Q. Hey, Goggle Bob, there’s that new Kingdom Hearts 2.8 game out. What’s the deal?
A. Well, uh, “new” might not be the right term here.
Q. Explain Yourself!
A. So we’ve got Kingdom Hearts 2.8, and, basically, it’s a HD remake of a 3DS game from nearly five years ago. Dream Drop Distance was itself a kind of “soft” Kingdom Hearts 3 (Dream Drop Distance = D D D = 3D), or, at the very least, the first true continuation of the Kingdom Hearts plot since Kingdom Hearts 2, a game that was released seven years before 3D. For the record, in the real world time between the release of Kingdom Hearts 2 (2005) and Kingdom Hearts 3 (TBA), there have been 12,000 Hyperdimension Neptunia games released. EDITOR’S NOTE: 12,012 since I started this post.
Q. So, is Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD any good?
A. KH3D was a fun little jaunt that featured Sora and Riku working together in a big adventure for the first time. Given Sonic and Shadow were established early in the KH mythos, it’s amazing it took over a decade to get a KH game going where there’s an official team-up. Unfortunately, if there’s one thing Tetsuya Nomura, director of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, loves more than zippers, it’s corrupting the good and true wishes of his loyal audience of children/mouth breathers. So Sora and Riku are working together for this game, but there’s a timer involved, and you can only play as Sora or Riku for a limited time before being forced to switch back to the other hero. I think this was intended as some sort of “hey kids, don’t spend so long staring at a tiny screen” concession for the portable system of the game’s origin, but that doesn’t make much sense in HD land. At least there is a plot excuse for the switching.
Q. What’s the plot this time?
A. Nomura must have watched a lot of Inception before writing this game, because… well.. it’s exactly that. The conceit of the game is that there are a few worlds that are just resting their eyes before returning to the Kingdom Hearts universe, and, rather than hearing “just five more minutes, mom” from Hunchback of Notre Dame Planet again, Yen Sid decides to send Sora and Riku into the dreams of the sleeping worlds to wake ‘em up. Unfortunately, something goes wrong immediately, so, while Sora is in the sleeping dreams of the worlds, Riku is actually in Sora’s dream (of the sleeping worlds). Or maybe it’s the other way around? Whatever. What’s important is that one character can only operate when the other is asleep, and they can’t actually both be in the same place at the same time, just simulations of the same place and… ugh… Never mind, trying to parse all the little “clues” in this game will give you a headache. What’s important is that Riku and Sora can’t kiss until the ending. Oh, and Ansem is back.
Q. Ansem? Don’t you mean Xehanort?
A. Well, technically, I mean both. Ansem and Xehanort and all the other big bads are back, because you can only die so many times before you come back to life citation needed. At the end of 3D, it is revealed that Ansem/Xehanort’s plan all along, bwa ha ha ha, has been to assemble a council of thirteen versions of him, so that way he can take the most outrageous selfie the universe has ever seen. Included in the new council of Ansems are Heartless Ansem, Nobody Xemnas, Old Man Xehanort, Young Man Xehanort who has control over time for some reason, Xigbar, Lab Coat Xehanort, Lil’ Xehanort with keyblade pacifier action, and Clarabelle Cow. Xehanort (one of ‘em, does it really matter which?) attempted to infect Sora with darkness, so that way he’d have a Xehanort-Sora on the team, but that failed when Riku, Mickey, and Lea saved Sora from almost certain identity crises.
Q. Lea? Who dat?
A. Oh, that’s Axel. Every member of Organization 13 from Kingdom Hearts 2/Chain of Memories appears to be back and alive now. Sora went to all the effort of murdering half of that group, and now they’re all just fine. Boo.
“Lea” is the “uncorrupted” version of Axel. Despite the fact that Axel… let’s see if I can get everything here… betrayed/murdered teammate Vexen, betrayed Organization 13: The New Kids after claiming to betray Organization 13: Original Flavor, betrayed best friend Roxas, kidnapped Kairi, attempted to kill Sora, and then finally betrayed Organization 13 again while dying, he is now a keyblade wielder, and is apparently going to be a permanent fixture of team good guy. Just goes to show, if you’re an absolute heel to everyone and everything you’ve ever encountered, including your best friends, worst enemies, and women you just met, then eventually you’ll be rewarded with the most powerful, coveted weapon in the galaxy. It’s probably because he has cool hair.
Anyway, as you can likely tell, the basic purpose of Dream Drop Distance was to move all the pieces (Sora, Riku, Axel, Ansems) into their proper spots for Kingdom Hearts 3. Given they already used “2.5” for the KH2 rerelease, 2.8 kind of makes sense for a title for this compilation.
Q. Compilation? You just got done saying this was one old game.
A. Oh, right, there’s also Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage, an Aqua story in there.
A. Aqua was one of the three stars of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, the designated prequel of the Kingdom Hearts universe. Ten years before Kingdom Hearts 1, Aqua screwed up royally, and her best friends wound up either possessed by unending evil or asleep forever. Aqua herself was sucked into the Realm of Darkness, which is basically Kingdom Hearts Hell.
Q. You mean Anime Expo?
A. No. I mean a barren, dark universe where time has no meaning and heartless creatures feed on the discarded remains of lifeless fantasy worlds.
Q. So you do mean Anime Expo?
A. No, dammit. Look, Aqua is trapped in a universe where she is the lone human among the ruins of scattered forgotten worlds. It actually makes for a really interesting Kingdom Hearts experience, as Aqua is totally alone: there are no shops, friendly moogles, NPCs, crowing villains, nothing. All Aqua has to keep her company are armies of mute heartless, and her keyblade, which she uses to slay those armies of mute heartless. Occasionally, she hallucinates her friends, but even they’re pretty silent, and Aqua seems to be well aware that they’re just illusions. If Kingdom Hearts were at all capable of subtlety, I might say this entire adventure is a metaphor for loneliness and/or depression, but it’s a Nomura game, so the dude can’t help but kill the mood.
Q. How does Kingdom Hearts inevitably kill the tone of A Fragmentary Passage?
A. Remember how you could play dress up with Lightning in Lightning Returns, and with the monsters in Final Fantasy 13-2? Well, you can accessorize Aqua with pretty items you earn for completing random tasks in AFP. Yes, it’s sad that Aqua is completely alone while fighting unending hordes of evil in a waking hell universe, but she’s wearing cat ears, magical translucent wings, and a kicky dress while doing it. Right around the time that Aqua finds out she’s been trapped in this everlasting limbo for ten years, she also earns a Minnie Mouse hat, so, ya know, kind of hard to maintain the mood.
Q. So A Fragmentary Passage sucks?
A. Quite the opposite, really. It’s short (maybe three hours if you’re not trying to find all the “secrets”), but it feels like a legit test run/demo for Kingdom Hearts 3. All of the worlds are recycled, “sad” versions of locales from Birth by Sleep, but they’re completely new maps with new challenges. While it’s not very large, the first area (a ruined town from Cinderella) is so open and interesting that it gives me hope that there will be more than boring hallways in KH3. Additionally, there’s a rail section toward the end of the third world that, with encroaching heartless all around, actually feels like a Disney Land ride, which, whether intentional or not, proves there may be some innovation in those old Kingdom Hearts bones yet. Aside from the fact that the same boss is reused three nebulously different ways, A Fragmentary Passage actually gives me hope that Kingdom Hearts 3 might not just be a long delayed more of the same.
Q. Hey, come to think of it, Aqua is the first starring woman in a Kingdom Hearts adventure that doesn’t have to share the spotlight with more important male leads. Does this improve Kingdom Hearts’ feminism rating?
A. On one hand, the entire point of this story is that Aqua is a badass that is not going to give up in the face of impossible odds. There’s one amazing scene where Aqua struggles to defeat a Darkside Heartless (a creature that is roughly as tall as a house), wins, and then moves forward to find her next challenge is ten Darkside Heartless. Her response is simply, “Okay then,” and then gets to work. Bad. Ass.
And, incidentally, Willa Holland, Aqua’s voice actress (who is probably best known for her role as the occasionally sword-wielding Speedy/Thea on CW’s Arrow) should probably win an award or something for carrying the entirety of this story on her vaguely-defeated-but-still-trying inflections. It’s really noticeable given she’s the only one talking for, oh, 75% of the game, and it’s quite good.
That said, unfortunately, Aqua is still defined by the men in her life, and she spends roughly the entire game either worrying about “her boys” or then, eventually, sacrificing herself for two other men, one of which has prominent, circular ears. Sorry, even with a female lead, this story does not pass the Bechdel Test, because there aren’t any other women at all. Even when Aqua fights a mirror version of herself, she spends the whole time worrying about what that means in the face of not fighting mirror boy creatures. That’s sad.
Oh well, at least there’s the implied promise that Aqua will return for Kingdom Hearts 3, so maybe we’ll see some actual girl power in that game.
Q. Oh yeah, how does A Fragmentary Passage fit into the Kingdom Hearts mythos?
A. Basically, the whole thing is a prequel to Kingdom Hearts 1, with this story ending at the exact same time as Kingdom Hearts 1’s finale. AFP finally provides an explanation on why Mickey Mouse wasn’t wearing a shirt at the end of KH1. Yes, I’m being completely serious.
Q. So what happens to Aqua, the heroine of this whole story?
A. Oh, she’s still stuck in Hell, but at least now she has DiZ (Ducks Intuiting Zaffer) to keep her company. And, again, there are good odds she’ll be rescued by the real (incidentally male) heroes later.
Q. Anything else on Kingdom Hearts 2.8?
A. There are also HD cutscenes from the browser/cell phone based Kingdom Hearts (Unchained) χ. It’s the story of how a bunch of wannabe furries attempt to save the world from a global war by creating factions that are forbidden from cooperating with each other. It doesn’t work out. I’d get into it more, but I find cell phone games to be repugnant, useless, and they take up my Pokémon Go time, so screw that noise. Even I have limits.