Friday, February 17, 2017

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue

In the interest of holding fans over until the inevitable release of Kingdom Hearts III, Square Enix has released HD Remix compilations of already existing games in the series on PS3. Both of these Remixes, HD 1.5 and HD 2.5, collect two full games and a cutscene version of a third. Recently, in the interest of hyping up the end of the Dark Seeker Saga, they have released a third compilation, this time released on PS4, known as HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue. Unlike the other compilations, this one features an HD remaster of Dream Drop Distance, previously only playable on the Nintendo 3DS, as well as an original short game and an original CG movie which covers the events of an otherwise nonessential smartphone game. Essentially, this particular collection is meant to fully prepare players for the events of Kingdom Hearts III.

The first item in the collection is Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD. While it may seem a challenge to port a game from a system with two screens to a system which only allows for one, the team definitely pulled it off. Immediately noticeable is the increased graphical capability, which better takes advantage of the screen size and allows every detail to be seen with better clarity. Beyond this are a number of gameplay tweaks to make the game more controller-friendly, mainly by assigning Dream Eater functions from the second screen to a sub-menu menu system not unlike Kingdom Hearts II. To explain, there is a sub-menu menu for activating special Dream Eater attacks and another for switching out an active Dream Eater with the one in reserve, though these can also thankfully be accessed like a shortcut menu from previous games.

There are a number of additional changes made to the HD version of Dream Drop Distance, including, but not limited to, extended Drop times, three Command Deck commands instead of two, gameplay in 60 FPS and the ability to view a map of the area by pressing the DualShock 4’s touchpad. There are also three exclusive Dream Eaters, Catanuki, Tubguin Ace and Beatalike, for players to create and bond with. While the Dream Eater mini-games have been reworked pretty well to fit with a DualShock 4 layout, the only complaint I have is that a mini-game where you pop balloons involves precision control with the touchpad, which feels awkward at first and takes a while to get used to, since you otherwise have no frame of reference for where your finger is in relation to the position of the balloons on the screen.

Weighing both the good and bad, Dream Drop Distance HD seems like the ideal way to play such an important game in the story. Its improvements are enough to feel right at home on PS4 and provide an ultimately smoother experience.

Next up is an original short game under the, rather lengthy, name Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep -A fragmentary passage-. This game tells the story of Aqua’s journey through the Realm of Darkness after the events of the Secret Episode from Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep Final Mix. Since the story can be completed in about three hours or less, the story isn’t very deep. However, what we see from Aqua’s point of view does give her some semblance of closure and fairly neatly ties together the points from when we see her at the end of Birth by Sleep to when we see her in subsequent appearances. In addition, the framing device for the story, Yen Sid explaining Aqua’s past to Sora and Riku, serves nicely as both an epilogue to Birth by Sleep and the prologue of Kingdom Hearts III. In other words, this alone makes the game a must-play.

Apart from filling in previously-unseen details of Aqua’s backstory, 0.2 Birth by Sleep is also more or less a demo of the kind of graphics and gameplay players can expect from Kingdom Hearts III. In terms of graphics, it’s a major step up from previous games due to being rendered in Unreal Engine 4 with the new Kingdom Shader applied. While the lighting and environments are impressive, the character models, though well-detailed, end up with a texture resembling plastic, as they are a little too smooth. On the upside, it helps the series finally resemble the pre-rendered FMV sequences seen in previous installments.

Keyblade Master Aqua about to face off against a
Demon Tower enemy made of Shadow Heartless.

As for the gameplay, it feels like a number of gameplay elements from previous games have coalesced into a new whole. The game does away with the Command Deck, instead returning back to the classic Menu system as a base, along with the introduction of a second “page” for the shortcut menu to separate Magic from Items. On top of this base, the gameplay uses the MP system from Kingdom Hearts II, Shotlocks and the Focus gauge from Birth by Sleep and the presence of Flowmotion from Dream Drop Distance, though in a more limited form here. Additionally, the game introduces the ability to teleport between Save Points, Objectives which unlock clothing and color options for Aqua and Situation Commands, which operate as a more upgraded form of Reaction Commands. Magic now also leaves an effect on the environment, allowing for some new effects and interactions in combat.

Controlling all of the gameplay elements during combat felt very smooth and responsive, especially since everything was incorporated in a surprisingly effective way. Knowing that Kingdom Hearts III will introduce more mechanics on top of this, including the return of Summons and Drive Forms, it’s good overall that the developers decided to provide such a glimpse into what’s in store for the future of the franchise. While 0.2 Birth by Sleep is essential to play in more ways than one, it also manages to provide a pretty satisfying experience that may leave long-time fans wanting more.

The last item in HD 2.8 is an 80-minute original feature with the title Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover (read as Kingdom Hearts Chi Back Cover). This film tells the story of a group known as the Foretellers, six apprentices who have been given important tasks to complete in the event that their master, the Master of Masters, disappears. Though it is meant more as a companion to the Kingdom Hearts χ game and its Unchained χ version, it feels like a potential substitute, as it is essentially the events of χ told from a different point of view. Its place as a distant prequel to the rest of the series allows it to explore certain story elements discussed in other entries, mainly the Great Keyblade War, and gives a new context to the Gazing Eye, a blue eye last seen in Xehanort’s Keyblade.

The mysterious Master of Masters.

As much as the feature sheds new light on the events of the series, it unfortunately doesn’t reach a solid conclusion, instead allowing its events to tie into the events of 0.2 Birth by Sleep and, presumably, Kingdom Hearts III. In addition, the narrative is driven by a single question, “Who is the traitor?” On the upside, the rendering is very impressive, as it also uses Unreal Engine 4 and the Kingdom Shader. Though the plastic feeling doesn’t completely go away, the fact that the important characters are all wearing clothing covering their features seems to make the aesthetic more visually appealing. While χ Back Cover isn’t a perfect movie, series fans are pretty much obligated to watch it, if only to feel like they’re staying in the loop.

Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is an interesting and worthwhile collection. The inclusion of an essential piece of the long-running puzzle and two pieces of original content are more than enough to make this a must-have for Kingdom Hearts fans. Fortunately, the quality of the contents help it to feel less like a mere obligation and the presence of original content in an HD collection for the series also helps justify the price tag. If nothing else, this entry confirms that it is indeed the final stop before the events of Kingdom Hearts III. Now all we have to do is wait just a little bit longer.

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