When it comes to gaming series that got their start near the beginning of the century, one of the major titles that springs to mind is Square Enix’s now long-running Kingdom Hearts franchise. The original title that kicked off the series first launched on the PlayStation 2 back in 2002, and I still have good memories of getting sucked into the unique mashup of iconic Disney movies and both gameplay and visual tropes from JRPGs, such as the developer’s own Final Fantasy.
Now, a decade later, the game has received one full-fledged PS2 sequel, a whopping five portable spinoffs and prequels, and the long-awaited third home console entry is finally on the horizon. In what I’m guessing is both an effort to provide some nostalgic memories as well as ease younger newcomers into the series, we now have Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX for the PS3, the latest in a trend of taking games from the previous generation of consoles and giving them a high-definition coat of paint, widescreen support, and trophies for those who can’t help but go for a Platinum.
The compilation contains two fully playable remastered games, namely the original Kingdom Hearts and Re: Chain of Memories, itself originally a PS2 remake of a 2004 Game Boy Advance title that served to bridge the gap between the two main numbered titles. While there is technically a third title featured as well, that being the 2009 Nintendo DS spinoff, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, the game itself isn’t playable at all. Instead, what’s included is a remastered collection of all of the game’s most notable cutscenes, along with a few extras like character profiles and journal entries from major characters.
It would probably make sense to tackle the games in order of original release, so the first to get the review treatment will be the game that started it all. While the series has had multiple playable protagonists at this point, to start things off, the focus is solely on a boy named Sora, who lives on a chain of islands with lifelong friends Riku & Kairi, and is planning to build a raft and explore the world beyond his simple home.
At the same time, on a different planet entirely, a cast of characters that will be much more recognizable to most people, that being Disney’s main cast of characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck & Goofy, also get their own adventure going, when Mickey, who takes the role of a king in this series, sets out to discover why stars have started to disappear in the night sky. It turns out that a dark force known simply as the Heartless has started to consume whole worlds, so Mickey instructs Donald and Goofy to set out on their own and find the owner of a mystical weapon known as the Keyblade.
When Sora and his friends end up having their islands attacked by Heartless and are scattered to different worlds, it’s not long until he acquires a Keyblade, meets up with Donald and Goofy, and sets out both to set things right across the cosmos and hopefully find his friends along the way. From here, the majority of the game is spent visiting individual worlds that are themselves basically loose retellings of various well-known Disney films both classic and more recent, running the gamut from older titles such as Alice in Wonderland and Pinocchio to stuff from the 90s Disney renaissance like The Little Mermaid, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Aladdin.
How much fondness you have for Disney in general will definitely impact the level of enjoyment you get from Kingdom Hearts, as one of the selling points is the fun and nostalgia of revisiting characters from some of their most iconic films. As someone who was right in their target audience in the 90s, I was a major fan, and as a result, that aspect of the game did and still does appeal immensely to me.
Many of the same voice actors from the films return, including big names such as James Woods, who reprises his role of Hades from Hercules. The soundtrack for each level, while never copied directly from each movie’s score, does a very good job of keeping a consistent feel across the game while still capturing the mood of whatever film each specific level is based on.
It also helps that the original Kingdom Hearts has what is easily one of the most straightforward plots of the series, as a common complaint for later entries is how overly complex the story, character relationships and motivations have become. Here, it’s a simple and easy to understand story, with clear goals for each character.
The various villains of each Disney level, be they Ursula, Jafar, or Captain Hook, also team up under the guidance of Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent both for their own gain and in an overarching plot involving various Disney princesses that makes itself clearer later on. While additional villains get thrown into the mix as things progress, it doesn’t reach the level of later entries, where I found myself wondering what exactly certain characters were trying to accomplish.
Despite being made by a developer that has become famous for turn-based RPGs, this initial Kingdom Hearts is real-time action all the way through. Battles typically revolve around melee combat with the Keyblade, mixed in with a magic meter that allows for elemental spells like fire and lightning as well as summons, which appropriately enough bring in various Disney characters for a short time, so that they can aid you in battle. Besides them, Donald and Goofy are always with you as AI-controlled partners with their own health and magic meters as well as unique movesets.
Combat is pretty simple, with basic enemies not taking a whole lot of strategy and bosses relying mainly on timing-based attack patterns. Despite this, and the fact that the camera can be overly sensitive and erratic at times, this is a game where it’s easy to settle yourself into a groove and have fun with the fights. The fact that the game constantly rewards you for your progress with nifty new summons and abilities (besides HP and MP increasing as you level up, you can also unlock new moves and perks for battles) also helps.
That said, I don’t consider the original Kingdom Hearts a perfect game by any means, as there are noticeable shortcomings at points. Various sporadic points require some precise jumping and platforming, and the control scheme and camera aren’t tight enough to make that an enjoyable experience. Another part that feels like pointless padding comes via some rail shooter sequences that feel like a Star Fox game without the smooth controls and engaging gameplay.
The animation quality is also noticeably erratic. At many points, characters have unique and detailed movements that look as good as something straight out of a Disney film. At others, they stand still and flap their lips in a canned, repetitive fashion, that doesn’t even properly sync with the dialog at points.
Despite these problems, the first Kingdom Hearts game still holds up quite well, and the new high-def coat of paint it’s received make the well-animated parts look even better than before. I had a lot of fun revisiting this game, and it’s easily the high point of this collection.
Moving on to Re: Chain of Memories, this title, which takes place shortly after the end of the original, sees our main trio of heroes finding a mysterious castle in the middle of the continued search for their friends. Therein, a shadowy organization of hooded figures recreates worlds from the first games based on Sora’s memories, in order to fuel its own evil ambitions.
The fact that levels are recycled from the previous game does indeed result in a feeling of deja-vu, and it doesn’t help that the dialog during each level is strictly text only, with voiced cutscenes saved for the main plot that progresses between each level. The core storyline does become a bit more interesting as it builds up steam, but the biggest problem I have with Re: Chain of Memories, and what is a make-or-break feature for many, is the battle system.
While combat is still real-time with full free movement, almost all of your actions are assigned to in-game cards, with each attack, be it an individual swing of the Keyblade, or a summon or a spell, requiring a specific card of that type to be in your deck and currently selected using the shoulder buttons. Your deck that you use in each battle is fully customizable, and you’ll find yourself beefing it up with more powerful cards that you earn as you progress.
While that aspect is satisfying, actually experiencing this system in action proves to be an awkward experience. The fact that you have to focus on yourself, the enemies, and your deck in the corner can be very disorienting, and it’s always a minor pain having to run away from your enemies while struggling to select the card you’re looking for. It’s a system that I was able to get used to, but never really enjoyed, and this brings down my overall opinion of Re: Chain of Memories quite a bit.
Finally, we have the cutscene compilation that tells the story of 358/2 Days. Sora and company are basically absent for the entirety of this plot, which instead focuses on members of Organization XIII, the main villains in Re: Chain of Memories and eventually Kingdom Hearts II. Things primarily revolve around the introduction of two younger members, Roxas and Xion, into the organization, and gradually delves into their true purposes in the greater scheme of things.
The fact that this part of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX isn’t reliant on gameplay at all means that the plot has to carry the whole package, and unfortunately, for a good portion, it doesn’t really manage to do that very well. I quickly lost count of how many cutscenes consisted of the main trio of Roxas, Xion and fellow member Axel hanging out on a tower to enjoy some ice cream and contemplative thoughts.
Fans of the Disney elements prevalent in the series will find practically none of that here, as well. Aside from a single scene featuring Mickey, the rest of the story could be shown to someone with no knowledge of the series, and they would never guess there was any involvement from the company.
Once some other events are finally thrown into the mix, things do get more interesting, and even have some genuine somber moments. Some of the more confusing elements from the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II (this title takes place in-between it and Re: Chain of Memories) are also given a little more clarity at the end, though the conclusion prematurely spoils a neat twist involving the character of Riku that Kingdom Hearts II saved for its finale.
While I found the overall package that makes up Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX to be a definite mixed bag, the title that will be the main attraction for many players (that being the original) still holds up very well, and even has some new features and enhancements, such as a much-needed direct camera control option via the right analog stick. Re: Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days, while both containing some notable moments, bring less to the table, with Days in particular feeling like something only serious devotees of the series will get much out of. I think the compilation is definitely worth getting either if you want an excuse to revisit the original or if you’re new to the series and want to get the full story, but don’t expect every part of it to be a winner.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 version of the game.
Not every title in Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is a winner, but the game that started it all is reason enough to give it a good recommendation.