Kingdom Hearts shouldn’t exist. Only at the most basic level does it make any sense as a product that a company can make money off of. Disney’s most famous cartoon and movie icons meet up with the heroes of Final Fantasy while a plucky tween saves the universe? A weird mix, a reaching elevator pitch for sure, but it’s just wacky enough to work.
Go deeper, though. Play just a few minutes of Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix, the centerpiece game in the new PlayStation 3 anthology Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMix, and one thing becomes abundantly clear: This is the work of a madman.
Kingdom Hearts 2 feels like the most complete game in the series.
Obtuse and impressionistic in tone, grand in scale, surreal in how it warps 20th century pop iconography, and gluttonous in its artistry, Kingdom Hearts 2 is idiosyncratic to a shocking degree. Unmistakably the work of Tetsuya Nomura – the director, writer, and artistic lead on each game in the series – no other major, mainstream game series feels as personal and reflective of its creator. No one makes a game like this unless they care.
Kingdom Hearts 2 feels like the most complete game in the series, which makes this gorgeous remaster a centerpiece for Nomura’s efforts, especially since this is the first time the Final Mix version of the game is available outside of Japan. That it comes packaged with the excellent but flawed Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep and a cinematic version of the surprisingly good DS entry Re:Coded makes it essential for players looking to bone up ahead of Kingdom Hearts 3 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
While HD ReMix as a whole package encapsulates handily the game’s greatest successes, namely its strange heart and bananas ambition, it also acts as a map of the series’ worst flaws. Needlessly intricate gameplay systems and prolonged pacing are noticeable pains in Kingdom Hearts, and though they feel like the byproduct of an artist trying to perfect his vision, they also hamper that vision’s reach.
Kingdom Hearts 2′s opening embodies those strengths and weaknesses. The original Kingdom Hearts was pretty strange, but it was nearly as straightforward as its pitch. A boy named Sora set off an interdimensional odyssey to save his girlfriend Kairi and a plethora of Disney Princesses from a mad wizard-scientist named Ansem and Disney villain Maleficent. Donald Duck and Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII helped out.
At the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 2, though, Sora’s been aging and hibernating inside a giant science fiction egg while part of the detached soul of his girlfriend and a Christopher Lee-voiced wizard named DiZ try to rebuild his memories, piece by piece. Their goal is to prepare him for a fight with Organization XIII, a cabal of soulless husks that look like militant Goth kids.
This set is great because it preserves all of these triumphs and missteps in one place, and in lush HD.
Before Sora can wake up and fight them alongside a bad-ass warrior Mickey Mouse, you have to play as half of Sora’s soul, his Nobody, named Roxas. This involves skateboarding and eating ice cream and beating up a kid that looks like Orko from He-Man with a Nerf baseball bat. This introduction takes three hours to play through.
Again: the work of a madman. It only gets weirder, too, as the little anime teenager, Donald, and Goofy continue their adventure, meeting up with everyone from Mulan to Simba to freaking Johnny Depp in his Jack Sparrow guise. Does it matter that the angular anime of Final Fantasy X, the primary colored simplicity of old Disney, and facsimiles of real people like Tron‘s Bruce Boxleitner clash? Hell no!
The further in you go with this 50-hour adventure, the odder it gets, with more and more time devoted to the interplay between its original characters, as well as their struggle to conquer the darkness in people’s hearts. Literally conquer the darkness, mind you.
The good and evil inside people takes physical shape in this universe. Giving into darkness creates monsters like the bug-eyed Heartless. Keepers of the light can summon weapons called Keyblades that open doors between worlds and ultimately the door to Kingdom Hearts, Nomura’s proxy for heaven or Shangri-la. Right.
None of this is exaggerated. This is what the game is like. And it’s amazing. The brawling, button-mashing melees where you’re mostly tapping an attack button, quickly dodging, and just trying to stay alive until a special meter refills so Sora can merge with one of his extra keyblades, is good enough. Never as deep or strategic as BioWare’s modern action RPGs, but never stupid or tedious: Kingdom Hearts‘ combat is adequate.
Were it in any other game, it wouldn’t be especially affecting. As a binding agent in a game that opens with a three-hour meditation on the fragility of friendship and growing up, it works perfectly. Sometimes it’s not quite strong enough, though. Kingdom Hearts 2‘s bloat ultimately feels earned, servicing the game’s bonkers story and culminating in an ecstatic, heroic climax.
Birth By Sleep, a prequel to the whole story, doubles down on the arcane specifics of the whole Kingdom Hearts universe. It fills in the gaps on just who the real threat is behind all these games, and establishes a series of heroes that paved the way for Sora and his friends to take up their mantle. The story of Aqua, Ventus, and Terra fighting the Leonard Nimoy-voiced Xenahort is spectacular, but you have to wade through a lot of needless fluff to get to it.
The aching pace of Birth By Sleep is stretched out even more in this package. Rather than an interconnected story where you bounce between all three heroes, which would create better dramatic momentum, you have to play a full campaign for each one in a row, replaying the same Disney-themed worlds every time. In an attempt to evolve the competent action, Square muddies the waters by making the heroes’ abilities a collectible item.
Time better spent exploring and expanding the tale is devoted to fiddling endlessly with menus trying to put together the most effective layout of spells. That’s not to mention the board game you have to play in between story stages to level up and earn new spells. (Yes, a board game.) These are the same sort of time-wasting masturbatory mechanics that hampered the equally good but imperfect Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance on Nintendo 3DS.
That Re:Coded is here only as a movie rather than a full game is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s the least essential story in the series: A digitized Sora explores a Matrix-version of the story of the first game inside Jiminy Cricket’s journal on behalf of Mickey Mouse. Seriously.
On the other hand, the DS game had the most focused action and the best pacing in any of the games. Compact and varied, Re:Coded is one of the better action RPGs on Nintendo DS and both Kingdom Hearts 2 and Birth By Sleep would benefit greatly from its sense of economy.
Then again, Kingdom Hearts 2 might not be Kingdom Hearts 2 if it wasn’t as overstuffed and strange as it is. Part of why its theatrics – playing out as bold, symbolic, and melodramatic as a Noh play – work is because the whole thing is so outsized. Kingdom Hearts trades in big, bald emotions, so being too big suits it to a degree.
If nothing else, this set is great because it preserves all of these triumphs and missteps in one place, and in lush HD. (Even Birth By Sleep, a PSP game, looks great here. Plus, this is the only place to play it other than as a UMD on that old portable.) Playing through Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMix, it’s hard not to hope that making this collection has shown Nomura how best to approach the final, still upcoming chapter in his unlikely opus.
This game was reviewed on a PlayStation 3 using a disc provided by Square Enix.
- Tons of game.
- Bizarre, idiosyncratic work unlike anything else in big budget gaming.
- Mickey Mouse fights an army of monsters with Cloud from Final Fantasy VII. What else do you want?
- Awkward pacing sometimes makes the games a chore to play.
- Needlessly intricate gameplay systems bring down Birth By Sleep.