The Kingdom Hearts franchise has been scattered over multiple systems. PlayStation owners got the main games but none of the side games, and Nintendo owners got all of the side games but none of the main games. With the release of the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5 collections, that problem was almost rectified and put versions of almost every game to date on the PS3. With the release of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue — quite the title! — the last two Kingdom Hearts titles are finally represented on a PlayStation system. More important to fans is the inclusion of the first new Kingdom Hearts game in years. How does it stand up to other Kingdom Hearts HD collections?
Chronologically, Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance is the last game in the Kingdom Hearts franchise so far, and it's effectively a sequel to Kingdom Hearts 2. The wizard Yensid has charged Sora and Riku with completing their Mark of Mastery exam by venturing into the world of dreams, so they can be true Keyblade Masters. Along the way, they're stalked by antagonists (both old and new) who want nothing more than to drag them into darkness.
For a "side" game, Dream Drop Distance is pretty important to the franchise. A lot of events happen, including the introduction of a new villain group, that heavily impacts the plot of Kingdom Hearts 3. Unfortunately, the plot is rather absurd and delves deeper into Kingdom Heart's increasingly convoluted metaplot that introduces time travel, clones, and a plot twist involving the letter X. If you really want to understand what's happening in Kingdom Hearts 3, you'll need to play through Dream Drop Distance, but be prepared for nonstop rushes of absurdity.
Like Birth by Sleep, Dream Drop Distance has a Command Deck system where you unlock and gain special skills that are on a cooldown rather than borrowing from a shared MP meter. You can find additional skills by raising Dream Eaters, collectible fantasy monsters who can be raised by playing minigames. Riku and Sora have distinct plots that intersect, so you'll have to level up both characters.
Level design is based on Flowmotion, which is a context-sensitive movement system where Riku or Sora stick to objects in the environment and use them for faster traversal, such as bouncing off a wall or spinning around a street post. Once you do a Flowmotion move, you can chain it into special attacks, avoid attacks, move around the environment, and reach places that aren't accessible during your first playthrough.
Unfortunately, Dream Drop Distance doesn't have many improvements over the original version. Most of the flaws were retained, including the controversial Drop system that forces players to swap between characters on a timer.
It has fun moments and weak moments, but it isn't the best or worst entry in the franchise. The PS4 port is a visual improvement, but you can't deny that it began life as a 3DS game, and some of the mechanics feel out of place with thumbsticks. The previous Kingdom Hearts collections included Final Mix versions of all the games that helped them feel fresher, but beneath the visual polish, Dream Drop Distance hasn't been revamped much. However, it's also the only full game in the package, so it has to carry more weight than any titles in the previous collection.
The second game in the package is probably the big selling point of 2.8. The awkwardly titled Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep -A fragmentary passage- is the first entirely original content in one of the Kingdom Hearts HD collections. It's part sequel and part prequel, taking place between Birth By Sleep and Kingdom Hearts 1. It's also our first look at the Kingdom Hearts 3 combat engine and gameplay mechanics. While it's unlikely to be an exact 1-for-1 to the final version, it's a nice first glimpse.
Storywise, A Fragmentary Passage follows the story of Aqua from Birth By Sleep after she falls into the land of darkness. It explains what she's been doing between the two games and adds some context to the events at the end of Kingdom Hearts 1. Perhaps the real selling point for die-hard KH fans is the events that occur at the end of the story to set up the new status quo and opening events for Kingdom Hearts 3. Otherwise, it's mostly there to show what Kingdom Hearts 3 will be like.
In terms of pure mechanics, A Fragmentary Passage resembles Kingdom Hearts 2 more than its other predecessors. It returns to pre-Command Deck mechanics, so you have an MP bar that is used up by spells and has to recharge once it's drained. Spells are once again located in a dedicated Spell menu to which you can assign hotkeys. We only saw a handful of spells, but they stay true to the Kingdom Hearts spell paradigm. Firaga is fast and single-target, while Thundaga is an AoE spell. One cool new feature is Blizzaga, which freezes enemies and can also create a rail of ice that you can slide on to close the distance with an enemy.
The biggest change is Situational Commands, which are a combination of KH2's Reaction Commands and special skills from other games. As you fight enemies, you build up Situational Command bars, and once you reach three bars, you unlock a special command action based on how you've been fighting. Use the Firaga spell a lot, and you'll unlock the higher-tier Firaja. In A Fragmentary Passage, you can unlock the Spellweaver fighting style by repeatedly attacking with Keyblades. In addition, the KH2 Reaction Commands are also available. During the big boss fight at the end of the demo, Aqua can use an earned Situational Command to tie up the enemy and limit their movement for a brief period.
The actual content in A Fragmentary Passage is pretty limited. You spend the demo venturing through what amounts to a dark and corrupted version of Cinderella's Castle, completely with deadly thorns. There's about two hours of content, including several puzzles, multiple enemy encounters and a handful of boss fights. You can also complete optional challenges to unlock costume customization options for Aqua, and there's an extra-hard Critical mode for those who like a challenge.
A Fragmentary Passage is our first look at the Kingdom Hearts 3 gameplay, and it's a good start. The gameplay and mechanics are polished, and a lot of the nagging flaws of the previous games, such as an awkward camera, appear to have been fixed or minimized. The gameplay feels solid and is designed well, and the return to Kingdom Hearts 2-style mechanics works strongly in its favor. In particular, the boss fights were high points, and a fight against a ghostly illusion of Aqua herself was a boatload of fun.
Visually, it's fairly impressive. The level design has some memorable areas, and the game runs smoothly. My biggest issue thus far is that the character models look weird and plastic. This is most noticeable on the humans who've gone from having more cartoony designs to something in-between the Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy styles. The differences are most noticeable when Mickey Mouse or Goofy are on-screen. The music is the usual excellent Kingdom Hearts work, and the Birth by Sleep cast appears to have gotten more comfortable with their voice acting roles. Aqua is much better than she was in Birth By Sleep.
A Fragmentary Passage is by the far the strongest part of the package, but it's basically a glorified demo, much like Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. It's great to get some hands-on time with the Kingdom Hearts 3 gameplay and engine, but the game doesn't even have a release date yet. It wouldn't be the first or last time that a game included a demo and was sold at full price, but it feels lackluster as the "second game" in the collection since you can burn through the content so quickly. It gives players a lot of hope for Kingdom Hearts 3, but the price point feels high.
The last part of the collection is Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover. As with the previous collections, this isn't a game but a collection of cut scenes that retell a portion of the story. In this case, it follows a group of Keyblade wielders in the ancient times before the current Kingdom Hearts games. Much of it is setup for events that will occur in either Kingdom Hearts 3 or a future game.
This is perhaps the part of the package with the least value. It's neat that the developers went all-out with the cut scenes, but at the end of the day, it's an hour of plot involving characters you have no reason to care about who primarily exist to add more complexity to the already-convoluted Kingdom Hearts universe. If you're not deep into the Kingdom Hearts plot, it will probably feel like gibberish. There's a good chance it will have heavy consequences in future games, but even then, it's not worth the viewing time.
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is probably the weakest of the Kingdom Hearts collections to date. Since it's bundled with a single game, a demo, and a borderline-incoherent selection of cut scenes, the content is far behind the other Kingdom Hearts HD ports. The content is mostly good, and the Ground Zeroes-style demo for Kingdom Hearts 3 is sure to entice fans. It has more original content than the previous collections, but it's still not worth the $60 asking price. Kingdom Hearts fans will be happy to get some time with the newest entry in the series, but casual players might want to wait for a price drop.
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