It's hard to believe that at one time, gamers thought Kingdom Hearts was a bad idea. An action-RPG featuring Square and Disney characters? That won't be fun to play! It'll just be a soulless cash grab! Well, for those of us with faith, it turned out to be an unexpectedly great and enduring game, now a franchise with nine separate titles (seven of them available outside of Japan), not counting collections and remakes.
With the Kingdom Hearts saga seemingly thundering to a close with the upcoming PS4/Xbox One Kingdom Hearts III, Square Enix has remastered (and rebuilt from scratch) the earlier Kingdom Hearts games, packaging HD-upgraded versions of Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, Kingdom Hearts RE: Chain of Memories, and the cutscenes from Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days on one disc, titling the compilation Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX.
Unavailable in North America, Europe, and Australia until now, Kingdom Hearts Final Mix is the definitive edition of the original Kingdom Hearts, and feels like the main selling point of this collection. Final Mix adds new story cutscenes, weapons, abilities, items, and enemies, and the ability to skip cutscenes you've already watched--handy for some of the tougher parts of the game. In addition, Final Mix adds an easier difficulty mode, for players just wanting to enjoy the story and not have to stress so much during combat. Many of the new cutscenes focus on Riku's journey, taking place while Sora's off in other worlds beating the crap out of Disney villains with the lead pipe that is the Kingdom Key.
Riku's gigantic biceps (hidden here) look even more hilarious in HD
Speaking bluntly, Kingdom Hearts does not have the most cohesive story (when this is the "simple version" of your story, you're really, really doing something wrong), but having a few extra scenes showing Riku's development actually helps quite a bit, especially for the first game, which is one of the least convoluted in the series (Birth by Sleep and Chain of Memories aren't bad, either). I was honestly a little concerned that I wouldn't enjoy an actual Kingdom Hearts game after Dream Drop Distance left me feeling pretty cold, but the day I got my review copy I sat down and played it for like four or five hours straight (when I was actually supposed to be playing Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn).
The visuals, of course, look amazing, especially considering that Square Enix had to rebuild the original Kingdom Hearts from scratch for this collection. While many of the character models are incredibly detailed, you'll sometimes run into the "multiple models" problem of high-detail PS2 games like Final Fantasy X, with one smoothly-animated model standing next to another less-detailed model in a cutscene. While it's not a dealbreaker, it's certainly jarring.
I also can't talk about Kingdom Hearts without bringing up my absolute favorite part of the games because I'm kind of insane: building Gummi Ships. You see, Sora and company have to use a customizable Gummi Ship to travel between worlds, and the game turns into an on-rails shoot-em-up where you collect more Gummi Pieces to help improve your ship. The ship's garage menu is clunky as hell, but I will sit here for hours just tinkering with settings and trying to build the USS Enterprise. In case you're wondering, yes, I did it, and it's unfairly powerful, if a little slow.
Kingdom Hearts' gameplay has held up pretty well in the decade-plus since its release, giving a tight and weighty action-RPG experience with swappable Abilities, ranging from extra attacks to passive abilities like Treasure Magnet. However, the platforming still sucks. I'm not even joking about that--it was tough to deal with in 2002, and it's no better now. Plan your jumps well in advance, but be prepared to do them again and again and again because Sora's clown shoes and parachute pants somehow give him absolutely no lift, especially in areas that require pretty precise platforming... which is most of the game. GREAT!
And people wonder why Olympus Coliseum is my favorite area
When it was released on the Game Boy Advance in 2004, opinion was divided on Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. While some people (who are nuts) derided the card-based gameplay, the rest of us dove right in and got an in-between story bridging Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. Personally, I love card games, even stuff that's lost to the ages like Ani-Mayhem and Epic Battles, so I'm always up to learn a new system. Re: Chain of Memories brings the GBA game into 3D, using the same models and environments as the original KH, adding sporadic voice acting and more in-game content.
Instead of just running up and bashing Heartless over the head with your Keyblade, all of Sora's actions are determined by the cards in his hand, and certain actions can be broken if you don't play your cards right. It's a fast system that can be pretty mindless once you get used to it (or once you build a scary-enough deck), but the "improved" 3D gameplay of Re: Chain of Memories loses a few things over the original 2D isometric setup. Once-lethal assists like Donald's basic attacks are now significantly less useful, and you're once again stuck with the wonky platforming--thankfully, it's not as prevalent since the focus is almost entirely on the card-based combat.
"Well, you're clearly evil, but I see no reason not to trust you."
Like a lot of card video games, it's pretty easy to break the balance if you build your decks right, but the actual game itself still requires quick thinking and accurate card choices. Combining two or three cards can create a stronger spell, or unique abilities called Sleights that can help you cut through enemies quicker. The surprising depth of what's basically a pick-up card game closer to OverPower (or War) adds another layer of fun to this adventure.
The last part of the collection isn't a game--it's the HD-upgraded cutscenes from the DS-exclusive Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, also serving as a lead-in to Kingdom Hearts II and detailing the backgrounds of Roxas and Organization XIII. Unfortunately, we do not find out how in the hell Axel keeps producing non-melted popsicles from his coat pockets, but you won't be in the dark when Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX eventually comes out.
As a viewer, it's kind of lacking--you can only pause cutscenes, and skipping them requires going back to the menu, but those are only minor quibbles. The great soundtrack makes it great to leave on as background noise, even if the characters (especially Roxas) can get a little irritating with their woe-is-me attitudes. After the constantly-escalating epic nature of Final Mix and Re: Chain of Memories, the 358/2 Days cutscenes are kind of a nice, gradual finisher, even if things get pretty crazy around the halfway point.
I've seen a lot of HD re-releases and collections over this past generation, and while some of them are amazing (Metal Gear Solid HD Collection and Darkstalkers Resurrection come to mind), there are some that are bare-bones crapfests that don't stand up to the originals (like the Silent Hill HD Collection or JoJo's Bizarre Adventure HD Ver.). Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX not only provides a ton of content, but it was treated with love and care, wanting to make the best possible version of these titles. I still have the same complaints I did in 2002 when I first played Kingdom Hearts--all dealing with the story and platforming--but I still have the same praise I had back then, too. Great characters, great action, and a feeling of completeness and fun--yeah, I still like Kingdom Hearts.
+ While you can clearly see the age on some character models, all three parts of the collection are stunning in HD
+ Action-RPG gameplay in Kingdom Hearts Final Mix is fast, furious, flexible, and addicting
+ Card-based gameplay in Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories brings something new, if a little gimped from the original
+ Tons of places to explore and tons of items to hunt down, but it never feels like a pointless collect-a-thon
+/- The story is hilariously convoluted, but I'm beginning to think that's part of the point
- Platforming and jumping puzzles are still awful, especially considering how frequent they are