I enjoyed the first Kingdom Hearts, which had an elegant simplicity that felt like a fairy tale who's-who as reinterpreted by Japanese fantasy tropes. While the fusion of third-person action and RPG mechanics was hit-or-miss, it worked well enough to carry me through the game and several of its sequels. I'll confess, though, that as the series has worn on, my interest has waned. If any criticism has dogged Kingdom Hearts most justifiably, it's that its internal myth-building has grown too complex and impenetrable for the casual fan. As the long wait for Kingdom Hearts 3 continues, Square Enix must have decided it's a good time for us all to take a step back and get our (Donald) ducks in a row. Hence, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix: a compilation of the three early stories in the KH chronology, detailing just about everything you need to know before the seemingly inevitable Kingdom Hearts 2 compilation paves the way for a proper sequel.
Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix (2/25/13)
Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix brings together three key parts of Sora's story in one package: Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, previously only available in Japan; Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories, the console version of the Gameboy Advance game; and Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (as a set of cutscenes). The Limited Edition pre-order package also includes a well-made art book, complete with sketch overlays, as a small treat for series aficionados.
All three pieces of the set have been given HD makeovers. The character models were always well-crafted even on the PlayStation 2, so seeing the textures revised and given a widescreen presentation makes them look nicely crisp. It may not stand toe-to-toe with the current generation, but it's closer than we tend to see from most HD revisions.
Kingdom Hearts Final Mix boasts new story sequences and a revamp of the controls – most notably to the camera. Rather than being relegated to the L2 and R2 buttons, you're given free camera movement on the right stick. This not only brings it in line with the standard controls you might expect from a third-person action game, but also makes it feel more like Re:Chain of Memories. Other minor control changes come to a more easily accessible contextual command prompt, and the placement of Summons in the fourth slot instead of being squirreled in the Magic menu.
Though 358/2 Days might be marked on the tin, be warned that it's not playable. Instead, it appears only as a collection of cutscenes. These are lengthy, and all together take about three hours to watch. They are as nicely produced as the other pieces – complete with HD makeover – and you can watch it all as a single movie or stop and remember your place. A Chapter menu lets you choose between the various cutscenes, and you can read Roxas' Diary to gain more insight to the proceedings.
In the complex Kingdom Hearts chronology, it's notable that 1.5 HD Remix includes all of the earliest stories except for one: Birth by Sleep. The PSP prequel took place long before Sora's adventures, so sequentially it may have made sense as an inclusion. But given that it relies heavily on mythology established by the later games and helps establish plot necessary for KH3, it would likely be more at home in the presumptive Kingdom Hearts 2.5.
How does it hold up?
Sora dispatches the Heartless through a suite of real-time melee attacks from his Keyblade, magic, and the assorted jumps and dodge-rolls you might expect from a third-person action title. Special commands like Magic fall under their own menu item, and the faithfulness to Square Enix RPG mainstays means you'll often have to use this menu to select magic during combat.
Thanks to this complex task management, the original Kingdom Hearts fielded some complaints in its day for awkward combat. Despite the minor control tweaks, that much hasn't changed. While the adjustments do help it feel more like a cohesive whole, frustrations with elements like locking on to the right target or sluggish attacks persist. It's much nicer to have full control over the camera, but it has a tendency to swing low to the ground and requires some babysitting. Kingdom Hearts has been and is still very much an action game with a menu-based RPG running under the hood. That made it less-than-ideal in its day, and the silky-smooth third-person action games released over the last ten years make the difference even more pronounced. Flipping through cards in Re:Chain of Memories while attempting to juggle combat duties still feels like a tougher bit of multitasking than Square Enix probably intended.
The charm of the series lives on though. The Disney worlds represented are part of its animation golden age, well before Pixar became known as the most prestigious arm of the movie giant. Kingdom Hearts has a knack for finding ways to tie Sora's interaction with Disney characters, visiting Aladdin's Agrabah or crossing paths with Simba along the way. The adventure threads these characters through Sora's story while still acknowledging their own respective touchstones. Seeing how each one plays a part is enjoyable, even if those stories remain largely the same when you retread them in Re:Chain of Memories. The voice work and animation were tightly produced and felt high-caliber in their day, and the HD revamp breathes new life into them. Environments are bright and colorful, even if a bit sparse. And, though perhaps I shouldn't admit this this publicly, even the J-pop song "Simple and Clean" that served as an anthem for those early games remains kind of catchy.
Kingdom Hearts was always a quirky experiment, blending disparate parts of franchises and its own sometimes convoluted mythology. Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix captures that early era of the franchise at its purest simplicity. It's a trip down memory lane for long-term fans, while the visual overhaul and back-to-beginnings story should make it a welcoming entry point for newcomers.
This review is based on a retail copy of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix, provided by Square-Enix.
Steve Watts is a freelancer living in the Baltimore-Washington area. He has written for 1UP, Shacknews, The Escapist, and GamePro. The keyhole to his Twitter can be found @sporkyreeve.