes of its gameplay and the more isolated story beats in the game. Running into the Little Chef from “Ratatouille,” dancing with the Rapunzel of “Tangled,” visiting a toy store with the characters from” Toy Story” or helping out Queen Elsa of “Frozen,” will elicit fuzzy feelings in anyone who is disposed to the charms of Disney and Pixar.

As a game, “Kingdom Hearts 3” takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. There are plenty of minigames in it that are diverting but not much more. Though I enjoyed spending a little time with the gang from Winnie the Pooh, helping Rabbit harvest vegetables by playing a basic-color match game wasn’t terribly exciting, neither was traveling between worlds in a little spaceship, the mechanics of which didn’t seem far removed from one of the old “Star Fox” games.

In any case, the game’s core combat mechanics are a delight. Sora & Co.’s battles against the minions of darkness are spectacular. The combat is fluid and full of rainbow-colored swirls, starry shapes, and other visual doodads. Sora can summon a variety of repurposed theme park rides like a merry-go-round, spinning teacups or a white-water rapids ride to help clobber enemies. He can also avail himself of more exotic means such as taking to the air in a rocket with Woody and Buzz from “Toy Story” or hopping on the back of Simba from the “Lion King.” The gorgeous eruptions of lights over the battlefields could give “Destiny 2” a run for its money.

“Kingdom Hearts 3” is a game I would recommend to parents looking for something to play with their kids or to adults with a soft spot for Disney. Though it’s weighed down by its lore, which only children are likely to become invested in, its razzle dazzle gameplay and steady parade of cameo appearances will appeal to those with a taste for the ludicrous.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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