When Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX hit the PS3 last year, it was satisfying for fans of the series to finally get the high-definition remaster of the PS2 title that started it all, as well as the card-battling spinoff, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Unfortunately, though, it didn’t provide as full a package as it could have, as Kingdom Hearts II was notably absent.
That has now been remedied with Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX, which not only includes the previously-absent sequel, but also the formerly PSP-exclusive prequel, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, and remastered cutscenes from the DS spinoff, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. Not only is this the first high-definition release all three have seen, but besides features like trophies and full widescreen support, this collection marks the North American debut of the Final Mix versions of both Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep, which contain various refinements and additions.
The final package is an enticing compilation for longtime fans and newcomers alike. The three games as a whole offer numerous gameplay and presentation improvements over their 1.5 counterparts, and while some of the flaws in their original versions appear again, there are more than enough positive aspects to counter those and make for a product worth picking up.
The first title to focus on is Kingdom Hearts II. It’s worth noting that this game isn’t just a follow-up to the first game in the series, but also Chain of Memories, so newcomers will also want to play that or at least read a summary, or certain characters and plot points will seem very puzzling.
Even more puzzling than that is the game’s now-infamous prologue. Rather than immediately getting to what previous protagonists Sora, Donald Duck and Goofy are up to, the game spends its first act in the new location of Twilight Town and follows another boy named Roxas. He starts the game off hoping to enjoy his last days of summer vacation with friends, but various mysterious events start to get in his way and he eventually has to confront their sources for answers, as well as discover his true purpose in the Kingdom Hearts mythos.
While props can be given to Square Enix for trying something different with this prologue, it mostly ends up falling on its face. Assuming players don’t skip any of its numerous cutscenes, it will take around three hours of Roxas-centric play time before Sora and friends take center stage again, and the early subplot centering on Roxas figuring everything out both goes on for far too long and feels like a stretched-out tutorial instead of something challenging or substantial.
Once the focus returns to Sora’s party, the trio learns of new threats to every world they visit in their adventures. Not only are the dark forces known as the Heartless (led by both Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent and newcomer Pete from various Mickey Mouse and Goofy cartoons) still an ongoing problem, but a new group known as Organization XIII has come together with its own goals and a force known as the Nobodies. Throw in the fact that Sora is still hoping to locate his lost friend Riku, and you have the motivation for one of the biggest adventures in the series.
Sequels often take the play mechanics that the initial title created and refine, expand and improve on them, and Kingdom Hearts II is a great example of that. There are so many fun and flashy aspects added to the real-time combat that serves as the series’ focus that it makes the original game look basic in comparison. Besides being able to once again level up characters’ stats and gain new abilities and perks through battle, you now have the context-sensitive Reaction Commands to use against most enemies, which involve pressing the PS3’s Triangle button when prompted to pull off a unique move for extra damage.
In addition, Sora can utilize alternate forms and abilities with the new Drive mechanic, which allows him to fuse with Donald or Goofy for an alternate outfit and a unique arsenal of powerful moves. Each Drive form can be leveled up on its own for more special perks and moves, adding a fun incentive to try each one when the meter required to activate it gets filled up. Finally, rounding out the new features is the Limit mechanic, which allows Sora to team up with another character for a special move that deals out tons of damage at the expense of his entire MP meter.
Kingdom Hearts II may also have the best lineup of Disney-themed worlds. Besides expanding on some old favorites, the sequel sports levels that few expected at the time of its release. For the first time, the series reached outside of Disney’s library of animated films and made use of some of the company’s bigger live-action movies, so the first Pirates of the Caribbean and Tron movies get some representation. In a wacky but fun surprise, you even visit a level inspired by early Disney shorts like Steamboat Willie, complete with black-and-white visuals, muffled sound, and a 1930s-esque redesign for Sora.
For a game originally made for the PlayStation 2, Kingdom Hearts II still looks relatively slick by the PS3’s standards, especially the character models and animation. The Pirates characters in particular wouldn’t look out of place in a regular PS3 title.
As far as negatives besides the prologue go, I’d say that this is the point in the series where certain plot elements started to get a bit too needlessly complex for their own good. Certain events and motivations are never very clear, and given how big a factor the family-friendly image of Disney is, the game still leaves me hoping that future entries will tone things down a bit.
Finally, there’s Atlantica, AKA the Little Mermaid level.
While the first game stuck to its promised real-time action, even while Sora and company ventured under the sea, this sequel makes the bizarre decision to alter its gameplay with rhythm-based mini-games and musical numbers. Not only is that part of the gameplay overly bland and basic, but outside of two iconic songs from the original movie (“Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World”), the tracks are all made exclusively for the game, and are also pretty terrible. It’s a bizarre diversion at best and obnoxious at worst.
All that being said, even eight years after its original North American release, Kingdom Hearts II is still a blast to play. Besides the nostalgia the Disney characters provide and the interesting turns the main plot takes, the aforementioned enhancements and additions to the battle system keep things engaging, varied, and fun throughout.