GAMES - Article
16:08 - 15th November 2013, by Matthew Edwards

Brave Hearts

The wait for Kingdom Hearts III is likely to be a long one, but while we twiddle our thumbs in anticipation, Square Enix is treating us to Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX. But is this compilation a heartfelt re-mastering or a lazy cash-in? Matthew Edwards investigates...

There was a time when the union of Disney and Final Fantasy characters would've seemed like a crazy idea. How could someone like Squall from Final Fantasy VIII, with his hulking Gunblade sword, fur-lined jacket and rugged good looks, possibly stand next to the likes of Donald Duck while maintaining any semblance of stylistic cohesion? They're both animated characters in a technical sense, but even if you lined the streets with Moogles and Chocobos, there's no escaping the fact that Disney is less about spiky hairdos and teenage kicks and more about family-friendly adventures. Even so, all these concerns were put to rest when the original Kingdom Hearts surfaced in 2002.

Instead of making the likes of Mickey Mouse or Cloud Strife the star of the show, Square created a new trio of characters that inhabited a world that was separate from Final Fantasy and the many Disney universes. Sora, Riku and Kairi were three friends that lived on Destiny Islands and were oblivious to anything that lay beyond the horizon. But that all changed the day the Heartless - the living embodiment of the darkness within people's hearts - invaded their world and sent Sora to a limbo-like world called Traverse Town. It's here that he learned the nature of the Heartless threat before teaming up with a familiar Disney duo.

There's no way that Disney would take a backseat on anything that bears the house of mouse, and the Kingdom Hearts series is no exception. After discovering that Sora is a wielder of a Keyblade - a weapon that can be used to open or seal the barriers between worlds - Donald and Goofy befriend him before continuing their quest to find the missing King Mickey. And with the aid of their dimension-jumping vessel, the Gummi Ship, they visit a wide range of Disney worlds as they try to prevent more lands from succumbing to the Heartless. This includes Atlantica from The Little Mermaid, Deep Jungle from Tarzan, and, perhaps most awesome of all, Halloween Town from The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Future games would apply the Kingdom Hearts treatment to everything from The Lion King and Aladdin to Pirates of the Caribbean and even TRON, but there's nothing quite like the first time you see Sora, Donald and Goofy reimaged as a vampire, mummy and Frankenstein respectively. Furthermore, it's an experience that may have been missed by younger gamers who weren't pushing buttons during the PlayStation 2's heyday. So thank Mickey, Merlin and Yunalesca that Square Enix are re-mastering the first two games for Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX on the PlayStation 3. It's the perfect placeholder till the long awaited Kingdom Hearts III finally appears on the next generation of consoles.

Rather than limiting players to just the first game, 1.5 ReMIX combines the original, first sequel and interquel into one convenient disc. The first sequel was originally released for the Game Boy Advance as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, but following the release of Kingdom Hearts II, the game was remade for the PlayStation 2 as Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories. When it was originally released, this remake only found its way to Japanese and North American shores, so 1.5 ReMIX will be the first time that European fans get to experience the story outside of the dated (but still technically accomplished) Game Boy Advance version.

Just like Chain of Memories, the first game that's included on the disc isn't the bread and butter original. Instead, western players are being treated to Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix; an updated version of the original game that's been improved even further. The character models have been replaced by the more detailed designs from Dream Drop Distance. So although the series has effectively skipped a console generation by sticking predominantly to handhelds over the last seven years, the visuals don't come off looking too dated. It's a good balance between keeping true to the original design and introducing a HD resolution.

The original Kingdom Hearts is now well over a decade old, but the team have done a fantastic job of revamping the likes of Wonderland, Neverland and even Sephiroth's silvery hair for a more discerning generation, and while you could argue that this magazine's readership holds more affinity for feline flavoured transportation and faceless spirits, the way that Square Enix adapted these timeless Disney characters for the 3D world of videogames was and remains an impressive achievement. It's just a shame that you don't get to hear Sora sing Under The Sea until Kingdom Hearts II, but hey ho.

In terms of gameplay, the first Kingdom Hearts game is best described as an action-RPG that shares some elements with Final Fantasy. You're presented with a sword, shield and wand at the beginning of the game, and depending on which one you choose to embrace and which one you choose to forsake, Sora will level-up and gain abilities that reflect this initial decision. In comparison, Donald and Goofy are typecast as a mage and knight respectively. You can't control them directly, but you can tailor their AI behaviour in a variety of ways - be it attacking frequently or focusing on the healing magic.

The main way in which 1.5 ReMIX adjusts the combat is with the Reaction Command. Originally introduced in Kingdom Hearts II, the Reaction Command pops up during certain battles and lets you perform a special manoeuvre - often a counter attack - by pressing the triangle button when it appears on the screen. Aside from this minor revision, 1.5 ReMIX faithfully recreates the original in its entirety. You can upgrade your ship's abilities with Gummi Blocks, search for all 101 Dalmatians, unlock advanced materials for the Synthesis system and even summon the likes of Dumbo and Simba to aid Sora in battle.

That's pretty much the first game in a nutshell, but on the flipside, Re:Chain of Memories uses a fighting system that's built around cards. Yes, you read that correctly; the second Kingdom Hearts is essentially a collectible card game. You still move around the game world with Sora in real-time, but whenever you get dragged into a battle, you attack by using a deck of cards. These are predominantly split between Attack, Magic and Item cards, and depending on which cards you currently have available, you can build combos and combine certain cards together for special "Sleight" techniques.

It's refreshing to go straight from the end credits of the original game and into the mechanically offbeat sequel, because while both games are very much of the same universe, they each offer a gameplay experience that's distinct. The second game introduces a lot of new characters and story elements that gradually come to the forefront as Sora, Donald and Goofy explore the mysterious Castle Oblivion while suffering from (you guessed it) amnesia. Then, once the saga is finished, Reverse / Rebirth Mode becomes available and lets you play through a different scenario as Riku.

As is probably becoming clear, 1.5 ReMIX represents a considerable amount of content for players who've never experienced the Kingdom Hearts series before, as well as content for fans who want to relive the classic adventures in high-definition. The character designs by Tetsuya Nomura, the musical score by Yoko Shimomura and the work of the whole Kingdom Hearts team has stood the test of time like only a masterpiece can. The only disappointment is that Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, another interquel that was originally released for the Nintendo DS, has been included as a three hour cinematic rather than a remake. But aside from this, 1.5 ReMIX is full of heart.

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