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Kingdom Hearts: Catching Up with the Co-Director

Interviews By Gareth Harmer on August 29, 2014

Fans of Kingdom Hearts certainly have a lot to look forward to. Firstly, Kingdom Hearts HD II.5 ReMIX will be hitting North American shelves on December 2, bringing gorgeous remastered visuals with it. And if that’s not enough, Kingdom Hearts III is in development for both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, giving developer Square Enix the freedom to be ‘crazy to do what we want.’

As co-director on both these titles, Tai Yasue has a hefty responsibility on his shoulders – remaining true to the original games on one hand, while having the courage to innovate on the other. During a roundtable interview at Gamescom, I’d come to learn just how he manages to achieve this.

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Question: How did your previous experience developing Kingdom hearts 1.5 help you when developing this new title?

Tai Yasue: We have two teams – one team working on Kingdom Hearts 3, one team working on porting 2.5. We had a lot of difficulties when making 1.5 because we weren’t really used to porting to PS3 from another console, so the programmers had a lot of trouble recoding, and making the system where the game actually moves on PS3. For 2.5, there were a lot of technical lessons learned from 1.5, so that went a lot smoother. We were able to use a lot of the graphical assets and the sounds, more extensively than before.

Another thing, actually, we had a lot of player feedback when we were making 1.5 that said there was a cinematic mode in 1.5 that didn’t include the battle scenes. So for 2.5, in the package there’s Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, Birth by Sleep Final Mix, and Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded, which is HD cinematics mode. For the Re:coded cinematics mode, we added battle scenes, we made the battle scenes using cutscene tools, so you get a much fuller picture of the story.

Question: How many people developed this, and how much time did you spend?

Yasue: We started last in spring last year, so it’s been almost a year. The number of people involved were about 70, or actually a bit more. Mainly almost 35 people doing cutscenes for Re:coded, because we remade almost 2 hours worth of cutscenes, so that took a lot of people. And I guess there are programmers, sound designers, graphical design people. So it was pretty extensive, and a lot of work.

Question: Are you planning on launching Kingdom Hearts 2.5 on the PlayStation 4 as well?

Yasue: We haven’t really come to a decision just yet. When we first started making Kingdom Hearts, we started the arch for Kingdom Hearts 3, we decided we wanted everyone to play the previous titles on one console, and that decision was made almost two years ago, when the PS3 was the current console. So we made all our titles on the PS3 – 1.5, 2.5. In the future we’re not really sure yet. We really wanted to gather everything on the PS3 first of all.

Question: What were the biggest difficulties you had when developing Kingdom Hearts 2.5?

Yasue: There’s several. Right now we’re working on bugs and stuff – that’s kind of tough. One of the big things is we don’t want to betray our fans. Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep and II Final Mix were both really well received, so we didn’t want to change what was good about it – the gameplay, the game systems, the game balance - there are minor tweaks, but nothing really extensive. But at the same time we wanted it to look more gorgeous, because it was for the PS3 in HD, so we took a lot of time.

There is, I guess, a balancing act: you don’t want to change what was good about it, but at the same time you want to make it gorgeous. We redid a lot of the design work, a lot of the graphical assets, a lot of the details, and polished that up.

Question: What was the part that you enjoyed the most?

Yasue: I guess when you actually compare the two, the old Kingdom Hearts II, the old Birth by Sleep, and the new one, we had a big TV monitor and everyone from the development team had to watch. And you can compare it, and it’s totally different; it’s beautiful. I guess that was one of the fun things.

Question: How involved have Disney been in the project?

Yasue: We started working with them at the very start, our planning and everything. We cooperated extensively with Disney; they gave us input as well.

Question: Are there any Disney worlds that you would have liked to include in the games?

Yasue: For Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep, the Final Mix version had a new world, it’s called the Realm of Darkness, and so I guess that was something only Japanese players had been able to play before, but now we can introduce that stage to our European and North American players.

Question: What’s the most difficult part about bringing Kingdom Hearts to a Western audience?

Yasue: Well, one of the good things about Kingdom Hearts is it’s pretty similar. There are small things – the wording, we get a lot of input that players in US and Europe did not like long tutorials at the beginning of the game. I guess the good thing is people from Japan and North America like Kingdom Hearts, it’s very accessible, it’s Disney and Square Enix, it’s not a high hurdle. People love Kingdom Hearts for the same reasons across North America, Japan and Europe.

Question: Where do you think the series will go in the future?

Yasue: 1.5 and 1.5 all connect to Kingdom Hearts 3. For 3, which we’re developing right now, we’re moving in leaps and bounds. The technology is fundamentally different; there’s a lot of new technology out there that we can incorporate. The technology, the development style, everything is totally different for the Kingdom Hearts 3 team. As well as the creative aspects, there’s a lot more you can do, so we’re being very crazy to do what we want; there’s not a lot of restrictions any more.

Question: With Kingdom Hearts 3, you’re also launching on Xbox One. What was the reason?

Yasue: We wanted to reach a wider audience, that’s the big point. Our fans are important to us – a year ago at E3, when we had the trailer, there were a lot of enthusiastic players, and it’s for them. They can buy an Xbox One or PS4 – it’s their choice – and play Kingdom Hearts 3 on either. 

Question: When can players find out more on Kingdom Hearts 3?

Yasue: I can’t make any announcements, but we realize that players want to know more about Kingdom Hearts 3. I feel responsible to keep a steady feed of information, so I can’t say which events we’ll be making announcements, but I feel the weight of everyone’s expectations. [laughs] We are working full throttle, very hard to meet those expectations.

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