Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue review: As messy as its title

Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is a package as hard to parse as its name. The collection serves up three new-ish chapters in the Kingdom Hearts series: an HD remaster of the 3DS exclusive Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance; a two-hour followup to the PSP’s Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep; and an extended cutscene based on the browser and mobile game prequel Kingdom Hearts χ.

Before booting up 2.8, I did my best to brush up on the 15-or-so years of series lore to get a grasp on where these episodes fit in Kingdom Hearts’ timeline. What I found was a swirling mess of proper nouns and unpronounceable names. It seems since the first Kingdom Hearts (the last one I finished) things have gotten complicated. Or more complicated than a world where Disney and Final Fantasy characters hang out on a regular basis, anyway.

If you’re hoping 2.8 will at least make sense as a self-contained collection, forget it.

No single part of the trio seems directly connected to any other part. Dream Drop Distance is set at the extreme end of the Kingdom Hearts timeline (ostensibly leading up to the still mythical Kingdom Hearts 3), A Fragmentary Passage (the two-hour Birth by Sleep followup) runs concurrent with, but disconnected from, the original Kingdom Hearts; and Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover (the “extended cutscene”) is set eons before either of the other two.

Dream Drop disappointment

Dream Drop Distance, especially, seems almost intentionally confusing on its own. Of the trio, it’s the most superficially “Kingdom Hearts-y” item of the bunch. You play as series heroes Sora and Riku, hopping from one Disney world to the next, with a helping hand from a few noteworthy Square Enix characters along the way.

This one-time 3DS game further contorts Kingdom Hearts’ hard-to-follow gibberish with flashbacks, flashbacks within flashbacks, and constant forced swaps between Sora and Riku’s concurrent tales. And I do mean “forced.” You have the option to switch between the two characters at will, but eventually you’ll have no choice but to do so, thanks to a system called the Drop Timer.

Basically, playing as either protagonist drains a sort of space-time stamina bar. When it hits zero, no matter what you’re doing, you’re forced to pick up as the other protagonist in a completely different scenario—often in a completely different world, with a different cast of characters.

Extra layers of narrative confusion aside, the Drop Timer erases gameplay progress as well. If the bar runs out during a boss fight, for instance, you have to start it over from the beginning the next time you Drop. The same goes for major setpieces, like chase scenes, or even just particularly long stretches of normal levels. For the life of me, I cannot even guess about what purpose the Drop Timer was meant to serve.

HD mediocrity

Actually getting through Dream Drop Distance’s story isn’t much of a reward for putting up with this bizarre system and a plot that constantly wriggled out of my admittedly loose grasp on Kingdom Hearts lore. Now more than four years old, the game is showing its age, and little has been done to spruce it up for this re-release.

Dream Drop Distance uses the same one-button action combat seen in many Square Enix RPGs these days. You enter commands into a box of options, as if you were playing a turn-based JRPG, except they execute in real time. So, hitting “X” makes Sora or Riku lash out with attacks as soon and as fast as you hit it.

If you want to use a spell, item, or special ability, you need to scroll up to that option on the command menu and select it instead of “attack.” That means taking your eyes off the action to select moves in real time, which often leads to a face full of monster fist as you peck away at menu options. On its own, it’s anything but elegant.

Recently, Final Fantasy XV sidestepped this issue by pausing time when players selected new moves. In this very collection, A Fragmentary Passage simply uses shortcuts for frequently used spells. Dream Drop Distance HD throws the player no such bones. In fact, some of its old 3DS touch controls don’t even feel fully translated to use with a pair of analog sticks.

Take the in-game map as an example. As with most games, I played Dream Drop Distance HD with non-inverted controls (up is up, down is down). Yet whenever I tried to scroll around a level’s map, the opposite was true (up was down, down was up). It took me a while to realize it, but this perfectly mirrors how one might scroll over a map on a 3DS touchscreen—by touching and dragging upward to slide a slice of the map downward.

This is by far my most egregious example, but there are more. There’s an Angry Birds-like slingshot mechanic in the first level, which would make perfect sense on a touch screen but feels wonky and mirrored with sticks. It might not affect every inch of the game, but the sudden control flips are always jarring and uncomfortable.

Fragments of something better

As you might expect, A Fragmentary Passage doesn’t have these same issues. It was made specifically for this collection and, as such, had no touch controls to translate.

Even so, the new segment is extremely short. Some very light puzzle solving breaks up about two hours of combat encounters. It plays a lot like Dream Drop Distance—and most other, older Kingdom Hearts games—but with the added convenience of spell shortcuts and the ability to augment your attacks for a limited time.

Between the two, A Fragmentary Passage is leagues better than Dream Drop Distance not only in looks but in terms of comfortable controls that are satisfying to wrestle with. If you’re expecting a full, rich adventure in its own right, though, you’ll still be disappointed.

A Fragmentary Passage serves as an epilogue to Birth by Sleep—which was already a side story to the first Kingdom Hearts—and possibly as a lead-in to whatever chapter in the series Square Enix has planned next. It’s also mostly devoid of plot or dialogue, except at the very beginning and end. There is a list of optional challenges to complete, though, if you find yourself simply unable to resist the combat.

And then what…?

That leaves us with just Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover. I’ll be honest; I’m not entirely sure what purpose this movie-meets-cutscene serves, besides allowing series fans to skip the mobile game it condenses.

While Dream Drop Distance mixes familiar Square and Disney characters in a way that feels better than it has any right to, Back Cover features entirely original characters from the Kingdom Hearts universe. They spend the length of the “movie”—which can’t be fast-forwarded or rewound until after you’ve already watched it once, for some reason—arguing about politics.

Apparently, this sets up the “Keyblade War,” an important part of Kingdom Hearts history. Yet it does so without explaining who any of the parties involved are or why we should care about their building conflict. Then, just as it seems like it’s all building to a battle scene that could at least potentially be superficially cool, Back Cover ends with multiple cliffhangers.

As a collection of loose, unresolved threads that ultimately build toward something that’s not available to see or play yet, Back Cover mirrors the entirety of this fractured collection. Individually, at least, some of its pieces have merit. Dream Drop Distance isn’t great, but it meets the written requirements for a classic Kingdom Hearts game. A Fragmentary Passage isn’t a full game, but it looks and plays better than likely anything else in the series.

Together with Back Cover, though, none of the products feels thematically or narratively cohesive. They all star different characters in different stories at different ends of the Kingdom Hearts timeline. They do not come together in any meaningful way.

From the outside looking in, I’ve always thought Square Enix has been intentionally just marking time by filling in new gaps in the Kingdom Hearts timeline with oddly named and numbered remakes and inter-quels. That way, they don’t have to take the risky move of actually living up to fans’ inflated expectations of what a proper Kingdom Hearts 3 should look like after all this time (Kingdom Hearts 2 is more than a decade old, at this point).

Now that I’ve played Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue (I can’t believe I had to write out that entire name again), I’m almost sure that’s what they’ve been doing. The disparate gaggle of stories apparently set in the same universe might feel like required reading to some obsessive fans. As someone who just wants to know what’s up with King Mickey (and still kind of likes that theme song), this is an unnecessary, dissatisfying distraction.

The good

  • Measured strictly by volume, there’s a lot of Kingdom Hearts in this package
  • A Fragmentary Passage is a promising demo of the franchise’s future
  • Mickey Mouse is alright

The bad

  • It’s a very muddled collection
  • Dream Drop Distance just isn’t that great
  • The “movie” has no real ending
  • Poorly remapped controls
  • Aren’t we still just treading water before Kingdom Hearts 3?

The ugly

  • The game is actually called Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue

Verdict: The slight amount of new content will only appeal to hardcore fans or those who desperately want to play Dream Drop Distance in HD. Skip it.

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