It’s easy to jump on Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue as being a cry from help from Square Enix — it has been over 12 years since we saw Riku, Sora, and the cast of Disney characters in a main-line console game. With Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix and 2.5 HD Remix out and about, players were expecting the next title to be the highly anticipated Kingdom Hearts III.
And while Final Chapter Prologue is anything but Kingdom Hearts III, the compilation is great in its own right. Bridging the timeline gap between the events in Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts III, Final Chapter Prologue introduces a new group of gamers to a couple titles that were landlocked on mobile and handheld. Mixed with the usual polish Square Enix throws into all their games, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue has me more excited than ever for the next installment.
When you grab Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue, you are really buying a game, a tech demo, and a short film: Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD, Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, and Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover, respectively.
For those out of the loop, Dream Drop Distance is a five year-old 3DS title which takes place after the events of Kingdom Hearts II. Meanwhile, Kingdom Hearts X was a 2013 web-browser, Japan-exclusive title that eventually made its way to iOS and Andorid; the HD remake of it is simply redone cinematic of the main plot points. Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep — A Fragmentary Passage is a short episode, taking place after the events of Birth by Sleep.
[Editor’s Note: If you are looking to play the games chronologically, play Dream Drop first, watch Back Cover, and then play 0.2: Birth By Sleep].
The main course of the game is Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD. The title tells the tale of Sora and Riku, both attempting their own trial to become Keyblade Masters. Following the advice of Yen Sid, both Sora and Riku are told to head back to a collection of new and old worlds that remain lost in sleep. Predictably, your task in each world is to clear out the baddies and unlock the Sleeping World’s keyhole, releasing it from sleep. If it sounds like what you’ve been doing in literally every Kingdom Hearts game, that’s because it is.
Instead of Heartless, both Sora and Riku face off against Dream Eaters. The Dream Eaters, which have a Pokemon-esque quality to them, can be found throughout the Sleeping Worlds in two forms: Spirits and Nightmares. Spirits are benevolent entities that help sniff out and battle the Nightmares; meanwhile, Nightmares are tainted Spirits that have been corrupted by the darkness of their owner.
Now, we’ve already reviewed Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance in the past, so I won’t go into the finer details about the game itself. However, the HD version of the game does come with some minor overhauls that do add to the experience substantially.
Most noticeable from the get-go is the visual improvements. Porting a game from the Nintendo 3DS to PlayStation 4 comes with a much expected graphical improvement. While the Sleeping Worlds are still fairly barren and textures are dull (especially the first couple locations), everything looks crisp and colorful on my 4K TV– along the lines of a late PlayStation 2/early PlayStation 3 game.
Beyond that, not much else gameplay-wise has been changed – which is fine. The game adapts far better to the DualShock 4 (as compared to the Nintendo 3DS), making camera issues from the original game a near non-issue. Utilizing some aspects from Chain of Memories and verticality from other action franchises, combat is always engaging and dynamic.
Although most components of Dream Drop Distance are fine without being altered, I do have some minor gripes however with things that went unchanged in the port. Universally, critics and fans who played the first game found issue with two components: the “Drop” feature of the game and the title’s difficulty curve.
Starting with the first, the “Drop” mechanic in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD is a countdown timer for both Sora and Riku. When the countdown reaches zero, the player is forced to switch characters/storylines – with the ability to purchase modifiers to help the other in their upcoming battles.
A vast majority of the time this works in the game’s favor – it parses the game out evenly so that Sora’s story beats happen in the same proximity as Riku’s. The asynchronicity allows the story to feel dynamic, even when you are only visiting the same environments and characters with both Sora and Riku.
However, that Drop timer has no breaks from running down – even boss fights. By the end of the game, there were roughly 4 or 5 boss fights that had been prematurely ended and restarted because the game decided I had to switch characters.
There are ways to prevent the frustration – you can electively Drop to the other character before a boss fight comes up, assuring that you have enough time when you return to fight the boss. But for those who can’t see a big battle coming, or those who just tend to forget the Drop system exists, the mechanic will acts as the principal annoyance for a majority of the game.
The other major gripe anyone has with this game is an unnatural difficulty spike towards the end. Here’s a game design hint to wannabe developers out there:
If, in the natural progression of a game, you can be killed by a boss within five seconds from the start of a battle, you need to fix the mechanics.
The Kingdom Hearts series has been notorious for bullet-sponge, epic boss battles that tend to be frustratingly hard. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD is no exception to this rule, sporting some of the worst bosses – combat-wise – that I have seen in years. While you will go through the whole game dying on rare occasions, experienced fans will need to play through the final bosses multiple times – especially if your character doesn’t Drop mid-boss battle.
With all those negatives in mind, the game holds up surprisingly well as a standalone, 25-hour Kingdom Hearts game. Although there are some major plot-holes and loose threads in regards to continuity on the broader Kingdom Hearts storyline, Dream Drop Distance HD comes off as comprehensible – even for those wary about the winding story for Kindgom Hearts games.
Meanwhile, Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage will be a roughly two hour tech demo, showcasing what players can expect in terms of visuals, gameplay, voice-overs, and polish for Kingdom Hearts III. And after playing through 0.2: Birth By Sleep let me tell you – I’m impressed.
Compared back-to-back with Dream Drop Distance HD, 0.2: Birth By Sleep looks leaps and bounds better – sporting particle effects, crisp textures, and a diverse range of environments. While not up to par with the visual powerhouse that is Final Fantasy XV, the episode is easily one of the nicer looking experiences I’ve got to play on my PlayStation 4 Pro.
With that said – and without too many spoilers – don’t expect an expansive experience. With only an hour or two of gameplay, the title does feel more like a proof-of-concept than a standalone experience. The game leads to a definitive place where Kingdom Hearts III will pick up. And personally, after playing through Dream Drop Distance HD, 0.2: Birth by Sleep was the small adventure that I wanted.
And what about Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover? It’s pretty good – truly only a story for fans of the series, the cinematic-adapted story focuses on the events before the Keyblade War. While I imagine the story will play a larger impact in Kingdom Hearts III, the movie is an entertaining mini-movie that is icing on the cake.
While the gaming community shared a collective groan when Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue was announced, the remake is one of the best HD packages the Kingdom Hearts series has ever produced. Holding two entirely-knew Kingdom Hearts experiences and a criminally underplayed title in the franchise, Final Chapter Prologue is a collection that every likely Kingdom Hearts III player should experience.