Kingdom Hearts is a concept that ostensibly shouldn’t work, but does anyway. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the level of care and love that went into crafting it is so apparent that you simply can’t help but succumb to its charms at least a little. That said, the game is starting to show its age over 11 years since its initial release, and now is as good of a time as any to give the title a fresh coat of paint.
Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix is Square Enix’s attempt to revisit two early releases in the series, in addition to packing in remastered cinematics from a third game, 358/2 Days. What’s more, the original game includes content from the previously Japan-exclusive update to the game, Final Mix, which is nice to finally see make it to the West. While the gesture is welcome, and any excuse to play Kingdom Hearts is one I will happily oblige, I’m not quite sure that the final product is the ideal solution.
The original made a name for itself by appealing to the open-ended nature of western RPGs, while still proudly flaunting its pervasive Japanese flair. The game eschews nearly every notion of turn-based or even distinct encounter-based combat, in exchange for the battle system of a fast-paced action-RPG. Because of this, battles are able to be far more tactical and reliant on skill than your standard Square game. For the most part, the available combat options reflect this, granting options for stunning enemies or taking them down with combos. It is a remarkably satisfying system that knows how to expertly dole out challenge and novelty in a way that makes each battle seem like an opportunity rather than a chore.
However, there are some flaws that plague the battle system, some of which still affect the series to this day. First and foremost is the magic system. From the player’s perspective, casting any sort of offensive magic is wasteful and unproductive. In place of a more fluid MP system to manage magical stamina, Kingdom Hearts has a system more akin to the original Final Fantasy’s “charges” system, meaning that the player can only use a handful of spells before running out. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if offensive magic were more powerful, but a spell hardly does any more damage than a standard melee attack, and does so at a much greater cost. Defensive magic is the only worthwhile use of charges, since it offers a much more useful benefit. Secondly, the game often attempts to work platforming elements into the levels and battles, which is not a wise decision given the game’s floaty jump controls. Battles are at their best when they remain on terra firma.
The second game in the pack, Re:Chain of Memories, contains no new content to speak of from the PS2 game, despite the obvious resolution bump. It still uses the same card-based system as the GBA original, and while it is quite strange to see a game clearly developed with handhelds in mind be blown up to a full-size console rendition, the mechanics are compelling enough to make it stand on its own. 358/2 Days’ cutscene compilation has been remastered with the graphical assets of Kingdom Hearts 2. The most novel addition to 1.5 Remix is also the most inconsequential. This feels just a tad pretentious, as the entirety of the video clocks in at around the length of two feature-length movies, and to be brutally honest, the story isn’t really worth sticking around that long for without gameplay to hold it up.
The PS2 generation was arguably the last one in which advances in graphical fidelity gave rise to new elements of gameplay. Kingdom Hearts was a prime example of this, demonstrating the kinds of games that were possible on the new hardware. The smooth animation of the game did wonders to demonstrate the PlayStation 2’s graphical muscle, and the fluid action on display still holds up quite nicely today. Unfortunately, the HD remake does little to improve on the originals’ graphical strengths.
The games are still capped at a maximum of 30 frames per second, which is a shame, because slowdown would have been wiped away had Square Enix used any of the PS3’s hardware enhancements. As a whole, this HD compilation simply doesn’t stand up to some of the best we have seen this generation, some of which have added 3D support, higher frame rate, motion controller support and new content. The audio does seem to have gotten a slight upgrade in fidelity, with the title screen themes in particular seeming clearer and crisper than the PS2 originals.
The original Kingdom Hearts is a game that everyone should try at least once, since it does so many things that simply can’t be found elsewhere, and this is undoubtedly the definitive version. The addition of Re:Chain of Memories helps justify the $40 price point, and the remastered 358/2 Days scenes are… there, I suppose. Square Enix could have done much more, though, to make this remake truly shine.
Pros: Solid version of original game, Final Mix content
Cons: 358/2 Days scenes not worth it, very few enhancements