Kingdom Hearts is convoluted but not complicated. There’s a difference. Sure, there’s time travel, a new plot swerve every few hours, unclear motivations, and a truly bizarre sensibility splicing the angst of Final Fantasy with the neon positivity of Disney. But at its deepest core, the narrative is simple. It’s a classic struggle of light and dark, heroes and villains fighting over the fate of the universe. On one side is boyish Sora joined by Donald, Goofy, and a rotating cast of Final Fantasy and Disney heroes, and on the other is Xehanort, an evil sage flanked by the villains of those same franchises. Its on-the-nose themes about friendship and temptation are as big and obvious as the morals of Aladdin or The Little Mermaid, but I don’t mean that as a criticism. The tone of Kingdom Hearts is refreshing and syncs perfectly with its tween J-Pop aesthetic.
However, this thematic simplicity provides a clue if the latest KH collection—the outrageously titled Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX—is really for you. If you’re looking to play some of the best action RPGs of the PlayStation 2 era, then Square’s latest Kingdom Hearts collection is an absolute treasure, a definitive entry in the canon. But if you just want to catch up on the story before Kingdom Hearts III... you might just want to wait forKingdom Hearts III.
Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX combines three bonafide classics, one off-putting sidestory, and two movies culled from the less essential Kingdom Hearts games. The real allure of this collection, however, is grouping the 2002 Kingdom Hearts and its 2005 sequel under one banner. I pre-ordered the two games when they were originally released and spent hours on them in high school and college, and they play as well as ever. The combat—an inventive mix of real time Zelda hack-and-slash fused with the menus of classic Final Fantasy is still utterly satisfying. The environments are large and inviting and the set pieces—especially in KH2—are legitimately thrilling, amped up by an incredible score. Dashing through Agrabah or Atlantis or the digital landscapes of Tron and slicing up Heartless or Nobodies while Goofy and Donald (or even temporary AI partners like Mulan and Tarzan) run backup is still an engaging feedback loop that pushes me to play further even when I’m bored to tears.
The cutscenes in the original Kingdom Hearts and especially Kingdom Hearts 2 are unnecessarily drawn-out and feel dated when compared to contemporary games like Final Fantasy XV. Kingdom Hearts 2 opens with a notorious prologue that drones on for nearly three hours before you even get the title of the game. Most of that time is spent watching cutscenes long enough to make even Hideo Kojima blush. Powering through these sections leads to a truly classic game, but this barrier may throw off players weaned on more modern titles. Likewise, there are issues plaguing these games that were forgivable and even commonplace in the PlayStation 2’s heyday that feel much more glaring today. You’ll wrestle with the camera constantly (especially in the first Kingdom Hearts), many of the mini-games are tedious distractions that are difficult to skip, and the difficulty is wildly unbalanced. You can also cruise through an entire world without coming even close to dying, then face a mind-numbingly tough boss that will stop you dead in your tracks for an hour, before returning to the stupid-easy gameplay. But these are mostly quibbles, and the adventures of Sora, Riku, and Kairi showcase the best traits of an earlier generation of gaming.
Almost as impressive as the original games is Birth by Sleep, an HD remake of a 2010 PlayStation Portable prequel. This is one of the few entries in the series that doesn’t revolve around Sora and company, and having the option of playing as older characters Terra and Aqua gives Birth by Sleep a slightly more adult edge that’s a welcome change of pace from the earlier games. The Rashomon/Shining Force III device of experiencing the game through three unique viewpoints adds both replay value and an intrigue that sets this installment apart from the others. Plus, the number and length of cutscenes are dramatically reduced and the combat is especially refined. The levels and enemies are smaller than the full console games, but if it wasn’t for that, you could make the argument that Birth by Sleep is the best entry in this collection.
Less successful is Re:Chain of Memories, a port of a PlayStation 2 game that ported a 2004 GameBoy Advance title. Although the plot bridges the gap between the original Kingdom Hearts and its sequel, the gameplay—which grafts an obtuse card game over the otherwise ultra-fun KH combat—is the least engaging in the entire series. Re:Chain of Memories feels like a GameBoy Advance port—it’s small in scope and hit-or-miss in execution. And since that much maligned opening of Kingdom Hearts II essentially recaps Re:Chain of Memories anyway, it feels especially redundant.
However, I’d rather wrestle with Re:Chain of Memories’ awkward card battling system any day of the week over watching Re:Coded or 358/2 Days, the two “movies” which sum up material from two Nintendo DS sidestories. These flesh out the Kingdom Hearts mythos, but again, those mythos are convoluted, not complicated. You don’t need to watch them to grasp the finer points of the series. And that’s a good way to think of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 2.5 ReMIX as a whole. Most of these games go to great lengths to sum up the events of previous installments, so it stands to reason Kingdom Hearts III will do the same, especially since the last numbered installment was released two console generations ago. Feel free to hop on there if you’re curious about the series but unenthused by the prospect of playing through rough-around-the-edges PlayStation 2 and PSP games that were already rereleased for the PlayStation 3. But, if you fondly remember these games and want one last trip to Traverse Town and Bastion Hollow, or if you’ve always been intrigued by the series but didn’t know where to start, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 2.5 ReMIX is a knockout. I may be 32 now, and not 17 again, but I enjoyed my time with Sora and Mickey nonetheless. I didn’t expect that.
Salvatore Pane is the author of the novel Last Call in the City of Bridges in addition to Mega Man 3 from Boss Fight Books. His writing has appeared in American Short Fiction, Hobart, New South, and many other venues. He teaches English at the University of St. Thomas and can be reached at www.salvatore-pane.com or @salpane.