Ostensibly and in terms of sheer gameplay quantity, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX is a better collection than last year’s outing, HD 1.5 ReMIX. That collection saw the original title, Re:Chain of Memories, and remastered cutscenes from 358/2 Days brought to new life on PS3. As I noted in my review, the original Kingdom Hearts is far and away the star of that show and worth your time based on its visual upgrades, new content, and improved feel alone. Re:Chain of Memories was a hit-or-miss inclusion, important for the story it tells but far less playable than Kingdom Hearts or even the original Chain of Memories on Game Boy Advance.
While I hold the original Kingdom Hearts—with its uncompromising charm, timeless tale, and boss fight variety—in a place of reverence above Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep, there’s no denying these games together are a better value proposition than the first collection’s single excellent game. The best elements of these games still hold up today and are made better by improved visuals and controls. Kingdom Hearts II’s graceful combat is a visual wonder at 1080p. Birth by Sleep’s command deck—a scrollable list of abilities you equip and use like MMO cooldowns—is easier to navigate with camera control moved off the triggers to the right analog stick. Both games’ vivid color palette really pops, and the low-detail cartoon aesthetic of most Disney worlds holds up to the resolution bump.
However, with regard to some textures and visual elements, the resolution bump is a mixed bag. Just like with Kingdom Hearts HD, it’s clear the remaster artists went over Kingdom Hearts II with an eye for things that could be repainted or rendered for 1080p. Some textures simply wouldn’t look as good as they do without this attention. But these upgrades aren’t as numerous or obvious as they were in Kingdom Hearts HD, and there are some ugly gaps. The mini-map’s low-res icons and lines and the Keyblade pointer on the command menu are obvious offenders. The buildings in Timeless River, the "Steamboat Willie" world, also come to mind. Birth by Sleep suffers less from these oversights, but both titles have some pretty heavy aliasing going on. Neither the jaggies nor infrequent bad textures detract from the experience in a meaningful way, but they are slights against the quality of the remaster, specifically.
Some other issues not present in the original games pop up here. In both games, any mid-combat transformation causes a soft load of two to four seconds in which Sora or one of Birth by Sleep’s heroes hang in their animation while the Drive Form, Summon, or D-Link loads. This disrupts the flow of combat and makes poor use of PS3’s higher processing power. Why can’t we install Birth by Sleep to system memory for better loads like we could on PSP? Should it even be necessary here? The infrequent framerate drops are equally strange.
There’s just one element of Birth by Sleep’s gameplay that doesn’t hold up in this collection. To compensate for a smaller screen size, the game’s camera on PSP was greatly pulled in, limiting your field of view but giving a great close-up on the action. I appreciated the change for these reasons, but it also felt like a return to the original Kingdom Hearts’ impactful, up-close-and-personal Heartless smashing. But on a big-screen TV, it feels unnecessary and inhibiting. It’s especially jarring to jump between Kingdom Hearts II, which has the series’ most zoomed-out view, and Birth by Sleep’s tunnel vision. Given the camera was already altered with the ability to look vertically, this feels like a missed opportunity.
In every other respect, Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep deliver outstanding action-RPG experiences. One of the series’ greatest strengths has always been the translation of JRPG aesthetics like melodramatic dialogue and world-ending battles to cinematic combat in the vein of anime and Hollywood. With the addition of Trophies and an impressive amount of content coming stateside for the first time, there’s enough to warrant a purchase for series veterans who have every ability, treasure chest, and command meld mapped to memory. That’s because this collection’s versions of Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep are their coveted "Final Mix" versions. The list of bonuses is extensive, but highlights include new cutscenes (voiced by the original English cast for this collection specifically), boss fights with super-powered versions of every Organization XIII member, and the obligatory assortment of new abilities and weapons. Kingdom Hearts II, specifically, also boasts a re-orchestrated soundtrack. The changes are safer than with Final Fantasy X HD, but I can say that no song sounds meaningfully worse than its original and a few are noted improvements. Generally, the background instrumentation is more pronounced and contributes more to the flavor of each world without overpowering the key sounds I remember and associate with that location.
As for narrative, series newcomers are going to be completely lost if they start here—Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is crucial in that respect. However, 2.5 ReMIX has greater narrative cohesion; Birth by Sleep’s plot revelations have a heck of a lot to do with Kingdom Hearts II. The odd duck is Re:Coded, which has little importance or relation to any series entry. Presented here as three hours of fully voiced cutscenes, the vast majority of which are original creations, it’s a decent romp for series diehards who might view it as a crucial part of fandom. Others, like myself, will watch it because they couldn’t stomach the narrative pointlessness over dozens of mediocre gameplay hours on the Nintendo DS. My advice to rookies? Skip it entirely—or leave it running during some other activity—and jump to the good stuff with a wiki plot synopsis.
Birth by Sleep is a game that deserves to be played with a controller in the same epic, big-screen context as core installments. Kingdom Hearts II’s tale of love, revenge, and meaningful existence deserves HD glory. Without question, this collection is the very best way to play both games; the fact we get the Final Mix versions of both in one package makes it nothing less than essential for devotees, RPG fans, and interested newcomers alike. As a remaster, HD 2.5 ReMIX leaves a bit to be desired, tempering the fun with framerate trouble, longer loads, and the occasional graphic-left-behind. But at the end of the day, it hardly matters. These games are awesome and have never played better. As RPG collections go, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX is among the very best.