Fan service redux.
Fans of Kingdom Hearts who may not have had a PSP or Nintendo DS should be delighted by the Kingdom Hearts HD ReMIX titles, provided they own a PS3. The ReMIX series upgrades textures, character models, and the gameplay for the handheld titles contained within. For anyone who wants to play the core titles (and watch video content for some of the lesser ones), the HD ReMIXs are a fantastic buy with the additional content of the FINAL MIX versions of the playable games for greater challenges. For those who aren't already fans of the series, your interest in this will depend on your devotion to either Disney or Square Enix core titles. The rest of the review is intended for those who may not have played the games included in this compilation before.
Just as Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX contained the three Kingdom Hearts games FINAL MIX, Re: Chain of Memories, and the cinematics from Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX contained HD upgrades of FINAL MIX (originally on PS2), Birth by Sleep FINAL MIX (PSP), and the cinematics from Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded (Nintendo DS). Do you have this all sorted out in your head yet? As a remaster, these games all look amazing, though none are quite as visually nuanced as the excellent Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance for 3DS.
Kingdom Hearts II: FINAL MIX in HD is the ultimate version of game, but in some ways (as in the prior compilation), it's a step back in time. Elements like save points and a clunkier action-RPG style where basic action moves like dodging or blocking have to be unlocked progressively. This makes some early battles a slog where avoiding hits means running away, when a dodge or deflection would have come in handy. However, as the game progresses it gets easier to control and more fun as more abilities open up.
The real problem with Kingdom Hearts II is its story, which swaps the player protagonist Sora in the first several hours of the game for a blond doppelgänger named Roxas. Roxas is a Nobody, a biproduct left behind when a human loses their heart, and a former member of Organization XIII, the primary antagonists of the game. Even after the issue of Roxas' and Sora's identities are largely resolved, the game's plot remains fairly convoluted; the backstory and characterizations were so hastily created and dispensed that they had to be examined in three other side games—Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days, and Birth by Sleep—to come together into a cohesive narrative.
It continues to follow the model of the original game, with Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy visiting Disney movie-themed worlds where they come into contact with Disney characters and play through condensed versions of the stories of each Disney movie… combined with the ongoing story of Kingdom Hearts. Truly, it's some kind of crazy fan-fic written by a Disney-obsessed Square-Enix developer taking pointers on story writing from classic Doctor Who episodes watched in random order. So for a Disney and classic Square Enix game fan, the plot is really enjoyable. However, outside of those fandoms and the existing fanbase from the first game, the story may not held much interest and the gameplay is not quite solid enough to sustain the story for this particular title in the series.
Jumping ahead slightly, the third of the pieces of the compilation is the cinematics from the DS game, Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded, which itself was a remastered version of a serialized cellphone title, Kingdom Hearts: Coded. Like Chain of Memories and Dream Drop Distance, Re: Coded takes place in a kind of simulation of the universe of Kingdom Hearts—in CoM, it took place in people's memories; in Dream Drop Distance, their dreams; and in Re: Coded, a digital copy. Each parceled out tidbits of the expanded story of the game series. This can now be watched as a set of different scenes of one larger movie.
The real gem of the collection is Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep FINAL MIX, whose story progressively fills in the plotholes and backstory that form the foundation for the greater Kingdom Hearts series, and especially Kingdom Hearts II. Set a decade or so before Kingdom Hearts, it tells the backstories of Ansem and series heavy Xehanort, why Sora, Riku, and Kairi are special in the first place, why Roxas was different from the other Nobodies, and other important background elements.
Birth by Sleep ditches Donald and Goofy much in the way the other side-story games have. Instead, you fight solitarily as one of three new heroes, Terra, Ventus, and Aqua. Each of these heroes has a different quest storyline that intersects with the others. Rather than playing through each Disney world once, each hero interacts with a different part of the story of each Disney world. Only by playing through all three characters' arcs do you get a full picture of the story of not just the heroes' narrative, but each of the Disney one's as well. This is a nice mechanic that asks the player to piece together the puzzles of everything that's happening in the game asynchronously, which is a lot of fun.
However, it's the gameplay where Birth by Sleep on the PS3 really excels. In addition to a regular attack and dodge mechanic the player has at the beginning of the game, Birth by Sleep introduces a collectible card game system for managing magic and special moves—effectively combining the combat systems from the core Kingdom Hearts numbered titles with Re: Chain of Memories—which can be augmented by linking with unlocked characters from the Disney Worlds or the other two of the three heroes. Cards can be found as treasure, or acquired in a Monopoly-lite board game you can play at save points or between worlds. Gameplay has been adjusted for a second analog stick (the PSP had just one), and everything feels much smoother and easier to play than prior games in the series.
Of the three titles, Kingdom Hearts II looks the best with upgraded textures and character models, which fleshes out the backdrop, solidly bringing the lush Disney and Square-Enix fantasy worlds to life. While Birth By Sleep is arguably more epic in scope, the visual scale can sometimes feel flat or shallow, due to the game environments having been originally produced for the smaller screened PSP. They were never meant to be seen in quite a large format, so elements are more sparse and spaced out.
Remastered game compilations often provide a looking glass into history, reflecting the standards of games as we saw them in yesteryear. I made some waves with a negative review of Final Fantasy X in the Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster collection because I felt that the game didn't hold up to current gaming standards. In the case of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX I feel like the remaster is more wholly positive. Though KHII's story is still a bit of a mess, the gameplay is solid, and for those who have never played Birth by Sleep and want the whole Kingdom Hearts story, this is a must-buy.
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX is currently available for the Playstation 3 for a suggested retail price of $39.99. Without its predecessor, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX, it doesn't make much sense, but it may be worth the purchase price for the truly excellent Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep alone. With the rumor mill abuzz that the HD ReMixes will wind their way onto the Xbox One and PS4, I wouldn't be surprised if the excellent 3DS title Dream Drop Distance joins them in anticipation of the eventual release of Kingdom Hearts III.
Copy provided by publisher. PS3 exclusive.