As someone who hasn’t played the spin-off titles in the Kingdom Hearts series (other than Chain of Memories), I must admit I was nervous about diving into Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue. It’s been years since I last took up a keyblade and guided Sora as he fought against the darkness, and I think it’s fair to say that the story isn’t regarded as the most straight forward. Yet despite the convoluted narrative, I have a soft spot for the series as a whole. I was instantly swept away by the mash-up of Disney and Final Fantasy properties with Tetsuya Nomura’s character design back in 2002, even if I only understood half of what was going on.
So as a returning fan I wanted to see if HD 2.8 could not only rekindle my love for the series but get me excited for its next main instalment. The latest compilation doesn’t include one of the main entries, but as I’ll explain is ultimately an unmissable entry for both fans who need to catch up, and those desperate for a taste of what’s the come (especially as it looks like it will be a while before we get Kingdom Hearts III.)
Oh, and for the record, no – I won’t be saying that full title again because UGH.
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD
The main meat of HD 2.8 is Dream Drop Distance HD, a remaster of the 3DS title from 2012. Set after the events of Kingdom Hearts II, it tells the tale of Sora and Riku as they attempt to complete a test called the Mark of Mastery, all in the hopes of becoming a full-fledged Keyblade master (because apparently they haven’t done enough to earn that right yet.) To do this, they must awaken seven sleeping worlds through the use of their keyblades. Of course, these familiar worlds based on Disney properties are filled with creatures called Dream Eaters, which end up being both the game’s main enemies and adorable allies.
Yes, there’s a new set of creatures outside of the Heartless and Nobodies thrown into the series, and I’ll even admit that I was initially overwhelmed by the jargon and McGuffins thrown my way at the top of 3D. Thankfully, the game does a good job of bringing players up to speed with optional cutscenes and summaries of previous events and games. I mean, it’s still all convoluted as hell, but I came out of 3D with a better grasp of what was going on.
Well, it’s either that or Nomura has finally scrambled my sanity so much that it just seems like it all makes sense.
Anyway, let’s talk about the actual gameplay. The good news is that 3D’s handheld origins have in no way hindered this PS4 remaster. It’s a clear testament to the dev team that it handles like a fully fledged Kingdom Hearts game, and the Flowmotion mechanics – which allow Sora and Riku to dart around the environment and even certain enemies – made the action so much more enjoyable. This along with the deck system, which allows players to switch in different combo attacks and magic spells, makes it the most flexible and enjoyable combat system the franchise has ever had.
That flexibility extends to the Dream Eaters that fight alongside the player. Known as Spirits, their double duty as companions and provider of special moves works well, especially once you start combining them to create powerful finishers. Their progression systems will also seem familiar to those who have played World of Final Fantasy. The freeform grid which unlocks new upgrades and abilities isn’t quite as in-depth as some might hope, but there’s enough there to offer meaningful choice.
Besides, there’s still plenty of other things to do throughout 3D. It took me over twenty hours to finish the main story on Standard Mode, and even then I hadn’t done most of the side content. Things such as Link Portals, that offer various challenging scenarios to beat, or the Flick Rush mode where your Spirits fight other Dream Eaters. Hell, even the Dive levels before visiting each world offer prizes for good scores, and the Spirit-based mini-games – which allow you to play with your companions in a virtual pet style – mean the completists among you will have more than enough to keep you busy.
As someone using this remaster as their first time playing 3D, I now understand why many considered it to be such an important and, frankly, unmissable chapter. It manages to tie up most of the loose ends from the previous games, and its superb combat made me remember why I loved the series in the first place. That said, those of you who played it on the 3DS may find less of a reason to be excited. Outside of three new Dream Eaters to collect and the visual polish (which looks great at 60 FPS, just so you know) it’s still the same game as before. A great game, admittedly, but still the same none the less.
Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover
So it falls to the other two pieces of content in HD 2.8 to offer something relatively new. The first is χ Back Cover, an hour long film (for lack of a better word) told through in-game cinematics. It retells the events from the mobile title Unchained χ, whilst shedding new light how the Keyblade war actually began. Well, kind of. It’s still pretty ambiguous and doesn’t actually answer many questions, but does introduce the Master of Masters, whose colourful personality was refreshing compared to the rest of the po-faced cast.
Perhaps the most important reason to watch χ Back Cover is the in-game cinematics play out in the Unreal Engine 4. Sure, it means the visuals look fantastic, but it gives us a taste of what is to come with Kingdom Hearts III, which will also utilise the game engine. More so than the third part of the HD 2.8 (which we’ll get to in a minute), it gave me time to truly appreciate the attention to detail in the character models and environments.
Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth By Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage
That said, the real demonstration of what is to come is in 0.2 Birth By Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage. Also utilising the Unreal Engine 4, this playable episode tells the story of Keyblade Master Aqua and what happened to her in the realm of darkness, acting as both an epilogue to Birth By Sleep and as another lead into the upcoming sequel. Again, the visual prowess is absolutely stunning, with the combat animations and spells truly a sight to behold.
The controls also handle exceptionally well, as I was able to move around with ease and deal out various attacks with gleeful abandon. Even the Shotlock mechanic from the BBS fits seamlessly, but the showstopper is clearly the Wayfarer finisher. I’ll be more than happy if that is just a taster of the kind of special attacks we’ll be getting in Kingdom Hearts III.
However, I do have one complaint and potential worry for the upcoming sequel, and that’s the noticeably low frame rate in A Fragmentary Passage. The difference in FPS compared to Dream Drop Distance HD is like night and day, to the point I found it quite jarring despite constantly gawking at the beautiful environments. This is an issue I’ve seen in a number of Unreal Engine 4 projects in recent years, and I certainly hope Square Enix fix it before Kingdom Hearts III release. After all, some of the series’ more challenging boss fights demand higher frame rates for those quick reactions, and frankly Dream Drop Distance HD has now spoilt me with its silky smooth FPS.
But I digress. I was able to complete A Fragmentary Passage in just under four hours, which isn’t bad for what is effectively a single world. Beyond that, there is limited replayability for completists thanks to the Objectives list. Filled with challenges such as killing specific types of Heartless or doing specific actions, they reward players with cosmetic items for dressing up Aqua. While some of them are fairly adorable, I did find it disappointing that the changes aren’t reflected in the in-engine cinematics. Should such a feature be coming to Kingdom Hearts III, I do hope that player customisation is reflected in key scenes.
Mainly because I want a cat-eared Sora to be canon, damn it.
“May your heart be your guiding key.”
The big question though is if HD 2.8 is worth getting, and while I admit this is a cheap way of escaping a definitive answer the truth is that “your mileage may vary.” If you’re a hardcore fan who has played every game on every platform and has even played the mobile game since last year, £40 for a four-hour sampler of what Kingdom Hearts III will be like is a huge ask. In fact, the series’ new catchphrase – “May your heart be your guiding key” – is fairly apt in regards to whether this compilation is right for you. However, as someone who has skipped almost all of the content outside the two main entries, the twenty-five or so hours I’ve spent playing has been an enjoyable return to the series. Yes, the story is still beyond ridiculous, but that was always part of its charm – the other parts being the slick action gameplay and diving into childhood memories in Disney worlds.
- Dream Drop Distance HD is an enjoyable (and frankly unmissable) entry in the series.
- The plot may still be convoluted, but the compilation fills in most of the blanks.
- The taster of how Kingdom Hearts III will look and play is beautiful to look at and mostly encouraging to play…
- … but that frame rate needs to be fixed before KH III arrives.
- Hardcore fans may find the value for money lacking here unless they really want to play through 3D once more.
- Heartless? Nobodies? Dream Eaters?! The story is still bloody nuts.
The Short Version:
Its value may fall depending on your investment in the series so far, but Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is both an enjoyable way to catch up on the story and a tantalising taste of what is to come.
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix