With Kingdom Hearts III finally announced to be in development at this year’s E3, and a new title in the series consistently releasing annually for the last handful of years, fans of the decade-old franchise were more than eager to get their hot little hands on the most polished versions of their old favorites, instead of getting yet another side story which would undoubtedly only prove to exacerbate the already incredibly convoluted story even further. No, releasing a couple high definition collections seems like the perfect way to segue into the third and final instalment to this chapter of the Kingdom Hearts saga.
Included within Kingdom Hearts HD I.5 ReMIX are Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts: re:Chain of Memories, and the entirety of Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, done up in non-playable cinematics, complete with full voice acting. It is quite an alluring package, to be sure, especially since the Final Mix version of the first game never made it anywhere outside of Japan until now. But is it all as good as it sounds? Well, for the most part, yes.
Kingdom Hearts Final Mix
As soon as the opening cinematic starts, a wave of nostalgia washed over me. This is the game that started it all, and it’s never looked better. The graphical overhaul is instantly apparent, and continues during the tutorial. The stained glass Disney Princess floors in particular look absolutely gorgeous. Then the normal gameplay begins, and it’s a bit of a let-down.
While certain parts such as the wall inside the secret area on Destiny Islands (the cave with all the drawings) look obviously touched up, the characters and landscapes look all but the same as before. Admittedly, the more I played the game the more pretty it looked, but there were still several parts that could have benefited from a bit more TLC. For example, faces were still quite noticeably blocky and rough. The models for the HD redump were reportedly used from the updated and much more recent Dream Drop Distance, and they look fantastic in that. So why should they look any less spectacular here? It doesn’t make sense.
Another problem is the “flappy-mouth syndrome” that has been ever-present in the series. During many cutscenes much care was taken to make ensure the animation for the beloved Disney characters sufficiently brought their mannerisms to life, such as Peter Pan mischievously impersonating Smee’s voice. Peter’s face looks just like the movie, but in three lovely dimensions. Then the camera pans to Sora as he makes a comment, but his mouth just flaps awkwardly up and down, not at all syncing up with his dialogue. It has always been my biggest complaint throughout the series, and I had hoped it would be fixed for the HD Remix. Alas, it plagues the game now just as it always has.
Now that that’s out of the way, there are many more places where the game shines, such as the Final Mix aspects. A simple, but aesthetically pleasing change comes in the form of new color palettes for most of the Heartless. From small changes like the Soldiers switching from a blue to brown scheme to more drastic jumps like the formerly all magenta Guard Armor/Opposite Armor now being a rainbow of bright blue, red, yellow and white, all of the new colors offer just that little bit of newness that makes the game feel different, while still the same. It’s difficult to properly explain WHY it’s such a nice change; it just is.
Moreso than just new colors for old enemies, a high perk comes by way of actual new enemies. Some, like the Gigas Shadows and Neoshadows have since shown up in other titles throughout the series, while other such as Halloween Town’s Chimera or Agrabah’s Pot Scorpion each offer new challenges and are essential in tracking down if you hope to find those rare synthesis items. In a game that I have personally beaten a good three or four times prior to this, it was certainly a breath of fresh air to have all this new content.
Oh yeah. And while you’re off beating up on the standard optional bosses like Sephiroth and Ice Titan (which, by the way, will now net you awesome new keyblades upon winning the bouts), why not try your chances against the mysterious hooded man? It is possibly the best addition in the game, and absolutely worth leveling up to attempt. Trust me.
A couple internal changes were made as well. Most notably, the action commands and camera. Taking a not from KH2 and re:CoM from 2008, the actions you take are bumped onto the triangle button when available, moving your Summon option from the Magic sub-menu to its own slot among the normal options, below Items. It is a small change that surely took all of an hour to implement, but it is immensely helpful in streamlining your summons and actions. Regrettably, the camera is still a bit rubbish. While adjusting the camera is now controlled with the right analog stick as opposed to the R2 and L2 triggers, that doesn’t change the fact that the camera angles are still as annoying as ever. You will very likely find yourself trying frantically to dodge attacks from heavy hitters like Cerberus or Ansem, only to hit that not-so-sweet spot in the middle of the screen that makes the camera flip-flop on you while evading, thus making you dodge roll directing into their line of attack.
In the end, there is one major plus to take away from the Final Mix release: After the huge success of the original Kingdom Hearts, series director Tetsuya Nomura proceeded to make the rest of the series so convoluted and involved that sometimes he’d have to finish one game without knowing exactly what would be covered a bit down the line. Going back and touching up the original game means he had a bit of opportunity to retcon the little things, like Ansem’s Reports or the special ending. There’s nothing obviously noticeable, but serious fans will catch little bits here and there that intricately foreshadow events later to come.
Re: Chain of Memories
Possibly the least interesting game in this collection (in terms of quality upgrade and gameplay enhancements), there is much less to be said about the Gameboy-Advance-original-turned-PS2-remake-then-ported-to-PS3-collection mid-game than its predecessor. When Chain of Memories made the console jump back in 2008, it looked fantastic. With the high-def makeover and moving up a console generation, it looks just that much better.
The card-based gameplay continues to be a divisive conflict among fans, but the fact remains that the story within CoM is essential to bridging the gap between Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. If you’ve suffered through the cards once, you can surely do it again to see the prettier graphics this time around. If you’ve never played it before, don’t let the nay-sayers get you down. Sure, the card mechanic can be a bit clunky, but it is a solid attempt at changing up the gameplay, and you definitely get used to it by about a quarter of the way into it.
It’s fun, it’s lovely, it’s cards. Let’s move on.
This is where things get interesting. Instead of taking the DS game which primarily used the top screen to display a mini-map, thus meaning the majority of the gameplay should be able to translate just fine into a single-screen console version, and making it playable within this set, Nomura and his team instead decided to shake things up and completely do up the entire game in high definition cinematics. Apparently porting the game could have been possible, but it would have taken much more time to complete, thus we are presented with the lovely movie-film version of Kingdom Hearts: The Roxas Story.
It is difficult not to feel torn on the matter. 358 is heavily debated as being both one of the best and one of the worst games in the series. I quite enjoyed it myself, and would have loved to play the game with smoother edges and less pixels on a larger screen. But after seeing the whole thing done up in the glossy movie form, I find myself thinking the gameplay is completely unnecessary for most of it, save for a couple pivotal boss battles.
Watching the days go by for our main man Roxas as he spends his one year with Organization XIII is so much more impacting when played out as it is here. Instead of merely reading the dialogue exchanged between him and the equally blocky-bodied Axel and Xion as they form their friendships on the pixelated clock-tower of Twilight Town while their heads bob up and down, you are treated to watching them much more closely. You see their body language (or more often than not, lack thereof); you hear the emotion in their voices; you know when an exclamation is one of anger, not surprise. Some scenes are absolutely breathtaking, effectively ruining the original DS version forever.
Of course if there is one huge missed opportunity, it the ability to co-op with friends on 358′s multiplayer mode. Possibly the best part of the original game is getting together with some pals and taking on the various missions, each of you playing a different member of the Organization. Put that on the PlayStation 3 so friends across the world can co-op it, and I guarantee it would be a hit. It’s disappointing that they chose not to take that route, but it is what it is. The cinematics are so easy on the eyes that missteps such as this can be overlooked.
When you get right down to it, there is no better way to experience these games than this collection. Whether you’ve been interested in the series but couldn’t afford to drop all your money on a new device as each new title released, or you’re a dedicated Kingdom Hearts veteran looking to re-experience the beginning chapters at their best, you really can do no wrong, especially with a price tag of just $40 USD.
Kingdom Hearts: 1.5 HD ReMIX is available now, exclusively for the PlayStation 3, for $39.99. A physical copy of this title was purchased independently by the reviewer.