written in the stars
It has been well over a year since the release of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX and fans are still probably making their way through the games in that collection in order to finally start Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX now that it is out. Square Enix blew everybody away with the hardwork and love that was put into the first collecton, but the biggest question many fans have been asking is "Will this collection top what the first did?"
I would have to say it definitely did.
KINGDOM HEARTS II FINAL MIX
Kingdom Hearts II came out on the PlayStation 2 over eight years ago, and I can still remember the week I first got my hands on the game. I didn’t do any homework, I barely remember eating, and the day I finished KH2 I was doing my laundry in the early afternoon. I loved everything about KH2, but as the years passed I began to see all of the flaws that comprised the game. It has since become one of my least favorite titles, but after getting my hands on HD 2.5 ReMIX, it is safe to say that Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix has awakened the nostalgia of my teenage years and a newfound love of this title.
One year after the events of Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories, KH2 follows Sora, Donald, and Goofy as they embark on a journey in search for their dear friends, Riku and King Mickey, as well as having to face off against the Organization XIII as they wreck mayhem in various Disney worlds in their quest to gather hearts and call upon the power of the elusive Kingdom Hearts.
KH2FM is filled to the brim with new features and scenes that fans in the west have never experienced before, including a Critical difficulty level for expert gamers to enjoy and the Organization XIII Replica Data battles which provide the challenge many Kingdom Hearts fans craved from the original KH2. The only way to reach these additional bosses is by traversing through the Cavern of Remembrance, a brand new area within Hollow Bastion that is a maze full of platforming and high-level enemies that require you to have as many skills under your belt as possible in order to take on everything hiding within its depths.
There are also the extremely adorable Mushroom XIII, a group of thirteen Mushroom Heartless in the iconic black coats worn by the Organization that require you to complete unique mini-games that will earn you new weapons for for Sora, Donald, and Goofy, and a nifty crown for Sora as proof of beating them all. These mini-games can be difficult if you do not have the right skills equipped, but there are a ton of fun and well worth completing.
Along with the new battles and mini-game challenges, there is also a brand new Drive Form modeled after Sora’s skills from Kingdom Hearts. Limit Form doesn’t require you to give up a party member to transform and reintroduces us to the dodge roll ability which was sorely missed in KH2. Fans can also collect puzzle pieces featuring key art made for KH2 which will unlock special rewards like new accessories and items.
To my delight and the delight of others, the brand new cutscenes that were exclusive to KH2FM have been dubbed in English by most of the original voice actors from KH2. The only difference is that a new scene featuring Naminé is voiced by Meaghan Jette Martin, her current voice actor, rather than Brittany Snow who voiced her in the original KH2. It is only for one scene, but nevertheless some people might find this difference in voices a bit distracting.
Something that should be noted is that in the Japanese release of HD 2.5 ReMIX, there are dual audio theater modes for both KH2FM and Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep Final Mix. This has been removed from the international release of this remaster collection. Whether it had something to do with licensing or a perceived lack of interest from western fans, it is disappointing to see the Japanese dub removed from the collection. Hopefully in future installments, they might consider adding dual audio in for fans who like to hear both Japanese and English dubs.
Beyond the Final Mix additions, this collection also features updated assets that really makes the game look as if it hadn’t been originally released on the PS2. The unique art style of this series lends itself to a timeless feel, which might account for why it looks so good on the PlayStation 3.
Sadly, I always felt there was something strange going on with the eyes and mouths of characters in KH2, and the visual improvements do nothing but enhance these issues. One of my favorite graphics faux pas in KH2FM has to be the curls that frame Aerith’s face which look like jagged squiggles hanging from the side of her face in certain scenes. Everything else, though, looks gorgeous and you can tell a lot of care was spent on updating textures and character models.
There are a few clipping issues with some of the character models, but nothing you would notice without paying super close attention. I mainly noticed it during Roxas’ prologue where his hair started clipping into his collar, his collar into his neck, or the hem of Pence’s pants going into his shoes.
Something a bit more pressing than weird clipping issues are the load times for Drive Forms that were nonexistent in the original PS2 release. They can last for more than two seconds, which becomes really irritating when you are in the heat of battle and have to stop to stare at the screen waiting for Sora to finish his transformation sequence (if only there was a fancy magical girl-esque one to watch!) I’ve also experienced some framerate drops while activating Drive Forms while in an area with a lot of enemies on screen. It hasn’t been too frequent, thankfully, but it has happened enough times that I can’t help but notice it.
Now, many of you might be wondering about the music in this game. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix featured reorchestrated music which gave new life to Yoko Shimomura’s wonderful compositions. KH2FM is no different, having been remixed and reorchestrated like the first game in HD 1.5 ReMIX. The Video Game Orchestra, who previously worked on Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, were brought on to re-record the music for HD 2.5 ReMIX and they have done a fantastic job making KH2FM’s songs shine like never before. KH2’s music, in my opinion, always sounded off due to the odd synths that were a result of the built-in tone generator for the game, but the VGO has now made KH2FM’s music the greatest part of playing through this title.
There is so much to do in KH2FM that I still haven't even scratched the surface myself. This is a stark contrast to my experience with the original KH2 where I finished practically everything and had no purpose to complete the game. If you enjoyed KH2 all those years ago, then this game will only enhance your experience, and perhaps if you were like me and disliked KH2 after some time, you may find yourself in love with the game again.
KINGDOM HEARTS BIRTH BY SLEEP FINAL MIX
As I set out to write my thoughts on this title, I found it was really hard to put to words the emotions I felt about the only game in this series that reminded me of the magical feeling the first Kingdom Hearts game gave me over 12 years ago. When Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep first released in 2010 on the PlayStation Portable, I didn’t expect to fall head-over-heels for it because, at this point in time, I had been feeling rather apathetic towards the series as a whole after I found myself disappointment in the story of 358/2 Days. I had also been in a pretty dark time in my life as I was dealing with personal family issues, but I desperately needed something to take my mind off of everything going on so on a dreary Tuesday morning, I picked up BBS at my local game store. As I made my morning commute to my university, I was hooked and the game never left my hands until I beat the game at the end of that week.
Unlike other games in this series, this game takes place ten years before Kingdom Hearts and explores the journeys of three young Keyblade wielders, Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, as they are thrust into various circumstances that causes them to question their purpose and even their friendship. Between having to deal with the Unversed, creatures born from negative emotions that have invaded the worlds, an enigmatic boy named Vanitas that is fixated on Ventus, and the mystery surrounding Master Xehanort, they find themselves questioning if anything they know about themselves and each other is true.
HD 2.5 ReMIX introduces fans in the west to Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep Final Mix for the first time ever, which features the addition of new bosses like No Heart, the Armor of Eraqus, and Monstro, as well as a brand new episode that follows directly after the ending of the Final Episode. Another addition to BBSFM includes the Unversed Battle missions which provide a new element of fun to worlds that become rather boring to play through after you reach a high level, and I found myself getting really into achieving 3-star rating on challenges because they were just that addictive.
Unsurprisingly, BBSFM shines on the PS3 due to how much attention was put into updating many of the assets the game uses. The most notable of changes to any character model has been done to Aqua; her hair looks more natural than it did in the original PSP version and her shoulders have been fixed to properly frame her body where they once seemed too narrow and pointed. Even a variety of skyboxes in each world have been completely remade and beautifully painted. It is a shame Destiny Islands cannot be revisited in the game because the skybox there is probably the most stunning out of any of them in BBSFM.
Game controls are pretty much the same as they were in the PSP version except the camera has been mapped to the right analog stick, something that is heaven-sent considering just how frustrating it was to deal with the camera in the original. You can also now cycle through the command deck by hitting R2/L2 which might be better for those of you who don’t like stretching your fingers over the directional buttons.
The music in this game didn’t receive the same treatment that KH2FM’s music did, but it does sound better than it did compressed on the PSP. Yoko Shimomua, Tsuyoshi Sekito, and Takeharu Ishimoto’s compositions for BBSFM remains some of the best music in the series, and that certainly carries over in the remaster. A few songs remain the exception, as "Keyblade Graveyard Horizon" and "It's A Small World" were remastered for this collection, along with “Dismiss” which makes an already emotionally-charged battle in the Final Episode of BBSFM even more intense. A part of me didn’t want the battle to end just so I could keep listening to the music.
Not everything in the PS3 remaster of BBSFM is perfect, sadly. In the original PSP version of the game, there was an option to install data to your system’s memory card in order to decrease load times which helped immensely to create a near-seamless combat experience as you never had to wait for Command Styles to activate. This time around, there is no such option and instead fans must suffer through disorienting load times as they wait for a Command Style or even a Finish Command to trigger. The flow of battle becomes interrupted instantly, and while these brief pockets of loading can allow a player some time to think out their next move, most would rather prefer the experience be as seamless as possible.
Another disappointment is the lack of an online function in Mirage Arena. Co-Director Tai Yasue mentioned earlier this year at E3 2014 that they had thought about adding online accessibility into the remaster, but due to time constraints they decided it was best to concentrate on getting the game done and make Mirage Arena single-player only. As understandable as that reason is, it doesn’t really stop the sting of disappointment that I feel when entering the Arena and knowing I can’t do any challenging boss fights with my friends like in the original PSP version. To make up for the lack of online functionality, the development team added in special tasks you can complete in order to earn more medals during arena challenges. These tasks require you to be more mindful of what commands and skills you use in battle, like having to using Cure spells a limited amount of times or blocking attacks a minimum amount of times.
Despite these issues, it doesn’t make the game any less enjoyable. BBSFM still features the best gameplay system introduced in this series and a riveting, bittersweet story that fans will remember for years to come.
KINGDOM HEARTS Re:coded
Kingdom Hearts Re:coded is one of my favorite Kingdom Hearts titles to date besides BBS. Back when Tetsuya Nomura and Hajime Tabata were working on the original episodic cellphone game, you would have likely found me among the hundreds of other fans complaining about the pointlessness of coded's existence. All of my kicking and screaming amounted to nothing in the end because when the Nintendo DS version released, it quickly won me over with its witty dialogue shared between the data versions of Sora & Riku, the variety of gameplay systems that served as a homage to their specific genres, and the interesting improvements to the Command Deck system first introduced in BBS.
This third time around, Re:coded has been remastered into almost three hours worth of cutscenes rather than a full game, which may serve as a relief to many fans who hold very little interest in this title.
Re:coded picks up not too long after Mickey, Donald, and Goofy have returned home after the events of KH2. The game opens with Jiminy discovering a cryptic message in the journal he used to chronicle Sora, Donald, & Goofy’s adventure in the first Kingdom Hearts: "Their hurting will be mended when you return to end it." Of course, Jiminy hasn’t the slightest idea where this confusing rhyme came from, so with the help of King Mickey, Chip & Dale, and a computer, they discover that the journal has been overrun with “databugs” that have corrupted the memories that lay deep within its pages. Their only solution to fix the journal and uncover the mystery behind the journal's message is to call upon Sora from within the journal's data and have him defeat the databugs.
While Re:coded revisits familiar worlds from Kingdom Hearts, it cleverly approaches each story in a way that old and new fans can enjoy. It can feel repetitive, especially for players who might be jumping into this title immediately after playing Re:Chain of Memories or the first Kingdom Hearts title (something I don’t really recommend if you want to play the games in story-order).
Unlike Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days in Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX, this cutscene theater feels less like it pieced-together scenes and closer to the movie fans have always craved for. With Mickey serving as the narrator during what would normally be bland event text summaries on top of still screens, a once-boring time filler is now a fun addition that doesn’t disturb the flow of the cinematic cutscenes.
As for the scenes themselves, it is obvious more attention was paid to the animation in Re:coded than 358/2 Days. After complaints about how 358/2 Days awkwardly cut away from boss battles, the development team decided to add in a few fight scenes this time around. They are often a bit too brief, especially the really important boss battles, while other battle scenes are too long like when Sora is just hitting some databugs. In the end, it is better to have them than not at all. Camera angles are also much more dynamic this time around, making the cutscenes all the more interesting to view. Fans will also be pleased to know that the well-known “fish face” that has plagued previous titles in this series are practically nonexistent in Re:coded. I really only remember one instance from the beginning where they copy and pasted a scene right out of the first Kingdom Hearts game.
Like with Re:CoM and 358/2 Days, there is no lip-syncing which is probably the greatest disappointment in this collection. The lack of lip-sycing generally leads to awkward sentence structure and line delivery, but this game doesn’t seem to suffer this issue as much as other games with no lip-sync.
Of course, we can’t talk about lip-syncing without talking about the voice acting. Jesse McCartney once again gives a flawless, nuanced performance that showcases his ability to easily shift between the various emotions expressed by Roxas. It seems like McCartney only gets better at voice over work as the years go by and it remains one of the greatest joys to hear him in every new Kingdom Hearts release.
Haley Joel Osment, in comparison, does an extremely solid job reprising his role as Sora but there are moments while watching Re:coded’s scenes where it seems like he's trying his hardest to sound young but his voice won’t cooperate. It is likely difficult having to play a 14-year-old teenager as a grown man, but Osment trucks on and for what he lacks in range, he makes up with a sincere and talented delivery of Sora’s ever-hopeful lines.
Kingdom Hearts Re:coded may not have been the game fans wanted all those years ago, but it is still full of important moments that I think should not be missed, especially now with the new scenes that have been added to further tie Re:coded to Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance] and Kingdom Hearts χ[chi], the PC browser game only available in Japan. This title still manages to provide players with an enjoyable, heartfelt experience that any fan can connect to and it is worth giving it a chance if you have never played it before.
This collection does have its issues, but there is so much good within it that outweighs the negative like the load times and lack of online features. We are finally getting the Final Mix versions of games that were previously only available in Japan, and it feels good to finally experience everything first-hand rather than watching videos online. Whether you are an old fan trying these games out again or a new one jumping on the bandwagon, there is a lot to enjoy in Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX.
KINGDOM HEARTS HD 2.5 ReMIX: 8.8/10
Disclaimer: The review copy of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX was provided for free by Square Enix for the use of this review.