Tai Yasue is a lucky guy. After a few years working on smaller-budget spin-off entries in the Kindom Hearts series, he's been given one hell of a shot - the Co-Director's chair on the third 'proper' entry in the series, which is coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One at some point in the future and is currently in development.
With series creator Tetsuya Nomura locked up at work on Final Fantasy XV, gameplay duties and day-to-day direction on both Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX and Kingdom Hearts III has fallen to Yasue, who comes off the back of a successful trilogy of handheld Kingdom Hearts efforts.
We caught up with Yasue to talk about all things Kindom Hearts, from the logic behind a HD Remaster of the titles and the strange split way the two PS2 games have been released to cape-jostling technology and, yes, some tidbits about the general future direction of the series. We even ask the bloody Marvel & Star Wars question, which we're sure he's sick of hearing - but he name-checks another new Disney success instead! Enjoy.
RPG Site: So, let's kick off with the why! What's the thinking behind these comprehensive packages featuring spin-off games rather than a simpler HD rerelease of both PS2 games together?
Tai Yasue: When we first started developing Kingdom Hearts 3, we really wanted to bridge the users, so we made 1.5 and 2.5 HD. Story wise it can be very complex - for example my kids, your kids - they might not know what KH is, so we wanted to re-introduce a wide spectrum of players, and that's why we created these two HD remixes. They contain all the important story events and so it gives a deeper understanding of Kingdom Hearts.
RPG Site: You mentioned the importance of story - but Dream Drop Distance seems fairly important in that sense. Can you explain its exclusion?
Yasue: Well... we made this very recently - within the last two years - so we were originally only considering Birth by Sleep and Re:Coded for Kingdom Hearts 2.5, so we don't have any plans for Kingdom Hearts 3D. Although it is on the table we haven't decided anything.
RPG Site: So perhaps a downloadable title or something?
Yasue: Something like that, yes, although we can't really say as of right now.
Yasue: Everything that was in the original Birth by Sleep Final Mix will be included in the 2.5 HD ReMIX, the same as KH2 Final Mix. For Re:coded we've got three hour’s worth of cutscenes, with two hours being totally new. These explain some more back story to other Kingdom Hearts titles, and you'll be able to get a better understanding of it.
RPG Site: So, to be clear - what's the timeline here, for people new to these games?
Yasue: Re:coded takes place after Kingdom Hearts 2. In order, Birth by Sleep is the origin story before Kingdom Hearts ten years before, then there is Kingdom Hearts, then Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts 2 then Re:coded. Re:coded takes place in a virtual world, where you’ll find out about three characters that are trapped there from Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep.
RPG Site: With Re:coded, did you ever consider remaking the game itself rather than making a movie-style recreation?
Yasue: We did consider this, but because the game was on the DS it had totally different gameplay, and the touch screen was important. If we had a clear schedule I think it would have been possible but we've been making Kingdom Hearts 3 simultaneously, as well as 2.5 HD ReMIX, and we couldn't really run them, and another project. We figured this would slow down the Kingdom Hearts 3 schedule, and that's not something we would want.
RPG Site: As we understand it, the development schedule for Kingdom Hearts 1.5 was rather troubled because there was the whole situation with the lost data for the first game. How has the 2.5 ReMIX been in comparison?
The system itself which runs off the PS3 which assists in porting the title as it was developed and made the whole work flow easier.
What we've concentrated on this time around more so is bringing the quality of the titles up, such as the sound and the graphics. That's where the most man hours have gone.
RPG Site: As far as the quality is concerned, Birth by Sleep was a PSP game - was it a challenging process bringing that up to PS3 level, and will the PSP-specific features such as multiplayer be transferred over?
Yasue: For the quality question, it's a PSP game so a lot of the characters are a little more rough and we had to re-do a lot of that. We re-made a lot of the models, textures and player characters in particular had a focused effort, they look great now.
As for the Multiplayer question, again related to the Re:coded thing and the schedule answer... it's a very similar situation - although we did re-arrange it so you can tackle the Mirage Arena solo now. It now has a challenge system where you can accrue bonuses. We also tweaked it so that the balance is much better, and the AI has also been updated in regards to some of the bosses. For example the last boss of the Mirage Arena is much quicker and complex. I've heard a lot about players wanting to play multiplayer, but that's another thing that would have slowed down the KH3 process.
RPG Site: I remember previously that the main characters had capes, but you said you removed this due to the hardware limitations of the PSP. How come you didn't get this back in?
Yasue: Well the reason we didn't add this in is because if we added the capes back in, we would have to change all the character actions and animations to fit. Our animation team is under a lot of workload right now due to Kingdom Hearts 3, and so we didn't want to change everything and remake everything.
The Lingering Will battle in Kingdom Hearts 2 has been introduced from Final Mix, and he's wearing a cape there, so you can enjoy that. We're doing a lot of experimentation with the cape system, but it's a very costly and difficult process.
Yasue: Just over 70 people worked on the title, a lot of them worked on the cutscenes - around 35 - and we also had 5 programmers, designers, sound staff, actually maybe a lot more than 70, 80 maybe?
It wasn't just a programming thing - we couldn't press a button and magically get a HD version. There's a lot of work by the designers re-writing this stuff that took a lot of man hours.
RPG Site: Final Fantasy X's HD Remasters made their way to the Vita, but the Kingdom Hearts ones skipped the platform. Many fans would like to see Kingdom Hearts on the Vita - is there any possibility of this?
Yasue: Well there is the possibility, but for 1.5 and 2.5 ReMIX, we really wanted to concentrate on the PS3. After that we will look into considerations for other platforms, such as evaluating the markets and schedules.
RPG Site: Has any feedback that you got from 1.5 affected the development or content of 2.5?
Yasue: One of the largest bits of feedback from 1.5 was that with 356/2 Days, people wanted to see more battle scenes, and so with Re:coded there are a lot more battle scenes now - it's more of a movie - and we've re-created some of the battle scenes full with sword, Keyblades, etc.
RPG Site: Does the soundtrack for 2.5 feature rearranged music once again?
Yasue: Yeah, there is a lot of the sound in the game we re-recorded - around 90 of the songs were re-done. We had a 40 member string orchestra and lots of live instruments for Kingdom Hearts 2. Originally we only had virtual instruments. Our composer, Yoko Shimomura, oversaw all the changes so that made the process much more special.
RPG Site: Players will soon be revisiting their memories of these games - but what is your strongest memory from making it?
Yasue: Well, I really enjoy working with the team, they are very funny. We have a programmer, we call him Eggplant, his name is Nasu, which means Eggplant in Japanese - sort of looks like one too! He has a purple car and a purple house. He's very funny. I think I get a lot of joy with talking from everyone, they are all very motivated and a happy environment to work in. When we compared the originals with the new HD games, I think we appreciate what everyone and the designers have done to change it. You really notice the changes if you have a good monitor or TV.
Yasue: I personally enjoyed Birth by Sleep, I liked the active command style system, and in the future we want a wide range of things - this is one of the things that we're thinking of right now.
It's under consideration, and I can't say what they are, but lots of new features will be added for Kingdom Hearts III. We've already said how we will be incorporating a lot more Disney themed rides and actions - that will be something new. The controls will also be adjusted to something better fitting the style.
RPG Site: Is there any specific moment in 2.5 HD ReMIX that is your personal favorite?
Yasue: Personally, the Roxas battle in Final Mix is very enjoyable, and very difficult playing it in Critical Mode. You get to take his Keyblade and then have several keyblades to attack him with. He's very strong but I really like the limit form that is introduced in Final Mix, I can use his old suit and old abilities.
RPG Site: Over in Japan you've announced that there will be several different versions of Kingdom Hearts 2.5 ReMIX. One of them includes 1.5 and 2.5 together, along with a Collector's soundtrack and such. Is there any interest in doing similar for the western audience?
Yasue: Right now we don't have any plans, but we are looking into what we can do, but nothing has been finalized.
Yasue: It's an active industry so a lot of people come and go from different departments and sections, there is a continuous change of people. I don't think that's a region specific thing - we have people from Tokyo and Osaka working together on Kingdom Hearts 2.5 and the important thing is that we teach new people who join the team what it means to be making Kingdom Hearts.
There are a lot of things that are unique to the series, such as the art work, the colors... everything is very specified, and there are many constraints to making it look right. I think making 1.5 and 2.5 is very beneficial to us as it's allowed us to show a lot of people how to develop Kingdom Hearts and we can relay that experience to Kingdom Hearts 3.
RPG Site: Are there any specific character you would like to see in the future of Kingdom Hearts? Now that Disney owns Marvel Franchises, Star Wars... you must get this one a lot.
Yasue: Star Wars and Marvel is great, but I of course can't make any announcements at all!
RPG Site: Out of interest, how open is that process? Do you guys get a pretty clear pick, or does Disney hold a tight control over that sort of stuff?
Yasue: We have to discuss with Disney about how we're going to proceed with each world to make sure they agree with our vision and feel it fits. On a personal level... I would really like Frozen. The snow, ice formations and story are very magical, the music too of course. I saw it with my daughter and it was very enjoyable.
Yasue: We have a very good working relationship with Disney. There is a lot of back and forth with them and we're used to talking thoroughly about things. People have this image of them being really restrictive, but it isn't that bad.
They are very positive and have a lot of love for Kingdom Hearts. When we explain to them our plans, we show our designs, but it isn't difficult, we understand what works for them, and what works in regards to the gameplay.
RPG Site: Are you working with Disney's home offices in the states on these matters, or the Japanese arm?
Yasue: It's mainly the Japanese side. The people I work with at Disney in Japan are very enthusiastic and excited for Kingdom Hearts. It's an important franchise to them. We respect the fact that they are meticulous in their checking and rules, as that's the way we would be if we had someone making a game for us, it's very understandable.
RPG Site: With 2.5 coming out this year, and KH3 not coming out any time soon, do you guys have any plans to bridge that gap with other Kingdom Hearts titles? I know you have the browser game in Japan, is there any chance you will bring that outside of Japan?
Yasue: I can't comment on Kingdom Hearts X [chi] as it's a different team, but between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3, there is always the possibility of another Kingdom Hearts. We are taking into consideration a lot of different titles but there is no decisions as of yet.
Yasue: I think they are great too, and perhaps they will be resurrected one day. That's a possibility.
RPG Site: In the E3 trailer for 2.5 HD ReMIX, there was a small segment at the end that showed a tiny bit of KH3D and the text that was teasing Kingdom Hearts 3, obviously the game isn't here at E3, so why did you decide to include that?
Yasue: Well we wanted something of Kingdom Hearts 3 here, 2.5 is the biggest thing here, but at the same time we wanted a tease. The bit right at the end actually starts at the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 3 - it's an integral part to the game, and Nomura has a very clear vision for that scene in the game: two characters side by side, we voice recorded it and put it in. It's really the start of Kingdom Hearts 3, and it shows that 2.5 HD brings it together.
RPG Site: Can fans speculate on the characters that are involved in this scene due to voice actors that are used?
Yasue: Of course, that's what we want people to do, they are very important characters in the series, and it's not impossible to guess if you know the voice actors..
Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX is set to arrive for PS3 in Japan in October, and the rest of the world in December. Both Japanese Import and Western Pre-orders are now available. Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD ReMIX is available now, and Kingdom Hearts 3 is currently in development for Xbox One and PS4. We'll bring you news, reviews, and all that other good stuff in a timely fashion, as always.