I can’t blame you for being put off straight away just by its name. 2.8? Final Chapter Prologue? It’s unnecessarily obtuse and doesn’t do a very good job of promoting what exactly is contained in this latest Kingdom Hearts collection.
Simply, the main bulk of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 is a remaster of 2012’s 3DS release of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance. There’s also a short playable sequence called 0.2 Birth By Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, which acts as a prologue of sorts to the upcoming Kingdom Hearts 3. Last is Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover, an animated film.
Let’s talk about Dream Drop Distance first. Admittedly, I never played the original 3DS release, so this HD remaster was my first time with the game. While it obviously doesn’t look on par with anything on today’s standards, considering it originally started as a 3DS game, Square Enix have done a great job with the HD remaster. Dream Drop Distance‘s animation is best described as ‘basic’, but it’s clean, sharp and smooth. Gameplay wise, it feels very similar to the original Kingdom Hearts – but is very much stripped back in terms of content. It’s understandable, considering the game’s handheld origins, but the lack of exploration, depth and NPCs to interact with leaves a lot to be desired.
The draw of Kingdom Hearts, for me at least, has been the thrill of seeing popular Disney worlds brought to life in new ways. Sure, Dream Drop Distance has familiar faces and some familiar backdrops, but the worlds themselves are pretty lacklustre. Comprising The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pinocchio, Tron, The Three Amigos and Fantasia, there’s a wide enough range, but compared to some of the other worlds we’ve seen in mainline Kingdom Hearts in the past, these feel like fairly weak choices.
At around 12 hours’ playtime, the main story is a solid, yet linear affair. There’s a lot of running in straight lines, and endless spawning enemies. Cutscenes are plentiful, and if you haven’t played a Kingdom Hearts game before, you can be filled in on the story through “mementos” – frequent notes and memories that retell the events of the series so far. Even if you have played previous entries though, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to follow the story too closely; it’s become very convoluted and unnecessarily complicated. For what started out as an RPG for children, the narrative throughout each new entry to the series has just become harder and harder to follow.
Still, it doesn’t matter too much: the gist remains that Sora and his pals are saving the universe from the impending threat of darkness. In Dream Drop Distance, you play equally as Sora and Riku, switching between the two at intervals. A ‘drop’ meter ticks down the time you have with each character, and when it is empty, your current character’s progression will suspend as you cross over to the other. On the one hand, it keeps gameplay feeling fresh and constantly moving, but it can also be rather disruptive; you may be in the middle of a boss fight as your meter runs out, or you may be deeply engaged in the current quest line. It makes it hard to ever be fully immersed into the game before you’re pulled out, and jumping between situations means it sometimes takes a moment or two to regain focus and remember what it was you were doing.
Since Sora and Riku are on their own this time with no Donald or Goofy to fight beside them, their places are filled by Dream Eaters. In a Pokémon-style gameplay element, what are usually enemies can be tamed to fight by your side. These friendly Dream Eaters are created by using recipes that you find throughout the game, and while it’s nice to have a choice of teammates at your disposal, you’ll likely find there’s little reason to ever switch once you have a team lined up. The Dream Eaters need to be kept happy by ‘training’ them – playing a number of minigames from the menu – and petting them. It’s altogether a rather pointless, but somewhat entertaining diversion from the rest of the game.
The combat itself is fairly enjoyable; if you’ve played a Kingdom Hearts game before, its simplicity will feel instantly familiar. However, thanks to a new combo system, it at least feels fast-paced and responsive. Jumping off walls or launching into large enemies will initiate a special attack that does more damage. It generally means there’s little need to use magic, but also reduces combat to little more than bashing the ‘X’ button. With the lack of any environmental puzzles or exploration off the beaten path, combat is pretty much all you’ll be doing as you make your way from point A to B at each location. It’s fairly enjoyable, but becomes very repetitive quickly. I found myself running past enemies without engaging in combat just because I was bored of it. The downside is that without fighting, you’ll not gain experience and not level up. And you’ll need all the levels you can get to take on the final boss.
In true Kingdom Hearts style, the final boss feels much more difficult than anything else the game has thrown at you. With endless evasive movement and attacks that drain your energy which you can’t seem to dodge, it’s an infuriating affair that takes a lot of patience. It unfortunately left a sour taste in my mouth after a fairly enjoyable journey up to that point. Providing you’ve got the patience and skill, however, the rest of the game does have plenty to offer, despite its linear and average gameplay. There is a wealth of additional content in the form of challenge battles, as well as a number of minigames – including Flick Rush, an arena-based card game championship. There’s nothing mindblowing here, but plenty to extend the gameplay time if you want more from the experience.
The other playable element of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 is 0.2: Birth By Sleep. An epilogue to the 2010 PSP release of Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, it also acts as a prologue to the upcoming Kingdom Hearts 3, leading into the events that will make up the next chapter in Sora’s adventure. Despite its short playtime – around 90 minutes to two hours – 0.2 Birth By Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage is probably the most enjoyable element of the collection. Let me give you a word of warning though: don’t play this first, because it will make Dream Drop Distance harder to go back to!
0.2 Birth By Sleep has been made especially for PlayStation 4, meaning the graphics are truly current-generation – and they are beautiful. The backdrop of the game is stunning, and characters are brought to life with more detail than we’ve ever seen them before. It feels more like a demo of what we can expect of Kingdom Hearts 3 – and it’s certainly got me excited. It has a familiar vibe, and of course stars familiar faces – it picks up putting you in the shoes of Aqua, the keyblade wielder from the PSP title – but feels altogether more ‘grown up’. Movement is faster and more visceral; controls feel more responsive; and altogether, it’s a joy to behold.
It’s very disappointing that it’s over within two hours, but there is incentive to play again through a New Game+ mode as well as a fairly extensive list of challenges to complete. I’d argue it’s almost worth buying the collection just to play this, and get a taste of what we can expect whenever we finally see Kingdom Hearts 3.
As for the final part of the collection, Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover, it’s an hour-long CGI film that leads into an upcoming mobile game, Kingdom Hearts Unchained. While it’s an entertaining watch with brilliant animation, it has little to do with Sora and so feels rather removed from the rest of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue. It’s worth a watch if you’re a big fan of the series and want to dive deeper into its narrative, but otherwise, it feels more like an hour-long advert for a mobile game and could have easily been skipped.
Altogether, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue is a strange choice to be the first Kingdom Hearts title to bring to PlayStation 4. It’s certainly not the best place to start; if you’ve never played the series before, you’re probably better off holding out until March when the remastered version of Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 is set to release. If you really like what you see or are already familiar with the series however, I daresay this is certainly the best way to play Dream Drop Distance. It’s a fine HD remaster, and the game is solid, if not the best of the series. 0.2 Birth By Sleep, on the other hand, should not be missed, and has got me incredibly excited for where the series is going to go next.