If you've ever played a Kingdom Hearts game, you're probably intimately familiar with the words darkness, key, hearts, and obscure names beginning with the letter X. As a long time fan of the series, I've come to accept that the narratives in each subsequent game are going to get more and more convoluted andevery article of clothing is going to get more and more zippers. We could poke fun at all the absurd things in the Kingdom Hearts franchise for hours, but underneath all the bizarre froth is a series of games that exude charm and sport engaging gameplay.
Kingdom Hearts 2.8 comes off as a tough sell to me. With Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5 (the numbering makes sense, I promise) the main draw was the original Kingdom Hearts in 1.5 and Kingdom Hearts 2 in 2.5. Both games have decent mass appeal and have spawned a legion of diehard fans. If you're like me and went through Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, and Kingdom Hearts 2 and then fell out with the series because you couldn't be bothered to buy every single handheld in existence, then having no immediately recognizable games in the Kingdom Hearts 2.8 offering can be somewhat off-putting. However, if you've powered through all the musings on Nobodies, time travel, evil organizations, Princesses of Heart, and loose recreations of classic Disney stories, than you're probably just the target audience Square is aiming at with Kingdom Hearts 2.8.
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance
The main course in the Kingdom Hearts 2.8 buffet is Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance. Originally released for the Nintendo 3DS, DDD continues the trend of Donald Duck and young anime children waxing philosophical and pondering their own mortality. Chronologically, DDD picks up on the tail end of Kingdom Hearts 2. Sora and Riku are tasked with becoming Keyblade Masters by undertaking a series of trials for Yen Sid (yes, the sorcerer from Fantasia). They do this by entering a dreamlike state and visit various Disney worlds in attempts to unlock the keyholes in each of these "sleeping worlds". Don't ask me. But herein lies the issue; if you're unacquainted with the intricacies of Kingdom Hearts lore, than eighty percent of the happenings in DDD will probably wash right over you like a thick malaise of incoherent babble. So before I go any further, just let me say this outright: Do not bother with Kingdom Hearts 2.8 if this is your first Kingdom Hearts game. The nice thing is, Square is releasing a bundle of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5 in the near future. So if you still haven't gotten into the franchise, but are interested, wait until the aforementioned bundle is released before you dive into Kingdom Hearts 2.8.
As Kingdom Hearts has grown up, the gameplay and combat mechanics have also matured. The command list in the bottom left of the screen (a staple in Kingdom Hearts) functions much in the same way it did in Birth by Sleep. There are short cooldowns on abilities and optimizing your deck with your favorite spells and flashy finishers provides a surprising amount of customization in how you dispatch enemies. DDD also introduces a new wrinkle to the combat by adding in the "more fun than it should be" mechanic known as flowmotion. Flowmotion further thrusts Kingdom Hearts combat into the action game realm. The mechanic makes you actively think about how to chain attacks together and had me bouncing off walls and launching myself through the air in attempts to line up the perfect aerial assault. It almost feels like you're doing something wrong if you're just using basic attacks given the surprising number of ways you can dispose of your enemies.
While flowmotion is undoubtedly fun, be prepared to run into a lot of invisible barriers when you're darting around the maps. The majority of the maps in DDD are designed to facilitate the conceit of flowmotion; thus making each zone relatively large. While most worlds are broken up into multiple zones that are nice and spacious by design, the sacrifice for these large zones is a lack of personality or charm. Granted, cluttering up each zone with furnishings might get in the way, but as it is, most of the areas just seem flat and lifeless.
The last issue that needs addressing in DDD is the somewhat baffling decision to replace party members with a monster recruiting system. I understand that having Donald and Goofy in the party wouldn't make sense from a narrative perspective, but I'd have been happier just going it solo, ala Birth by Sleep. I've never had an affinity for games that sacrifice actual team members for random familiars you capture while traveling. Also, the whole "bonding" factor in DDD quickly becomes tedious. The three mini games in the bonding menu are some of the best ways to gain points to level up the abilities on your Spirits. However, the mini-games quickly become stale. The points you gain from battles come in at a trickle, so if you want better abilities, you'll have to either suck it up and do the mini-games, or handicap yourself a bit. As someone who strives to accrue the best stats and the best abilities in the games I play, I found the process of making kind with my candy colored crew to be a bit tiresome and uninspired.
Kingdom Hearts 0.2: A Fragmentary Passage
Yes, this game is short. It took me roughly three and a half hours to see the majority of what KH0.2 had to offer. I even spent about half an hour grinding a bit and attempting a secret boss rush mode. But let's not be coy, Kingdom Hearts 0.2: A Fragmentary Passage is an elaborate tech demo to get us excited for Kingdom Hearts 3. Thankfully, it's one hell of a tech demo.
First off, this game is gorgeous. Square has done an admirable job of updating the Kingdom Hearts look for current gen. systems. The almost... plastic look of the Disney characters seems oddly fitting and Aqua, Sora, Riku and company have also received a glossy makeover. And while the environments may seem quaint and perhaps linear by some, they ooze detail and atmosphere to compensate for their rather limited amount of real estate.
If you haven't finished Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, the plot and the characters in KH0.2 might feel very foreign. Our protagonist Aqua was my favorite character in BBS, so it's a joy to delve into a game where she is so prominently featured. However, I'll refrain from going into further details on this games plot, as doing so would actually spoil the ending of BBS.
The combat in KH0.2 has struck a nice balance between the more simplistic affair in the original Kingdom Hearts and the more bombastic approach in DDD. The combat is fast and fluid, yet refrains from being chaotic. There also seems to be an emphasis on magic casting, especially on the harder difficulty settings (by the way, the magic casting animations are spectacular). If you've played Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2, you might recall that casting most spells rooted you in place. This was a little aggravating when you were constantly expected to be on the move amid swarms of heartless. So while it may seem like a small thing, I was overjoyed to find that KH0.2 lets you continue your forward momentum while casting spells.
My only real gripe with KH0.2 is that the simple act of walking can feel janky and cumbersome. This issue never seemed to flare up in the midst of combat, but when I was simply taking a pleasant stroll, Aqua would sometimes stutter and twitch when I tried to make hard turns or do pirouettes in the middle of town. Aside from this blemish, KH0.2 is the perfect marriage between the simplicity of the original Kingdom Hearts and the glitz of later entries in the series. It's just a shame there isn't a little bit more substance to this appetizer.
Kingdom Hearts x: Back Cover
There's not really much to discuss with KHx as it's merely an hour long movie. However, I will say that I did enjoy the overall structure of the plot as it's a more character focused narrative. Focusing on a group of seven keyblade wielders and the interactions between them was a welcomed departure from the more grandiose KH plots we're used to.
It's worth mentioning that the voice acting for a character simply referred to as "The Master" (done by Ray Chase) is a standout. His sort of blasé, devil-may-care attitude is admirably done and is a welcomed addition to the series. And even though he's likely plotting something nefarious, you can't help but find yourself endeared to him.
The most glaring issue with KHx is that it just ends so abruptly. There's not much of a post-credits stinger and none of the main characters get any real closure. I get that this story is setting up the events of BBS and the Keyblade War, but the ending just left me cold.
I remember when the first Kingdom Hearts game was announced and the Disney/Square Enix (then Squaresoft) crossover was met with more than a few raised eyebrows and a healthy dose of cautious optimism. I never imagined that that unassuming crossover game would spawn a long running series that has become an odd, eclectic blend of anime trappings and Disney nostalgia. As the series goes on, the plots have become increasingly more entangled in the mystifying web that Square Enix has spun, yet the gameplay seems to be getting progressively more complex and alluring. Despite my love for the series, Kingdom Hearts 2.8 is not without its faults, the most glaring being the high barrier of entry. As I said earlier, I cannot in good conscience recommend this game to folks unfamiliar with the series. However, if you don't care about story or you're a Kingdom Hearts vet, then have at it. Or as so many of the Kingdom Hearts armchair psychologists will tell you, "May your heart be your guiding key". What does that even mean?