Kingdom Hearts is an odd creature, the very premise sounding like a YouTube comment discussion: 'Who would win in a fight between Donald Duck and Cloud?'. Beyond all reasoning and expectations it works; maybe it's the double helping of nostalgia that the Disney and Final Fantasy aspects provide, but after fifteen years and eight games it's safe to say it's now more than just a mere gimmick.
While re-releasing the series onto a new console may be seen as a delay tactic to quell the ire of fans who have waited twelve years since Kingdom Hearts 2 was released it is, nonetheless, a very welcome one. During its life the series has found itself on varying platforms, both handheld and not, a fact that was a sore spot for those who lacked the multiple systems needed to play all of the games. Given that every game had something new to add to the overall plot, and all were considered canon, it only makes sense from a business standpoint to make all of them available on a home console. A move that is very much appreciated, especially if Kingdom Hearts 3 is supposed to be the endgame.
First on the disk is Dream Drop Distance, a title previously only available on the 3DS. Set shortly after the events of Kingdom Hearts 2 , it follows Sora and Riku as they attempt the mark of mastery exam to prove themselves as Keyblade wielders. Set in 'sleeping worlds', the player takes control of either of the two protagonists alongside Pokemonesque creatures known as 'Dream eaters' in the place of Donald and Goofy. Interaction with these new party members was originally designed around a stylus, with mini games implemented as an extra way to level them, along with petting and feeding the creatures for statistical boosts. The whole system feels like a direct copy of Pokemon’s Amie function, right down to being able to stroke your virtual pets to make them happy. It's a silly little distraction from the main game that certainly adds a few hours to the overall play time, especially if you plan to catch 'em all.
Fans of the series will know that every Kingdom Hearts game brought a very new playstyle mechanic. Chain of Memories introduced a card combat system, a skill selection mechanic akin to building a card deck, which has been adapted over time to become the skill system used in the newer games. Kingdom Hearts 2’s dive ability, allowing players to transform the main character and drastically change their combat style, sees a return here in the form of linking. As players fight it fills their Dream Eaters link bar - once filled Sora and Riku can join up with their critter of choice to unleash powerful attacks while the bar drains.
The new mechanic introduced in Dream Drop Distance is the flowmotion movement system, essentially a sort of parkour ability that allows players to launch off of almost any surface at high speed. If applied correctly it can be used to completely negate the need for things like glide or double jump. It's not as elegant and can be a bit tricky to get the hang of, but it opens up full exploration of worlds from the very start. Even massive structures can be scaled by chaining wall jumps, provided you get the jump timing right.
As you play, after having picked Sora or Riku as your character, a bar in the bottom right will begin to go down over time. When the bar is nearly empty a timer will appear on the screen and, once the timer hits 0, you will be forced into the other character’s story. This switching is known as diving. As skills and Dream Eaters are shared between story paths it isn't a huge problem; whoever you didn't pick will get to fight alongside creatures already leveled up. The sudden ejection of the player from a level, even during story battles, is incredibly jarring. You can just run to the nearest save point and manually dive to return to the other story, starting any battles you were in from scratch, but it's a terrible inconvenience. Sure each time you dive a bonus effect is applied to the level, like increased experience or powerful enemies, but it serves to completely break the immersion. This system would have worked much better if mandatory switching was saved for the ends of levels, as each character's level layout is slightly different enough to avoid making it boring.
Dream Drop Distance is an essential part of the saga and contains story vital to the overall plot. Whereas games like Kingdom Hearts : Re;Coded were more game than story, only serving to give a few, albeit important, pieces of information,
Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage is, aside from an absolute mouthful, a follow up to Birth By Sleep. A sequel that covers the fate of the heroine Aqua, the game is incredibly short at only two to three hours long. Players must traverse the world of darkness as Aqua seeks an escape, before her resolve wavers and she is trapped forever. Built using the Unreal Engine, the game serves to give players a taste of what Kingdom Hearts 3 will look like. Graphically superior to anything that came before, A Fragmentary Passage is visually stunning, almost breathtaking in places, in all parts but the plastic-looking character model. If the idea was to make the playable character look like she was pulled out of Toy Story then SquareEnix certainly succeeded.
Gameplay-wise the whole experience is incredibly fluid, in both movement and combat. While flowmotion is missing the idea remains, with levels feeling open and actively encouraging exploration. Unlike with flowmotion where actions such as doublejump were rendered superfluous, areas in the world of darkness require them to get to. More platforming sections have been introduced, with rooftops and floating debris allowing you to reach high up areas, as well as giving players the ability to grind on rail-like surfaces such as vines. The whole experience feels like a happy medium between the complete freedom afforded in >Dream Drop Distance, and the more linear feeling of the earlier games.
Aside from the main objective each level is littered with bonus challenges for players to complete, such as exploring a certain part of a level, or finding a hidden collectable. These challenges carry over in the New Game+ mode, giving the short entry a degree of replayability that its length sorely calls for. Each completed task grants a piece of clothing that, while having no effect on the gameplay, allows you to customise Aqua’s appearance. This is a first for Kingdom Hearts and, while it is only colourful wings and dress patterns, it adds a whole new level of interaction that would be certainly welcome in future titles.
Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue marks the last of the multiple title collections, covering all of the previous games in either remakes, ports, or cutscene selections. Even the movie that comes with the game, Kingdom Hearts X back Cover, covers the story of the mobile game Kingdom Hearts X for those who missed that particular title. Like A Fragmentary Passage it utilises technology being used to make Kingdom Hearts 3, giving watchers a taste of, hopefully, what is to come. If the entire exercise of this latest release is to rekindle the hype of those who may have grown weary of the long wait, then it serves its purpose perfectly. Strange plastic textures and endless questions aside, it's hard to find fault with entry; the horribly short Aqua chapter and irritating auto-dive mechanics previously mentioned being the only two major issues. As the final chapter finally looms on the horizon, this last look at the direction the developers are moving in bodes well for all concerned.