Kingdom Hearts is a series that holds a special place in a lot of gamers’ hearts, but particularly mine. I was just a child when I played the first game. When they announced the second one, I was very excited… it would be the first time I waited around for a midnight launch. I was a teenager, standing around in the cold night waiting to get my hands on the game so I could again be whisked away to the wonderful world within.
After so long, nearly nine years in fact, you can bet that I was excited to get my hands on the Final Mix of Kingdom Hearts II; something that has never been released outside of Japan. I was disappointed to find that the game I’d loved so much as a kid hadn’t really aged very well in some places, even if it was still spectacular in others.
Of course, looking at it from the perspective of an adult removes some of the luster already. But more than that, I’ve played a lot of games in the past few years and my expectations for quality have evolved over that time. When Kingdom Hearts II came out, you couldn’t expect every line to be voice acted, so a noticeable amount of dialogue is delivered through text boxes. You couldn’t expect things that have since become staples of the action RPG genre, like the combat roll or a responsive guard command.
Those things weren’t added in this update to Kingdom Hearts II, even if new scenes and some new gameplay elements were. The gameplay definitely feels simple in comparison to the action RPGs of today. Both attacking and moving can feel very sluggish, and if you are in the middle of an attack you can’t stop yourself to parry an incoming blow. This is especially troublesome as most enemies don’t telegraph their attacks with enough time for you to use Guard to parry, as you have to wait for the completion of your attack animation before you have a chance to react.
The biggest problem, however, is the auto-targeting. You will definitely need to lock-on frequently, as the game struggles with switching to different targets based on your movement direction. That is a huge problem when you’re fighting a crowd of enemies, especially as switching targets even while locked on feels finicky.
Compared to the better action games of today, the combat is really underwhelming, not only in gameplay, but in difficulty. If you want a challenge, you will definitely need to play on the higher levels. Unfortunately, that doesn’t fix the problems pertaining to the very simplistic and unclear progression system where it seems you make most decisions pertaining to how you want to fight at the very beginning, instead of tailoring it as you go.
There are also additional capabilities in combat, such as Drive, which allows you to draw a sub-weapon if activated, or Limit, which allows you to tag-team with another party member for some explosive attacks. Those things aren’t a necessary part of winning on the standard difficulty, however, so I hardly found myself using them at all.
Unfortunately, the myriad of problems with the combat aren’t the only issues with the game. The HD upgrade is great, and if it went just a little bit further the age wouldn’t be as noticeable thanks to the art style. The problem is, it doesn’t quite reach that mark.
Spell effects, particularly in the early parts of the game, look weak and make magic less satisfying to use. Backgrounds on many levels lack detail, and make the worlds you visit feel claustrophobic and isolated. The hair is really stiff on some characters, and some parts of the faces look lower quality than the rest which results in a fairly jarring visual effect. The biggest miss, however, has to be the mouths, how they appear, and how they move.
In cutscenes, they look passable for the most part, but particularly when seeing them from the side, they look awful. That effect is only made even worse by some terrible lip syncing. Sometimes the words they say are completely at odds with how their mouth is moving, and it just looks strange to say the least.
The biggest graphical issues in the game doubtless present themselves in the Gummi Ship missions. The backgrounds here received a good coat of polish, making them much better than most of the rest of the game. Unfortunately, the textures on any environments you pass through are much lower quality than everything else, and it’s strange to look at high quality enemies floating atop low quality asteroids.
Still, some of the most fun I had in the game were actually the Gummi ship missions. They can feel a bit button-mashey at times, a problem with the normal combat as well, but there are some genuinely fun scenarios for these on-rails space shooter segments. Customizing your ship is also a fun distraction, though if you lack creativity like I do, you likely won’t explore the design system much. It also remains a bit more complicated than necessary.
It may sound like I’m railing on this game more than it deserves, but these are all fairly small issues that come together to form a bigger fundamental problem with the game. The game is still fun, and a lot of the time the game looks perfectly fine, even if it never makes it to the level of effort we’ve seen from other HD upgrades. It’s the story that really saves the day here though – though, like everything else here, it’s not without its hiccups.
The story you remember is still very much intact, including the overly-long prologue from Kingdom Hearts II that has you doing a ton of busywork for nearly four hours. You get to visit plenty of different characters from many different Disney films and interact with them, even if the writing of those moments sometimes depends too much on the source material for story progression.
The plight of the main characters is still compelling, as is the plot that weaves it all together, even if it is sometimes undermined by some convoluted details linked to a story that might leave you a bit lost if you haven’t played the original. If you can’t wrap your head around some of the more obtuse concepts, then you may find yourself at a loss and fail to see how this series has garnered such praise from it’s fans. The voice acting can also be painful at times, which doesn’t help one bit.
Luckily, such bad voice acting isn’t usually a problem. Most of the cast dole out solid performances, though there are very few standouts. (I’m just not sure I’ll ever be able to recover from Aerith from Final Fantasy VII’s flat and painful delivery of her lines.) These problems are also highlighted a bit, thanks to so much of the game being delivered through cutscenes. This is sometimes made even worse by poorly translated dialogue or just a poorly written line or two. Kingdom Hearts, like most JRPGs, is very cheesy, but in a good way. Sometimes it goes overboard and indulges in the ridiculous, creating some of the most unintentionally hilarious moments in gaming history, but that is par for the course with the source material. The melodrama and even the humor can be a little overwhelming if you’re not a frequent player of these types of games.
If there was one thing I had long-forgotten, it was the frequency of loading screens. Most of the time, the length of these loading screens is minimal, doubtless a benefit of the upgrade in hardware, but the sheer quantity of them is crazy. These pop up in between cutscenes as the game loads in new areas, jarringly pulling you from the experience.
One thing that doesn’t pull you from the experience however is the gorgeous soundtrack, now with some added orchestral flourish thanks to this update. It sounds fantastic, and it’s a good compliment to the decent sound effects within, remaining in the background as needed and driving you when it matters. The music adds a great deal to the intensity of battles, and the touching or sad moments of the story are amplified by it’s undertones.
Surprisingly, the strongest aspect of this collection is not the updated Kingdom Hearts II, but rather Birth by Sleep Final Mix, also releasing for the first time outside Japan. If it hadn’t been there, I would’ve passed on this collection. I’m glad I didn’t as is a blast, giving everyone who missed it on PSP a chance to experience its epic story.
The updated graphics are a step up from the PSP visuals, and it doesn’t look too much different from Kingdom Hearts II HD, which can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the factors I’ve already mentioned. But the graphics aren’t the standout of this awesome game — it’s the combat. The battle system in Birth by Sleep is much closer to modern standards then Kingdom Hearts II, offering up a more satisfying gameplay as a side effect.
That’s not to say Birth By Sleep doesn’t also share in many of the same problems that Kingdom Hearts II does. The visual oddities here are the same, and some of the gameplay quibbles (particularly when it comes to auto-targeting and lack of a responsive guard command) are present as well. But the addition of a dodge roll (once it’s unlocked), different characters to play, and an amazing additional amount of depth changes the entire combat system. It also nicely side-steps the horrendously long prologue of Kingdom Hearts II by having a relatively short set-up and a decent tutorial.
Attacking fills your command gauge, using commands (which are different types of spells and attacks) to increase this will unlock a “command style”. Once it’s filled, it allows you to unleash different forms of awesome explosive attacks and combos. Filling the command gauge with normal attacks will allow you to consume it with a finish combo instead.
As I mentioned, there’s also plenty of added depth. You can meld your abilities together to create new ones, like the ability to make all of your enemies float helplessly in the air for a few seconds. You can buy new commands and find new combinations for them, and maxing the level of an ability grants even it an additional effect. It’s all very involving and very rewarding, making Birth by Sleep feel like the game the team originally wanted to make.
It’s sad to see the Gummi missions are gone, but there is a board game that feels sort of like Mario Party without mini-games. It’s more fun than it sounds, and I liked it more than I care to admit. The AI is a little weak, and I immediately wished you could play it with friends instead, as the AI simply isn’t very challenging. That said, the difficulty arc is still a bit all over the place –even if standard mobs are still easy, the bosses can be tough, even on standard. Thus, I still recommend kicking it up if you like a challenge, especially seeing as your new abilities really let you go on a real tear if you want to. If you want to indulge in a power fantasy and quickly wipe out tons of enemies very quickly, it is easy and it’s very satisfying thanks to the solid animation work.
For all my praise, Birth by Sleep is still not up to modern standards, but this is much less of a problem here then it is in Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix. As the dodge roll and the command styles make it feel much more fluid and fast-paced, and the depth lends much more value to your progression. The story is also told from three different characters perspectives, and that lends some variety to story. I would have liked to be able to switch to different characters while playing through their story arcs, but that’s a bit of a modern gameplay upgrade as well.
Finally, however, we have Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. If you played the first Kingdom Hearts ReMIX then you should be familiar with a game turned into long cutscenes, as this one has. I would say it was kind of an afterthought, but new scenes and acting has been added and there are less text sections then in 358/2 Days from the first ReMIX. The text sections also have the nice bonus of being narrated, which makes them less boring to sit through. Still, it’s disappointing the whole game wasn’t included. It’s nice to at least have the story, which is about comparable to it’s counterparts if not up to their standards. Some may find it a little mind-numbing however if they aren’t as big of a fan.
In the end, the forty dollar price tag means this bundle is quite a deal, even if I wish the time and steps had been taken to realize the bundle’s full potential of respectfully updating games I consider to be the progenitors of the Action-RPG genre that we know today… it’s still plenty fun and engaging as is.