Kingdom Hearts is a really hard series to get into. Even as a long-time fan, I too struggle with the finer details of its lore and universe. There is however, something undeniably charming about the franchise, and I can’t help but to be drawn to it. Some may make fun of it for its ludicrously complex story, but there’s something so special about the blend of JRPG and Disney, that no other game out there can provide anything else similar. Kingdom Hearts 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue is the ridiculous name of the final collection of games that gives us the first, playable look into future of the series. It’s incredibly exciting, but before we get to that, let’s start with another, really ridiculously named game, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance…Who comes up with this stuff?
There’s always been a consistency in the way a Kingdom Hearts story progresses. Sure, even though there was confusion in previous titles, you more or less had an overall grasp of the bare basics of the plot. In Dream Drop Distance, I had absolutely no idea what was going at the start. You’re suddenly flying/diving through this weird gummy ship-like section where you have to dodge and attack certain obstacles and enemies, and then the next thing I knew, the protagonists are whisked away to good old Traverse Town, only this time the town is “sleeping”, you’re much younger and you meet up with characters from The World Ends With You.
So, while that was a bit harsh, it’s only because for a really long time, the story just strolls along, making hardly any sense. Thankfully, later in the game, the story really does ramp up (in classic Kingdom Hearts style, where the end game is cramped up with story sequences), resulting in some really cool revelations and much appreciated progression of the overarching story of the series, but by then, the poor pace of the narrative had already left me feeling exhausted.
Dream Drop Distance introduces a few new mechanics, one of which, is bound to frustrate. Playing into its title and the theme of sleeping and dreams, players will be switching between Riku and Sora, by means of the Drop system. While one character is active, the other is sleeping, and both are exploring the same area, though parallel to each other. The problem with this system is, that while you can manually Drop, there is a meter that governs when Dropping will automatically occur. Once the meter is depleted, you’ll automatically switch to the other character, and this can happen even during a boss battle, which means you’ll lose all the progress made in the fight. There are ways to combat Dropping, but it’s still frustrating to keep track of it and having it activate suddenly when you forget about it.
The other major feature allows Sora and Riku to interact with environment by bouncing off of walls, swinging on polls and grinding rails, using a system call Flow Motion. It’s quite fun to zip around the environment, and it’s complimented well by some really good level designs, making exploration quite a joy this time around. Flow Motion can be used in combat as well, but unfortunately, it makes a lot of the battles, especially early on, quite trivial as it really overpowered and the animations result in temporary invincibility. Thankfully, combat becomes more traditional later on, where reliance is shifted to normal attacks and spells as opposed to Flow Motion. It should be noted that combat benefits heavily from the 60fps upgrade, providing a much smoother and faster experience that completely breathes new life into the gameplay.
Dream Drop Distance isn’t a bad game, and it has a lot to offer. From the numerous mini-games to the Pokémon-like collection system of creatures called Dream-Eaters, the game doesn’t struggle to provide players with ample content. Unfortunately, the poor pacing of the story, unbalanced combat and the frustrating Drop mechanic results in an ultimately mediocre experience.
The real attraction of the compilation is the prologue chapter to Kingdom Hearts 3, 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A fragmentary passage -. 0.2 is a direct sequel to the PSP title, Birth by Sleep and follows the character Aqua as she tries to find a way out of the Darkness realm. If you haven’t played BBS and had gotten the secret ending Blank Points, you’ll probably won’t understand what exactly is going on, but there is an in-game recap which provides a neat summary of past events, which in all honesty is hardly sufficient. That said, the story contained herein, while short, does a really good job of drawing you into its dark and moody world while making you care about Aqua as she deals with the terrors of the darkness around her and in her own heart.
Being a sort of ‘demo’ for Kingdom Hearts 3, 0.2 runs on the same Unreal 4 engine, and boy, is this game a real looker. You have to understand why exactly this game’s visuals are so impressive. The graphics are no doubt technically and artistically well done, but the last true console Kingdom Hearts game was released last on the PlayStation 2, so to see Mickey, Sora, Riku and the crew rendered with next gen graphics truly brought a tear to my eye. The visual effects are a real spectacle as well and really pop on the screen. Aside from some minor frame drops, which I’m sure, will be sorted out by the time 3 launches, the game runs beautifully. I just have to make special mention of the soundtrack too, and again, just like with Final Fantasy XV, Yoko Shimomura really outdid herself with some of the tracks. Ultimately, the game looks and sounds better than I could’ve ever imagined and just seeing everything in motion makes even more excited for Kingdom Hearts 3.
Foregoing the Command Deck, 0.2 instead goes back to classic Kingdom Hearts’ menu style interface (which 3 will eventually use as well) where you can cycle through lists to select items and magic spells, or use shortcut commands. It also features a simple version of BBS’ Command Style system where a meter fills as you attack and use magic and once completed it grants you access to either a powerful magic attack or a temporary Style, which grants new attacks for a short period. It’s a watered down version of what was found in BBS, but given the scope of the game, it’s sufficient and gets the job done.
Though we’re essentially playing a modern Kingdom Hearts game, the soul of the gameplay has not been compromised one bit. It’s not very in-depth by any means whatsoever, but it’s so responsive and fast that you never notice the lack of combat diversity. It’s the way that attacks and moves flow into each that makes for such an enjoyable experience. Aqua moves with such fluidity and poise that simple encounters looks like graceful dances as she glides across the screen upon casting a magic spell. It looks beautiful and it really makes you appreciate the effort that goes into these animations. If Kingdom Hearts 3 kept this battle system, as is (which it obviously won’t), even without adding more depth, I would be okay with it as the foundation is just so good on its own.
As wonderful of a preview as 0.2 is, it’s over way too quickly, clocking in at just about 4 hours on really slow playthroughs, which makes it a bit hard to justify this compilation. Sure, there’s the movie x Back Cover as well, which is interesting in its own right, telling the story of the mobile game x(chi) from the perspective of the Foretellers, which foreshadows the Keyblade War, a major plot point in the Kingdom Hearts universe. As enjoyable as it is, it mainly serves a long sequence of what seems like endless, and at times, mindless exposition. Don’t get me wrong though, this is a very important piece of the Kingdom Hearts story puzzle, but to be honest, it’s not a big enough hook and coupled with the fact that DDD is a pretty average, but enjoyable Kingdom Hearts game, and you’re left with a hard decision to make.