Having completely missed out on the PlayStation 3 era altogether due to selecting the Xbox 360 as my gaming console of choice for that generation, a good number of classic PlayStation titles and series slipped my gaming. Thus my PlayStation 4 bucket list was created and thankfully only a few remain unchecked going into 2017, one of them was Kingdom Hearts. Ahead of the hopefully imminent release of Kingdom Hearts III, a collection of previously outside PlayStation Kingdom Hearts content has been released under the mouthful title of ‘Kingdom Hearts 2.8 HD Final Chapter Prologue’ and finally I was to experience Kingdom Hearts…well, just about anyway.
This collection contains three parts; Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop HD, Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep ‘A Fragmented Passage’ and Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover. Each is a standalone option to choose to play from the main menu. The music on the main menu is soothing and embodies the sense of wonder I have grown to have about Kingdom Hearts as a series.
Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD was originally a title for the Nintendo 3DS so this remastered version marks the first time it has appeared on a main PlayStation console and has been adapted to suit a console rather than the dual screens of the 3DS. It stars Sora and Riku, characters from the main Kingdom Hearts games as they look to complete their Mark of Mastery exams by protecting parallel worlds as they prepare for the return of Master Xehanort. Each character is playable in the worlds but use a timed based system which results in switching to the other character via the Drop system which depletes over time.
As my first introduction to playing anything Kingdom Hearts, my reaction to the first 20 minutes was one of confusion and intrigue. I knew Disney characters were a part of the series but the very first thing I was presented with was a fight with Ursula from the Little Mermaid. The way in which the story felt thrown at the player was overwhelming and the opening to the game moves pretty fast with cuts-scenes that do set up the story but was lost on a newcomer to the series like me. It did feel as though I was playing a remake of a handheld game, loading screens are frequent and the gameplay is quick but the shifting between Sora and Riku never gave me time that I felt I needed to learn about them as characters. But it gives an incredible look into how the world of Disney blends with that of Kingdom Hearts and in terms of story and scope for what Kingdom Hearts III has in store it honestly left me wanting to get into this series even more. Getting to grips with the flowmotion system of moving around felt a little lost in what came across as rather empty worlds, something that probably worked ok on the 3DS but for this remaster, being a little more populated would have helped a lot I feel.
Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover was a surprise for me in that I was expecting content to actually play. Instead it is merely an animated movie that looks into the very earliest history of the Kingdom Hearts universe with one of the strangest introduction to any animation I have seen with text on screen moving so fast you can hardly make out what the text on screen is saying yet you have almost three minutes of it to get through. To be fair it is listed as the final chapter in the collection so if a player follows each chapter choice normally they will find this animated film as the closing part to the collection.
It tells the story set before the Keyblade War itself, which to someone like me who is not familiar enough with the main story as it is, did not help fill in any of the blanks at all. The story is really all about politics, how when seven people are chosen to be Foretellers, holders of books with prophecies of the future and their role in preventing the spread of darkness across the worlds. The pace is slow, really slow and on first viewing, the chapters are not skippable, meaning you have to play the whole animation as a complete piece before given the option to watch individual chapters in bite size after watching it that first time. Due to its setting, it is disconnected from what is shown and played in Drop Distance and A Fragmented Passage though it is apparently something that will be referenced in Kingdom Hearts III. My reaction to this was pretty much the same as most Star Wars fans coming out of watching The Phantom Menace for the first time in that this animation has themes and exposition that feel strange and not in line with how the story was told in the actual playable chapters in this collection. The quality of the animation is great though and if the cut scenes in Kingdom Hearts III follow suit, the story telling through them will indeed be amazing, but it just feels rather out of place without anything a player can actually play or experience other than sitting there watching it unfold.
I left the middle chapter, Birth by Sleep ‘A Fragmented Passage’ really is the crown jewel of this collection and to a newcomer to Kingdom Hearts, a superb way of demonstrating its gameplay and story telling in a traditional straight forward gaming way that I wish it had been my first selection in going into this collection instead of Drop Distance. Short at just shy of three hours long, it is told from the viewpoint of the character Aqua, who along with two friends are trapped in the realm of Darkness. Set after the events of Drop Distance, King Mickey Mouse reveals that he has been keeping a few secrets, one of which is the truth about what happened to Aqua and her attempts to rescue her friends from Darkness.
This is truly the best teaser for Kingdom Hearts III as A Fragmented Passage uses the same Unreal 4 engine that it is using. Visually the game world and character models are simply stunning and the gameplay is smooth in transitioning from combat styles to moving around the world using Aqua’s double jump. It felt far more controlled to play as Aqua than the flowmotion with Sora and Riku in Drop Distance and I felt more comfortable with this gameplay style. The story telling between gameplay sections in cut-scenes was easy enough to follow for a newcomer like me and left me excited going into Kingdom Hearts III more so than before I played this collection and especially more than either of the other inclusions. Exploring this world felt fun and intriguing and the gameplay soon became second nature.
Now to someone completely new to Kingdom Hearts I was hoping that for this remastered collection at least, each would come with some kind of introduction as to their place in the series but sadly each is presented just how they are, which left me as confused about the series as I was without this collection experience. Back Cover felt like filler and Drop Distance failed to capture me as much as A Fragmented Passage did, with the latter certainly paving the way for what looks to be an amazing visual platform with the Unreal 4 Engine for Kingdom Hearts III. This is a collection for fans well versed in the series but it did very little to help welcome me as a new player which feels like a missed opportunity. Drop Distance and Fragmented Passage are short game experiences, worthwhile but indeed short. Back Cover was a chore to sit through in one sitting to justify it as anything but padding to justify the pricing for the collection.
If only Square Enix had added something to allow new players to Kingdom Hearts more freedom to learn about the series, even if it were just text based information to set up each chapter or explain their place in the overall Kingdom Hearts series but if this collection was simply a way to put the engine being used for the next game, through its paces, then it has paid off. It gave me a glimpse into the world of Kingdom Hearts and whilst it was not a bountiful feast of lore to snack on, does have me engaged enough to want Kingdom Hearts III even more now.