Coming up to the series eleventh instalment in the Kingdom Hearts franchise with Kingdom Hearts III, there’s a level of respect that I feel the series is entitled to purely based on its ability to remain popular and relevant despite it being as oversaturated as Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. What piques my interest, though, is that Kingdom Hearts hasn’t fallen victim to the same resignation or vitriol that those as mentioned earlier are, so I’ve been genuinely curious to see how the series has managed to evolve since my days of play on the mighty PlayStation 2.
The story to Kingdom Hearts continues to grow over time, with each release (whether handheld or console) contributing to the over-arching narrative of the series. Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue lands squarely at the current end of the series, as a full port from the original 3DS version of Dream Drop Distance to the PlayStation 4. As such, the story follows familiar faces Sora and Riku as they are guided by Yen Sid to undertake the Mark of Mastery exam – determining in the process whether or not the boys can be deemed “Keyblade Masters” to counter the evil forces of the big bad, Xehanort.
While this all might sound simple enough from a storytelling perspective at face value, it’s not if you decide to dive any deeper. A criticism against Kingdom Hearts is that you can’t join the series as a newcomer and pick up a title and play if you want to understand what’s going on. With many entries and unique cinematic content amongst a sprawling landscape of other things, Kingdom Hearts has woven both a complex, enriching and convoluted story for both better and worse.
Despite the tenuous grasp I hold on the series story, one thing I appreciated in this particular entry to the series was the inclusion of characters from the Square Enix title The World Ends With You (TWEWY). Unabashedly, Kingdom Hearts is a great series for Square Enix and Disney to pander to their fans – and as one, I don’t even care. I love the addition of the characters from TWEWY to Kingdom Hearts, as both games are largely about destiny, consequence and morals. They fit together almost perfectly, and I think it’s a great call by the writing team to stray away from the standard addition of Final Fantasy characters to the universe.
One of the major points that need scrutiny in any game port from another platform is how it handles. As the original entry utilised the dual screens on a 3DS, some features such as the mini games have changed to a card-based system. While it’s refined and polished, I couldn’t help but feel that it was an obvious solution to save time rather than offering a new/exciting addition. While Square and Disney can’t face criticism for their execution, it’s what is lacking that leaves more of an impression. Despite this lack of innovation, though, some credit does need to be given for listening to player feedback from the original so that enemies were made less offensive than in the original title.
From a design perspective, the re-mastered Dream Drop Distance sticks to the tried and true blueprint of the Kingdom Hearts series without challenging the status quo. Echoing my opinion about elements of the gameplay, while it’s very polished and refined, I’d prefer to see more innovation coming from Kingdom Hearts so deep into its chronology. I feel that this question will come full circle with the release of Kingdom Hearts III, with some very promising signs from what we’ve seen already. Even more curious still is the small things that they manage to get wrong, such as odd camera placement during cut scenes. Distinctly there is a scene where Yen Sid is talking to Sora and Riku across a table, and the cut scene focuses on the backs of Mickey, Donald and Goofy. It’s such an odd and easily fixable issue to have in a game at this stage of the current development landscape, but it does go to show how important paying attention to minor detail can be when storyboarding and designing.
The intangibles to Kingdom Hearts is where I feel the series has always truly shone, though. While I cringe at a lot of the English voice acting in Kingdom Hearts, it’s almost made up for by the beautiful orchestral arrangements that have Square Enix written all over it. It’s something that they’ve always done incredibly well, and especially since the mid-2000s with fantastical scores such as “To Zanarkand” from Final Fantasy X, the leading score from Kingdom Hearts is just as moving in its beauty and lilting tempo. Coupled with the soundtrack of The World Ends With You and its street J-Pop/Rap influence, the contrast is very welcoming and adds, even more, life to the characters from the series.
With the HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, you also get several hours worth of content in the form of 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage. It takes place after the events of the original Birth by Sleep on PSP, and helps tie everything into Kingdom Hearts III – placing it immediately after Dream Drop Distance. The story focuses on Aqua, with King Mickey confessing that he has has secrets to divulge about her time in the Realm of Darkness. With several hours worth of play on offer, this is the perfect snack-sized offering to reel fans straight back into the story, as well as a means to create a tangible level of excitement for the release of Kingdom Hearts III. The extra content doesn’t stop there, though – which goes to show how much care Square and Disney invest into this series and its relationship with their fan base. X Back Cover plays out through a one hour HD cinematic collection, following a new tale of the Foretellers that also reveals new parts of the series history. Utilising technology being developed for Kingdom Hearts III like Fragmentary Passage, X Back Cover provides the final encompassing experience of the collection.
Honestly, as the time slowly draws closer for Kingdom Hearts III, there’s no better time to try and get started on the series. As it currently stands from this fan’s perspective, it’s hard to argue against the offering of a plethora of games that have previously not been accessible due to localisation within Japan. The HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue offers players who don’t own a 3DS the opportunity to play a definitively high-grade port of a current generation game, while also providing Kingdom Hearts fans with one last content-packed sampling before the long awaited third instalment finally arrives. Plus c’mon, it’s Disney and Square Enix… If you don’t like either, you’re a Heartless, and I’m going to slay you with my Keyblade.