What’s in a name? As much as you can cram, or so Square Enix seems to think with Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue. If nothing else, the awkward, mile-long moniker hints at the impressive breadth of content available: an HD remaster of the Nintendo 3DS’ Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, a short-but-entertaining coda of sorts to Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep for the PSP, and an hour-long cutscene based on the mobile game Kingdom Hearts X. It’s a jumble that suffers somewhat for its lack of any real cohesion among its three parts, but at least two of those components are strong enough to warrant a return visit to the world that believably drops Final Fantasy and Disney characters into the same universe.
If it’s original content you seek, then you’re in luck–it’s the best part of the package. Birth by Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage picks up where the secret ending of Kingdom Hearts II: Birth by Sleep left off; Aqua and her Keyblade facing Cinderella’s castle in a realm of darkness where the shadows are preying on the lore’s more brightly colored locales like Aladdin’s Agrabah.
Newcomers should beware, though. Aside from a text-based recap, it does little to prepare you for talk of characters like Ventus and Terra who haven’t been in any of the recent games. It also takes a mere three hours to finish. Length aside, it’s a rich and beautiful experience filled with effects that show off Unreal Engine 4’s ability to render realistic details on surfaces like water and cobblestones without sacrificing the overall cartoony aesthetic. It’s the best Kingdom Hearts has ever looked, frankly, and that’s a good thing, since the engine (and the final cutscene) suggests A Fragmentary Passage could be considered a visual demo of sorts for the upcoming Kingdom Hearts III.
Even if it feels a little like playing the Kingdom Hearts games of a decade ago without all the additions in between, it’s fun to play and often feels more fluid and focused. Light puzzles dot Aqua’s journey, including some that have her chasing down gears to repair a bridge or using mirrors to tinker with gravity. The smooth combat sees her whacking aside fiends with her keyblade while double-jumping, building chained attacks, and casting spells. There’s little in the way of true character progression, although various challenges allow you to earn cosmetic items like dress patterns and Minnie Mouse ears.
If you’re put off by A Fragmentary Passage’s three hour running time, you’ll be happy to know you’ll get a couple dozen hours out of the HD remaster of Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance. Considering that it’s a straight remaster from the 3DS with nothing in the way of new elements, it doesn’t look half bad. However, it’s too bad nothing was done to populate Dream Drop Distance’s overly roomy, empty worlds, a flaw that seems all the more obvious on a bigger screen. The upgraded graphics don’t come anywhere near the detail in A Fragmentary Passage, but they are a big improvement over the source material. The Flowmotion combat system that sends you zooming past enemies, bouncing off walls, and swinging from light fixtures translates well, as does handling the Pokemon-like Dream Eaters that are now accessible with a quick flick of the analog stick. In almost every instance, the transition from handheld to gamepad has been smartly handled.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said of the Drop system. Two characters, Sora and Riku, have independent tales that take place concurrently, but a constantly depleting stamina bar dictates how long you can play as a particular character. Once it drains completely, the game switches to the other character regardless of what you’re doing. It worked well enough on the 3DS since its mobile nature meant gameplay sessions would likely be comparatively short, but it’s just tiresome when you’re playing for long periods on the PS4.
And that leaves us with Kingdom Hearts x Back Cover, the weakest link in Final Chapter Prologue. It’s not actually a game; instead, it’s better described as a roughly 80-minute cutscene that dramatizes events from the mobile and browser game Kingdom Hearts X, apparently so players don’t have to bother playing through the actual game. As with A Fragmentary Passage, it looks fantastic, as it’s all rendered with Unreal Engine 4.
However, it lacks some of Kingdom Hearts’ charmingly goofy conceits, since it focuses on series-specific characters and omits cameos from the likes of Mickey Mouse or Jack Sparrow. The stars here are five animal-masked “Foretellers” whose heyday was ages before the Keyblade War and the events of Birth by Sleep. This might have been interesting had the runtime been extended to further examine the connection between the Foretellers. As it is, however, Back Cover amounts to little more than characters yammering about dull politics and fails to provide meaningful context for the lore. And worst of all, it ends on a cliffhanger that does little to justify the wait it took to reach it. It’s largely forgettable.
It’s a good thing, then, that Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue as a whole is more memorable than that. Birth By Sleep: A Fragmentary Passage might be short, but it’s a beautiful, entertaining episode that fills in some gaps in the lore. Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance retains a lot of the fun that made it so popular on the 3DS, even if its Drop system grows tedious. And for all of its comparative drudgery, Kingdom Hearts x Back Cover is at least visually appealing. It might be an overall confusing entry for newcomers to the series, but on the whole, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8: Final Chapter Prologue indicates that we have much to look forward to in the long-overdue Kingdom Hearts III.