written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
Nostalgia's a powerful thing, it lets us as people look past the negatives that were outwardly present in pretty much anything we experience. We always seem to remember cartoons we watched as kids to be much better than they actually are, and in the realm of games... running on the fumes of nostalgia is something Final Fantasy VII proves to continue, regardless how negatively we view the company. Take the Kingdom Hearts series for example, one wonders if the power of nostalgia is what holds these HD remakes in such high regard... or is it something more. In my review of the original Kingdom Hearts included in the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix, much of the splendor I felt playing it leaned heavily on nostalgia... Sora's first outing has always felt somewhat awkward. The simplistic combat got old fast and the floaty controls made levels that leaned heavily on platforming feel like that very special place in hell where you have to roll a rock up a hill only to watch it roll back down.
But does the second HD offering make for a better overall package? I'll save you the suspense, I mean you can always scroll down to see the final score... but the answer is a resounding yes! Unlike the last HD compilation, I'm actually sounding off on all games in the package.. a 3-in-1 review if you will. I was never a fan of Chain of Memories so I didn't bother playing it in the last HD pack. I've been waiting for Kingdom Hearts II to get the brand new coat of paint the first game received, the wait was surely worth it. So with that, let's get into this massive three part review.
Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix
For the first time ever, Western gamers get a full localization in the Final Mix version of the sequel. Opening up new dialog, cutscenes, areas to explore, and enemies to combat. The extras were all well and good, but they wouldn't have held much weight if it wasn't attached to such a stellar game. Kingdom Hearts II did everything right that the first game couldn't really hit. Combat is faster and more exciting, plus the inclusion of reaction commands made every battle into something of an artistic expression. More abilities made Sora feel unstoppable, even at lower levels. Using the game's new Drive Forms were just as much a delight today as they were back when I first played it in 2006.
The linear level design was just as easy to navigate as it always has been, alleviating the pesky frustrations I had with the first game's floaty mechanics. Gameplay stands the test of time, and even though I can't say the same for most games produced back in 2006, combat and traversal is still just as snappy as it always has been. While a new coat of paint is pretty to look at, clunky controls can make even the prettiest game feel old and dated. This is a testament to how well-crafted Kingdom Hearts II was back on the PS2, even after eight years and a whole 'nother console generation... the controls are still sound and an absolute joy to play.
Graphically, it is very pretty. Even when replaying it on PS2 the visuals stood the test of time. I can assume that this is greatly attributed to the visual direction of the game. Unlike games that try for a hyper-realism to the visual direction, games with a more cartoon-like art style tend to benefit from these HD remasters better than others (take for example the God of War collection on PS3). Some issues did persist though, not all the textures received the HD treatment and at times it really stood out when comparing how beautiful they managed to make Sora look versus some NPCs in the game. Maybe I'm not remembering it as well, but I did notice that textures appeared sharper in the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix when compared to this one. Frame-rates stayed fairly stable through most of the game, though I did notice sporadic choppiness when battles grew more frantic or when transforming into one of my Drive Forms. Never was game breaking but felt like it should be mentioned.
While it isn't completely perfect, this is by far the definitive version of this classic game, and one that absolutely must be experienced. Whether you've played the Kingdom Hearts II when it first came out, played an Japanese import of the Final Mix, or whether this will be your first time experiencing it. I can't stress it enough that this game is an absolute must play... and if just for Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, well worth the price of admission.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
This one received the biggest update in graphical fidelity. Originally released on the PSP in 2010, it already pushed the hardware to the limits of what the PSP could offer, it was the living room console experience for the on-the-go gamer. Visually, the entire package ended up more vibrant in glorious HD. Textures popped in ways that the PSP could never handle, and running side by side with Kingdom Hearts II, you wouldn't think it looked like it was meant for a more scaled down gameplay. Even when I played the original on my PSP, I always felt like it was a game meant for playing on a big screen in your living room/gamer's den/geek dungeon.
One thing I did realize though was how while it looked like it belonged on a console, the gameplay was tailored for portable play. Rather than opening up all your attack options via the menu and quick selection, you add special attacks and magic to a quick selection deck-based menu that requires a cooldown between ability uses. While this does eliminate the need for MP when casting magic, it felt out of place for a console RPG. The board-game like mini game you can access from the menu screen felt out of place in a couch-and-controller setting, something that made more sense to me when I'd whip my PSP out waiting in lines or taking a few minutes to myself just to game.
While the feeling, in regard to gameplay, wasn't as mutual in Birth by Sleep as it was playing Kingdom Hearts II; this is still the definitive version of the game to play. Everything looks prettier, and if you can get past the disjointed way the game plays as a couch-and-controller action RPG, I think you'll have a good time with it. On the plus side, the ability to use the right analog stick to control the camera is an absolute godsend, on the PSP version and in the PS2 version of Kingdom Hearts, I was never a fan of relegating camera control to the shoulder buttons.
Kingdom Hearts Re:coded
Like in Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix, the II.5 edition features a cinematic retelling of the Nintendo portable. Like Kingdom Hearts 358/2 days, Re:coded gets the same treatment. A couple hours of cinematics interspersed with text based scenes. For those who played Re:coded, you can expect some surprises. Extended scenes and remastered visuals make this a fun diversion from the gameplay.
Personally... like the last HD collection... I would have preferred to actually play through it, but at least getting the chance to experience the story felt like it was enough. My one complaint was in the fully voiced cinematics, this game was supposed to feature a young Sora circa-the frist KH game, the decision to cast an older Haley Joel Osment as Sora sounded awkward. Everytime Sora would say something, I'd cringe a little bit at HJO's attempt to sounding like a kid again, personally... I would have prefered them finding a younger sound-alike voice over actor.
As far as Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep are concerned, this is the definitive way to experience both games. As a die-hard fan of the series, I ate this up... but as a reviewer I wanted to soak it in as subjectively as possible. The truth is, the charm behind these two games goes beyond simply nostalgia. Loving something nostalgic for nostalgia's sake isn't a bad thing, we like what we like and we prefer to remember what we love as something held up on a pedestal. While it isn't perfect, the fact remains that Kingdom Hearts II was still the perfect blend of story and gameplay that the first entry lacked while Birth by Sleep is still a lot of fun to play... despite not feeling quite at home playing it on my couch. Re:coded was a fun extra, but still wish they remastered that and the previous collection's 358/2 days. This is well worth the price, whether you're like me banking on nostalgia... or someone who never got around to checking it out before, you gotta play this game.
+ Excellent execution of controls/gameplay
+ Final Mix extras
+ Engaging story
+ Disney X Final Fantasy
- Slight visual hiccups
- Birth by Sleep not meant for couch-and-controller gameplay
Story 5: The series has always played well with narrative, I was initially skeptical when I first heard of Kingdom Hearts, but since then it's proven to be a widely accessible story, whether you're a Disney fan or a Square-Enix fan.
Graphics 4: Save for a few textures, the visuals certainly pop in glorious HD. Birth by Sleep especially feels like a brand spanking new game.
Audio 5: From the iconic Disney themes and music made for the series, this collection is as much a treat for the aural as it is for the ocular.
Level Design 5: My biggest complaint from the first game was the clumsy platforming, while controls are still rather floaty, the decision to scale down to more managable/linear levels proved to not detract from enjoying this game.
Polish 5: They did the best they could with games from another generation. Respectively, the oldest game in this package is 8 years old, and in game years that's pretty much a bloody lifetime.
Controls 4.5: Floaty but overall it works. The revamped combat in Kingdom Hearts II certainly adds value to the whole package. I've spent hours with this series since the first game came out, I see myself pouring even more into this remastered package.
Overall Gameplay 4.5: Everytime meshes well, from traversal to combat. Though the platforming element was greatly toned down, getting around the worlds is still relatively effortless.
Extras 5: Boy does this pack a punch with all the extras. The inclusion of the Final Mix versions of both Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep made for an all new experience for games I've practically memorized. Added scenes and bonus dialog in the cinematic driven Re:coded gave fans who played that on Nintendo DS some incentive to check out the collection.