For people who grew up playing Kingdom Hearts, it sometimes feels like the series is split into two distinct portions: the first, the original PlayStation 2 games that so many people experienced and loved; and the second, the bizarre and often bewildering series of follow-ups that have debuted in the space between 2005 and whenever Kingdom Hearts III comes out. At times, it seems like the overarching narrative is literally being made up as each game comes out — despite the popularity of the terms “spinoff” and “side game” to refer to titles like Birth by Sleep and 358/2 Days, I assert that anyone who thinks they can jump straight from II to III is going to be in for a rough (albeit probably hilarious) time trying to understand what’s going on.
Whatever you think of the quality of the series since 2005, or indeed in general, the fact of the matter is that Kingdom Hearts‘ timeline-jumping and platform-hopping tendencies have made a collection very appealing to anyone who wants to get into or revisit the Square Enix-Disney crossover. After HD 1.5 and HD 2.5 Remix collected three games apiece on PS3, the final loose ends of the series are at last being tied up in a third definitive collection: the absurdly-titled Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue.
On the menu this time: a brand-new hour-long movie titled Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover that clarifies the narrative presented in mobile game Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ; a short prologue to Kingdom Hearts III focusing on Birth by Sleep alum Aqua called Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage; and finally, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD, a remaster of the 2012 3DS game.
Phew! To say the series has become nearly impenetrable actually feels like an understatement; needless to say, if you’re everything I just wrote came off as laughable gibberish, the best advice I can give is to check out our review of the first HD collection and see if that sounds right for you — both Remix packages will be making the jump to PS4 in March, so take that for what it’s worth. If you’re still with me, on the other hand, let’s take a look at each of these packages and see what they have to offer.
Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover is this compilation’s unplayable “movie” entry, following the previous’ collections watchable recaps of 358/2 Days and Coded, and since this one’s working with all-new material, it feels a lot more “cinematic” overall. Presumably using the engine we’ll see put to more exciting use in Kingdom Hearts III, this hour-or-so-long cutscene-fest offers impressive animation and graphical quality, and features excellent voice work from industry veterans like Travis Willingham and Ray Chase (the latter of whom just voiced beloved Square Enix pretty-boy Noctis in Final Fantasy XV).
As nice as it is in those regards, though, I was left rather cold by the whole experience. As the second of two prequels to the original Kingdom Hearts — with this one taking place before Birth by Sleep — there’s a lingering feeling that the events we’re witnessing are, if not totally inessential, a lame retcon stapled awkwardly to the front half of the series’ narrative. The whole point is apparently to let us know what the mysterious Foretellers were doing while player-created characters were running around in Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ, but as far as I could see, the answer was “a whole lot of stupid time-wasting.”
One of my chief complaints with the Kingdom Hearts franchise as a whole is that it violates the old writers’ rule “show, don’t tell.” There are a ridiculous amount of characters across fifteen years’ worth of games, but almost all of them exist purely in service of a hilariously convoluted plot — they look cool thanks to designer Tetsuya Nomura, but they don’t have much personality or development outside of their story function. In addition to that, they quite literally don’t do a whole lot, either.
There’s a lot of talk about concepts like light and darkness, wars and weapons, hearts and the importance of friendship, but it’s just that — talk. There’s limitless angst among Sora’s myriad friends and enemies, but we very rarely get any insight into what exactly any of this angst is about, or indeed, what any of these characters are like in their everyday lives (assuming they have everyday lives in the first place). If you ever manage to piece together the narrative enough to get the big picture, you’ll find that it’s essentially the same sort of standard-issue good-versus-evil plot you find in other franchises like Harry Potter and Star Wars, minus the story cohesion and lovable characters that make those tried-and-true tales worth following.
Summing up my thoughts on the series felt like a necessary evil here because, as harsh as all that may have sounded, I find Kingdom Hearts games are invariably at their best when the player is in control of the action. I can deal with some absurd Final Fantasy table scraps when they’re surrounded by level upon level of fantastic action-RPG goodness, but endless cutscene collections like Back Cover — even when debuting all-new material — only serve to magnify the series’ crippling weakness.
On paper, you may not have explored the backstories of characters like Invi, Gula and Aced yet, but let me tell you: if you’ve played any other Kingdom Hearts game, you’ve been there and done that. Lip service about the characters being friends despite never actually showing them doing anything friendly? Check. Absurd overreactions over so-called “betrayals” despite nothing much of import actually happening? Yeah, that’s here too. Cutscene upon agonizing cutscene in which characters explain things to each other, but fail to actually do anything interesting with the lore they’re supposedly building? Well, that sums up the entirety of Back Cover in a nutshell.
So let’s move onto the good stuff, starting with Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage. Serving as a prologue to Kingdom Hearts III, in that the 30 minutes of post-credit cutscenes quite literally lead into the beginning of that game’s events, this Aqua-centric mini-adventure runs about three hours long and basically lets players get a taste of how III is going to play. Which is to say: excellently. I was a bit disappointed in the game’s inability to maintain a steady 60 frames per second, but when I say absolutely everything else was fantastic, I mean it. Play any other Kingdom Hearts game before you pop in A Fragmentary Passage and I promise you’ll walk away impressed.
Hack-and-slash is once again the name of the game here, and it’s fabulous fun. Aqua starts at Level 50 and thus carries over most of the moves she had in Birth by Sleep. In addition to the usual Keyblade and magic combo, there’s also Shotlock (a projectile barrage which uses a targeting reticle and requires a meter to be charged up) and the ability to change your Command Style, which works similar to Kingdom Hearts II‘s Drive system and depends on what actions you take in combat.
With very little story to speak of, this is basically the series stripped down to its most fun elements: exploring for treasure, completing optional missions and fighting lots of weird enemies. I did miss the Disney elements, which are few and far between thanks to the setting (Aqua’s been trapped in the Dark World since the end of Birth by Sleep, and it’s as bleak as it sounds), but I will say there’s a character that joins you at the two-thirds mark and livens things up very nicely. Overall, A Fragmentary Passage is more of a taste than a full-course meal, but it’s a lot more delicious than Back Cover, and it’s got my appetite properly whetted for Kingdom Hearts III… whenever that comes out, anyway.
That brings us to the actual meat and potatoes of this collection, the full-length Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD, a remaster of the 3DS game from 2012. Plot-wise, this joins with Birth by Sleep to explain the backstory and master plan of main antagonist Xehanort, essential bits of knowledge if you want to know what’s going on when III rolls around. Taking place just before A Fragmentary Passage, it’s also a sort of prologue-to-III‘s-prologue that sets up all the series’ characters in their proper places for the upcoming Keyblade War, which — again, depending on whether or not you care at this point — is pretty important stuff, narratively speaking.
As you might expect, I’m not too concerned with any of that, so it’s the gameplay that I’m mostly going to comment on. And although Dream Drop Distance‘s gameplay felt pretty clunky compared to the buttery-smooth new engine of Aqua’s little title, I had a ton of fun revisiting what quickly became one of my favorite 3DS games four years ago. The gimmicks this time include: Dream Eaters, adorable helper characters who take the usual places of Disney stars in your party and can be assembled using the parts dropped by defeated enemies; the “Drop” system, which forces you to switch between playable pals Sora and Riku when a meter runs out; and Flowmotion, a new style of movement that makes navigation and combat a lot easier.
Completionists like myself will absolutely dig trying to build all the Dream Eaters, and while these little guys aren’t quite as cool as having Goofy or the Beast in your party, the “Ability Link” system — which lets you learn certain skills on a grid depending on the creatures in your party — is quite enjoyable. I could basically take or leave the Drop system, though, which seems altogether unnecessary; why force players to switch to the other character when a simple button press (something you can actually do to force a Drop!) would have sufficed? I guess it’s cool that you get bonuses each time you switch, but overall, this is one of those gimmicks that seems more disposable than anything else.
Not disposable: Flowmotion, which is said to be making a reappearance in Kingdom Hearts III. In its Dream Drop Distance form, this special movement style — which surrounds your characters with a pink glow and lets them swing, bound and zoom across the environment — is a little rough-around-the-edges but still a ton of fun. It allows players an alternative to the simple 1-2-3 combos that longtime fans have performed over and over for hours of the other games, and it makes scouring the stages for hidden treasures a lot less cumbersome.
Speaking of those stages, this one’s a bit of a mixed bag; on one hand, you’ve got what I feel are some of the series’ best offerings in the form of La Cité des Cloches and Symphony of Sorcery (the latter of which may be my all-time favorite), but then you’ve also got some pretty dull offerings like Prankster’s Paradise and Country of the Musketeers. Nothing is quite as bad as Atlantica here, to be sure, but it’s a shame to see such highs accompanied by such middling efforts. Still, the fresh coat of paint makes Dream Drop Distance look far better than it ever did on 3DS, although I wish the same care had been given to the voice tracks; perhaps due to their compression for Nintendo’s little portable, these sound a bit blown-out and crackly on the new console version.
Overall, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue offers an experience that falls somewhere between 1.5 Remix (low) and 2.5 Remix (high) on the “enjoyability” scale. While Back Cover is an obnoxious bore that only serves to highlight the series’ narrative inanity, A Fragmentary Passage gives us a tantalizing — if frustratingly short — taste of Kingdom Hearts III‘s gameplay, and Dream Drop Distance HD offers what I consider the series’ third-best game (behind only Birth by Sleep and Kingdom Hearts II, in that order) spruced up in a super-fun definitive package for PS4. As someone who’s been following the franchise since its 2002 origins, I’m happy to say this collection re-initiated my hype for the final installment of what Nomura calls the “Dark Seeker” saga… which, at this rate, I very well might have to wait until PS5 rolls out to play.
This review is based on the PS4 exclusive, which we were provided with. Reviewed on PS4 Pro.
The best parts of this new Kingdom Hearts collection — the remaster of Dream Drop Distance and Aqua's miniature adventure — offer plenty of fun and a tantalizing taste of what Kingdom Hearts III will be like. The series' narrative absurdity is ever-present, but so is the addictive fun of its hack-and-slash gameplay.