When Square and Disney's unlikely collaboration first graced our screens back in 2002, Kingdom Hearts was commended for its fantastic visuals, jaw-dropping cut-scenes, and wonderful animations – all of which still hold up relatively well on the PlayStation 2 today. It must be said, then, that giving the first Kingdom Hearts title a high-definition makeover was a strange choice, but fortunately, it's still a welcome addition to the PlayStation 3's bulging catalogue.
At first glance, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX looks like an absolute bargain, bundling not two, but three games from the franchise's beloved archive. Yet soon after booting up the disc, you'll discover that that isn't actually the case, as the collection consists of two HD re-mastered games and one non-playable, three hour cut-scene sequence featuring various characters eating sea-salt ice lollies.
Previously unreleased outside of Japan, Kingdom Hearts Final Mix edition is by far the best game on offer. The first entry in the series (although not chronologically speaking) tells the story of Sora, Riku, and Kairi, three friends who one day dream to explore the world beyond the tropical island that they call home. The trio are separated one night after a strange storm engulfs their residence, and sends spikey-haired protagonist Sora to a whole new world, inhabited by characters from the Disney universe. Armed with a Keyblade – which is exactly what it sounds like – Sora must venture through different cartoon universes, defeating evil beings known as the Heartless in order to find his friends. At the same time, he needs to help his new comrades Donald Duck and Goofy seek out King Mickey, who has recently vanished from his castle.
It's hard to ignore the overwhelming wave of nostalgia that washes over you as the title screen music Dearly Beloved starts to play, but that's all soon forgotten once you remember how tedious and dull the opening sequence of gameplay was and still is. It takes a good hour or so before Sora even journeys to Traverse Town and is ready to board the horribly outdated Gummi Ship, but not before he's forced to hunt down sticks, coconuts, and other random items in order to construct a raft. It's a slog of monotonous fetch quests throughout the island, which are rendered even more pointless when you discover that there are boats casually moored in the docks near the tree house.
However, once that initial, painful hour is over and done with, you can start to enjoy what the title has to offer: taking on hordes of Heartless at the Olympus Coliseum, saving gorillas with Tarzan, entering the Cave of Wonders, fighting in the Halloween Town graveyard, and generally looking rather odd as a merman in the azure depths of Atlantica.
As previously alluded, much of your time will be spent brawling with the Heartless and numerous tough bosses, wielding only your Keyblade and any magic skills and abilities that you've gathered along the way. Your partners in crime, Donald and Goofy, also lend a hand in battle, and can be manually programmed to act in your defence, as a healer, as a brawler, or even as a mix, depending on your play style. In the beginning, Donald will be practically useless, and will stubbornly refuse to do anything but faint throughout every battle – but after slowly levelling up your party, your team will be able to adequately dispatch the many strong foes that you'll face as you progress.
Sadly, the game is still plagued with the same issues as eleven years ago, namely the awfully clunky camera, which despite being supposedly updated, still remains barely functional and ludicrously problematic. On the positive side, it's no longer controlled using the L2 and R2 shoulder buttons, now opting for a much more modern analog stick approach – but that won't help you when you're trying to jump across a platform that's situated next to a wall. While there is a manual option, it does little to help when you're in the middle of combat and are already attempting to manically sift through menus in order to use items, while also scanning the battlefield to seek out flanking enemies.
As a result, platforming sequences are still an issue. On many occasions throughout the game, Sora will need to precariously hop between different surfaces, but it's almost impossible to leap with any kind of precision. This could be a nod to the character's overly large Mickey Mouse feet, but in reality, it's simply frustrating game design.
At least the high-definition makeover is attractive. The bright settings benefit hugely from the sharp colours, bringing out stronger pinks and red hues. The majority of the character models look a great deal smoother, too, and the edges of items are more defined. However, some textures, namely ground and walls, look unpolished and outdated.
The second game in the bundle, Re:Chain of Memories – which itself is a three-dimensional polygonal remake of a Game Boy Advance title – is the oddball of the pack, opting for a completely different gameplay style altogether. Instead of real-time brawling, it uses a card combat system, yet allows players to run around the battlefield actively dodging attacks and cornering enemies at the same time. While this does make the action a bit more dynamic than simply selecting cards in a yawn-inducing turn-based system, sadly it hinders your ability to strategize and plan out critical moves.
The game acts as a direct companion piece to the conclusion of the original Kingdom Hearts, which links the end of the first game to the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II. The storyline explores Sora's recreated memories while he is in Castle Oblivion, and his ongoing struggle against the mysterious forces of The Organisation. By retracing his steps and battling his way through the same Disney universes from the first game, the hero begins to lose his memories the further that he descends into Castle Oblivion. Still in search of Riku, the star discovers more about The Organisation, the Heartless, and the Darkness which follows him.
While it's not considered an essential entry in the Kingdom Hearts timeline, the game does help to clear up any confusion that players may experience when greeted with completely new protagonist Roxas at the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II. It's also probably the most visually impressive transformation of the group, considering its humble two-dimensional sprite origins, as many fans outside of Japan and North America never got to enjoy the PS2 remake in 2007. Yet although its inclusion is justified, it's disappointing that the title recycles the exact same in-game locations as the original release, even if you can progress through them in a different order. It feels like a stunted card-based version of the original game, with an even more convoluted story.
Last and arguably least is Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, a non-interactive three hour movie, created using cut-scenes from the Nintendo DS original. Many of those who pick up the bundle will be disappointed to find that despite the menu screen giving the option to 'Play' the game, this simply functions like a DVD, allowing you to watch the cinematics either in full or by chapter. While the HD clips are impressive, and nearly each scene is fully voice-acted, you can't help but feel disappointed that this isn't a fully playable remake of its portable counterpart, especially considering the back of the game's box fails to make it overtly obvious that the bundle does not include the full game.
Nevertheless, the cut-scenes revolve around Kingdom Hearts II's protagonist Roxas and his time as the thirteenth member of what is now known as Organization XIII. The story provides more background on the events of Re:Chain of Memories, such as the role of Axel at Castle Oblivion, Roxas' ties to Sora, and more information about the history of Namine – but for the majority of the time, you'll feel like you're watching a strange soap-opera, where the main cast simply sit around watching the sun go down, eating ice lollies while casually discussing a bit of Kingdom Hearts backstory.
As a result, the inclusion of the cinematics is a little strange – especially when it would have made more sense chronologically to bundle series favourite Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, as the popular PSP title acts as a prequel, set ten years before the events of the PS2 original.
While Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is certainly not the perfect introduction to the series that newcomers may have expected, it does a decent job of recapturing the magic of the original release in glorious high-definition. There are still some clunky mechanics, and the addition of 358/2 Days' cinematics rather than the more chronologically appropriate Birth by Sleep is disappointing – but fans will be able to overlook these shortcomings due to the inclusion of the definitive Final Mix version of the first game.