It’s been 10 years since Kingdom Hearts II was released for the Playstation 2, and since then Square Enix has averaged one game release a year for the franchise in handheld games and console adaptations. Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue is a little bit of the latter along with something entirely new. At just over two hours long, Aqua’s portion of the game, Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, could be considered more of a tech demo for Kingdom Hearts III than an game itself. The vast proportion of the time spent on this game will be in the HD console adaptation of Dream Drop Distance which, according to Tetsuya Nomura, required a ground-up remake of the title since its two-screen components could not be replicated on PS4. Still, I felt most drawn to A Fragmentary Passage not only for its newness and because it was originally developed for PS4, but for the story.
Kingdom Hearts famously has one of the most labyrinthine plots in all of gaming, unaided by the fact that the story is broken up across multiple console and handheld titles which now require decimal places to properly iterate themselves. Aqua’s aside in A Fragmentary Passage, however short, is satisfying in that escapes from many of the narrative complexities to focus on a character-driven story of a woman battling against a world attempting to break her. As a character, Aqua is also a breath of fresh air for her sense of introspection. Where Sora accepts thing as they are and acts on impulse, Aqua attempts to looks beneath the cosmetics of the world as it is presented to her and pauses to assess her own vulnerabilities. It was a nice change of pace for the franchise where that sort of solemn reflection is impossible with Donald and Goofy desperately filling any moments of silence with incessant jabbering. The ending ties back into the metaplot but the overall impression left by the experience is that of Aqua’s lonesome journey.
The gameplay is a mixed bag. On the one hand, fighting with Aqua is every bit as satisfying as my distant, fading memories of fighting Sephiroth as Sora. Where Sora’s enhanced modes came in the form of dual keyblades and his Heartless berserker form, Aqua’s fighting style is more of a sword fighting mage which is reflected in her playstyle. Spells are easy to cast and impactful on their own but are also worked into Aqua’s Spellweaver mode, allowing you to perform manaless casts of more powerful versions of your equipped spells when you bring your limit bar to max. Aqua also has a charged shot ability she can use to lock onto several enemies and fire energy which can be used repeatedly on a Max cast in a short of rhythm game mechanic. Spellweaver itself is the usual enhanced combo mode complete with scenario-specific moves and finishers if you build up another combo in a fight. Since enemies usually come in waves, this creates a satisfying pattern of building up a combo before clearing the field with an area of effect spell chain.
In many ways, I find this combat system system an improvement over that of Final Fantasy XV, providing more interactive combos, a multitude of ancillary abilities, and several ultimates to clear mobs and chunk bosses. It also has what I consider to be FFXV’s greatest weakness by having enemy attacks with very little wind up animation or particles to catch your attention. The screen is so busy it’s difficult to use Aqua’s block and counterattack mechanic because it’s hard to see a pitch black enemy attack with no obvious component in its animation. This alone wouldn’t be a huge issue except stunlock is awful. Getting hit once usually means getting hit five times before Aqua has a chance to recover and defend herself. Attacks come fast and chunk huge portions of your health bar, making the last few fights particularly frustrating since a single misstep can lead to your getting 100-0 without counterplay. Much like FFXV, you have a near-zero recovery status during which you can only heal or use a potion, but the ease with which you’re taken to this status makes for a frustrating experience.
While blowing up squads of heartless with elemental magic is fun, the real standout is the level design, specifically that of the Enchanted Dominion, which has fallen into the World of Darkness. Navigating the town from Disney’s Cinderella, frozen in the moment of its destruction as it was consumed, was probably my favorite part of the game. Although there was an obvious effort to add some verticality to the environments, none sold it so well as the suspended masonry and architecture of this area. The hall of mirrors had some similarly fascinating areas, specifically the infinite room of pillars which had a novel puzzle design. After that, the game entered some more familiar, hallway-like zones which were nice but decidedly more mundane. I’m really hoping there are more areas like the first half of A Fragmentary Passage in Kingodom Hearts III. The perfect compliment to the amazing visuals was the tremendous compositions by Yoko Shimomura, who’s taken her experience with FFXV to make some truly epic musical accompaniments.
For Dream Drop Distance fans, the HD remake looks great on the console for a title originally designed for the 3DS. Just looking at character side-by-sides can show you that Square Enix did far more than add an HD veneer to the handheld title. The control scheme has been altered to work off a rotating menu of abilities which can be obtained by picking up cards over the course of the game. While nothing about the controls screams “remapped from a two screen interface”, the gameplay itself is fairly dated and doesn’t play well next to the polish of A Fragmentary Passage. If you’re invested in understanding the story it’s certainly a vital element in making sense of the multitude of events that seem to occur between each of the major title releases, especially if you don’t keep up with Nintendo’s handheld consoles, then Dream Drop Distance is a helpful addition in tying everything together. Along with the Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover cinematic, Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue seems intent on bringing us all up to speed in preparation for the final installment of the franchise.
My overall impression of the Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue was positive. Although there were definite snags in the combat system as it exists in A Fragmentary Passage, they are minor enough that there is no reason they can’t be ironed out before the release of Kingdom Hearts III. The one sticking point is that the title has the full $60 price tag of a new release while only providing a very small amount of new content. While the rework of Dream Drop Distance may have truly justified that sort of cost–and this is coming from a player who would prefer all of the interim titles were concurrently released on console rather than seeing adaptations years later–it seems as if the efforts might have be better spent elsewhere to prepare fans for the final chapter in the trilogy.
+ Huge improvements on combat system
+ Satisfying, character-focused story
+ Amazing level design and music
– Short game length
– Frustrating stunlock