"Getting even a sample of a true console Kingdom Hearts title on modern hardware was a joy."
We didn't have an appointment with Square Enix regarding Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue (try saying that five times fast), but I was able to snag some hands-on time with the upcoming compilation title at their booth on the show floor. This HD collection contains a high-definition version of the Nintendo 3DS title Dream Drop Distance, along with CG cutscenes retelling the story of Kingdom Hearts X [chi] and a playable prologue to the highly anticipated Kingdom Hearts III, entitled 0.2: A Fragmentary Passage. As a longtime fan of the series, I was eager to get a glimpse of the future of Kingdom Hearts, and I was not disappointed.
Dream Drop Distance is meant to serve as the centerpiece of 2.8, but there really isn't much else to say about it — it's the 3DS game, but running at a crisp 60 frames per second and without the touch screen gimmickry. The Reality Shift minigames have been recontextualized and are activated by pressing Circle and Triangle at the same time, and the Flowmotion combat that was a highlight of the original title feels better than ever with the increased fidelity. The demo on the show floor was pretty substantial; I got to play through part of the world based on TRON: Legacy as Riku, but I saw other players exploring Traverse Town with Sora and the TWEWY gang, or fighting Wargoyle on the balconies of Notre Dame, and all of it looked excellent. I could easily see a PS4 version of the earlier Kingdom Hearts HD collections being quite successful if they worked as well as Dream Drop Distance did.
The real highlight, of course, was getting to play a portion of 0.2: A Fragmentary Passage, which puts players into the shoes of Aqua during her time trapped in the Realm of Darkness. The demo took place in a ruined Cinderella world consumed by Darkness, with Aqua fighting to survive against the encroaching Heartless while finding five gears that can repair a bridge to the Castle of Dreams. The interesting thing about trying to find the gears was that it revealed an increased emphasis on verticality in a Kingdom Hearts level. Aqua's movement and combat abilities are gradually unlocked as she locates each gear, and she eventually gains the options to double-jump and air dash her way around the winding, MC Escher-esque streets in her search.
All of Aqua's combat abilities from Birth by Sleep are back in the demo — Shotlocks and Form Changes all make their grand return, and it would seem that surviving in the Heartless' homeworld for the better part of a decade has given Aqua a lot of time to practice her magic. All of her high-level spells (Thundaga, Blizzaga, you know the drill) hit hard and across a wide radius, decimating the smaller Shadows and other enemies that get in her way. MP works similarly to how it did in Kingdom Hearts II, with a meter that recharges once MP has been spent. Enemies will also react differently to being hit with different kinds of magic — a well-timed Blizzaga will freeze enemies and leave them vulnerable, which is useful for a specific Heartless with a penchant for setting itself on fire. The demo ended with a boss fight against an enormous swarm of Shadows that combine into one terrifying foe. Not only was it visually impressive to see so many Heartless working in unison, but it also marks the first time I've been intimidated by a Heartless boss since the very first Darkside in the original Kingdom Hearts. The Darkness is not screwing around in A Fragmentary Passage, it would seem.
0.2 also looks gorgeous, which is a good sign if this is any indicator of how Kingdom Hearts III will turn out. The cobblestone streets and twisted rooftops of the ruined city, interspersed with shimmering crystals and some impressive lighting, is quite a visual spectacle. The Heartless enemies have never looked better, either — when a Shadow melts into the floor to sneak up behind Aqua, the silhouette moving about the ground actually looks like a real shadow, rather than the flat black shape that typically indicated the presence of these mobile foes. There are only about three enemy types in the demo, but they all look unique and Tetsuya Nomura has said that there will be others in the final version of A Fragmentary Passage. Aqua's character model and animation work is also top-notch, which is again a good indicator of how a next-gen Kingdom Hearts title will look.
I walked away from playing Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue positively glowing with enthusiasm. Dream Drop Distance is far from my favorite game in the series, but I'm looking forward to playing it again with the improvements Square Enix has made. A Fragmentary Passage, however, had me excited for the future of this series in a way I hadn't felt since probably the first trailer for Birth by Sleep. Kingdom Hearts III has been a long time coming, and it's going to be longer still, but getting even a sample of a true console Kingdom Hearts title on modern hardware was a joy. We are in for a treat when this thing drops on PS4 this December.