4Gamer Tai Yasue Interview on Kingdom Hearts 2.5 and KH3

During E3 2014 last week, series co. director Tai Yasue gave a handful of interviews both in English and Japanese, each one revealing details about the process of making the Kingdom Hearts series as well as what to expect in the upcoming titles Kingdom Hearts 2.5 and Kingdom Hearts 3. This interview was originally posted on Japanese gaming news site 4Gamer, I’ve translated it below.

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- Thank you for talking with us today. You’ve announced Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix following Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix, building a bridge to the upcoming title Kingdom Hearts 3.

Yasue: Yes. When we were starting KH3, we had also planned for KH1.5 and KH2.5 as well. So far titles of the series have released on various platforms so we wanted to reunite them all on the PS3, and since it’s a long series that’s spanned over 10 years. we aimed to present the story in a precise way to new players as well as those who may need their memory refreshed. There is a lot of foreshadowing in this series and even I sometimes have trouble remembering what things are about. (Laughs)

- Playable demos of KH2.5 were exhibited at E3 this year. Are they English versions of the demos presented at Jump Festa 2014 at the end of last year?

Yasue: Actually, a small number of modifications have been made to the E3 versions. For example, Terra’s actions in the Birth by Sleep Final Mix demo have been augmented.

- So they’re not the same after all. You could choose between two stages from Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix and three stages from BBS. What was your aim in choosing those stages?

Yasue: I chose Beast’s Castle and Halloweentown because I loved those stages in KH2. I wasn’t involved in the development of KH2, so I wanted everyone to try the stages that impacted me as a player.

- I see, so they’re your favorite stages! (Laughs) How about BBS, seeing as you were involved in developing it?

Yasue: I think you experience a good battle with Terra in Enchanted Dominion, and Aqua’s stage in Radiant Garden demonstrates the connection between the characters. Also, playing Ventus’ stage in Castle of Dreams was one of my favorite parts. In particular I liked searching for cute elements on the 3D map.

- It’s fun that you can fight enemies by riding on a ball of yarn. Since there are a lot of enemies, it’s fun to just maul them and make them pop like bubble wrap.

Yasue: Yeah, I thought so when we were making it. Remembering that, I wanted it to be playable this time. You can play with the units on the map in various ways, I thought this was a good way to show off one of BBS’s merits.

- Next tell us about differences in 2.5, first tell us about KH2.

Yasue: In KH2’s case, we left the character models as they were, we only edited the textures. We worked on making the colors more vivid and I think that the Disney worlds feel even more cheerful than before. Of course, we didn’t edit just the characters and environments, we upgraded all the elements including the sounds, user interface, effects, etc.

- The textures have been renewed this time?

Yasue: First the programmers processed the textures appropriately into HD and then the designers went in and retouched them by hand. In BBS’s case, each character’s texture data increased by about 4 times as much compared to the original. Aqua and co. look better than ever.

- When you made the HD remaster of the other titles, I heard that the facial expressions changed quite a bit and fine tuning was necessary. Was that the same case for KH2.5?

Yasue: The staff members working on 2.5 have been involved with the series for a long time and they are aware of this, so to that extent we progressed without trouble. The settings and design of the KH series are unique, so if things are just a little out of place, it becomes something different altogether. Therefore it’s necessary that all the team members inherit an understanding of how the KH series works. Compared to before, this team is fairly big, and we’re working with staff in both Osaka and Tokyo, so the designers and co. have video meetings every morning to ensure that they are aware of each other and don’t conflict with consistency.

- What are some examples of *Kingdom Heartsy* things they need to know?

Yasue: As for the games, they need to be enjoyable by both light players and hardcore players. On one hand way you can advance the story in a comparatively simple way, but they are tough fights that are unrelated to the story’s progress as well. Also, you can walkthrough the game without following specific procedures and players can fight those kind of tough battles to their liking.

As for the world view and artwork, it’s hard to describe in words. (Laughs) The world outlook of the Kingdom Hearts series is unique and unlike any other titles. It’s something that comes from Tetsuya Nomura’s distinct imagination. As for the direction of graphics, the characteristics that define the series include vivid colors and smooth gradations.

- If something doesn’t fit into that ideal, it’s discussed within the team?

Yasue: That’s right, if ideas that would pass for other games don’t fit into the Kingdom Hearts ideal, then we say so.

- I see. The next question is a little minor, but tell me about the screen ratio. The PS2 version of KH2 was 4:3, but this time it’s 16:9, correct?

Yasue: With the new ratio, some cutscenes had spots where the effects cut off or idle animation was in the frame, so we fixed those spots in the remake. You now have a wider field of view in battle which I think makes things easier.

- Continuing with BBS, that was originally for PlayStation Portable. The two remakes that were included in KH1.5, and this time KH2 in KH2.5 were all PS2 titles. How is remaking a PSP title different?

Yasue: The biggest difference was redoing the graphics naturally. The model and textures of the menu, characters, backgrounds, etc. changed drastically. For example, the PSP version of Keyblades look really thin, but we’ve made them fatter in the PS3 version.

- I’m sure that the expressions look even nicer than the original PSP versions.

Yasue: The operability also changed. The PS3’s controller has more buttons than the PSP, so the button functions have been reorganized, and now the right analog stick controls the camera.

- I see. Can you tell us about Kingdom Hearts Re:coded? There were about 2 hours of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days footage in KH2.5.

Yasue: There’s about 3 hours of Re:coded footage in KH2.5. We had originally aimed for about 2 hours, but it just gradually grew. Out of the 3 hours, about an hour of it is HD-ified cutscenes while the other 2 hours are new scenes.

- So the majority of the compilation is new scenes?

Yasue: Yes, they include parts that weren’t cutscenes in the original DS version as well as battle scenes that have been made into cutscenes. I think fans will be happy with the volume of content.

- When you were developing KH1.5 and KH2.5, how did you determine what would be a game remake and what would be compiled into video footage?

Yasue: That’s really a matter of platform. To be honest, the labor required to make a Nintendo DS title fit for PS3 would be the equivalent of making an entirely different game. So with that in mind, we preferred to present a review of the story through cutscene footage instead.

- Can you tell us what changed regarding audio? KH1.5 was recorded in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, is KH2.5 the same?

Yasue: Yes, this time we added the musical performance of stringed instruments done by an orchestra. Under the original composer Yoko Shimomura’s supervision, about 90 KH2 songs were performed by a string orchestra of about 40 people in Boston, MA and those recordings were remixed into the soundtrack. The other big thing we did was with environmental sounds. We didn’t have a lot of environmental sound effects in BBS due to the PSP’s limitations, but we added a lot more. Now for example, you can hear water streaming out of a fountain in the background. Of course, the audio corresponds to Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.

- Being involved with previous titles, were there things in the KH2.5 remake that involved you working in detail on?

Yasue: Yes. When we were working KH1.5, I was concerned with how we were going to include the systems, but this time the system bits went smoothly and instead the designers had a lot of hangups, which meant a lot of headaches. (Laughs) Since I took their hangups seriously, but I wondered at what point would it be enough? Retouching, and retouching, and retouching… We ended up making a ton of revisions.

- Which hangups did you view specifically?

Yasue: The biggest thing I dealt with, and I’ve already mentioned it a few times before, but the rebuilding of the BBS characters. We fussed over the textures, making them pretty. Also in order to make the menu screen appear nicely, we had to basically redo the whole thing. These are the kind of things we dealt with when I say that there were more elements fussed over by the designers in KH2.5 than in KH1.5.

- Well then, conversely, when you were HD-ifying the past titles, were there any parts that you planned on leaving as is without changing? Mentioned previously, you’re a fan of KH2 yourself, so did you have things in mind you?

Yasue: We concentrated on making KH2 better as a game without arbitrarily changing things, so the first thing we did was improve the quality of the graphics. As a creator, there are parts I wanted to change, but doing so would be caving into my own self satisfaction.

This time we very carefully improved the quality for the PS3 while leaving the game’s popular systems and balances as they originally were. This is the same for BBS, we didn’t add any changes to the fundamental game system. Framed by the charms of Kingdom Hearts and Disney, the games have become even more superior.

- You’re usually in Osaka, right? Isn’t it inconvenient having the team split between Tokyo and Osaka? You mentioned before that keeping the consistency is important, that must be hard when you can’t meet face to face.

Yasue: Certainly, when you have something you don’t know, you can’t just ask the person next to you, but I don’t think it’s a major problem. We have video meetings with the Tokyo team, and the teams meet once or twice a month to share progress. It’s tough for us to gather in one spot when the number of our staff increases while we are developing the series, so I don’t see why not make use of all the communication tools we have at hand. The Tokyo and Osaka teams may be separated but I imagine them working as one Kingdom Hearts team with members in different places.

- I see.

Yasue: You could say that because there are limitations, we are able to make something good, because there’s a border, we come up with solutions. On top of that we work within Disney’s IPs, so for example we can’t have Pooh Bear do something he wouldn’t within his limitations. I think these limitations lead to making Kingdom Hearts titles that don’t break the universe we’ve created.

- Are there any cases of conflict between the Disney side and the Kingdom Hearts team?

Yasue: That’s only natural. Upon incorporating that, we sort of progress while taking their detailed comments in mind. The people in charge of the Disney side are extremely passionate about the Kingdom Hearts series. Therefore both our companies discuss have a lot invested in the valuable contents, so we mutually discuss our own hangups.

- So as far as procedure goes, does the KH team make a proposal and then Disney judges it?

Yasue: It’s a case by case situation, but generally the KH team writes the proposal concerning the fundamental game contents, and then the information is shared with Disney’s people. Of course in the case when we make new graphic models and art, we have to check for approval each time.

- When you look at the HD-ified version of each title in KH2.5, what sticks out again as charms of the series?

Yasue: Right now I’m currently replaying the boss fights with the data versions of the Organization XIII members, and I get really absorbed into them. I think their attacks are unavoidable if you don’t watch them exactly,

- Excuse me for saying this, but the boss fights in KH2 were pretty difficult! When I played the demos this year I remembered just how tough the bosses were.

Yasue: It took me 40-50 retries to finally defeat Axel in his data reappearance.

- You mentioned before that the game’s balance wasn’t tampered with.

Yasue: Yes, it’s not necessarily difficult, I’ve just become a worse gamer as I’ve gotten older. (Laughs)

- I can’t deny the same is true for me. (Laughs)

Yasue: As for other things I’ve noticed, the original graphics for KH2 were made very beautifully. I can really tell as we’ve been HD-ifying it. Even looking at it now, I think it’s something that hasn’t grown stale over time.

- Are there any other points you’d like players to take notice of in KH2.5?

Yasue: Rather than a specific point, I’d say the whole thing. The same as with KH1.5, I want players to see for themselves how carefully everything was remade. The amount of detail is insurmountable and we’re finishing it up beautifully, so I want everyone to see it.

Also, Re:coded has been completely redone, so by all means I’d like everyone to enjoy the story with the pretty new graphics.

- You mentioned this previously, but when I played the KH2.5 demo, I felt that sensation that the Kingdom Hearts series doesn’t get old. One of it’s charms might be that there are no titles that resemble it.

Yasue: Yeah, I think when you actually play it, you realize that it has more charms that reminding you that the original game was good. If you compare it to games now, it’s unique features are a mark of it’s great success.

Of course there are exceptions, but these days many core games focus on realistic content and graphics, and on the other hand light games are basically puzzle and card games. Amidst that there is the Kingdom Hearts series, with titles that sport beautiful graphics in a setting that puts fantasy before reality and have the warmth of Disney animations. These aspects relate to it’s originality. I think that the series continues to evolve differently than our other franchises like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

- That being the case, you don’t really have anything to use for reference when developing, huh?

Yasue: That’s right. Rather than having something to compare it to, we view things with a “this is how Kingdom Hearts is” mindset. Capturing the atmosphere of the new IPs that Disney releases is important, we don’t want them to feel old rehashes.

- Are there any recent Disney works you’d like to incorporate?

Yasue: I recently saw Frozen with my kids, and I thought that it was a movie that could move both kids and adults. I thought it was genuine, and I’d like to do it in a way that wasn’t aimed at Kingdom Hearts fans, but as something both kids and adults would enjoy.

Like I said before, both hardcore gamers and light players enjoy the Kingdom Hearts series, and on the story side of things we see profound universal themes like “friendship” that anyone can understand. Also from a developer’s standpoint, I thought that the presentation of the ice crystals in Frozen was really amazing.

- So then what do you think about doing a stand alone title based off a Disney movie? How would it be different than working on the Kingdom Hearts series?

Yasue: In Kingdom Hearts’ case, one of it’s sales points is that it has a lot of appealing things in one title. For example in KH2, the Pirates of the Caribbean world was aimed for slightly older players, while Atlantica’s world had a cuter direction. My point is that we can make a great game that has all these different appeals going on it in it. I think It’s important to create without ruining each character and world because those are what fans love.

- I see. Specifically, how do you go about keeping the Disney stories fresh?

Yasue: Probably the worst thing we could do is alter the famous scenes from the Disney titles. We also have to include them alongside the Dark Seeker storyline in a way that makes a good game. However, experiencing Disney stories as a game is completely different than hearing and seeing a movie. So we direct the feelings of tension and excitement by setting the game experience in different parts of the Disney movies’ storyline.

- Is there a scene that you feel that turned out really well?

Yasue: For example, Ventus’ scenario in the BBS demo available at E3 this year. Before Cinderella goes to meet the prince at the castle, the story we depict shows Ventus helping search for materials for her dress with the mice. While the Kingdom Hearts series depicts a story about growth of the heart, the original storyline of Cinderella is believing in your dreams, and I think that this scenario did a good job representing that. As for gameplay, you don’t normally get to experience things being the same size as a mouse and it’s fun to explore the wide 3D space.

- It’s like the player can experience being the main character of another story taking place behind the scenes of Cinderella.

Yasue: That’s kind of Kingdom Hearts’ structure, it’s kind of like Disneyland. It’s fun because there are various worlds that have a differing atmosphere, each with their own story, and amidst that players can experience things themselves.

When I think about developing the gameplay of Kingdom Hearts, I imagine walking around Disneyland. For example, at Disneyland, if you walk a little from the entrance, immediately the world opens before your eyes and Cinderella’s castle appears. Even in the Kingdom Hearts series, sometimes you are drawn a long path and you don’t know what to expect ahead, a castle could suddenly appear or on the other hand, a boss battle might be waiting for you.

- KH1.5 went on sale in March of last year, and KH2.5 is coming out about a year and a half later on October 2nd 2014. Was that the originally planned schedule?

Yasue: That’s right. In order to release KH3, we wanted to offer KH2.5 to fans ahead of time. Luckily, things are progressing smoothly and it should be out without delay.

- Saying that makes it sound like we can expect to play KH3 soon after playing KH2.5…

Yasue: At this stage I can’t comment about the release date of KH3, but we are working on it diligently. Since the fundamental structure of the series so far is different in KH3, we have to look into various things, but the planning of the plot and contents is progressing steadily.

- Fans of the series are excited to see what worlds will appear in the next title.

Yasue: Well, we’re still in the process of planning those parts. At this stage I really can’t talk about that either. (Laughs)

- I’ve heard that KH3 will complete the story told so far.

Yasue: That’s correct. The story developed in the series so far called the Dark Seeker Chronicles will end in KH3.

- Hearing that raises expectations more and more. Well then, please share a message for the fans while they await the release of KH2.5.

Yasue: Many people on the development team of KH2.5 were originally Kingdom Hearts fans. In the HD version this time, the team was of a shared consciousness that the past titles be treated valuably, so we took our time in adding fine details to the graphics. So by all means please play it and revisit the charming world of Kingdom Hearts. I think that if you play both KH1.5 and KH2.5 you’ll have a profound understanding of the series and have an even richer experience playing KH3 when it comes!

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