An enjoyable glimpse into the future of Kingdom Hearts
Kingdom Hearts III has been in development for quite some time now, and it’s kind of funny (to me, anyway) when you think about it. The first Kingdom Hearts released all the way back in 2002, and Kingdom Hearts II released in 2006. Considering how in-depth the games were, four years seemed more than acceptable. I think that many of us were expecting Kingdom Hearts III to release sometime around 2010 – but that didn’t happen. Instead, SquareEnix has been feeding us a steady stream of Kingdom Hearts side-games and re-makes. I’ll be completely honest with you – I totally ate that stuff up (and still do). Most of my top favorite Kingdom Hearts games are spin-offs; I think that they’ve done a great job of expanding the Kingdom Hearts universe in order to connect every event, no matter how minor, into the big picture, and are also incredibly fun. I get it though, don’t worry, I really do. I think that we’re all ready for Kingdom Hearts III at this point, and I think that Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue (what a mouthful!), the latest Kingdom Hearts title, is telling us that it shouldn’t be too much longer until we all get to play it.
As you may already know, KH2.8 isn’t a new game – at least, not entirely. The game itself is split up into three parts – Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD, Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A fragmentary passage -, and Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover – which are an HD remake, a very small new game, and a movie respectively. If you aren’t familiar with the Kingdom Hearts series or don’t know its chronology very well the decision to stick these three things together may seem a bit odd, but in reality it isn’t. While 2.8 is most certainly a game in its own right, it was ultimately made to set the stage for Kingdom Hearts III, and that’s important to keep in mind while playing through these three journeys – or playing through two of them and watching the last one, I guess. Now, let’s look at how each of them stack up!
While KH2.8 may be separated into three different titles, you won’t be spending equal time on them. Rather, most of your time will be spent within the world of Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD – an HD remaster of the 2012 3DS title Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance, and one of my personal KH favorites! KH3DHD‘s story revolves around Sora and Riku as they take on the Mark of Mastery Exam – a test that, if passed, allows a Keyblade wielder to become a Keyblade Master, thus gaining new abilities in the process – in order to help better prepare them for the impending fight against Xehanort. In order to pass the exam Sora and Riku must delve into the Dream World, and awaken seven sleeping worlds. Although the exam starts out smoothly enough, things start to get rocky when Sora and Riku are suddenly and inexplicably split up partway through the exam – and it only gets more difficult from there.
I’ve always found KH3DHD‘s story to be a bit special in the fact that it’s incredible… but only for those who have a very firm grasp on the storyline thus far. Elements from every Kingdom Hearts game come into play in this game during at least one point or another, and it’s very easy to get lost or confused if you aren’t familiar with them. I know that a lot of Kingdom Hearts games fall into this obscure, mixed-up genre of storytelling, but KH3DHD is most definitely the biggest example of this. For those who know the KH universe like the back of their hand however, I can say pretty confidently that you’ll love the story – I know that I certainly did!
While the story has the potential to get a tad confusion, the gameplay certainly doesn’t! KH3DHD will have players venturing across a variety of (mostly) Disney-inspired worlds in order to confront the darkness that lies within them, with gameplay that comfortably matches up with the rest of the games in the series (excluding CoM and Unchained, I suppose) – at least for the most part. Though similar to past KH titles, KH3DHD does sport a few new mechanics that help it to stand out from the crowd.
Remember when I said that Sora and Riku get split up? Well that wasn’t just plot development, it was also the introduction of a new mechanic! Due to certain events which I won’t get into for the sake of spoilers, Sora and Riku can’t fight together. In fact, they both can’t even both be awake at the same time! While playing as either Sora and Riku, you’ll notice a meter under their HP bar that seems to be constantly decreasing – that’s the Drop Gauge! The Drop Gauge is essentially a timer and will force you to switch characters once it hits zero and, though it may sound a bit unnecessary, ends up helping quite a bit with the pacing of the game. Due to the fact that players must play through each world separately as Sora and Riku, the Drop Gauge helps prevent players from blazing through the story as one character while completely neglecting the other. The need to switch between characters also helps KH3DHD tell its story in a unique way, as actions taken by one character can sometimes impact the other’s story. There are ways of making the Drop Gage diminish at a slower rate, and even items that restore part of the Drop Gauge, so the mechanic never ends up being overbearing. KH3DHD‘s Drop Gauge also decreases more slowly than it did in the 3DS version of the game, which is a nice little bonus.
Do you remember how, in most Kingdom Hearts games, the ability to explore each world was a gradual process? There were always those areas and treasure chests that you couldn’t get to initially, and had to come back later after you learned how to glide or high jump, and they were the worst! Well, thanks to Flowmotion, you won’t be tormented by tantalizing treasures and the like this time around. Flowmotion essentially is a way of making sure that you can get anywhere and everywhere right off the bat, giving Sora and Riku the ability to slide down rails, dash at high speeds, and endlessly jump off of walls, and can also be used to unleash powerful attacks. If you’re anything like I was the first time I started messing around with this crazy new mechanic, your first thought was probably something like “this feels like cheating”, but I promise you that it isn’t. The worlds within KH3DHD are built around the idea that you’ll be using Flowmotion to get around. There are plenty of high walls and open spaces with objects to trick off of, and Flowmotion ends up flowing (hah!) pretty well.
Finally, we have the Dream Eaters – a faction that plays both enemy and ally within KH3DHD! Dream Eaters are split up into two distinct groups; Nightmares and Spirits. Nightmares act as the staple enemy faction in the game, taking the place of Heartless, and are encountered frequently and in great number throughout the game. On the other side of the coin are the Spirits, which are friendly Dream Eaters created by the player that are designed to eliminate Nightmares. In terms of combat Spirits function similarly to allies in other games (although they heal you more than Donald ever did), but they actually end up functioning more like pets than they do comrades-in-arms in the long run. When outside of combat players can bond with their Spirits by petting them, feeding them treats, and even playing games with them. These special interactions can provide Spirits with bonus EXP and Link Points (which can be used to unlock skills for Sora and Riku), and can even permanently increase a Spirit’s stats. Given the fact that players will be switching out weaker Spirits for stronger ones throughout the game, bonding is a great way of getting your new friends stronger without having to drag them into battles that they aren’t prepared for. A lot of Spirit interaction utilized the 3DS’s touch screen in the original KH3D, so this part ended up being re-worked quite heavily in the HD version. Certain mini-games were added or re-worked and the UI was updated as well, making the entire transition from handheld to console a very smooth one in terms of mechanics – all except for the balloon game. I’m sorry, but the balloon game in KH3DHD isn’t fun. At all.
Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD ended up transitioning from the 3DS to the PS4 really well, and in my opinion ended up surpassing the original version in terms of quality. I’ll probably get flack for saying it, but this remake was the main thing that I was looking forward to in KH2.8 – it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue‘s second featured game is Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A fragmentary passage –. As I had mentioned earlier, 0.2 isn’t a full Kingdom Hearts game, but a “mini-adventure” that follows the time that Aqua spent in the Dark World after the events of Birth by Sleep. Stuck in a world unaffected by time and devoid of spacial movement, Aqua wandered blindly for over 10 years until stumbling across a familiar sight – a world that she had once visited, now consumed by darkness. Though overcome by negativity due to her prolonged exposure to the darkness, Aqua decided to explore this world – once known as Cinderella’s Castle.
Unlike with most Kingdom Hearts side games, 0.2 doesn’t come with any major gimmicks (I’ll miss you, Flowmotion). It features a very back-to-basics playstyle similar to that within the two main Kingdom Hearts titles, and the reason behind that is simple – 0.2 is basically a glorified Kingdom Hearts III tech demo. But hey, I’m not condemning it at all for that. Quite the opposite, in fact. We’ve been teased plenty about Kingdom Hearts III and while we don’t have any sort of a demo for it, this is the next best thing. 0.2 provides players with a great opportunity to see how KHIII will look and play like – and it’s all pretty promising.
While you may not be able to perform rad flips off walls or have to use cards to battle, 0.2 still does come come with a few small surprises. Battle Situation Commands from the original Birth by Sleep make a return, allowing Aqua to cast powerful -aja spells, and activate Style Changes in order to gain short temporary of power. Shotlock, a new mechanic, is also present within 0.2. By holding down the R1 button players can lock on to groups of enemies, and release a powerful barrage of shots. Sora was seen using some sort of dual pistols in one of the KHIII trailers, so maybe this won’t be the last time we see Shotlock? Who knows!
Also new to 0.2 are Objectives. Scattered throughout the game are 51 optional tasks – known as Objectives – for the player to complete. Though it isn’t necessary to complete Objectives in order to clear the game, chances are that you’ll want to. Why? Becasue you’re rewarded with accessories, of course! As players complete Objectives, they are rewarded with head, arm, and back accessories, and new clothing patterns that they can use to customize Aqua’s look. I feel as though they could have perhaps done more with the wardrobe, such as include new actual outfits, but I can’t really complain. After all, it’s better than doing nothing. The addition of Objectives is a promising one, and adds both enhanced replayability and longevity to this otherwise short adventure, and I’m hoping that it won’t be the last we see of it!
0.2 didn’t just provide a new gameplay experience, but a new visual experience as well. This is the first time we’ve seen a Kingdom Hearts game using next-gen graphics and it was a long time coming, but I’m glad that we’ve finally made it! The visual experience alone is almost enough to make me recommend this to someone. If this is anything to go by, the future of Kingdom Hearts is looking pretty good (literally!).
Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A fragmentary passage – does a good job at teasing us with promises of what’s to come, and does so in a fun way. While I was a disappointed with how little the story actually answered, I was ultimately satisfied overall with the adventure. If this was a trick to get me more excited about Kingdom Hearts III, I’d say that it worked!
Finally, we have Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover, a 60-minute HD cinematic based on the events surrounding the mobile game, Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ. I’m not sure how many people were excited for this one, but I know that I certainly was. I’ve said it before but I’ve been a fan of KHUX since its initial release, so learning more about the KHUX time period was incredibly enticing for me. In the end, however, my experience was… mixed.
Back Cover‘s story is all about the Foretellers – the five Keyblade wielders serving under the Master of Masters, who each govern a Union (which players in KHUX join). Back Cover goes on to explain that each Foreteller was given a special role by the Master of Master to be carried out, should he ever disappear – which, of course, he does soon afterward. Although each Foretller was confident in their role before the Master’s disappearance their relationships with one another begin to decline, and distrust begins brewing as they discover a traitor in their midst.
Back Cover did plenty of things right. First and foremost, it brought life to an otherwise relatively lifeless era within the Kingdom Hearts chronology. I may be a KHUX fan, but I’m not a fool – I know that the story so far has been pretty bare-bones. It’s nice to see that KHUX is being taken seriously as an actual part of the Kingdom Hearts timeline, and that a legitimate attempt is made to expand this part of the universe. I also liked getting to examine the Master of Masters and the Foretellers themselves a bit more closely. Since KHUX initially came out, the Foretellers and their Unions haven’t amounted to much more than tokens and servers. By allowing them some time in the spotlight, the Foretellers began transitioning from mere game mechanics into actual people who fit in as pieces of the story.
It wasn’t all good, though. As great as it was to see Back Cover, it left me wanting more. Aside from fleshing out the personality of the Foretellers and providing some highly satisfying cinematics, there wasn’t really much to the movie. Most of the dialogue was banter between the Foretellers concerning who the traitor might be and, though it did escalate, it didn’t do so until the very end –and still ended up feeling rather empty at that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that it was included in 2.8 – and I’m glad that I watched it – but the story was essentially 60 minutes of talking that didn’t answer anything, and left me with more questions than I had started out with. I’d still watch it again though if I’m being honest, so I suppose that I can’t bash it too much now can I?
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue didn’t have everything that I was looking for, but it certainly had a lot. 2.8 provided three unique experience that were “excellent” and best an “good” at worst, and did a great job of showing us just how far the series has come over the years. While it’s true that we may not know when Kingdom Hearts III is getting here, things are certainly looking bright thanks to the latest addition to the Kingdom Hearts series.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: SquareEnix ; Developer: SquareEnix ; Players: 1 ; Released: January 24, 2017 ; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue purchased by the reviewer.