Ahh, finally! It’s been a long while but with this game I’ve arrived at a Kingdom Hearts game that I’ve not played before. Kingdom Hearts III really isn’t far off now. We’re in the home stretch.
Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep -A Fragmentary Passage- (PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Released Jan 2017 | Developed / Published: Square Enix
So what is Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep -A Fragmentary Passage- you may ask, other than hideously titled? Is it an epilogue to 2010’s Birth by Sleep, a piece of filler for the wider lore of Kingdom Hearts, or a tech demo for Kingdom Hearts III hastily stuffed into the 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue collection to make it a bit less sparse and a bit more able to justify its price tag? Well, the answer is yes, it’s all of these.
A Fragmentary Passage is very obviously an epilogue chapter to Birth by Sleep given as it follows the journey of Aqua, one of that game’s 3 playable characters. The last time we saw her she was falling victim to the series’ most strikingly bitter endings; to save Ventus she had sealed him away in the ruins of their world and hidden it away, while Terra had been consumed by darkness and body-snatched by the series’ arc villain, Xehanort. She herself ended Birth by Sleep by being cast down into the Realm of Darkness, Kingdom Hearts’ otherworldly domain of Heartless.
It’s in this place that we catch up with Aqua. Trudging wearily through the twisted paths and eerie, dilapidated remains of worlds destroyed by the Heartless, she slowly succumbs to the relentless onslaught of the darkness. She cuts a depressed and broken figure, barely mustering the effort to heft her former master’s Keyblade against the never-ending hordes of Heartless who converge on her. She dwells constantly on her mistakes in Birth by Sleep and is haunted by shimmering visions of her friends. This is Kingdom Hearts at its darkest and most despairing.
A Fragmentary Passage also has to function as a vector to fill in some missing gaps in the wider narrative. The post-Kingdom Hearts II games have given us hint after hint that something has to happen with our wayward Birth by Sleep protagonists; re:Coded shows us Mickey and Yen Sid were puzzling over their return, and Dream Drop Distance saw Sora and Riku tasked with acquiring the power to wake sleeping hearts in preparation for rescuing Ventus, Terra, and Aqua. Though what ultimately happens to these three is the concern of Kingdom Hearts III, this game at least gives us a small glimpse into the trials that being stranded in the Realm of Darkness inflicts on Aqua. In an interesting move it does answer at least one minor hitherto unanswered question in the series by tying its own narrative into that of a previous game, so there is at least a satisfying sense of purpose as A Fragmentary Passage comes to a close.
Perhaps the most important function of this game though is to serve as a kind of glorified tech demo for Kingdom Hearts III. The Unreal Engine 4 is on full, magnificent display here; the game looks breathtaking. Aqua’s travels in the Realm of Darkness take her to three worlds we saw in Birth by Sleep – those of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White respectively – but they’re fragments of what they once were, shattered and torn apart. Kingdom Hearts’ first real move to the 8th console generation has allowed Square Enix to craft levels which look truly otherworldly as pieces of the world hang listlessly in the starry night and vicious thorns move, snake-like and malignant, to block Aqua’s path. The lighting and animations effects are sublime, filling the Kingdom Hearts world – one already rich with colour – with a new and powerful vibrancy. If it follows that Kingdom Hearts III will use the same tech, then it’s going to look damn good.
That said, there seemed to be some teething problems which I encountered during my playthrough. I am not a fan at all of the heavy-handed and inescapable motion blur, which frankly is so liberally applied that it made me feel slightly nauseous, and there’s no option to turn it off. I also noticed some framerate issues – while I suppose this could be mitigated by playing on one of the higher-end versions of the home consoles such as the PS4 Pro or the Xbox One X, there’s no indicator that A Fragmentary Passage is optimised for or should be run on them, so I can only assume the framerate drops are an inherent issue with the release of the game. They were never severe, but they were noticeable, particularly when encounters began in the early stages of the game or when you tried to switch Command Style.
As far as the gameplay goes, A Fragmentary Passage returns us to the traditional style of Kingdom Hearts play that we saw in the two numbered releases. Reaction Commands – the ubiquitous quick-time events that triggered stylish attacks in II – seem to have been replaced by Situation Commands. These are similar in that they are contextual options in combat, but behave slightly differently as they’re triggered by battle performance. For example, by filling a combo meter through the use of Fire spells, Aqua can trigger the Firaja command and cast a powerful finishing attack. By filling the combo meter with physical attacks Aqua unlocks the option to change into her Spellweaver combat style from Birth by Sleep, altering her attacks and animations, as well as opening up a new finisher if she fills her meter a second time. This is presumably the way combat will function in Kingdom Hearts III and I love it; it retains the dynamic feel of fights in the second game, but with a greater sense of flair.
Given it’s a glorified demo it should come as no surprise that A Fragmentary Passage isn’t especially long – it took me around 2 and a half hours to play through, and that included me stopping to make notes for this review. The fact that it’s short is a blessing since it doesn’t outstay its welcome and nor do you have to hear Aqua moping for all that long, though it might grind your gears if you paid full price for the whole 2.8 collection. As always, remaining patient for games pays dividends and in this case I got the collection for a cut-down price, which is good given that the previous two had 2 full games, whereas 2.8 has 1 full remastered game and this short showing. What surprised me about A Fragmentary Passage was how much stuff was packed in it beyond the main experience. True to the series’ RPG roots there’s actually some nice content for completionists to sink into, up to and including a bonus boss to take on. The story can be played over again through New Game+, and those subsequent replays unlock the franchise’s harder-than-hard Critical Mode which is especially challenging due to the more aggressive enemy AI in the game. There are also 51 optional objectives to complete, requiring multiple playthroughs; crossing them off rewards you with clothes and accessories to kit out Aqua with – I’m always a fan of bits of customisation, so while I wouldn’t expect it to return for Kingdom Hearts III, I still hope it does.
I suppose to judge A Fragmentary Passage it makes sense to view it in light of how well it fulfills those three objectives. As an epilogue to Birth by Sleep it functions admirably enough; getting to see the fractured remnants of familiar worlds stirs bittersweet feelings, and seeing Aqua’s fraught wandering is heartbreaking. As a means of filling in lore it’s a bit clunky, but it flows reasonably naturally, but this is undoubtedly its weakest area. It’s as a demo and teaser for Kingdom Hearts III that A Fragmentary Passage most captures my interest; between the beautiful visuals, excellent animations, and the updates to the combat system it paints a positive and exciting picture of what is to come. Of course, it helps that the end result, though short, is also great fun because of it.
5/7 – GREAT.
Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.