Square Enix’s latest take on the Kingdom Hearts series offers little in the way of new content, but it’s an enjoyable return that’s more fun than frustrating.
The Kingdom Hearts franchise is one that seems to grow more convoluted with each passing day. What began as an already difficult concept to fully believe – the fusion of serious, hardened veterans of the Final Fantasy series and Mickey Mouse and co. will do that to gamers – has quickly evolved into one of gaming’s most complex narratives, for better and for worse. Some fans of Kingdom Hearts will point to its story as one of the more compelling elements of its design, but many series diehards will concede that, confusing story or no, it is the game’s dynamic combat system that keeps them coming back.
Enter Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, a collection of different projects from Square Enix that is explicitly designed to refresh fans on the series’ story so far, while also preparing them for the hotly anticipated Kingdom Hearts 3. Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue features three different titles: Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD, Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, and Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover. Of these, the first two are video games, and the last is a collection of short videos that tell the story of the origins of the Keyblade War.
If that sounds like a lot to process, that’s because it is. At its heart, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 is a lovely collection of fragmentized pieces of Kingdom Hearts lore, but the presentation is where it begins to fall apart – the collection is just too convoluted to offer up much in the way of unity, and as a result, it feels like Square Enix simply jammed three distinctly different Kingdom Hearts narratives into one patched together frame. While Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 offers up a tantalizing look at what the future will look like, it also exposes some of the flaws of its past. Ultimately, the final product is something that should absolutely be picked up by fans of the series, but that does little to sway the uninitiated over to the franchise before its long overdue third main instalment arrives.
Let’s start with the positives – Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage is a gorgeous and exciting look into what combat and level design in Kingdom Hearts 3 will look like, and the future is bright. Aqua’s brief journey – Birth By Sleep takes just over a few hours to beat – is evidence that director Tetsuya Nomura has more to give when it comes to Kingdom Hearts‘ already exceptional combat. Aqua moves fluidly, dodges enemy attacks with grace, and can shift between various fighting forms in order to exploit enemy weaknesses. If Birth By Sleep is a brief taste of what Kingdom Hearts 3‘s combat will be like, then fans of the series should be extremely excited.
Even the story of Birth By Sleep is exceptional by Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 standards, although the fact that it makes some sense and doesn’t let itself digress too far is enough to give it that distinction. Aqua’s story has some real emotional grit to it, however, and the exploration of her friendship with Terra and Ventus gives her some much-needed depth in anticipation of what should be a bigger role in the main series come Kingdom Hearts 3.
While Birth By Sleep is the clear standout in Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8, Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover is the project that feels the most out of place. The collection of shorts involving characters that pre-date the Keyblade War is certainly an interesting exploration of Kingdom Hearts lore and will inevitably give fans more to go on when Kingdom Hearts 3 chooses to reference that narrative. However, the complete lack of any playable portion of Back Cover and its story, which feels too far removed from Sora and Aqua to fit in the collection, makes the movies inessential.
The real meat of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8, however, comes in the form of the high-definition remake of Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance, a game that originally debuted on the Nintendo 3DS. While the team at Square Enix did an admirable job revamping the graphics for the PS4, Dream Drop Distance HD still looks dated when compared to Birth By Sleep, and its Nintendo 3DS roots show a little bit in the scope of its level design and more linear approach to environment building.
If something about Dream Drop Distance HD really shows the game’s age, though, it is the combat system. While Aqua’s time in Birth By Sleep is characterized by a refreshing take on the Kingdom Hearts formula, the combat in Dream Drop Distance HD just doesn’t hold up when compared to its collection companion or other recent Square projects, like Final Fantasy 15. It can be jarring at times to realize that, only a few years ago, Dream Drop Distance HD‘s combat was being praised for the breath of fresh air it brought to the Kingdom Hearts series, but action JRPG combat has come a long way since then.
That isn’t to say that Dream Drop Distance HD isn’t a fun endeavor, however. The game’s various Disney worlds are still enjoyable, and they do have a certain amount of polish on them that wasn’t available on the 3DS. In particular, it is nice to return to the Spirits system, the pet-battling sub-system that replaced having party members in Dream Drop Distance HD. Given that Aqua’s game is more like a true Kingdom Hearts title than a spin-off, the pets and their mini-games are a welcome change of pace.
While Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue suffers from Square’s scattershot approach to what has been included in the collection, it nevertheless remains a must-have for Kingdom Hearts fans, especially those who didn’t have access to Dream Drop Distance the first time around because of the franchise’s odd migration to and from Sony and Nintendo devices seemingly at a whim. Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue might not be the best iteration of Kingdom Hearts we’ve ever seen, but it does an admirable job of preparing gamers for the next main series chapter while providing an enjoyable experience in its own right.
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is available now for PS4. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.