Sony’s “Classics HD” initiative has been interesting to watch over the past few years. What started as a simple question on a God of War fan survey has evolved into one of the most prevelant trends to recently materialise within the industry.
We’re still none the wiser as to what exactly warrants a re-tooled, trophy-enabled HD makeover but at least there has been a decent amount of diversity on show. Aside from obvious, first-party remakes such as Ratchet & Clank, there has also been Okami, Devil May Cry, Medal of Honor, and Hitman, just to name a few.
Sadly, with the HD catalogue targetted mainly at Western audiences, many of the classic JRPGs that elevated Sony’s second platform have gone untapped. Until now, that is.
With Final Fantasy X/ X-2 HD Remaster on the horizon, Square Enix has revisited another of its popular franchises, Kingdom Hearts. More than a decade after the original game’s debut, this HD re-buff may not be enough to mask some of its evident wrinkles, yet it’s a cracking JRPG all the same, and one the publisher has taken great efforts to remaster.
Bundled onto a single disc is a remixed version of Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories, and a compilation of cutscenes stripped from DS exclusive, 358/2 Days. Needless to say, there’s a shed-load of content (at least 40-60 hours), all of which has been spruced up to meet our modern-day, HD cravings. For fans it’s a trip down memory lane and, for everyone else, an opportune entry point into the Kingdom Hearts universe.
Your journey starts with lead protagonist, Sora, caught in the midst of a cryptic dream. Upon wakening, you will explore the vibrant tropics of Destiny Island whilst interacting with its inhabitants. It’s paradise, sure, yet the only sense of adventure to be had resides in the imaginations of Sora and his best friends Riku and Kairi. Then, out of nowhere, come the Heartless, a shady, malignant horde intent on consuming all worlds in darkness. Destiny Island fades into Shadow with Sora and his friends dispersed across the universe.
Elsewhere, King Mickey is nowhere to be found. Fearing for his safety, companions Donald and Goofy set off in their Gummi Ship, eventually crossing paths with Sora. From thereout Kingdoms Hearts presents a charming, playful story that dips in and out of various Disney universes, and serving up a roster of iconic characters. As you battle the Heartless you’ll side with heroes such as Aladin, Tarzan, Beast, Ariel, and Peter Pan, with a number of Final Fantasy mainstays making occasional appearances too. On paper it sounds like one of the dumbest crossovers imaginable, and yet it all works so well.
In Kingdom Hearts gameplay is all action-based and in real time. While travelling through the game’s 3D environments (the majority of which can be revisited) enemies will spawn and trigger on-the-fly bouts of combat. Using a variety of actions, you’ll dodge, blocks, and jump whilst combining basic and advanced attacks. The game’s UI also allows for quick spell-casting and use of items without needing to trawl through menus.
In true JRPG fashion, combat will yield experience, currency, and items, all of which help to drive the game’s sense of progression. Donald and Goofy, who have both been suited in fantasy attire, can also be customised using accessories, weapons, and AI tweaks.
It’s a solid system even if a little basic. Thankfully there are other gameplay tangents such as Gummi Ship missions, races, and puzzles to break up the action. Kingdom Hearts also harbours a great many collectibles and side quests/secrets to discover. These range from Colosseum Cups and rare equipment to synthesis parts and locating all 101 Dalmations scattered throughout the universe.
The one major problem I had with Kingdom Hearts, all those years ago, was its stale ending. Little nine year-old me had been rinsing the game for hours and hours only to be met with a dubious conclusion that didn’t really leave that much closure. Publisher Square Enix was no doubt unsure how the game would be received and therefore left its options open in regards to a sequel.
That sequel was Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Well, you could call it a sequel but in truth it felt more like Kingdom Hearts 1.5. Originally released on the GameBoy Advance, it couldn’t emulate the original’s 3D combat. Instead it utilised an active card-based system and has since been ported to PS2 and now PS3, having been given a visual overhaul, and a slight name change to Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories.
Chain of Memories helps to expand the Kingdom Hearts universe, though perhaps not in the best of ways. Although it picks up directly after the events of the original, it essentially has you padding through the same worlds and meeting the same characters who have seemingly forgotten who Sora is and the quest which lies ahead.
The effort Square has put into in Chain of Memories is admirable, adding new features and a slew of voiced cutscenes. However, embarking on what is essentially the same journey you have just taken is a hard pill to swallow, even with the wealth of narrative diversions present.
Gameplay is also a bit of a letdown, limiting Sora’s actions to whatever cards he has present. Each one represents a particular attack, ability, item, or magic and once used, disappears. Of course, these cards can be regenerated but the whole system is needlessly taxing and requires a bit of number-watching whilst also keeping an eye on the flow of combat. Some will no doubt love it, but the plodding sense of progression and other elements don’t gel particularly nicely, especially with the original Kingdom Hearts fresh in your memory.
The addition of 358/2 Days is an odd one. You won’t actually be able to play the DS exclusive title but instead watch all of its cutscenes redone in HD. Obviously, viewing them all back to back, pacing isn’t always fluid but the cutscenes themselves look gorgeous most of the time and help to fill the gap between Chains of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2.
One thing that is consistent throughout the entire Remix collection is the sheer quality of visual design and spectacular audio. Kingdom Hearts’ vibrant, cartoon visuals transition almost perfectly into high definition with only the occasional blemish. The soundtrack is also memorable and loaded with scores that fit their Disney settings perfectly, especially when playing in Atlantica or Halloween Town. Then there’s the voice acting which is absolutely sublime, drawing in stars such as Hayden Panatierre, Sean Astin, and James Woods along with other, original Disney voice talent.
If you’ve been meaning to get into Kingdom Hearts, there is literally no better place to start than than this first HD anthology. The genre may have changed a lot over the past decade or so, yet the original Kingdom Hearts still stands as one of its most memorable champions. Sure, a number of its mechanics are a little outdated but considering how well the game has been ported, the wealth of additional features, and bargain price, there’s little, if anything, to complain about.