Considering my job, you can probably guess that I’m a big fan of video games. However, you might not know that I am equally infatuated with all things Disney. Hell, I think an ice cream bar automatically tastes better just because it’s shaped like Mickey Mouse.
So, it probably doesn’t surprise you to learn that I love Kingdom Hearts, the action role-playing game series that mixes Disney with Final Fantasy. Now, while we’re all waiting for Kingdom Hearts III on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Square has decided to give some of the older games in the franchise an HD remastering. Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix collects Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix (a special edition of the original that never came to America), Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories (which itself was a PlayStation 2 remake of a GameBoy Advance game), and the cutscenes from Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days for the Nintendo DS, all with prettier, higher-res graphics.
It’s hard to believe that the original Kingdom Hearts is over 10 years old, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little nervous to go back to a game I loved so much. What if didn’t hold up? What if I, the ultimate Disney nerd, had to tell the world that Kingdom Hearts really isn’t as good as I remember? Thankfully, this isn’t the case.
What You’ll Like
Everything that was good before
I thought the original Kingdom Hearts, which came out way back in 2002 for the PlayStation 2, was pretty much the greatest thing ever. It weaved together Disney worlds and developer/publisher Square Enix characters into an epic journey where people say words like “light” and “darkness” every other sentence. Sure, it’s a little hokey, but its charming crossovers and satisfying action have helped turn it into one of Square’s biggest franchises.
Kingdom Hearts has a great battle system which requires a thoughtful mastery of offensive, defensive, and magical abilities to succeed. Despite the Disney branding, Kingdom Hearts will kick your ass if you think you’re going to just press the attack button until you win. Combat is a bit slower and more thoughtful than you find in a lot of other action-RPGs, including later entries in Kingdom Hearts series. Mechanically, it’s still one of the most satisfying to play in the genre.
The original “wow” factor of seeing Final Fantasy characters on the same screen as Donald Duck may have dissipated a bit, but the Disney nerd in me still grins like an idiot when he hears Donald calling Jack Skellington’s name as he heals him. Kingdom Hearts has levels based on some of Disney’s most popular animated movies, including Aladdin, Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, and Peter Pan. The constant change in scenery helps the 30-hour campaign feel like it’s moving along at a blistering pace, and it’s always fun to see what new items and abilities you’ll unlock after beating every world.
Re: Chain of Memories plays similarly to the original Kingdom Hearts, but every action requires that use a card. You make a deck out of all your spells and attacks, which you can then combine for stronger abilities during combat. It’s a bit confusing at first, but the surprisingly deep system allows for a lot of strategy and customization.
Basically, these were both great games, and their HD versions do nothing to change that. The gameplay is still satisfying, the music is still beautiful and occasionally haunting (the score has also seen an orchestral remastering, which sounds great), and it still lets you watch Goofy beat up Cloud with a giant shield.
Well, it’s an HD collection, so of course it’s prettier. Still, I’m impressed by just how nice everything looks. Character models look clean and smooth, and each game runs at a consistently high frame-rate without any instances of slowdown. It’s hard to believe that this is actually the first time we get to see this series in HD, and while it certainly doesn’t look as nice as something built from the ground up for the PlayStation 3 would, I can easily say this is one of the nicest HD conversions I’ve seen.
Of course, some textures look incredibly blurry up close, especially some of the lower-res character faces you see in a lot of cutscenes. The HD sheen also makes some levels, like Alice in Wonderland, look incredibly blocky and simple, like someone made them out of a cheap Lego set or something. Still, this is easily the best these games have looked, and I have to admit it would be a bit hard for me to go back to the originals now.
We finally get Final Mix
Like I said before, Square based the HD remaster of the original Kingdom Hearts on the Final Mix version, which it previously only released in Japan. Final Mix adds some improvements to the controls, notably assigning the right stick to move the camera. It also adds extra content, including some new cutscenes and hidden bosses. I remember 14-year-old Mike Minotti endlessly hoping that Final Mix would come out in America. It took a little longer than I would have thought, but that dream finally came true
358/2 Days: The Movie
The third part of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 includes 358/2 Days, originally a DS game that helped bridge the gap between Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. You can’t actually play it, though. Instead, you can watch all of 358/2 Days cutscenes as a long, two-hour and 50 minute movie. I have to admit, that didn’t sound super-appealing. As much as a I love Kingdom Hearts, the story is often its weakest link, constantly looking for more ways to make itself more complicated and ridiculous (this is the series that uses evil clones, memory loss, time travel, alternate dimensions, and vague concepts of light and darkness as plot devices).
Still, I actually enjoyed watching 358/2 Days. While the original was a fine action RPG for the DS, it did feel technically limited. Basically, missing out on its gameplay isn’t hugely upsetting, especially when you have better, more authentic Kingdom Hearts experiences on the same disc. And while these cutscenes were clearly never intended for viewing in this manner, this is a surprisingly touching and often sad story featuring some of the series best characters, especially Organization XIII members (a group that often antagonizes Sora in other games) and best friends Axel and Roxas. Also, this is a great way to fill yourself in on a chapter of the Kingdom Hearts narrative that you might have missed before.
What You Won’t Like
Some archaic design
As much as I adore Kingdom Hearts, parts of its design can feel so arbitrary and frustrating. I especially hate “cutscene hunting.” In many levels, you can’t really progress until you happen to stumble upon the next story event. It often does little to tell you exactly where this would be, so you can spend a lot of time wandering around and hoping to randomly trigger something. I mean, I like that Kingdom Hearts doesn’t go out of its way to hold the player’s hand, but I hate feeling lost with no context of what I should do next.
Your party’s A.I. can also frustrate. You can customize the way they act a little, but there’s little you can do to stop them from burning through their MP as quickly as possible, especially in the early parts.
Chain of Memories still feels like a retread
While I love Chain of Memories card-based gameplay, so much of it feels familiar. Square Enix based all of the levels from the original Kingdom Hearts, so you’re going to the same exact Disney worlds you just saw in the last game. And while Kingdom Hearts features abbreviated versions of many of the Disney movies it represents, Chain of Memories features abridged abbreviations of the same plots. Nobody wants to see the plot of Aladdin distilled into 10 minutes of static cutscenes.
The Gummi Ship
God, I hate the Gummi Ship, In the original Kingdom Hearts, you had to use an ugly, blocky abomination of a spaceship to get to new levels, forcing you to play a boring Star Fox clone with stiff controls and some of the laziest character designs ever. Seriously, half of the things you have to shoot are literally just squares. You can customize your Gummi Ship, but doing so is tedious and doesn’t really benefit you much, unless you want to make a vessel with four engines just so you can zip past these segments as fast possible. They should have just gotten rid of all the Gummi Ship stuff all together. I mean, why not? It was easily the worst part of the game back in 2002, and now it’s almost comically outdated.
I was originally attracted to Kingdom Hearts because of its outlandish crossover of Disney and Final Fantasy, but it became one of my favorite series thanks to its interesting and surprisingly complex action. Even after all these years, the first Kingdom Hearts and Chain of Memories remain excellent action RPGs, and the HD updates look fantastic. Plus, with the 358/2 Days movie, you really are getting a lot of content for one $40 collection.
Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix offers old fans a great excuse to play some of the series’ older installments while also giving curious newcomers the best way to get their first fix.
Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix is out now for the PlayStation 3. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a copy for the purposes of this review.