There are two things Square Enix's role playing series, Kingdom Hearts, is well known for - first, the numerous Disney character cameos (hooray!), and second, the exceedingly complex story (boo!). With a third (and supposedly final) game in the works, now over a decade after Kingdom Hearts II first hit the Playstation 2, Square Enix have been doing their best to try and bring players up to speed, ready to take on the next step of the journey. Continuing in the same vein as the awkwardly named Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is the brand new Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, (the bit that comes before the final chapter, geddit?) a rather clumsily named collection that hopes to bring everyone up to speed ready for Kingdom Hearts III.
As before, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 bundles together two Kingdom Hearts games, and one extended cutscene - although the difference this time round is that two out of three are brand new, never before seen entities, rather than remakes. Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD is a simple remake of the 3DS game of the same name, released some four years ago, while Kingdom Hearts X: Back Cover is a new take on the story of mobile game Kingdom Hearts X from a different perspective. Arguably the biggest deal in the whole collection, though, is Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth By Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage - a brand new, short, PS4 engined episode that acts as an extended demo/set-up for the much-anticipated Kingdom Hearts III.
Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD
Set after the events of Kingdom Hearts II (for more on that, you'll have to check out our review of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix), Dream Drop Distance sees Sora and Riku gearing up to take their Mark of Mastery exams - a special test designed to teach Keyblade wielders like Sora and Riku all they need to know. Given that they largely taught themselves to use their Keyblades, the wise wizard Yen Sid believes they'd both benefit from a bit more formal training, especially considering the growing threat posed by recurrent bad guy, Xehanort, who's long overdue for a return (in the upcoming Kingdom Hearts III). As part of their training, the pair must travel to a number of 'sleeping worlds' to find and unlock each Keyhole to wake them once more - although, with each world now infested with a new threat, the Dream Eaters, it won't be an easy ride.
To make things even more complex, it turns out Sora and Riku must travel alone - as each sleeping world has been split into two, with two disparate timelines, both sides of a world must be saved before it can wake. Playing into what is perhaps Dream Drop Distance's most important mechanic, this means you'll actually need to play as both Sora and Riku, in their respective sides of the worlds, swapping between the two along the way.
What this means in practice is that you have a time limit of sorts for playing as each character, before being forcibly switched to the other for a while, then being switched back, ad infinitum. It's as jarring as it sounds, as you'll often find yourself whisked away at the most inopportune moments - midway through battle; when you've finally figured out where you need to go; or when you're on the cusp of figuring out a particular puzzle - and, once you get back into Sora's shoes (for example), you'll likely find he's in a different world, at a different point in the story, and you've totally forgotten what it was you were doing. We weren't a fan of the system when we played it the first time round, stomaching it until the third TRON world (because who thinks TRON's still a big, cool thing anyway?!), and we're not a fan now either, several years down the line.
However, with that rant out of the way, there's actually a lot we like about Dream Drop Distance too. The combat is the same flashy mix of button mashing that's become a series staple, letting you take down foes with real-time keyblade swings, magic spells and special attacks as you see fit. Upping the flashy hectic quota even further, Dream Drop Distance brought with it a new 'Flowmotion' mechanic that let you spin around lamposts, vault off walls and grind rails in amongst your regular attacks, giving you a boost of speed to shoot between enemies at a rate of knots.
Now, the aforementioned Dream Eaters that have moved in to take over the sleeping worlds also come in two distinct forms - there's the malevolent 'nightmares', who'll make up the bulk of what you'll fight, but there's also some friendlier 'spirits' mixed in there too. During your adventure, you'll be able to recruit various spirits to help you out in battles, giving Dream Drop Distance a slight Pokemon vibe, as you add gaudy-coloured pandas, dog-cat-things and rotund sleepy sheep to your party. Each spirit has it's own strengths and weaknesses in battle, some focusing on brute force, while others bombard your enemies with status effects, sending them to sleep, stunning them and the like - and with some fifty or so to collect over the course of the game, there's plenty to pick from when it comes to creating your perfect party. While it doesn't seem quite as intuitive as it did on the 3DS originally, you're also able to stroke, play mini-games with and generally bond with your adopted spirits too, affecting its performance in battle to boot.
Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth By Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage -
Given our slight love-hate relationship with Dream Drop Distance, we found this brand new episode to be the stand out of the collection - albeit a rather short-lived one. Weighing in at around five hours or so, it's not really much more than an extended demo/teaser for Kingdom Hearts III, and one that focuses on the blue-haired Keyblade wielder Aqua. Fresh out of Kingdom Hearts prequel Birth By Sleep, an unfortunate chain of events has caused poor old Aqua to end up trapped in the Realm of Darkness, with A Fragmentary Passage telling the tale of her journey through the darkness, acting as a bit of a story set up for Kingdom Hearts III in the process.
Mixing together fast-paced combat with light puzzle solving and exploration, A Fragmentary Passage sees Aqua making her way through the dark, twisted, Heartless-infested worlds of the Realm of Darkness. Kicking off in Castle Town, Aqua first decides to head towards the distant Cinderella's castle, only to find time suddenly advances as she approaches, and the bridge between them crumbles away. By collecting the clock cogs scattered around the warped town, you can rewind time and rebuild the bridge, letting you reach the castle once more - although given the maze-like, Heartless infested streets you'll have to roam first, it's not necessarily as straight forward a task as it first seems.
Starting off at level 50, our Aqua is a force to be reckoned with in battle, with the game's combat system mixing together all the best bits from Kingdom Hearts games over the years. Between fast-paced Keyblade swings, Aqua also has a number of elementally-charged spells at her disposal, which can now be accessed mid-battle via a convenient shortcut list - something that's much easier than having to frantically work your way through menus as in Kingdom Hearts' past. Deal enough continuous damage to enemies, and you'll be able to activate Aqua's 'Spellweaver' ability, which sees her deal greater damage with flashier attacks at greater speed for a short time. Deal enough damage in this state, and you'll be able to unleash an even more powerful finishing move. Whether it's her 'standard' ice-spinning vortex attack, which you can move about the battlefield for maximum damage, or super-powered versions of her elemental spells, with greater areas of effect, it really comes in handy when you find yourself being swamped by enemies.
Another nice touch, and one that we found ourselves getting borderline obsessive with, was the new Objective system. By meeting specific conditions and completing set side missions, you can actually earn clothes and accessories to dress Aqua up with, from new clothing patterns to white 'Marie' cat ears and glowing wings. Outfits seem to exist purely for fun, and don't offer any in-battle stat boosts, but ticking off as many of the objectives as you can is still pretty satisfying, with goals that range from the basic - defeating a number of enemies, freezing a set amount of heartless or reaching level 60 - to the more inventive, area-specific challenges, such as hitting 20 street lamps, climbing to the highest point in Castle Town or watching a meteor shower in the sky.
Kingdom Hearts X: Back Cover
Perhaps the least interesting aspect of the collection, Back Cover is a fully-voiced, hour long cutscene, based on the story of Kingdom Hearts X, a mobile game spin-off which acts as a prequel to all the other prequels in the Kingdom Hearts universe. Focusing on the build up to the legendary Keyblade War, whose consequences are still being felt by Sora, Riku and co in the present day, Back Cover tells the tale of the Foretellers, a group of sages tied to the future of Kingdom Hearts.
Apprentices to the Master of Masters, who possess an eye that can see in to the future, each of the Foretellers is given a specific role to ensure everything happens as the Master prophesied. However, after his mysterious disappearance, the Foretellers are left with nothing to guide them, save the Book of Prophecies he left them - and before long, a rift grows between the Foretellers, fed by arguments, rivalries and a traitor in their midst. in turns out these are the events that lead to the Keyblade War, where the warriors of the light turned against each other, setting the wheels of fate in motion, and providing the backdrop for every Kingdom Hearts game since.
Not quite as bursting at the seams with content as the previous two Kingdom Hearts HD collections, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is a bit of a mixed bag really. For fans of the series, the main attraction of the collection will be Aqua's extended Kingdom Hearts III demo, A Fragmentary Passage, which is a great, if somewhat short, romp through the Realm of Darkness, setting up the events of Kingdom Hearts III in the process (and giving you a sneak peak of how it might look). But for those who are less well versed in the lore of the series, the collection may feel like a bit of an impenetrable mess story-wise, raising more questions than it answers - whether it's Dream Drop Distance's flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks and forced character swaps, A Fragmentary Passage's many references or the poorly explained significance of the Keyblade War in Back Cover. Such players may want to wait a month or two for the upcoming Playstation 4 collection that includes both the HD 1.5 and 2.5 Remixes to fill in the gaps before they venture into 2.8.