Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD ReMIX Review
Sony PlayStation 3
Kingdom Hearts has long been an enigma – a gaudy-looking JRPG, peppered with the familiar sight of Disney characters alongside beautiful anime people. Sitting on store shelves or having its music pondered over on soundtrack forums, it’s been at the periphery of my particular gaming consciousness, its exotic weirdness compounded by a name that frankly sounds like gibberish; a translation gone wrong. There’s no excuse for ignoring this gaming gap now that Square have spruced up a selection of original Kingdom Hearts titles – the Japanese ‘Final Mix’ version of the first, the Re:Coded card game spin-off and the bemusingly named 358/2 Days from the DS – supposedly in preparation for the long-awaited, infinitely-gestating Kingdom Hearts III.
So there’s a certain amount of hype when regarding such an iconic franchise with fresh eyes and first impressions are unfortunately underwhelming. Kingdom Hearts has one of the most off-putting and demoralising openings, replete with clichéd dialogue and some of the most frustrating gameplay to be translated to the current generation. Playing as wide-eyed Sora, apparently living on a small island populated by children with Square-Enix Hair™ the environments look blindingly colourful, but are limited in expanse. All anyone on this island talks about is friendship and the future, so jaded cynics may want to jump ship. Persist however – through the awful fetch quests and abysmal jump mechanics – and glimmers of Disney begin to eke through the saccharine-soaked tapestry of love. Those wanting more recognisable worlds will have to stick it out a good deal longer – the first area isn’t based on a distinct franchise, nor are there any real indications of what’s to come. There are even more atrocious fetch quests, made all the more lacklustre given that the first Disney world you visit is based on Alice in Wonderland and resembles a poor cardboard cut-out environment, a budget theme park ride constructed out of papier mache where missing a jump sends you to the back of the queue.
Through gritted teeth you’ll struggle through these opening hours, half wondering why people like this punishment, half contemplating whether the pull of potential Disney cameos is really worth the effort. Kingdom Hearts keeps making the wrong decisions – the beginning difficulty is tough given the lack of a curative spell and a camera that fights against you alongside the enemies. Everything feels rounded and imprecise, movement far less delicate than most gamers are used to – a result of Kingdom Hearts’ comparative age. There is no subtlety, the game often seeming to conspire to annoy you in ways that have been ironed out of existence in the intervening years of game evolution. It’s a little unfair to criticise a game for mistakes that were the norm a generation ago, but when you mistakenly exit the same door for the umpteenth time, all thanks to a jumpy camera, you’ll excuse the exasperation.
The combat system is equally clunky, although glimmers of brilliance shine through on occasion. Chosen from a bizarre question and answer session at the start of the game, Sora will either be geared towards offense, defense or magic. A simple button press will unleash an attack or spell, while magic is resigned to a sublist accessed through sub-menus. During lighter battles this adds a layer of depth but, even given the option to assign hotkeys to actions, the inelegance of selecting the right action at a crucial moment is hit-and-miss (more the miss, usually). The targeting system allows Sora the ability to lock-on to enemies but when mixed with an attack can often result in him being pulled towards the enemy as they move away. Sometimes this allows Sora to connect the attack, sometimes it pulls him over an edge and down four levels of bad-guy populated dungeon. Goofy, Donald and others will battle alongside Sora but tend to use up potions and end up knocked out halfway through the fight, stars swirling above their heads in resignation. Add in the camera, loose controls and a punishing difficulty, and the combat system feels the most dated part of the game.
Kingdom Hearts’ saving grace arrives in the form of the much-touted Disney connection, even if they feel shoehorned in at the best of times. Travelling to pint-size worlds via a pointless and annoying space-combat minigame, each themed around a different franchise, Sora and his partners Goofy and Donald must battle through these areas encountering stalwart Disney characters along the way. From Aladdin to Tarzan, Winnie the Pooh to Hercules, there are enough cameos that, once the story starts to pick up, the curiosity of whatever’s next becomes enticing. By the time ‘Under the Sea’ is ringing out as background music you’ll have forgiven Kingdom Hearts its problems (at least until you have to contend with the dratted camera once more).
Whoever worked on the animations for the game needs commendation, as do the art team for accommodating Disney’s trademark look in 3D. Translating Studio Ghibli to 3D was a huge undertaking with amazing results for Ni No Kuni but the history of placing hand-drawn properties in a 3D game has to start here. Stunning animation means these avatars never break character – it really feels like watching a movie at times, even if the dialogue is too rudimentary to be wholly charming. Add in the majority of correct VO artists – James Woods! Dan Castellaneta! – and it adds up to an authentic, often enjoyable experience that’ll rope in any Disney fan. Beware, however, of the difficulty spikes – the last portion of the game is a gruelling series of boss battles and even early fights can be brutal.
If one visit to the world of Kingdom Hearts isn’t enough, companion spin-off Kingdom Hearts: Re:Coded takes the environments you’ve already visited, stuffs a card game in the place of the attack button and asks you to go again. Luckily, the card game is deep enough to offer a different challenge to the original game and the amnesia/simulation setting of Castle Oblivion allows the story to twist around the first plot in inventive ways. Perhaps not the ideal game to play immediately after Kingdom Hearts – it’s very repetitive in terms of assets – but there’s more than enough to warrant a return visit.
What isn’t so compelling is Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days’ three hours of cutscenes, intermixed with written synopses that amount to little more than ‘Roxas went on a mission and completed it’ in many cases. Almost all of the cutscenes revolve around eating sea-salt ice-cream on top of a clock tower, sighing about friendship in a plot that makes the first game’s look like The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Without a solid foundation on the Kingdom Hearts mythology most of it will seem incomprehensible, if beautiful in an upscaled way. Even stalwart fans may find the expansion of the Kingdom Hearts universe to be unnecessary and there are far less in the way of Disney cameos to propel the disinterested gamer onwards.
As a set, Kingdom Heart 1.5 HD Remix remains a curiosity, appealing only to those who need that shot of light JRPG goodness mixed with Western cartoonography. It’s not aged well – considering it came out a year after Halo: Combat Evolved it feels a world away in terms of polish – and those first few hours will put off many an intrigued player. Persist and there’s much in the way of gleeful surprise, unless Disney doesn’t appeal at all. As a package there’s much to do and a fair challenge in every respect, but so much feels like extraneous gloss; as if the game’s flimsy walls hide the secret that it’s not actually that good. As a curio of brand synergy before it became popular and frowned upon in equal measure, Kingdom Hearts deserved the HD treatment and it does look lovely, all sleek lines and revamped soundtrack. Unfortunately that’s not going to fix the terrible camera or frustrating design choices – a little Disney magic in those areas might have done just the trick.