It’s hard to believe an idea as bizarre as mixing Disney characters and worlds with Final Fantasy characters could be so successful. Yet here we are, twelve years later and Kingdom Hearts is one of the hottest franchises in gaming. We still have a long wait for Kingdom Hearts III, but Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is here to keep us busy in the meantime. 2.5 Remix is a compilation of two Kingdom Hearts games (Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix and Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Final Mix) and a cinematic retelling (Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded) remastered for release on PS3. Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix may not remix the Kingdom Hearts formula, but the two games hold up well by today’s standards even though they’re brought down by the weak Re:Coded.
Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix continues the adventures of Sora from Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories and Roxas from Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, pitting them against the villainous Organization XIII. Those who’ve already sunk hours into Kingdom Hearts II will find plenty of new content to make a second dip worthwhile. New cutscenes further flesh out the already confusing plot, new boss battles, new weapons,and new skins for old enemies. Unlike the original Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II’s gameplay still holds up well today, and did not need much tweaking. Watching Sora soar through the air, performing gravity-defying actions with his Keyblade is still as breathtaking as ever. Gameplay additions like the Drive Meter, Limit Breaks and Reaction Commands add depth missing from Kingdom Hearts.
That’s not to say everything in Kingdom Hearts II has aged well. Kingdom Hearts II remains a convoluted mess for anyone who hasn’t completed Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, and Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. I highly suggest playing Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix before jumping into Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix as the game does little to catch you up on the series long-running plot. Character models and textures for the main cast have been updated, and the Disney Worlds are beautifully preserved with their uniqueness left intact. However, it’s still obvious this was a PS2 game. Blocky architecture lacking detail litters the barren, lifeless worlds. It’s not uncommon to spot flat textures in the environment, or on minor characters. The audio still holds up thanks to Yoko Shimomura’s fantastic score, and some solid voice-acting from the main cast. Actors from past Disney films reprise their film roles to make each world sound authentic, except for the poorly done Pirates of the Caribbean world that does not feature any of the original cast. If only Square Enix could fix the lip-syncing.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Final Mix stands as the gem of the collection in terms of story and gameplay. Birth By Sleep is set ten years before the events of Kingdom Hearts and stars three characters; Terra, Aqua, and Ventus. The three travel to brand new worlds seeking out the mysterious Master Xehanort. Birth By Sleep is a much darker game than previous entries in the franchise, and contains some of the best writing the series has ever had. Protagonists Terra, Aqua, and Ventus are stronger protagonists than Sora as they actually develop as the game progresses, and Master Xehanort serves as a formidable main antagonist. The story of Birth By Sleep adds new layers to the convoluted plot that is Kingdom Hearts, but it does answer many long-running questions previous games had left open.
Originally a PSP game, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep has received a more dramatic upgrade than Kingdom Hearts II. Like with Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, Birth By Sleep Final Mix comes with new cutscenes, a new playable level, new keyblades, and new boss fights. The gameplay is among the best being more strategic than any other game in the franchise, and thanks to the Dualshock 3, the gameplay is even better. Camera placement has been moved to the right analog stick, and the Command Deck can now be cycled through with L2 and R2 in addition to the D-Pad. The Command Deck is the big game-changer in Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Final Mix. You’re limited to how many command actions, magics, and items you can take into battle. Abilities like Leaf Bracer are tied to commands, which need to be leveled up to make them permanent. Then you can meld them together to create new commands with other abilities. It’s a worthwhile system that can be confusing upon first look, but is so useful that it’s hard to go back to older games. There’s less of a reliance on mashing the attack button in Birth By Sleep. Learning to block and dodge the different enemies and bosses are paramount to surviving. The boss battles in Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Final Mix are among the toughest in the franchise, and you’ll need to a solid strategy to defeat them.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Final Mix also comes with its own set of problems thanks to its PSP origins. Yoko’s compositions are brilliant, but the tunes that play in the Disney Worlds are short and repetitive. There’s only so many times you can listen to Bippity Boppity Boo before you mute your TV. There’s also no hiding the fact that the visuals have been lifted from a handheld game, and that Birth By Sleep probably needed to be a remake instead of a simple remaster. Environments are barren, lacking detail and containing simple geometry. Environmental textures are grainy, fuzzy, and flat. It’s common to see “grass” that is merely just a green paint on the ground. Likewise, non-main character models are sorely lacking detail in both their models and textures. However, Square Enix has done a fantastic job with the main characters. Terra, Aqua, Ventus, Master Xehanort, Vanitas, and King Mickey look just as good, if not better than the character models and textures in Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix.
The final part of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded. Rather than remake the Nintendo DS game, Re:Coded is presented as a 3 hour movie. Square Enix approached 358/2 Days the same way in Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, and have learned from that experience to make Re:Coded more of a seamless movie with just a few instances of art stills and text summaries. It’s much more interesting than actually playing the game on Nintendo DS, but that doesn’t change the fact that Re:Coded is the most useless story in the franchise, failing to push the overall narrative forward.
The story is mostly a rehash of Kingdom Hearts, just like Re:Chain of Memories was. Jiminy finds a secret message in his journal and he and King Mickey digitize it to discover any secrets the journal holds. However, in the process, the journal becomes infected by bugs. Using a digital replication of Sora, King Mickey sends him across the worlds from the original Kingdom Hearts to clean out the bugs. It’s a rather uncompelling story and merely serves to setup Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance, which is mysteriously missing from this compilation. Still, Square Enix needs to be given credit where credit is due. The new cutscenes for Re:Coded are spectacularly done and are beautiful to watch. If Square Enix were ever to make a Kingdom Hearts movie, Re:Coded could be a source of inspiration.
Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is a fantastic compilation containing the two best games in the franchise. Both Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix and Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Final Mix manage to stave off the feeling of old age, something that the games in Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix could not. From a pure value perspective, you can’t go wrong with this collection that could serve you anywhere between 50-60 hours, and even more if you’re a completionist. More visual improvements would have be nice, especially in Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Final Mix, but the package as a whole is good enough to make the visuals seem like an afterthought.