Taking the Mickey…
Let’s get this out of the way for starters – do you think Kingdom Hearts is a cute mashup of Final Fantasy and Disney? Or, do you know your Sora from your Roxas? Do you know who Aqua is? Have you ever heard of Organization XIII? What about the Keyblade War? If you’re struggling to answer most of those questions, you should probably give Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue a miss for the time being. Just like when a band puts out an album of b-side and unreleased songs, this one’s for the fans and it’s a very interesting if slightly uneven compilation of old and new Kingdom Hearts material.
For the uninitiated, Kingdom Hearts is an epic, sprawling fantasy tale about alternate universes locked in a decades long conflict. The main baddies in the series are generally known as the Heartless and the main protagonists are three teenagers, Sora, Riku and Kairi who, at the start of their first game (which hit Sony’s Playstation 2 in 2002) are pulled from their reality and have to work to find both each other and their way home. The main draw of the game is how it uses Disney’s broad palette of characters and worlds. In Kingdom Hearts, the player controlled Sora and was accompanied on their quest by Mickey Mouse’s chums, Donald and Goofy – here recast as palace guards on a quest to find the missing King Mickey. Stepping through portals took the player to different worlds such as Agrabah from Aladdin, the Coliseum from Hercules and Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Aside from numerous Disney references there was also plenty of fan service in the form of Final Fantasy characters who cropped up liberally through the proceedings (keep an eye out for Cloud and Sephiroth as enemies in the Coliseum!) Since the release of the first game there have been a further seven titles in the series, spread over Sony and Nintendo’s consoles as well as two mobile games, and they have worked to deepen the backstory of the series beyond it’s simple Final Fantasy X Disney tropes.
So, just what IS a Final Chapter Prologue? Well, it kind of does what it says on the tin. The currently in development Kingdom Hearts 3 (no release date yet) will allegedly be the final part of the series and over the last few years Square Enix have been trying to bring new and lapsed gamers back into the complicated and protracted lore surrounding the characters and locales. In 2013 Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix was released on Playstation 3, containing upscaled and tweaked versions of Kingdom Hearts, Chain of Memories (from the GameBoy Advance) and 358/2 Days (from the DS, presented here as a film made from the games cutscenes). 2.5 Remix came out over a year later and delivered HD versions of Kingdom Hearts 2, Birth By Sleep (from PSP) and Re:Coded (another film created from the story to the mobile game Kingdom Hearts: Coded). 2.8 is another triple bill, but this time we’ve got some brand new content on offer which, as the Final Chapter Prologue subtitle suggests, will tie up loose ends and lead into the forthcoming third game. Let’s break it down…
The main chunk of gameplay here is dedicated to the home console debut of the 3DS game Dream Drop Distance (3D – 3 D’s… you see what they did thar?) which is a solid Kingdom Hearts experience. Coming from Nintendo’s portable, there are some concessions on display – levels seem less populated than the console titles, for example, and there seems to be less of a focus on the Disney characters as a whole. Instead of having Donald and Goofy accompany you on your adventure, you now have to find plans and materials to “build” Dream Spirit companions. These sub-Pokemon creatures provide the interesting levelling mechanic – as they grow in experience you can use them to unlock new abilities in your main character. Different creatures unlock different abilities so keeping a broad range of companion types available is fairly critical. As well as the Dream Spirits, Dream Drop Distance also has you control two characters that you can switch, or Drop, between at any point – Sora and Riku. Each of them has different abilities and experiences the game worlds in different ways. As it’s essential to the game story you also have enforced Dropping if you’ve been playing a character for too long. There are items that can slow this process down but it’s an interesting mechanic if a little jarring the first time it happens.
Story wise, Dream Drop Distance takes place following the events of Kingdom Hearts 2 and has Sora and Riku training to become Keyblade masters. Naturally, as with previous portable titles, this involves visiting various colourful Disney worlds and meeting up with familiar faces. You’ll get to chinwag with Mickey, Pinocchio, Quasimodo and even Jeff Bridges in the Tron Legacy-inspired Grid world. Obviously seeing these characters slightly askew of their normal context is where the series shines and this episode delivers. We’re still not dipping into the realms of Pixar, Star Wars or Marvel (given, I don’t think Disney held the rights to the Galaxy Far, Far Away when this was first published) but there’s still hope that we may get there eventually in the franchise.
Dream Drop Distance is a good chunk of a game that should keep you occupied for a fair amount of time, but it does come with some holdovers from the 3DS. Despite being crisp, the visuals are noticably uncomplicated with low poly counts in abundance, and a number of mini-games that required touch screen input that have been awkwardly translated to either the analogue sticks or, in one slightly egregious instance, the DualShock touch panel. It’s not a massive issue as the stick controls are functional, but it leads to the game feeling like it doesn’t truly belong on a home console which could potentially devalue it in the eyes of some players. Still, there’s nothing to really complain about and Dream Drop Distance is an interesting evolution of the series with plenty to do.
Hot on its heels comes A Fragmentary Passage – a brand new piece of content and one the fans will be excited to get their hands on. I’ll try and keep this section as spoiler free as possible but believe me when I say – this part of the package is something really cool indeed. Following on from the end of both Dream Drop Distance and the PSP game Birth By Sleep, A Fragmentary Passage puts players in control of Aqua, a former keyblade master for 100 years before the start of Sora’s adventure, who is trapped in the Dark Realm and must find the courage within her to escape (as is par for the course with a Final Fantasy style narrative, there’s a lot of overwrought soul searching in these games). Even though it’s just a few hours long, A Fragmentary Passage is particularly special as it showcases an early version of Kingdom Hearts 3’s engine. Combat is more fluid, especially with a quick cast system for spells, character movement is more believable and everything feels a lot more modern and dramatic with a sparkle to the visuals that has never been seen in the series before. It’s a real treat and one that fans will be sorely tempted to dip straight into.
Rounding out the package is Back Cover, another new film. This hour long cutscene takes place during the events of the mobile game Kingdom Hearts Unchained X (available as a free to play experience on the iOS and Android) and tells the story of the original keyblade masters. This is the part of the package where anyone not up to date on their Kingdom Hearts lore will feel TRULY lost. While Dream Drop Distance and A Fragmentary Passage do make an effort to bring players up to date with things, Back Cover led me to doing a whole lot of Wiki-ing while I was watching, trying to understand who the characters were, what story was running parallel to the events of the film – it’s an interesting thing and looks lovely rendered once again in the Kingdom Hearts 3 engine, but will feel confusing and frustrating for most players.
And therein lies my core criticism of the package – the assumption that gamers will be coming into this largely knowing what’s going on. To be fair, this is technically the final release of this retrospective series but, consider this – 31st March will bring a PS4 re-release double pack of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5, meaning that current gen owners will be able to completely catch up on the story. My main question is – why release them separately and in this order? Surely a much bigger “Thank you!” to the fans would be to bundle the whole lot together in one mega archival release? Still, people who have come this far are likely to have the 1.5 and 2.5 releases from PS3 and will probably want to pick up 2.8 separately.
For a fan, this is an essential purchase and it comes with a sense that this nearly 15 year old series is drawing to a logical conclusion. It’s also a great opportunity to not only unpick some of the more convoluted areas of the lore, but look to the future with its reveal of the sumptuous looking Kingdom Hearts 3 engine. It’s a shame that Square didn’t see fit to release a complete collection alongside the forthcoming reissues of the rest of the games in the series; casual fans and newcomers who are interested in getting into the series would do well to hold off til April and pick up both this and the 1.5/2.5 double pack.