17 June 2014

Standard

[E3 2014] See that gorgeous, unfading charm once again in Kingdom Hearts -HD 2.5 ReMIX-. Our interview with Co. Director Tai Yasue.

 

At E3 2014, held on the 10th June North American time, Square Enix had a demo of Kingdom Hearts -HD 2.5 ReMIX- for Playstation 3 on display.

This title is a compilation of three works: The 2007 Playstation 2 title Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, the PSP title re-released in 2011 as Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep Final Mix, further remade in HD, and the story of the 2010 Nintendo DS title Kingdom Hearts Re:coded available for experiencing as a HD cinematic work. It is to be released in Japan on October 2nd 2014.

This time 4Gamer asked Co. Director (game designer), Tai Yasue of Square Enix, about the goals and enthusiasm that went into development of this title.

4Gamer: Thank you very much for speaking with us today. Along with Kingdom Hearts -HD 1.5 ReMIX- (hereon 1.5), Kingdom Hearts -HD 2.5 ReMIX (hereon 2.5) is announced as a title that bridges all the games in the series as we head towards the release of what will be the newest title, Kingdom Hearts III (hereon KH3), isn’t it?

Tai Yasue (hereon Yasue): Yes. Right from the beginning when we were starting KH3 we had plans for 1.5 and 2.5. We had two goals. First, as our titles had been released on various platforms as things went along, we wanted to unify the series on the PS3. Second, as this is a long series that is over ten years old, we wanted a tight presentation of the story for hopeful new players and those whose memories of the games were a little rusty. This story is so full of foreshadowing that even I have been like, ‘what was this again?’ before (laughs).

4Gamer: At E3 this year, you had a playable version of 2.5 on display, didn’t you? We heard that it was the English version of the one unveiled at the end of 2013 at Jump Festa 2014.

Yasue: Actually, the E3 version had quite a few adjustments to it. For example, in Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep (hereon BBS), Terra and the others had more actions.

4Gamer: So of course it wasn’t exactly the same. So, you could select out of two stages from Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix (hereon KH2) and three stages from BBS. What was the reasoning behind including those particular stages?

Yasue: For KH2, I chose two that I loved, Beast’s Castle and Halloween Town. I wasn’t involved in the development of KH2, so I wanted to share with everyone the bits that moved me as a player myself.

4Gamer: Is that so. So those were your favourite stages then, Mr Yasue (laughs). What about BBS, for which you were involved with developing?

Yasue: I wanted people to experience Enchanted Dominion from Terra’s story, which had some thorny battles, and Radiant Garden with Aqua and the bonds between all three main characters. Then, I chose Castle of Dreams with playable Ventus because, again, I love that bit. I was really pleased with the three-dimensionality of exploring the map and the cute developments.

4Gamer: Being able to attack the enemies while rolling on top of that ball of wool is fun. There are also quite a lot of enemies, so crushing them feels nice, like popping bubble wrap.

Yasue: Yeah, I got pretty excited about that when I was making it, too. I remembered that, which is why I wanted to put it in the demo this time. I think it’s a nice display of the various things you can play with in the maps, which is one great thing about BBS.

4Gamer: Now, please tell us about the things you altered for 2.5. First, how about KH2?

Yasue: With KH2, we left the character models as they were, and just changed the textures. We made the colours vivid enough to be astonishing, and the Disney worlds feel even warmer than before, or I think so anyway. Of course, not only the characters and backgrounds but the sound, the UI, the effects, all elements have been upgraded.

4Gamer: Did you remake the textures for this title?

Yasue: First all the textures were made all pretty and HD by the programmers, the designers took that further by adjusting each one by hand. In BBS, the original amount of textures on a single character was quadrupled, so Aqua and the others are very pretty now.

4Gamer: We have heard that in other titles, when making characters for HD remasters, fine-tuning is necessary to keep the same impression of their faces and the like, as it changes. How was 2.5 in that regard?

Yasue: We had many members who have been involved with the series for a very long time who understood that issue thoroughly, so we moved forward without too much trouble on that front. The KH series has a very particular setup and design, so if you get that even a little off, it feels like a completely different thing. That’s why it was necessary for everyone in the team to inherit an appreciation for what is ‘KH-esque’. We had quite a large number of people compared to previous teams, with quite a few people from both the Osaka and Tokyo teams, so the designers etc would have a teleconference every morning, constantly taking care not to hurt the shared vision.

4Gamer: What would be an example of something ‘KH-esque’?

Yasue: As a game, it being something everyone from casual to hardcore gamers can enjoy is something, I think. While on one hand it’s comparatively simple to advance through the story, where it’s unrelated to the advancement of the story, the enemies you fight are incredibly tough. Also, we don’t make it so that you can’t win without following a specific process, we make it so that the player can battle in whatever style they enjoy.

As for the art and the look of the universe, it’s hard to put into words (laughs). The KH series has a unique, specific look to the universe that comes from a precise image that Nomura (Mr Tetsuya Nomura) holds, though. As for the direction the graphics take, it’s a particular type of vivid colour and smooth gradation, I would say.

4Gamer: For something that difficult to put into words to be shared by a team…

Yasue: Yeah. There were times when we had ideas that would have gone through in another team, but we said ‘KH doesn’t go like this’.

4Gamer: We see. Now, this may be a little trivial, but we’d like to hear about the screen ratio. The PS2 version of KH2 had the usual 4:3, but now it’s 16:9, isn’t it?

Yasue: In cutscenes there were a lot of effects that cut off and animations that weren’t moving in places, so we had to remake quite a few parts to work in 16:9. In battles the field of vision has widened so I think it’s easier to play.

4Gamer: Now let’s talk about BBS. It was originally a PSP title, wasn’t it? Compared to the two titles remade for 1.5 and KH2 in this compilation, which were all for PS2, we’re sure it was different to work on.

Yasue: The biggest difference was, obviously, the graphics. We changed the models and textures of the menus, characters and backgrounds drastically. For example, the Keyblades in the PSP version look quite thin, but on the PS3 we made them look proper and thick.

4Gamer: We were definitely hit with the impression that it’s more beautiful than we had expected for a game that was originally on PSP.

Yasue: The controls, too. There are more buttons on a PS3 controller than on a PSP, so we reallocated the controls, and assigned the camera to the right stick.

4Gamer: Is that so. Now, please tell us about Kingdom Hearts Re:coded (hereon Re:coded). Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, also for the Nintendo DS, became a two hour cinematic work, didn’t it.

Yasue: Re:coded in 2.5 is three hours. In the beginning we had thought to make it about two hours, but it just kept getting bigger. Within those three hours is about one hour of the original’s cutscenes made HD, and a little over two hours of new content.

4Gamer: You mean there’s more new content than not?

Yasue: Yeah, there are parts from the DS game that weren’t originally cutscenes, plus battles and events, all made into cinematics. Its a huge volume of content, and I hope the fans are pleased with it.

4Gamer: When developing 1.5 and 2.5, what was the criteria behind deciding whether to remake a game or turn it into a cinematic work?

Yasue: It’s really a platform problem. To be honest, trying to make a Nintendo DS game work on a PS3 would require the same effort as making a completely new game. That’s why we’ve done it like this, placing priority on the story and making them into cinematic works.

4Gamer: Now, what about the sound? For 1.5 the sound was modified to be compatible with 5.1ch surround sound. Is 2.5 the same?

Yasue: Yes. For this title, we have added strings performances using an orchestra. Under the supervision of Ms Shimomura, about 90 tracks for KH2 were recorded from a 40 person strings ensemble in Boston, USA, and remixed. The next biggest task was enviroment sounds. We added a huge number of environmental sounds that we had been unable to add to BBS due to the limitations of the PSP, such as the sound of running water from fountains. And of course, it’s compatible with 5.1ch.

4Gamer: From everything you’ve told us so far, it sounds like you’ve put great thought into even the smallest things in the 2.5 remake.

Yasue: Yeah. With 1.5 we worried over what to do about the gameplay side of things, but this time we got that done smoothly with time to spare, so we designers could pick on all our little hang ups until we wanted to strangle ourselves (laughs). The more you try to fix a hang up the further it goes, and how far should you go? You draw and draw and draw… and the retouches pile up.

4Gamer: What is an example of one of your hang ups?

Yasue: The thing that stuck out most to me was, as I said before, the BBS characters. We obsessed over their textures, in particular, til they became quite pretty. Also, we rehauled the menu screen so it would look nice. I think because of that, the designers had more of a hand in this title than they did in 1.5.

4Gamer: So, on the other hand, were there any things from the old games that you didn’t want to change when making them HD? You said before, Mr Yasue, that you were a fan of KH2. Perhaps you had such thoughts for that game?

Yasue: KH2 was very well made as a game, so rather than put my foot in it, to begin with I focused on giving the graphics an upgrade. As a creator, at times there are things I think I want to change, but that’s because I tend to get a big head. With this title I left the the popular gameplay and game balance as it was and steadily worked on politely upping the quality for the PS3. As with BBS, we didn’t change the basic gameplay.

4Gamer: Mr Yasue, you are usually in Osaka, aren’t you. Is it inconvenient to divide the teams between Tokyo and Osaka? Before you spoke of the importance of a shared view on what is ‘KH-esque’. It sounds difficult to do so without being able to meet face to face.

Yasue: It’s true that when we didn’t understand something we weren’t able to ask someone right next to us straight away, but it wasn’t really that much of an issue. We had teleconferences with the Tokyo team, and once every one or two months everyone from both teams would all get together for a meeting. As development of the series has gone on the teams have grown in membership, and it would actually be difficult for all of us to gather in one place. I think using various tools to communicate is the only option. Rather than thinking of us as the Osaka team and the Tokyo team, my image is that of one KH team, with members working in different places.

4Gamer: Is that so.

Yasue: It’s thanks to the obstacles that we can make something so good, just as it’s only thanks to limitations that we come up with solutions. What’s more, dealing with the intellectual property of Mr Disney, like ‘I don’t think Winnie the Pooh would really do something like this’, is connected to how we maintain the universe of KH, I believe.

4Gamer: Have there been cases where the expectations of the Disney side and the interpretations of the KH team have been different?

Yasue: Of course. We factor that in, moving forward with detailed communications. The Disney representative is actually extremely passionate about the KH series. That means the content is very important to both our companies, and we discuss our hang ups with each other.

4Gamer: So how does the procedure go? Does the KH team propose something and ask for Disney’s judgement?

Yasue: It’s case-by-case, but generally the KH team designs a plan to do with the content of the game, and then we share information with Disney. Of course, every time we make new graphic models or art we have them check it.

4Gamer: Making each title in 2.5 into HD, was there anything particularly charming about the series that you noticed all over again?

Yasue: Just now I’ve been playing the Organisation XIII Replica Data boss battles over and over, and I get really fired up. If I’m not watching like a hawk I can’t dodge the enemy attacks. I think that’s really well done.

4Gamer: It may be rude to sound surprised, but the bosses in KH2 are pretty difficult now, aren’t they. We played the demo, and it being our first time in a long time facing those bosses, we wondered whether it had always been that hard.

Yasue: Me too. I retried Axel’s Replica Data 40-50 times before finally beating him.

4Gamer: As you said before, you didn’t change the game balance, did you.

Yasue: No, we didn’t think to make it any harder. Maybe my gaming arm is getting weak in my old age (laughs).

4Gamer: We can’t deny that either (laughs).

Yasue: One more thing I noticed was that the graphics in KH2 were generally made gorgeously. I felt that all over again thanks to the HD. Looking at it now, I think the charm hasn’t faded at all.

4Gamer: Are there any other points in 2.5 that you’d like players to pay attention to?

Yasue: Rather than anything in particular, just the whole thing. In 2.5, and 1.5 was the same, everything has been made so carefully, and I’d love for players to see that for themselves. We have layered so many tiny details to finish something so pretty, and I’d love players to see that.

Also, parts of Re:coded have been remade completely, and I’d love for players to enjoy the story through the beautiful graphics.

4Gamer: I think perhaps you conveyed the same thing just now, but playing the demo of 2.5, we realised we couldn’t feel the age of the KH series at all. Perhaps that’s due to its unique charm, there really is no other title like it.

Yasue: Yeah. When you actually play it, you do remember how ‘games were great in the old days’, but that’s not all there is to its charm. Even compared to games today, it has accomplished a particular and clear uniqueness. Of course there are exceptions, but the graphics and content in many AAA games these days are aiming for realism, and puzzles and card games are prevalent among those aimed at casual gamers. Among all those is the KH series, with absolutely gorgeous graphics that tend towards fantasy rather than realism and have all the warmth of Disney animation. That’s connected to originality, I think. It’s evolving in a different direction than even other titles from Square Enix, such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

4Gamer: If that’s how it goes, the more you develop it the less you’ll be able to use other titles for ideas.

Yasue: That’s true. Rather than comparing it to other things, we take the stance of ‘KH is like this’. We are even careful when we introduce the vibes of the intellectual properties Disney grants us, too, so maybe that’s another reason you don’t feel the age of the series.

4Gamer: Have you come into contact with any Disney works lately?

Yasue: I went to see Frozen with my kids, and that film moved my adult self and my children alike. I think it’s such a pure, wonderful movie, and I want to keep on making a KH series that isn’t aimed at particular people either, something that children and adults alike can enjoy. As I said before, the KH series can be enjoyed by both casual and hardcore gamers, and while the story has deep elements, it tells of a universal theme that anyone can understand: friendship. Also, from a developer’s point of view, I thought the depiction of the ice crystals in Frozen was amazing.

4Gamer: So, what do you think the difference is between a standalone Disney work and the KH series?

Yasue: One selling point of the KH series is that within one title there can be many attractions. For example, in KH2, Pirates of the Caribbean is aimed at a relatively older demographic, while Atlantica would appeal to those looking for a cuter universe. The point is that the charm of several works are neatly included and presented in one game. The various characters and stories are beloved for a reason, and it’s important for us to bring them to life in ways that don’t damage that.

4Gamer: Is that so. For example…?

Yasue:Of course, it doesn’t feel good to change the stories of the famous Disney films. That’s where we have to be clever about incorporating the story of the Dark Seeker and making a game. We make the experience of playing the game completely different from just watching and hearing the story, so we direct the tension and emotions of the game experience somewhere away from where the stories of the Disney films took place.

4Gamer: Is there a scene in particular that you think expresses this well?

Yasue: Well for example, Ventus’ part from BBS which I chose for the recent demo. That took place before Cinderella was to meet the prince at the castle, and actually, the mice and Ventus were collecting materials for her dress. The KH series depicts the growth of the heart, and I think that part manages to express what Cinderella’s story first did, ‘belief in dreams’. On the gameplay side, it’s interesting to explore the huge, three dimensional map from the unusual point of view of being mouse-sized.

4Gamer: Behind the scenes of Cinderella’s story, the player can experience another story where they are the protagonist.

Yasue: That structure of KH is somewhat close to Disneyland, don’t you think? There are so many worlds with different atmospheres, each with their own stories, and you, the guest, get to have so many experiences within them, which makes it fun. When I think about developing gameplay for KH, sometimes I picture walking through Disneyland. For example, when you enter Disneyland, when you walk a little way in, Cinderella’s castle suddenly comes into view before you. The KH series, too, has you venturing down long roads, wondering with excitement what will show up at the end of them. And right at that moment, a castle appears, or maybe a boss battle was waiting.

4Gamer: 1.5 released in March 2013, and 2.5 will release roughly a year and a half after it, on October 2nd 2014. Is that how you first planned?

Yasue: Yes. As we head towards the release of KH3, we wanted to offer 2.5 for everyone. Fortunately, development went off without a hitch.

4Gamer: This makes us hope… maybe we will be able to play KH3 without much wait after 2.5….

Yasue: At this stage I can’t make any comments regarding a release date, but we are working hard. KH3 changes the fundamental structure of the series so far, so we have to do a lot of research as we go along, but the plans for our content and ideas are steadily moving forwards.

4Gamer: Fans of the series will be wondering what worlds will appear next.

Yasue: Yeah, our ideas for that are moving forward pretty steadily too. At this stage I can’t say anything though (laughs).

4Gamer: We heard that KH3 will mark the completion of the first stage of the story.

Yasue: That’s right. The ‘Dark Seeker Chronicles’ that have been developing through the series so far will be concluded.

4Gamer: Hearing that, our anticipation is now even higher. And lastly, a message for all those KH fans out there waiting impatiently for the release of 2.5.

Yasue: Among the 2.5 development team are many people who were originally fans of the KH series. In making this HD version, every member of the team was strongly aware of the need to treat the past games with utmost care. We have created the graphics piece by piece carefully and steadily, so please play it and see the world of KH in even more beauty. If you play 1.5 and 2.5, you will gain a deep understanding of the story of KH, and your experience of KH3 will be even richer!

4Gamer: Thank you very much.

 

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