If there’s one thing the Kingdom Hearts series is known for, it’s absurd titles that make absolutely no sense. I’m sure by now the intelligent reader has noticed that the trend has not abated. Kingdom Hearts HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue is the last in the series of HD remasters, and, like its predecessors, consists of two games and one collection of movies. Unlike previous HD collections, however, this time around one of the games and the movie collection are all-new material, meaning that even hardened fans of the Kingdom Hearts series will find something new here. This is both a blessing and a curse, as we’ll see.
The centerpiece of the package is Dream Drop Distance HD, a remake of a game originally released on the 3DS in 2012. This game is almost a straight remake; unlike the "Final Mix" versions of previous Kingdom Hearts games found in the earlier HD collections, there is almost no new content in this release, and very few changes have been made to the game’s core systems. If you’ve already played Dream Drop Distance on the 3DS, then you’ve essentially already played this version as well.
Of course, it could be argued that Dream Drop Distance didn’t need very many additions or changes; this is easily the best of the Kingdom Hearts spinoff titles, and, being the most recent original release, doesn’t have any need for retcons. Dream Drop Distance casts the player in the dual roles of series protagonists Sora and Riku, as they dive into the "sleeping worlds" in an attempt to prove themselves worthy of being named keyblade masters. A "sleeping world" is a world that fell to the heartless in the leadup to the original Kingdom Hearts and has yet to be restored; not to put too fine a point on it, but this means that the Disney worlds featured in this game are all new worlds players haven’t seen before. So if you’re sick to tears of Olympus Coliseum, well, guess who gets his wish? Not, to be sure, that I’m attempting to imply that Square Enix has finally bothered to look up how to spell "coliseum." That would be silly.
Combat in Dream Drop Distance plays like an evolved version of the system from Birth By Sleep; Sora and Riku build "command decks" loaded with various attacks and spells, each of which has a cooldown. There is no resource usage attached to these, but, if there’s no useful command that’s off cooldown, the player will be limited to basic keyblade strikes and the game’s new "flowmotion" system. Flowmotion is an odd, parkour-like notion whereby Sora and Riku can slide along rails, spin around posts, and launch themselves off of walls. When in flowmotion, the heroes can move quickly, and can perform large attacks that land many blows and can hit multiple mobs. It’s an odd system, but it works fairly well; it doesn’t take very long to get the hang of it, and it definitely helps both with crowd control and basic mobility.
The other curious new addition to combat is "reality shifts," which are big attacks that can only be performed at certain times — there will be trigger spots throughout the levels, and every keyblade strike has a chance to trigger a reality shift as well. When a reality shift is activated, regular gameplay pauses while the player performs some type of curious minigame. Exactly what the minigame consists of varies from world to world, but one common thread that runs among them is that they’re clearly touchscreen minigames designed for the 3DS that have been rejiggered to use standard controller buttons. Since the new control method is clearly less optimal, they’ve also been made very easy, which is nice; there are many cases in which a reality shift is absolutely necessary to progress through the game, and they won’t leave you tearing your hair out trying to get the controls to behave.
Sora and Riku journey separately, and the player switches between them, though not always willingly; one of the game’s more controversial elements is its "drop gauge," located next to the player portrait. This gauge gradually empties during play (how gradually is impacted by a number of factors), and, when it runs out, the player immediately "drops," and is switched to the other character. This is not a drop-in substitution, either; the characters will be in separate worlds doing different things, and the game suddenly switches from one to the other. This can be jarring (especially if Sora and Riku are built differently), and comes with a bit of a steep learning curve which is not improved by Sora’s first level being a touch confusing, but ultimately is an interesting feature that communicates one of the game’s core ideas thematically rather than through words. The HD version has a longer drop gauge than the original, meaning more time between drops, but the mechanic is still unavoidable; you can re-drop manually from the menu if you just absolutely have to get back to what you were doing before, but it’s inadvisable to do this too often, since there are bonuses one can accrue during a drop that will apply to the next drop.
Sora and Riku journey separately, but not alone — Donald and Goofy are out of commission this time, but the heroes are accompanied by "spirits," which are good versions of the game’s monsters, the Dream Eaters. Spirits are Dream Drop Distance’s crafting system also; the player finds various spirit recipes, and has to create them out of dream fragments. Each spirit has different stats and abilities, and also has a different ability board from which the player can unlock different powerups and deck commands. This neatly replaces Birth By Sleep’s utterly atrocious command boards, and is a vastly more enjoyable mechanic. More controversially, there’s also a bit of Nintendogs-alike creature care to be done here; the player can play with, feed, and pat the spirits in the "bond" menu, which can help them to develop and become more powerful, as well as earning more points to spend on the ability boards. If this is not to your taste, it’s fairly easy to ignore; spirits will still develop through normal gameplay, so you’re not locking yourself out of needed powerups, but they’ll develop more slowly.
Dream Drop Distance is a great game overall, but it’s not without its share of problems. Most prominent among them is that the game’s plotline is extremely weird. Kingdom Hearts is known for its madcap plotting, to be sure, but Dream Drop Distance is the weirdest of the lot. If you’re not a veritable scholar of Kingdom Hearts, you’re likely to have no idea what’s going on; the game builds off of literally every other game in the series, meaning that, if there’s any game you aren’t familiar with, you’ll be lost sooner or later. Brief textual recaps are added to the journal at various points to try to bring players up to speed, but the fact that the developers thought this was needed speaks volumes.
Another oddity — though I hesitate to call it a problem — is that the game’s worlds seem to have been designed without regard to flowmotion. The flowmotion system makes platforming utterly trivial; in most areas, you can climb to any height and cross any distance simply by exploiting flowmotion, meaning that all the game’s platforming puzzles can basically just be skipped. This only really causes a problem in one specific location at the end of the game (there’s an invisible wall across the path if you climb up with flowmotion, but it goes away if you jump through the correct hoops), but it’s odd. It’s also the case that you’ll earn the traditional suite of Kingdom Hearts platforming boosts through gameplay — high jump, glide, and so forth — and they’re nearly useless in the face of the all-powerful flowmotion.
Probably the most significant of the game’s flaws is that it was originally designed for the 3DS, and, as such, features a lot of dual-screen or touchscreen or 3D-centric elements that don’t translate well to a more conventional environment. They’ve been reworked, obviously, but almost universally don’t work as well as they should; reality shifts are a perfect example. Triggering a reality shift on the PS4 involves the awkward mechanic of pressing circle and triangle at the same time; press them slightly apart from one another, and you could cast spells or jump instead of triggering the shift. This is especially problematic against one particular late-game boss, who can’t be beaten without a reality shift, and gives only a short window for using it. Square Enix did make the game attempt to keep some of the touchscreen elements in via the DualShock 4’s touchpad; the balloon-bouncing minigame is a whole lot harder than it was on the 3DS, though!
The game is fairly challenging, and features by far the most intricate and complex boss fights in the series (though, amusingly, it also contains one completely broken deck build that’s always the best choice). It also has four difficulty levels, and they’re fairly well balanced this time around; there’s a secret ending, as it standard for the series, and the requirements are normal-game hard rather than Final Mix hard, meaning that ordinary players have a chance of seeing it, which is a plus in my book.
Moving along, we get to the next game in the package: Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth By Sleep — a Fragmentary Passage, about which title I simply have nothing further to say. This game follows Aqua, one of the protagonists from Birth By Sleep, as she wanders about in the world of darkness following the events of that game. The first thing one is likely to notice about Fragmentary Passage is that it looks positively gorgeous; half the game is set in featureless dark world cave areas, which is an immense shame considering that the environments look so good.
The next thing one will notice about Fragmentary Passage is that it plays just as good as it looks. Aqua moves quickly and fluidly, and is simple to control; combat returns to the system design of Kingdom Hearts II rather than the oddball deck-based combat of the spinoffs, but Aqua has a plethora of advanced maneuvers, including dodges, blocks, counters, air-dashes, and even Birth By Sleep holdovers like combat styles and shotlocks. That’s a lot of stuff, but it’s never difficult to cope with, which is excellent design.
It’s also a joy to run Aqua around the world; Fragmentary Passage has in common with Dream Drop Distance a relatively high degree of freedom of motion. Older games (Kingdom Hearts II in particular) tended to bound the player’s movement artificially, leaving you with a ton of movement abilities and no place to move to. Fragmentary Passage is entirely physics-based; if you can contrive a way to get up to something, you can stand on it, and there are indeed lots of secrets to be found in out-of-the-way locations. This is exactly what I want from a Kingdom Hearts game: give me beautifully-rendered Disney worlds full of nasty heartless and let me run and jump and explore.
The main problem with Fragmentary Passage is that it’s about three hours long. This is by design; this was never intended to be (nor presented as) a full-length game, but almost as a playable tech demo showcasing the ideas from Kingdom Hearts III, which may or may not ever actually be released. To make things a bit more interesting, there are a bunch of sidequests that award wardrobe pieces that can be used to customize Aqua’s look, and there are (of course) achievements and the traditional Kingdom Hearts superboss, along with four difficulty levels, so there’s replay value here, but there’s no getting around the fact that the main game is easily finishable in one sitting.
Plot-wise, the game itself is pretty thin on the ground, but it’s wrapped by a pair of cutscenes that tie Dream Drop Distance directly to Kingdom Hearts III. If you never played Birth By Sleep, you’ll have no real idea who this crazy woman is and what she’s up to, but that’s really the only sticking point; this stuff is much more easily understood than is the main plot of Dream Drop Distance.
And speaking of movies, the package rounds out with Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover, a collection of all-new cinematics retelling the story line from the cell phone game Kingdom Hearts χ, which is unplayed by me and is likely to remain that way. The cinematics look quite nice, and the acting is mainly fine (and features many voices that may be familiar to you from, oh, just to take an example at random, Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness), but the content is a bit peculiar; Kingdom Hearts χ is set in the distant past, where I guess nobody will see so much as a Sebastian the crab for like a hundred millennia.
What this means in practice is that only the most hardcore Kingdom Hearts fans will care at all about these movies. There’s no Sora and Riku, there’s no Mickey and Donald and Goofy, there’s no Organization XIII or Xehanort or anything. There’s some sort of ancient Marxoid paradise, a weird guy in a coat, and six "apprentices" who all do stupid things. If you’re casually interested in Kingdom Hearts, feel free to give this one a miss; it’s pretty, but it’s an hour you’d probably rather spend on something else. Also, Square Enix made the curious decision to block recording of literally the entire thing; I can’t even give you a screenshot of the title screen. So you’ll just have to trust me that it’s pretty.
In conclusion, Kingdom Hearts HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue is a no-brainer for any fan of the series who hasn’t played Dream Drop Distance — it’s a great game, and you can get the HD remaster bundled with a really fun demo and an hour of movies you probably don’t want. It’s a bit harder to recommend to people who’ve already played Dream Drop Distance, though; Fragmentary Passage can’t carry the $60 price tag by itself, and this is almost exactly the same Dream Drop Distance you’ve already played. For this reason, I’m compelled to ding the compilation a bit in the final ratings; it seems a bit thin compared to the amount of content we got in the 1.5 and 2.5 ReMIX collections, but it’s still a full-price title. I award it four magical golden hairs for its efforts!
Kingdom Hearts HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue is available for $59.99 from Amazon; at the time of this writing is it on sale for $49.88.