You'd think with Kingdom Hearts getting a spiffy re-release, Riku would be way less sullen.
Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Remix is more like "Kingdom Hearts 1.65" if we're going to be honest about the content. It includes two games—Kingdom Hearts Final Mix (a Kingdom Hearts director's cut released in the US for the first time in this package), and Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories (the PS2 remake of the Gameboy Advance's Chain of Memories that bridges the gap between Kingdom Hearts I and II)—plus a cinematic presentation of the story of the DS game Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. In terms of story, this presents the material in the Kingdom Hearts timeline from the first game, leading up to the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II. The box suggests that it's three games, but 358/2 Days isn't playable.
Taken as a whole, Kingdom Hearts is, and I suspect I may take some heat for saying this, the best Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VII. Technically the series is a mix of Final Fantasy-style characters and scenarios that intersect with Disney cartoons, films, and characters. After the first game, it rolls out like a series of television-like episodes from the 1990s, with mostly self-contained content of going to Disney worlds and having battles, with a story that is parceled out in meager tidbits per episode.
This serial approach to delivering high-quality gaming content really works well; overall, Kingdom Hearts is a sprawling epic of lost souls (hearts), friendship, and struggles with temptation. It's what Square Enix has tried to do with single player Final Fantasy titles since Final Fantasy X (X-2, Final Fantasy XII and XII: Revenant Wings, Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2, and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII) but with much poorer success. It makes sense that Square Enix would spend more resources on Kingdom Hearts—including remakes, the series has had ten releases in eleven years—due to the brand recognition of the Disney titles involved. Kingdom Hearts is like a machine that prints money.
The arrangement here is a bit off, though. While it might appear strong on paper with all three games happening roughly around the same time, 358/2 Days' story doesn't make a whole lot of sense since the game was released after Kingdom Hearts II as a sort of flashback of what protagonist Sora's doppleganger, Roxas, is doing during the events of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Roxas is (*spoiler alert*) a Nobody, a human created without a heart when Sora loses his heart in the original Kingdom Hearts and becomes a Heartless (*end spoilers*).
Okay, got that? Good, because nowhere in Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Remix is that information imparted in the main storyline of these games. You only find that out in Kingdom Hearts II. So watching 358/2 Days without this info, which they allude to constantly without saying it, is like watching a sidestory without any context whatsoever.
This might be kind of entertaining, in a sort of mysterious, obtuse kind of way (for fans of LOST who never became disenchanted with it), but for everyone else it's just annoying. It's especially frustrating because the story of Roxas, Xion, and Axel is actually more interesting than the regular story in Kingdom Hearts and Chain of Memories, but there's no context for it. In a series that is arguably more convoluted that Metal Gear, lacking context really hurts the inclusion of the title.
The available playable games fare much better, though, since they can be played in the order they were released. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix is relatively straightforward and was scripted by Keiko Nobumoto (screenwriter for Cowboy Bebop and Wolf's Rain) who left the series afterward. The story follows animé-esque Sora, who is separated from his friends Riku and Kairi when their world is invaded by the darkness-spawned monsters, The Heartless. In other worlds, he meets Disney characters Donald Duck and Goofy, whom he teams up with to look for King Mickey and his friends in worlds populated by Disney and Final Fantasy characters.
If you've played the original game, there is little different in gameplay here. It's an excellent mix of action, RPG upgrades, and quick-menus during combat. The primary difference is the upgraded hardest difficulty level, Proud mode, which is quite a bit more challenging. However, neither the weak platforming nor poor camera problems that plagued the original release have been fixed. At the time these flaws were forgivable for the novelty of the experience and excellence of other elements of the gameplay, but they are much harder to swallow compared to contemporary games today.
Re: Chain of Memories is the same as the PS2 re-release that was originally developed to be released alongside the Japan-only Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix. It was later ported to The States as a stand-alone title, and little has changed since that release. It's still a fantastic game that adds a strategic element to Kingdom Hearts by making the combat card-based. Building your deck before going into a more intense combat section is imperative, but also happens to be fun and rewarding as well.
The plot of Re: Chain of Memories is the first of a series of false narratives strung throughout the Kingdom Hearts franchise, in which the events of the game are not real but are recreated from memories. Other games use Matrix-like digital copies (Kingdom Hearts: Coded), Inception-seeming dreams (Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance), or side stories featuring other characters (358/2 Days and Birth by Sleep). These games are not entirely without plot development for the larger series, but as mentioned before, it is measured out at the tiniest possible amount per game to ensure that it is essential for fans to purchase the games.
It's great that the games are so excellent then. Re: Chain of Memories is arguably a better game than Kingdom Hearts were it not for its thin story. It's also the first game in the series that lets you play as Sora's dark foil, Riku, whose struggle is more of an internal one, as he battles the darkness in his own heart. Along the way, you get little snippets of plot introducing the antagonists of Kingdom Hearts II.
Visually the whole package is similar to other uprezzed collections, like God of War Collection, where the game looks significantly better with better textures applied, but the textures can't mask the low poly-count of the environments. So while it looks better and more detailed character models have been adapted from the 3DS game Dream Drop Distance, their marketing talking point that it's the best-looking game in the series isn't exactly true.
Still, Kingdom Hearts Final Mix and Re: Chain of Memories are great games, even if they seem a bit dated at times. There's a small amount of new story content in Final Mix, and it has a good deal more enemy types, gummi ship missions, special weapons, etc. than the original game. Re: Chain of Memories is amazing for a release that was originally kind of an afterthought for the director's cut of another game in the series.
If you are interested in trying Kingdom Hearts before the third game releases or want to revisit the first two games in the series, this is a fantastic buy. And hey, it's pretty much a certainty that if this game does any kind of numbers, we should expect a "Kingdom Hearts 2.5 Remix" before too long. The only question is which of the three remaining handheld games (the Nintendo DS' Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded, the PSP's Birth By Sleep, or the 3DS' Dream Drop Distance) will be uprezzed alongside Kingdom Hearts II, and which will be turned into stand-alone cinematics.