The very idea of Kingdom Hearts was ambitious from the start. A Square Enix RPG (complete with Final Fantasy references and characters) set within the worlds of Disney movies reads like Gen Y-gamer fan fiction, but that fiction was charming and exciting. The series’ 2002 debut earned a large fanbase that the 2005 sequel made massive.
The goodwill and following engendered by these early entries have kept the series in play for 15 years and, incredibly, about as many prequels, sequels, spin-offs, and re-tellings. From an innocent, concise beginning came a spectacular mess, with games and stories ranging from truly bad to truly great and thoughtful. Some say Kingdom Hearts harbors some of gaming’s greatest action-RPGs. Others say its lack of direction has only set fire to a good story, with gasoline poured by every new entry that isn’t Kingdom Hearts III. Both takes (and many others) are true, which leaves the ambitious newcomer wondering where to start.
The equally ambitious answer is here: Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX, a compilation of the series’ most important stories. Across four games and two cutscene “movies,” 1.5 + 2.5 brings us closer than ever to a series anthology and, alongside last month’s II.8 Final Chapter Prologue, puts virtually the entire franchise on PlayStation 4. The value proposition here is tremendous. Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 (at 1080p and 60fps) are highly compelling on their own, to say nothing of Birth by Sleep, the essential prequel, or Re:Chain of Memories, the worthwhile side entry. The cutscene “movies,” for Nintendo DS spin-offs 358/2 Days and Re:Coded, are far less compelling. Indeed, Re:Coded is bad, full stop, and both are emblematic of a series which hasn’t always possessed a clear vision.
Regardless, making it that far means the games have hooked you, and the broader point stands: there’s no better, more cohesive way to introduce yourself than this collection. For starters, each of the four games is definitive; the technical improvements alone make this the best way to play the main classics. Loading times between areas and worlds are all but eliminated. Without these momentary intrusions, the pace of play is sped up noticeably. Combined with 60fps action, the games feel energetic and buttery smooth across the board. Kingdom Hearts’ chaotic brand of combat benefits greatly from the extra frames, with enemy movement, abilities, and dodge or block timings easier to discern in the heat of battle.
The bump to 60fps brings with it some quibbles. Cutscenes are still locked at 30fps, which can feel jarring when (without loading times) a 30fps cutscene transitions directly into 60fps gameplay, and vice versa. Other quirks arise presumably because some gameplay code is based on frames as a time measurement. In KH1, some of Sora’s animations feel truncated, and a couple bosses across KH1 and 2 behave erratically. A Day 1 patch issued by Square Enix purports to fix some of these issues, but it’s worth noting the games still aren’t glitch-free. The issues that remain are minute to the point of inconsequential—an unreliable QTE here, a too-fast boss ability there—but they’re a small point against an otherwise outstanding technical package.
The games’ visuals are particularly impressive. At 1080p (or 4K, on PS4 Pro), character models are impeccable. Faces, hair, and clothing scale up to meet the resolution without introducing much blurriness, and aliasing is virtually eliminated. The result is a clean, colorful, stylized look that feels timeless and rarely shows its age. KH1’s textures (many of which were re-drawn for its PS3 remaster) hold up especially well. Re:Chain of Memories and Birth by Sleep are less pristine. The former was always an odd duck—even in its original PS2 form, cutscenes and animations were less polished. The lack of touch-ups over multiple remasters starts to show, with very noticeable jaggies and a somewhat low resolution in cutscenes. Birth by Sleep, meanwhile, has its PSP roots working against it. The same care used to re-paint KH1’s textures simply wasn’t spent here, so surfaces that were already stark on PSP look downright ugly (more generously, “non-descript”) on a PS4 or PS4 Pro. The exceptional character models and vibrant color hold true across all games, though. In the graphics department, there’s no barrier to entry.
With gameplay, it’s a different story, though KH1 benefits from camera control being moved from the triggers to the right analog stick. Playing through the games in order of release shows an evolving battle system that thoughtfully introduced complexity over time without losing the series’ graceful action or fast pace. Compared to the more traditional magic, items, and combos of KH1 and 2, Chain of Memories’ cards and Birth by Sleep’s command crafting feel downright experimental, but all are rewarding and exciting in their own way. When it comes to difficulty, however, the series is inconsistent. An “ultimate collection” is a good opportunity to reflect on balance and accessibility, perhaps by including alternate modes for a smoother rookie experience across games. As it stands, these titles play exactly how they did at release, which means KH2 is way too easy on Normal (but perfect on Critical Mode), Re:Chain of Memories requires a whole different way of thinking, and Birth by Sleep’s bosses have a nasty habit of using un-interruptible combos.
From another angle, these games are pure and teeming with content. KH1, KH2, and Birth by Sleep are all presented as their “Final Mix” versions. From extra boss fights and cutscenes to new abilities and enemy color swaps, the changes are too prolific to list, but they generally provide more things to do without affecting the storyline. All told, the Final Mix content caps off a collection that’s positively packed with value, with as much to give as you’re willing to put in. For a core experience, newcomers can catch up on the series—not just the story, but the gameplay that makes it special—by playing KH1, KH2, and Birth by Sleep (in that order). The more ambitious will give Chain of Memories a try in-between 1 and 2 (or hunt down the Game Boy Advance original, which I actually prefer). The truly zealous will try to watch 358/2 Days and Re:Coded after playing the others, but here’s where a wiki will serve better. Not only are these two stories the least essential of all (seriously, they reek of forced development and have almost no bearing on the bigger picture), but they’re also the least polished in this collection. Poor textures and jaggies would be a nuisance even if the movies weren’t dreadfully boring.
But the games are what matter. In this complete package of technical excellence, Kingdom Hearts is well-represented. The series’ core installments have never played or looked better, nor been packaged together quite like this. One outlier—the excellent II.8 Final Chapter Prologue—is needed to complete the picture, but HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX is far from a mere primer. It’s a robust collection that’s great for fans and newcomers alike and the single best way to experience Kingdom Hearts—landmark moments, wrong turns, and the sincere magic which started it all.