Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue review: Dream Drops and Roses

Like every other Kingdom Hearts fan, I’ve been desperately waiting for Kingdom Hearts III. Like every other Kingdom Hearts fan, my heart sank when Square Enix used Tokyo Game Show 2015 not to reveal more information about Kingdom Hearts III, but to announce another stopgap: the awkwardly-named Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue.

A few months later, there’s still little information about Kingdom Hearts III. Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 is out in the wild, though, and it’s more than suitable to help fill the waiting time. The bulk of the package is dedicated to an HD Remaster of Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, a good-but-not-great spinoff that came out for 3DS a few years ago. There’s also a video feature covering the events of Kingdom Hearts Chi, but the highlight is definitely Kingdom Hearts 2.0 Birth by Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage.

A Prologue to Kingdom Hearts III

A Fragmentary Passage is a short-form sequel to Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep, but you don’t really need to have played that game to appreciate this one. I’ve never played Birth by Sleep, but I was able to follow A Fragmentary Passage’’s story just fine. A keyblade wielder called Aqua is trapped in the World of Darkness, chasing elusive visions of her friends and allies.

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 review

It’s a simple premise, but it sets up something far more interesting: a deep dive into Aqua’s subconscious. She’s a competent fighter and a commissioned friend, and she’s helped save worlds before, but she’s stricken with self-doubt nonetheless. She wonders if she’s fit to wield a keyblade and be called a hero. A Fragmentary Passage is a story about Aqua facing those demons, both internally, in terms of her growth as a character, and externally, by fighting manifestations of her doubts and fears.

In the space of 3 hours, give it take, A Fragmentary Passage achieves a familiar but deep, compelling character arc. It’s a rare blessing to play something so concise, especially in the realm of JRPGs, but this game proves it can work well. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to just play through a game one sitting, and this game lets you do that. It’s not just the story, either; there’s a good system of RPG character growth within the brevity of this game, as well.

A Fragmentary Passage also something of a return to form for the Kingdom Hearts franchise. Strip away all the convoluted plotting, strip away light-vs-dark fantasy framing, and Kingdom Hearts is about people confronting their own demons and learning to understand themselves. When characters babble on about the “darkness in their hearts”, that’s what they’re talking about. Kingdom Hearts is almost like a more kid-friendly Persona in that sense.

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 review

A lot of that got lost in the growing complexity of the overarching plot, especially in the side games, but A Fragmentary Passage makes that the central theme once again. That’s welcome not just for this game itself, but because it’s a prologue of sorts to Kingdom Hearts III. I don’t want to say too much, but I think it’s a safe assumption that Aqua will play an important role in the upcoming game — not necessarily a big role, but an important one.

It’s also a bit of a “technical prologue”, in that it’s built on the same engine as Kingdom Hearts III. The good news here is that A Fragmentary Passage looks gorgeous and plays like a dream. Combat is fast and fluid, but it retains that balance of action and strategy. Outside battle, Aqua moves quickly and gracefully, aided by a handy double jump and air dash; in her traversal, she reminds me of Kat from Gravity Rush, sans gravity switching. Go back to any other Kingdom Hearts game after playing A Fragmentary Passage, and it feels clunky by comparison.

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 review

This doesn’t mean that Kingdom Hearts III will look and play just the same, of course, but A Fragmentary Passage gives an idea of what the new engine is capable of. It lays out an exciting precedent for the new game to follow.

Also, the PS4 theme you get for finishing A Fragmentary Passage is absolutely gorgeous.

HD Dreaming

As good as A Fragmentary Passage is, most of your time with Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 will undoubtedly be spent in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance HD. It’s an impressive remaster – it’s obviously not as technically impressive as games made originally for PS4, but if I didn’t know better, I’d never have guess it was once a 3DS game.

The game itself is a strange one. Square Enix has always used the Kingdom Hearts spin-offs as grounds for experimentation, and Dream Drop Distance introduces a lot of new ideas to the series formula. The best addition is the “Flowmotion” system, which lets you use objects to quickly move around and attack enemies. You can grind on rails, for example, and spin around lamp-posts and fling yourself off at high speed. You can even chain moves together, making the game feel almost like Jet Set Radio as you zip around the various worlds.

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 review

Less successful is a monster-collecting system. Defeated enemies sometimes drop materials that can be used to create monster allies, which are “light” versions of those you fight against. It’s a fun idea in theory, and I do love a good monster-collecting game, but Dream Drop Distance is let down by its monster designs. The enemies are weird, but in a way that’s not particularly interesting, and their friendly equivalents look even stranger thanks to odd colour schemes. I never felt any real bond with any of these creatures, which is a really important aspect of any sort of monster-collecting game.

Dream Drop Distance is also a bit of a disappointment in its story. It’s got that same emotive, character-driven core that all the Kingdom Hearts games have, but that’s buried beneath an excess of confusing plot details. The inclusion of characters from The World Ends With You is also a strange decision – they’re interesting characters from a great game, but they feel very out of place in Kingdom Hearts.

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 review

It’s a good game, with exciting worlds to explore – including new ones, like The Grid from Tron and La Cité des Cloches, based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame – and exciting action RPG combat. There are some great minigames, and it’s nice to be able to switch between Riku and Sora. It’s just not quite up to the same standard as the main-series games, and as A Fragmentary Passage.

Birth of a World

The final piece of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 is Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover, an hour-long cinematic that offers a glimpse at the history of the Kingdom Hearts universe. It takes place 1000 years before the first Kingdom Hearts, in a time when all the worlds were one. It’s only really going to appeal to lore fanatics, but it’s a good way to round out the package nonetheless.

Like A Fragmentary Passage, it’s also built on the same engine as Kingdom Hearts III. If Back Cover is any indication, the cinematics in the upcoming game are going to be gorgeous.

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 review

* * *

It may not be Kingdom Hearts III – the wait continues – but Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue is nonetheless a good appetiser. Dream Drop Distance is one of the weaker games in the series, but it still has many hours of fun to offer, and the remaster is superb. The real draw, though, is Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage -, a short game that captures the essence of Kingdom Hearts wonderfully.

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue is developed and published by Square Enix. It’s available now for PlayStation 4.

A press copy was supplied by Square Enix for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.