"May our hearts be our guiding key." --King Mickey
Recently, Square Enix released the latest in their Kingdom Hearts compilations, "Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue."
For a long time I had wanted to play the Kingdom Hearts games--described as action/RPGs that combined Disney characters and settings with a Final Fantasy aesthetic--but never had a Playstation growing up because my parents believed my time was better spent going to school and learning a trade, but my Dickensian childhood is a different story. When I finally did get a PS4, I was all overjoyed at the prospect of being able to finally to get them...only to find out that all the games had originally been released on different consoles (PS2, Gameboy Advance, Nintendo DS, and PS Portable) and none of them were forward compatible. Subsequently, Square Enix released two remastered collections of most of the series called "Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix" and "Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix," but only for the PS3, and also not compatible with the PS4.
So I was pretty happy when it was announced that the next compilation was coming out for the PS4. This third one is the last before the eagerly awaited in-production "Kingdom Hearts 3," the announcement of which I covered at the 2015 D23 Expo. It includes three different parts: "KINGDOM HEARTS Dream Drop Distance HD," "KINGDOM HEARTS 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A fragmentary passage –," and "KINGDOM HEARTS χ Back Cover."
"Dream Drop Distance" is an adaptation of a game initially made for the 3DS and the latest game released as part of the main Kingdom Hearts story line. The cumbersome-named "fragmentary passage" is a new game showing the events following the prequel game "Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep" from one of the character's point of view, and "Back Cover" is an hour-long movie showing backstory of the series' beginnings and connective tissue of "Birth by Sleep" and the mobile game "Kingdom Hearts: Unchained χ."
Starting off with "Dream Drop Distance," I quickly made my first discovery concerning Kingdom Hearts: It has an enormously complex story line and coming in on the last act is maybe not the easiest way to understand it all. There isn't a whole lot of introduction to the characters or the situations (understandable, as they might reasonably expect you to have picked up some of this during the earlier seven games) so you kind of have to roll with it. During the course of the game you actually do end up unlocking summaries to the previous games, and if you're not planning on playing those or you don't mind spoilers, those are good resources.
For those who just want a thumbnail of the pertinent backstory without totally spoiling everything, here's my understanding: There are a large number of worlds, some of which are themed to various Disney stories, but only one true world called Kingdom Hearts that was initially the source of light for all. Eventually, however, a brutal Keyblade (weapons wielded by those found worthy) War resulted in it being locked away, and it can now only be forcibly accessed by the power of the Seven Princesses (Snow White, etc.) whose hearts are made of pure light and which combined can summon the door to Kingdom Hearts. This makes them a subject of great interest to people like Maleficent who seek to exploit them, and King Mickey, Donald and Goofy, who seek to protect them. The main protagonists are two boys, Sora and Riku, who have apparently gone through the ringer during the course of these games, getting alternately possessed by darkness, losing their hearts, getting their hearts back, getting other people's hearts back, and generally going through a variety of separations and reunions facilitated by your Disney friends.
Your chief opponents throughout all of this are creatures called the Heartless who come at you in everlasting waves as is the way of video games. It ultimately turns out that there is a Heartless mastermind behind all of this who, with the help of a mysterious Organization, may have been orchestrating events from the very beginning of the tale for his own nefarious purposes.
To give you an example of how convoluted this series is, you may have wondered why this collection is numbered Kingdom Hearts 2.8--it's because it's supposed to come after the second (2.5) compilation, but also includes the new game "Fragmentary Passage" (numbered 0.2 because it comes after "Birth by Sleep" which is considered the first game, or 0.1) so 2.6 + 0.2 = 2.8. Math everyone!
As far as gameplay is concerned, "Dream Drop Distance" is the longest of the two and follows Sora and Riku on their keyblade mastery test. There are seven sleeping worlds that the pair needs to reconnect to the realm of light by unlocking the seven Keyholes of Sleep. Each boy has different objectives and slightly different stories that unlock as they progress through each world. The player is automatically switched between them after a certain amount of time fills up the Drop Gauge, and the active character falls asleep. This can be something of a pain if not managed correctly (there are different mechanisms to prolong or shorten your time,) as if you're in the middle of a fight and drop out, you'll be returned to the beginning of it when you drop back in again.
On the whole, "Dream Drop Distance" is reasonably entertaining, but is heavy on platforming and combat, as you'd expect from a 3DS port, and the story is largely confined to cut-scenes which are puzzling and enigmatic if you aren't familiar with what has gone before. The environments are very pretty and the the specialized Reality Shift attacks keep things interesting as they change to match each world.
Of the Disney-themed worlds, there are representations of "Pinocchio," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Tron: Legacy," "Fantasia" and "The Three Musketeers." Out of the bunch I found the Tron world had the most distinctive look and the light cycle racing the most entertaining of the mini-games.
"Fragmentary Passage" on the other hand, I found to be fantastic. The art on it is just gorgeous in HD and the plot is much better integrated into the game--probably closer to the main "Kingdom Hearts 1" and "Kingdom Hearts 2" games.
Fully understanding the story on this one is, again, largely dependent on knowing what went on in "Birth by Sleep," but since we're talking about the events in one game versus seven, it's a lot easier to grasp. The protagonist, Aqua, was one of the three early Keymasters who originally got Sora and Riku involved in the whole keyblade trade when they were kids (err...younger kids.) Clearly, something went south in that game, and Aqua was stuck in the Realm of Darkness for some indeterminate time. This game follows her travels in a fractured version of Cinderella as she struggles with hoards of Heartless and her own feelings of inadequacy.
Both the combat and the platforming are visually stunning and varied enough so that it never feels repetitious. Each area Aqua works through feels like a completely different experience. The game isn't terribly long but it reaches a satisfying conclusion with a team-up with Mickey at the end.
One thing that was a little surprising to me in both games is that the Disney characters weren't as involved as I expected--while they pop in occasionally, for the most part they're limited to the cut-scenes. This may be because again, these games were not the major installments in the series, but more of a bridge between what has gone before, and the upcoming "Kingdom Hearts 3."
On the whole, this was a fun collection that, while worth playing all on its own, would likely be more enjoyable if you already have a background in Kingdom Hearts lore. If that's not you, fear not--Square Enix has announced that "KINGDOM HEARTS HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX" is being released for the PS4 which will include almost all of the earlier content.
"KINGDOM HEARTS HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX" is available now for preorder at the Square Enix online store for $49.99, and will be out on March 28, 2017. "KINGDOM HEARTS HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue" is currently available for the PS4.
*A copy of "KINGDOM HEARTS HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue" was provided to me for the purposes of review without restrictions on expressed thoughts or opinions.*
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