If you’re a lover of Disney movies and games by Square-Enix like me, you’ve almost certainly heard of the Kingdom Hearts series: a slightly odd but endearing merger of the two media. The release of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is an excellent opportunity for veterans to re-experience the world of Kingdom Hearts, and a great opportunity for new fans to enter the franchise. The single Blu-Ray disc contains high definition updates of Kingdom Hearts II (originally released on the PS2 in 2005), Birth by Sleep (released on the PSP in 2010), and the remastered cutscenes from Re:Coded, a Nintendo DS game released in 2011.
Initially launched toward the end of the PS2 era, Kingdom Hearts II was an excellent game that looked great at the time and holds up fairly well when remastered for PS3. A lot of the graphics have been smoothed out, especially in the opening and ending cutscenes, as well as backgrounds and textures having been adjusted to make the game’s ratio a welcome HD 16:9 instead of the original 4:3 it was. Unfortunately, the menu still looks as uninspired and sparse as it always has despite their addition of more imagery in an attempt to compensate for the extra space due to the aspect shift. The music of Kingdom Hearts has always been fantastic, perfectly setting the atmosphere, and approximately 80% of the soundtrack has been remixed for this collection.
For those who have played Kingdom Hearts II previously, you will probably recall the introductory sequence with Roxas with a sense of “ugh.” I’m sad to say that nothing about the start of the game has changed, and the beginning tutorial section in Twilight Town is still as tedious as it ever was. I wish they had found a way to change or speed that section up as it is mind-numbing to sit through learning how to walk forwards in a straight line and talk to people when you’ve presumably already played one of the earlier games and learnt these basics. That, or, at the very least, provide an option to skip the step by step instructions for those who know what they’re doing, which would then leave the tutorial available for newcomers. The missions with Roxas go on for way too long, but the story offered can be quite interesting and provides a nice sense of anticipation; waiting for when we get to play as Sora, the series’ protagonist.
As a game centred on travelling to different worlds and assisting the protagonist with their quest, the Kingdom Hearts games may not be as effective if you haven’t watched the corresponding Disney movie that the world is based on as the plots follow the source material fairly closely. It will still be a good game with a cheesy, heart-warming story and good gameplay, but perhaps the worlds’ characters and their respective plights won’t impact you as much if they’re simply strangers. However, to Disney aficionados, it is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to experience and interact with these far-off lands as it allows control and movement through the various surroundings.
Just like its predecessor, Kingdom Hearts II is an action-RPG. Basically, this means battles occur in real-time, and players are given full control of the character to run around the terrain to dodge attacks and close the gap to unleash their own barrage when the time is right. For newcomers, it may initially appears to be a button-mashing kind of method, where you just have to continually hit X to win, but the more you play, you realise that there is a strategy to the combination of attacks you choose to use. Furthermore, there are spells that require magic points, as well as additional skills and finishers that can be equipped for greater effect; not to mention your two companions who will assist you in battle depending on what their specialty is and how you choose to set their AI.
Birth by Sleep is the next game of the collection: a PSP title that many, including myself, missed upon its initial release due to its exclusivity on the PSP. Chronologically, it is a prequel to the first Kingdom Hearts, with mostly new characters that share traits with others in the universe, but are unique and interesting in their own way. Birth by Sleep has three playable characters: Ventus, Aqua and Terra, and, at the beginning of the game, you have to choose which of the three character’s stories to begin with. Personally, I thought the approach to storytelling worked really well as the narratives of the characters overlap and intertwine as they explore the same worlds. When I initially started the game, I actually ran into one of the others upon landing at my first new world, and, immediately, my curiosity was piqued as to where their story had already lead, and what I would see when I played it for myself. The set up makes it clear that the three protagonists all have very different emotional arcs and issues they will be dealing with.
The trio in Birth by Sleep all have unique combat styles and skill sets; Ventus is quick with a focus on physical attacks but doesn’t hit very hard, Aqua is quick and relies on magic, whereas Terra is slow but hits hard. The differences in gameplay makes playing through each character’s story stand out and distinguishes them from each other so that it doesn’t just feel like you’re playing the same thing again and again. Unlike Kingdom Hearts II, using spells and special attacks don’t require MP; instead, once used, it immediately goes into a period of cool down with length of time varying depending on what kind of skill it is. It’s a nice change from the usual MP reliance that most RPGs follow as it requires a different kind of planning when managing skills that you can’t spam. They also added the D-Link system which allows you to connect with friends you’ve met during your journey and use their skillset for as long as your meter lasts, which adds another strategy for combat; though, I didn’t use it much myself as you can get by without it.
The main problem I have with Birth by Sleep is the camera controls, which feel clunky and not as responsive as the usual Kingdom Hearts camera. In fact, there are quite a few occasions that make it clear that this game is a port, but it still does pretty well for itself. The other minor gripe I have is they changed opening chests to X when in all the other games it has always been triangle, as a result there have been many occasions that I have launched a spell instead of opening a chest as triangle is tied to your skill deck.
Finally, we have Re:coded, a three hour movie of a game, which is one of the weakest titles in the series; with a story that is unclear, lengthy and tedious to sit through as you try to decipher what’s happening. Approximately two of the three hours are newly created content, complete with voice acting, and with an added scene that ties Re:coded to Dream Drop Distance. However, unless you’re a diehard fan and feel like you HAVE to watch it, I would recommend giving this title a pass. If you want to know the story, you’re better off reading a summary or watching a shorter recap on YouTube as it will save you time and will likely be easier to understand.
If you’re a fan of the series or a complete newcomer, this collection is the ultimate package with three Kingdom Hearts games on one disc. Furthermore, two of the titles, Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep, are included as their Final Mix releases – which have never been available outside of Japan until now. For Kingdom Hearts II, this means additional boss battles that weren’t included in the original game, which are incredibly challenging and require you to have mastery over the controls and combat, as well as a “Critical Mode” where a single hit will result in death. In addition, with Birth by Sleep, the Final Mix provides a new secret episode that is playable for the first time.
I’m so happy that Square-Enix decided to release the 1.5 and 2.5 HD Remix collections as it puts almost all the games that have been scattered across various platforms onto PS3 across two discs, making it incredibly convenient to play through the series. Unfortunately, this does not include Dream Drop Distance for 3DS, but, fortunately, it is still widely available. Without a doubt, this is the best way to play through the series as you have all the best released versions with updated graphics and music, as well as trophy support (even if the “movies” are lacking). It’s also a great way to pass the time until Kingdom Hearts 3 is released. Speaking as a fan, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is a wonderful release, and worth the purchase for Birth by Sleep alone if you’ve never played it. Definitely pick this one up!
Disclaimer: this game was provided to us by Square Enix, and reviewed on PS3 across 40+ hours of gameplay.