When Square Enix announced plans to re-release Kingdom Hearts in glorious high definition, it was only a matter of time before the game’s popular sequel followed suit. For those unfamiliar with the series, Kingdom Hearts debuted more than a decade ago on PlayStation 2, wowing gamers with its trademark brand of action-oriented role-playing, but just as notable was its bizarre setting in which characters from both the Final Fantasy and Disney universes crossed paths. On paper it sounded ridiculous and something that would never work. It did, however, and rather magnificently too with fans now eagerly the series’ third numbered instalment.
A common misconception when booting up this second HD “remix” is that players should approach Kingdom Hearts II before tackling the disc’s other contents. It’s the second game in the series, sure, but ranks elsewhere in the Kingdom Hearts chronology, creating some unwelcome confusion. In the opening hours of the sequel, you are greeted to a new protagonist and cast of secondary characters with no explanation as to what’s actually going on in the broader context on the series. Instead, players are slowly immersed into a mosaic of cut-aways and flashbacks, pertaining to Sora and his current whereabouts. In truth, it’s all a bit of a mess and completely fails to deliver the complex effect the series’ writers were no doubt aiming for.
If you happened to play Birth By Sleep first, however, as well as the remastered version of Chain of Memories, everything suddenly makes sense. Well, a little bit more sense, anyway. Even after wading through myriad wiki entries and videos, it’s incredibly difficult to get a firm grasp on just what is happening and why. The basic gist is that a shady group known as Organisation XIII is plotting to enact a sinister plan, commanding a horde of beings referred to as Nobodies. Having been frozen in time, Sora, Donald, and Goofy are reunited, travelling to different worlds both new and old in search of answers.
Compared to the original, Kingdom Hearts II is more or less the same when it comes to gameplay. Players are given the ability to explore worlds freely, delving in and out of combat scenarios using a mix of regular attacks, spells, and abilities. As you defeat enemies, you will earn experience and gold that can be exchange for new gear and helpful items. At a glance it’s very similar to Square’s Final Fantasy series, just without the turn-based elements.
That’s not to say Kingdom Hearts is a carbon copy; it does have a few added features of its own. These come in the form of new, reaction-based attacks, as well as the Drive Gauge, allowing players to unleash a super-charged onslaught. Neither of these are game-changers, however, pushing Kingdom Hearts slightly more towards button-bashing territory.
One legacy of the PlayStation 2 era found in Kingdom Hearts II is its pacing issues. Much like the grand Japanese role-playing games of the 90s and 00s, it has a penchant for diving into cutscenes and dialogue at every given opportunity. This won’t be an issue for hardcore fans or those paying closer attention to the story, but still present frequent (and sometimes unnecessary) hurdles to break up the action.
Where Kingdom Hearts II feels like a self-content continuation of the series, Birth By Sleep is a much more ambitious change in direction. Not only that, it is essentially the cornerstone of Kingdom Hearts overarching narrative, fleshing out characters and key events which are constantly referenced throughout the series. At the beginning, players will be given a choice of three Keyblade Masters: Ventus, Aqua, and Terra. Although they all play the same, each one provides an alternate perspective as the story unfolds, especially towards the end. Inevitably, if you want the full picture you will need to play through Birth By Sleep a total of three times, but once will still suffice.
It’s also nowhere near as long as Kingdom Hearts II; although this works in its favour. Instead of getting players to sift through walls of texts and revisit the same locations, Birth By Sleep is more straightforward and engaging. This is also partly thanks to the game’s revised combat system, doing away some of series’ arbitrary features in favour of a more customisable experience. Gone are the MP bar and restrictions to spell casting, replaced by a more active system known as the Command Deck. Used in tandem with regular attacks, this feature allows players to build a loadout of activate abilities attached to cooldown timers.
It’s not a combat system you’ll likely warm to straight away, whether a newcomer or returning fan of the franchise. However, given half an hour or so, it will undoubtedly start to win you over, mainly due to the number of customisation options available. Aside from being able to slot your very own combination of skills, spells, and attacks, players can level them up as well as synthesise, giving you permanent access to a variety of passive abilities and buffs. It’s a great system and one that adds an entirely new layer to combat encounters in Kingdom Hearts. The Command Deck can be seen as a double-edged sword, however. Although Playing Birth By Sleep first makes chronological sense, the gameplay transition into Kingdom Hearts II will leave players pining for their decks every time they trigger a battle.
The final piece of this remastered assembly is an edited compilation of cutscenes and dialogue from Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded. Alternating between videos and walls of text, it’s not exactly the most exciting three-hour watch, yet delivers another slab of lore for dedicated fans to lap up.
Considering its budget price, Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix is a steal. Clocking in at well over sixty hours, the collection oozes with quality and that classic Disney charm, all bundled up in a gorgeous high definition package.