While most of the Kingdom Hearts series’ gibberish names are of little consequence, the franchise’s third HD collection is perfectly described by its title. Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is the perfect introduction to Kingdom Hearts 3, featuring two games and an HD movie that flow directly into the anticipated sequel. The collection is aimed squarely at longtime fans of the series, featuring Dream Drop Distance, 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage (0.2) and X Back Cover. Without the necessary background knowledge, however, newcomers with find themselves lost in the convoluted tangle of narrative surrounding some of gaming’s finest action-RPG gameplay.
For most, 0.2 Birth by Sleep is the crown jewel of the collection, as it is our first look at the next generation of Kingdom Hearts. The game is a Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes – esque introduction to the engine and story of Kingdom Hearts 3. Players follow Aqua, a protagonist of PSP title Birth by Sleep, as she wanders the Dark Realm in an attempt to discover a way out. It is great to control Aqua again, as her steadfast loyalty to her friends and selfless heroism make her the most compelling of the Birth by Sleep trio.
While the story is fairly typical Kingdom Hearts fare (melancholic, campy, melodramatic etc), its focus on a singular character and her struggles help to enhance the experience. Aqua’s strength and resolve are failing, and she desperately needs something to cling to in order to survive. The three hour journey never overstays its welcome and features a satisfying payoff that will have longtime fans smiling from ear to ear. Aqua’s story will lead directly into her role in Kingdom Hearts 3, and I am excited to see the part she will play in its conclusion.
While story is important to Kingdom Hearts, the series’ frantic action-RPG gameplay is what has endeared the series to millions. If 0.2 is any indication, we have plenty to be excited about in Kingdom Hearts 3. After numerous side-stories got away from the series’ traditional battle system, 0.2 will be familiar to fans of the PlayStation 2 games. Every entry has its own signature wrinkle, but the best have been grafted together to enhance the overall battle experience. Navigating the battlefield with Aqua’s fluid grace is fun and responsive, and the game does a great job of gradually introducing mechanics throughout the 3-hour playtime. Players will be bashing heartless, pirouetting around attacks and unleashing powerful spells with ease in no time, regardless of prior series experience.
The battle system takes the most from Kingdom Hearts 2, eschewing the Command Deck system of the handheld games in favor of the traditional Attack, Magic and Item menus. Thankfully, the game pulls the best elements from the side experiments, resulting in the series’ most complete battle system yet. Birth by Sleep’s Command Styles are back, which give the player access to a powerful spell or form depending on their battle style. For example, repeated use of the Thundaga spell will allow players to cast Thundaja, which cranks the spell’s effects up to 11 for maximum devastation. Another Birth by Sleep staple, Shotlocks make their triumphant return, giving players access to a powerful attack that targets multiple enemies and requires skill and timing to maximize. These combat options add strategic depth to battle and gives 0.2 Kingdom Hearts’ classic feeling of power without invulnerability, a balance I think the series nails as well as any other.
It is plain to see how fantastic 0.2 looks visually, but seeing the game run with my own eyes was fantastic. The series has not seen a graphical upgrade since Kingdom Hearts 2 over a decade ago, as the handheld games have replicated the graphics of the console releases up until now, so it is great to play a game that is a massive step up visually. Light glimmers off of puddles, enemies bellow raging flames or shield themselves with splashes of water and magic attacks produce visual fireworks that leave lingering clues as to their effects. The human character models look great, as they always have, though the Disney characters looked a little, well, goofy in the new engine. Hopefully this will continue to be iterated on as time progresses.
While not segmented like typical Kingdom Hearts levels, 0.2 is broken up into 3 distinct stages based on fallen worlds from Aqua’s adventure in Birth by Sleep. Castle of Dreams (Cinderella), Dwarf Woodlands (Snow White) and Enchanted Dominion (Sleeping Beauty) all look stunning in Unreal Engine 4, with incredible detail showing through in each environment. This is probably the best level design that the series has seen, as the walls confining the corridor-like designs featured in previous titles have been demolished, leaving us with dynamic, open spaces full of nooks and crannies to explore. The vertical design pioneered in Dream Drop Distance is brought over, but with branching paths and hidden areas strewn throughout. There were many occasions where I was unsure which was the “true” path and was instead left to my own devices, which felt liberating. If 0.2’s level design is any indication, we will be seeing some incredible worlds when Kingdom Hearts 3 finally releases.
Another element of the level design that bodes well for the franchise’s future is the introduction of puzzles. Typical Kingdom Hearts levels involve prompts to run to a specific area for a battle, run to another for a cutscene and so on before the final path to the boss is made available. 0.2 changes this up by introducing simple puzzles into the level design. This is made most apparent in the magic mirror portion of the game, which sees Aqua trapped in the mirror realm and forced to puzzle her way out. Rotating walkways, fake paths and cleverly hidden solutions add a cerebral edge to the series straightforward exploration, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this is expanded upon in the future.
Most Kingdom Hearts games feature party characters, and 0.2 is no exception. King Mickey joins Aqua for the conclusion of her quest, and his presence is great for longtime fans and for adding a bit of Disney flair to the proceedings. While he behaves as we have come to expect from series allies, what stands out about Mickey is his utility. He is easily the most competent party member that we have seen, being both a reliable attacker and healer. This, again, bodes well for Donald and Goofy in Kingdom Hearts 3, as they have been shaky in their assistance of Sora in battle thus far. Overall, Mickey’s ability in battle helped to tie a bow on the fantastic experience I had with 0.2.
The meat and potatoes of 2.8 is Dream Drop Distance HD, which is a remaster of the 2012 3DS game. Fans of the original release will find the experience intact with a few minor tweaks. The most impactful of these is 60 FPS gameplay, which is perfect for a series as fast-paced as Kingdom Hearts. After years of playing at a lower framerate, the silky smooth pace was immediately apparent and almost jarring, though I quickly came around. Dream Drop Distance feels so at home in 60 frames that it has reinvigorated my interest for the upcoming mega-collection, Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 HD ReMix, which will see the previous collections running at the increased clip.
Dream Drop Distance was surprisingly dependent on the 3DS touch controls, as some of the game’s major differentiators were tied to the feature. Luckily, both the special Reality Shift abilities and the Dream Eater creation and interaction feel at home on console, despite some awkward control issues with the latter. Reality Shifts are now tied to a simultaneous button press, which feels unobtrusive and natural in combat. Dream Eaters did not make the transition as smoothly. Players interact with the benevolent spirits in a Nintendogs-style minigame with either a combination of the X button and a joystick or with the touchpad. I found the touchpad to be much more intuitive and true to the original, but neither option is perfect. This feature is not essential to the overall experience, however, so these issues have minimal impact on the overall experience.
The other innovation, and one that will be carried over to Kingdom Hearts 3 despite not appearing in 0.2, is the Flowmotion system, which allows Sora and Riku to traverse environments and attack enemies by bouncing off walls and slinging off poles and handles. The system is a blast and adds an additional layer to the Command Deck combat. While a little busy for the small 3DS screen, the system shines on the PlayStation 4 in 60 FPS. This system alone is reason enough for fans who did not have a 3DS to pick up the collection, as it allows players to explore the classic gameplay in a different way.
I assume that there are many Kingdom Hearts fans who did not own a 3DS, as the series made the odd decision to spread its releases across multiple machines and ecosystems. As such, I feel that it is necessary to stand up for Dream Drop Distance, as it is a game that has gotten a lot of flak. While it features a story that is convoluted beyond understanding for even the series most diehard lore enthusiasts, its moment to moment gameplay is some of the best in the series. The additions outlined above made it a Kingdom Hearts game that is incredibly quirky while still delivering great bosses, combat and RPG elements. The drop system, which forces players to swap between Sora and Riku on a timer, is hated by some, but can be manipulated and actually allows players to evenly distribute the wealth between the characters, which is how I personally prefer to play RPGs. There are examples of Kingdom Hearts levels done perfectly, as Sora’s portion of the world based on Tron Legacy is fantastic, as is the Fantasia world that replaces all battle sounds with orchestral music. I would personally place it fourth on the serie hierarchy, after the console entries and Birth by Sleep. If you haven’t experienced the game yet and are a fan of the series, its inclusion alone is worth the price of admission in 2.8.
Which brings us to X Back Cover, the CG movie based on the events happening behind the scenes of Kingdom Hearts Unchained X, the free-to-play mobile game that takes place before the fabled Keyblade War. While beautifully acted and animated, the events portrayed act as a compliment to the mobile story and not a supplement, which I was disappointed by. While Unchained’s story is not very deep and easily digestible through youtube videos, it was a missed opportunity to not include the full picture when looking at the earliest portion of Kingdom Hearts lore. That said, the movie gives us an intriguing mystery to decipher and introduces the enigmatic Master of Masters, whose personality is the exact opposite of the Yoda archetype that we have come to expect from previous prophesying masters in pop culture. And while it leaves viewers with more questions than it answers, it is yet another piece to the Kingdom Hearts 3 puzzle that will benefit players understandings in the long run. With a runtime of about an hour and a few great action sequences, the movie is definitely worth a watch.
The Verdict: 8.0 out of 10
Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is an interesting beast. It offers a perfect primer to Kingdom Hearts 3 in both gameplay and story, as the necessary plot points to advance fans from Kingdom Hearts 2 to its numbered sequel are all included. However, it is easily the worst way for new fans to experience the series, as the plot is completely obtuse at this point for all players, let alone new ones. If you are looking to experience Kingdom Hearts for the first time, unfortunately this is not the collection for you; wait for the 1.5+2.5 collection releasing in March. If you are caught up, 2.8 offers the most exciting Kingdom Hearts content since Dream Drop Distance’s original release five years ago, and every piece is worth your time. 2.8 is essential Kingdom Hearts, and all signs gleaned about the anticipated sequel are overwhelmingly positive. If only 2018 (19? 20??) would come a little faster.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale
Brett Williams is an Associate Writer for MONG who has the blood of millions of Heartless on his hands. He sleeps surprisingly well at night. You can follow his nonexistent ramblings on twitter.