Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX Review: A gorgeous love letter to Kingdom Hearts fans

I am the biggest Kingdom Hearts fan I know. As a kid, I wrote the original game’s Ansem Reports on pieces of paper so I could study them on long car rides. I made a screenshot collage of Kingdom Hearts II months before its release and hung it in my room. I own two pieces of Kingdom Hearts jewelry and two action figures (Darkside and Pluto), but no clothing–I’ve yet to find a shirt or design that can meet my absurdly high expectations. I bought a Nintendo 3DS to play Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance.

Reviewing Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX comes as a challenge, then, and perhaps the most daunting task of my two-plus years writing about games. It’s impossible for me to ignore my emotional ties to Sora, Riku, and their supporting cast of Disney and Final Fantasy characters. Kingdom Hearts taught a young, impressionable me that jealousy can destroy friendships, that loneliness and isolation are felt by everyone from time to time, that you can’t help everyone–but the help we can provide means more to the lives we touch than we’ll ever know.

Kingdom Hearts is my all-time favorite game, but it’s also not a 10–I recognize that. Gummi Ship missions are boring. Awkward platforming isn’t helped by a temperamental camera. Combat isn’t a tremendously deep affair. If you’ve been even tangentially interested in the series in the last decade, you’ve likely heard these complaints and more. Even if you’ve never touched Kingdom Hearts before and are looking to HD 1.5 ReMIX as your series starting point, a wealth of literature dating back to the original game’s 2002 release already exists. The reasons why I love Kingdom Hearts are highly personal, and I don’t think that discussion would do any good for you, the discerning buyer. So I review this HD remaster not as a collection of games that have touched my life, but as a package of technical excellence that brings new content, stunning visuals, and nostalgic gameplay to new and old audiences.

More details, after the page jump.

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In these aspirations, Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is an absolute triumph and a technical marvel. Not content with merely upressing old games and adding trophy support, Square Enix pored over the original game with microscopic attention. Edges are smoothed. Textures are repainted with more detail to complement 1080p high definition, and in 1080p, the game’s colors and cartoon aesthetic are astonishing. New face textures and subtle physics tweaks are the handiwork of artisans, not developers. Even controls have undergone subtle (yet, radical) improvements. Sora seems to move in more tightly defined directions, easing some frustrations with platforming. All context-sensitive abilities, from Strike Raid to Ragnarok, have been moved to the Triangle button, no longer buried at the bottom of your action menu.

But the biggest change of all is the camera. In 2002’s Kingdom Hearts, the right analog stick was delegated to action menu navigation while horizontal camera control was handled by L2 and R2. Embracing modern game design and its own innovations, Square has seen fit to place all camera control on the right analog stick. Left, right, up (!), and down (!)–the right stick is sensitive to tender touches, sudden jabs, and everything in-between. The camera moves with a perfect balance between tight precision and slippery momentum, and the ability to look up and down opens new possibilities for exploration and combat. Veteran players will be surprised, even disoriented, by the range of motion, different camera speeds, and new viewing angles, but an hour or two is all it takes for the change to be freeing. I was the most vocal critic of the right analog camera in the months leading up to release; in the original game, I loved that I could use the right stick instead of the D-pad for Items, Magic, and Summons. But I’ve come around to adoring the new camera control, even if there’s no option to revert to the alternative. It’s a testament to pitch-perfect execution that I can be convinced any change to my all-time favorite game is a good one.

Indeed, Kingdom Hearts has undergone many changes in its remastering for this collection, not the least of which is its actual identity. You see, the version of the original Kingdom Hearts that appears in HD 1.5 ReMIX is not, in fact, the version I grew up with. This is a remaster of Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix, the Japan-exclusive edition that built upon the original release with a host of additions and alterations too extensive for summary here. From Heartless palette swaps to treasure location changes, from additional Gummi Ship missions to altered character progression tracks, the Final Mix changes are, like many things in HD 1.5 ReMIX, subtle, yet impactful. And the more times you’ve played the original game, the more likely you are to notice them.


For example, my preferred playstyle has, for dozens of playthroughs, always been a magic-physical hybrid and an early-game decision that sets my level-ups on the path to decent damage in all disciplines by level 50. When I made the same selection in Final Mix, I thought I’d ultimately be greeted by the same, comfortable leveling experience I’d grown accustomed to. Not so. The change of order in which abilities unlock as you level up, and the new abilities sprinkled amidst those, radically changed my leveling experience and made for a playthrough that felt altogether different. It was refreshing, invigorating–feelings I didn’t anticipate going in to a game I’ve beaten literally dozens of times. New players won’t notice; it’s the veterans who will get the most mileage out of these surprises.

In some respects, Final Mix HD is easier. Improved controls and new Heartless like the Pink Agaricus make leveling up a bit quicker and more enjoyable. In other ways, like the unfamiliarity of what unlocks at each level-up, the game is made harder for old dogs like me. In that sense, I have trouble declaring Final Mix to be the "definitive" version of Kingdom Hearts. It’s not better so much as it is different, and that means first-time players won’t be getting the exact same experience that the rest of us did in the PS2’s heyday. Is that a bad thing? I’d argue not, but I lament that there’s no option to play one or the other. Then again, including what amounts to an additional game on this collection’s single disc might have been a practical nightmare for Square Enix.

No matter. What’s here, representing the series’ first installment, is excellent, as it ever was. As Sora, the Keyblade-wielding protagonist, players journey to several worlds based on Disney properties, which comprise an original universe that frames Sora’s mission–to defeat creatures called Heartless and save these worlds from their wrath–as a conflict between light and darkness. There’s platforming, harmless puzzle-solving, crafting, and other RPG tropes. Final Fantasy characters and icons poke their heads in for copious amounts of fan service, and A.I. partners Donald Duck and Goofy provide backup in real-time, mostly button-mashy combat. What’s always been so engaging about Kingdom Hearts’ gameplay is, for me, the emotional charge and thrill of what JRPG battles look and feel like in real-time. Sora smashes opponents with stylish swings, gravity-defying combos, and eye-popping magic. These are elements we’re used to seeing after waiting 15 seconds for a meter to recharge, or after letting enemy monsters take their turns. Here, you dodge, block, think, and decimate in an environment where you can be hit from any angle at any time. It’s what’s really happening behind the methodical mechanics of turn-based RPGs.


Re:Chain of Memories, the second game in HD 1.5 ReMIX, adds a few wrinkles. A chronological sequel to Kingdom Hearts and a main series spin-off, Chain of Memories complicated the Kingdom Hearts battle system with cards that represent every action in battle. A number 7 Keyblade card, when played (again, in real-time) will execute an attack and defeat any enemy card of less value. A number 8 Blizzard card cast by the enemy will interrupt that same attack. The visuals are familiar, as you’re still freely running and dodging in real-time, attacking and defending when appropriate. But battles in Re:Chain of Memories demand more presence of mind; you must understand not only where the Heartless are and what they’re doing, but what cards are coming next in your customizable deck and how you can best play them to counteract enemy strategies. Sleights (card combos with special effects), Friend Cards, deck reload times, and card values are all unique things to consider in this collection’s second adventure.

The story of how Chain of Memories has evolved is a complex one. The original Chain of Memories released for the Game Boy Advance in 2004; this incarnation looked and felt very different from the PS2 remake that came much later, in 2008. The game’s complexity was originally designed for top-down, linear battle stages with 2D sprites. Translated to 3D environments that require lock-ons and camera control, the battle system gets very hard, very quickly. Since it’s the PS2 remake, not the GBA original, that’s HD-ified and remastered in this collection, first-time players should be warned: the hit-things-until-they-die strategy that more or less works in Kingdom Hearts simply will not fly here. That’s not to say Re:Chain of Memories is unbeatable, nor even unenjoyable. Rather, first-timers should expect a very different beast with Re:Chain of Memories, one that, for its enigmatic characters and crucial story, takes gameplay missteps that its GBA progenitor did not.

Then again, Re:Chain of Memories was always a series oddball. Objectively, the game’s dialogue, voice acting, graphics, and music were never quite as good or polished as the main installments (and it’s super weird to hear post-puberty Haley Joel Osment voicing Sora’s younger character model), but like with Final Mix, Square Enix has done an admirable job of touching up a colorful PS2 game to look gorgeous in high-definition. There’s more aliasing and artifacts during cutscenes, and the opening cinematic is significantly less polished than Kingdom Hearts’ opening, but, by and large, the game’s production values have been ramped up appropriately to fit the outstanding technical quality of this collection. It’s abundantly clear that Square approached everything in HD 1.5 ReMIX with a scrutinizing eye for details that needed improvement.


That holds true for the cutscenes of Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, which comprise the third piece of HD 1.5 ReMIX’s somewhat convoluted puzzle. As 358/2 Days debuted on the Nintendo DS and never received a Re:-type remake, the original gameplay was abandoned in favor of telling its story through HD cinematics and text summaries strung together to make a roughly 3-hour "movie." But is it a story worth telling? The motive behind including Days’ cutscenes and not another, more crucial chapter in the Kingdom Hearts saga is disconcerting. Sure, the three games in this collection tell a chronologically cohesive story, but if ordering the series by events was the aim, why is Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, which takes place 10 years before the original game’s events, not included? And if chronological storytelling wasn’t the aim, then… well, I can’t imagine why 358/2 Days was included in place of Kingdom Hearts II, because the latter is absolutely essential in making any sense and drawing any emotional impact out of Days’ borderline unnecessary prequel story. To Kingdom Hearts rookies, Days’ cutscenes are going to stick out like a nonsensical, unrelated sore thumb in an otherwise logical package.

Days’ story, woven together without gameplay for engagement or emotional oomph, is also pretty boring. It’s not hard to see what’s going on here–a second HD collection with Kingdom Hearts II has already been confirmed–but it’s disappointing to see a package with so much care and attention to detail tainted by a strange inclusion that, even for series diehards, could have waited until next time.

Still, the value proposition of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is undeniable. Square Enix has crafted a remarkable package with loving adoration for its source material and, with Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix, enough new content and changes to give loyalists like me a fresh experience. Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is the best HD collection yet produced, a passion-fueled love letter to patient fans, and a visually arresting introduction to characters, worlds, and gameplay that deserve every beautiful pixel.





The Final Word

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is the best HD collection yet produced, a passion-fueled love letter to patient fans, and a visually arresting introduction to characters, worlds, and gameplay that deserve every beautiful pixel.