Review: Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix Is All Kinds of Gorgeous

Welcome back, high-def Donald and Goofy.

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Square Enix

The worst you can say about Square Enix’s high-def Kingdom Hearts makeover is that one of the three games bundled here — Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days — is no longer a game, but a movie. Make that a collection of short movies, essentially the cutscenes from the Nintendo DS game with spiffed up visuals.

Then again, we’re talking hours of aggregate footage, sliced and diced into concise chapters (for those without a three-hour block to consume the whole enchilada), and maybe you didn’t care all that much for the DS game but still want to see how things play out for characters like Roxas, Axel and Xion, in which case the worst thing becomes a better thing.

But let’s talk about the best thing, which is Kingdom Hearts itself, or more accurately, Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, a tweaked-for-the-better version previously unavailable in the U.S. (unless you imported it from Japan). Square Enix didn’t have to do much here: update the game’s textures, crank up the resolution to what sure as heck looks like native 1080p, add PlayStation 3 trophy support, tweak the fiddly camera controls and fold in all that extra Final Mix content to make what was already a terrific little game a little more terrific still.

For those who skipped or missed it, Kingdom Hearts is the first of Square Enix’s improbable duets with Disney — both companies’ maiden crossover mashup between the outré Final Fantasy and old-school animated Disney universes. Spiky-haired kid, meet Goofy. Donald, meet born-again Aerith Gainsborough. Squall Leonheart, stand around and, you know, look insouciant.

You get the picture. It’s an action roleplaying game starring those characters and dozens more that’s heavy on the button-thumping with a patina of roleplaying sprinkled over the top: diet Final Fantasy for wee gamers lured by their favorite familiar Disney characters (the game sports a coveted “E” for Everyone ESRB rating), but little or no experience with concepts like health and experience points or attributes like strength and dexterity. Not that the gameplay’s splashing around in the kiddie pool: kick the difficulty to Final Mix‘s “Proud” level at the outset, and, well, buckle up.

Plus, it’s Disney: Whatever you think of the Star Wars-swallowing behemoth these days, who doesn’t want to romp around digs like Agrabah and the Hundred Acre Wood or Halloween Town and Neverland, all even more beautifully realized with reworked textures and higher pixel counts? Hey Simba! There’s the Genie! Isn’t that’s Jack Skellington? And oh hey, Tinkerbell!

Still, there’s almost a card-carrying Final Fantasy fan requirement to identify with the loopy, often dreamlike story, where you’ll play as a character you’ve never heard of (Sora, the anodyne child protagonist) in the unlikely company of others you have (Donald Duck, Goofy), rolling without deviation from one pop-Disney realm to the next, battling obvious Disney villains on the road to squaring off against the game’s arcane big bad.

Running through all that nostalgic chrome and narrative weirdness — and making this a game still worth playing — is a solid Zelda-like tactical battle system that takes patience and practice to master. Yes, when you swing Sora’s Keyblade (a giant key you wield like a sword) there’s a trace of delay upon recovery, but those pauses were always intentional — part of learning how a character like Sora fights. And like the best action-angled combat systems, you have to glean battle patterns that fluctuate from enemy to enemy and mob to mob.

A few rough spots persist, but then you’d expect them to (these are makeovers, not remakes). In the original version, you operated the player camera using the gamepad’s left and right trigger buttons, which felt awkward. Here, that’s shifted to the right thumbstick, where it belongs, but the camera itself still catches on objects and sticks to walls in tight spaces, just when you’re trying to execute a hair-trigger move against some ruthless enemy algorithm — an immovable object stalemating your irresistible force.

There’s also the occasional jaunt on the dreaded Gummi Ship, a poorly executed Star Fox homage where you rail-shoot your way between worlds that’s as silly as the snowboarding sequences in Final Fantasy VII. It’s a shame these couldn’t have disappeared down the memory hole. Making Sora play Nine Men’s Morris would have been less annoying.

What am I forgetting? Oh right, the one with the inverted email subject line title, Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories, originally a Game Boy Advance game ported to the PlayStation 2. It’s the card-based experiment of the bunch, meaning you fight battles using cards playing what amounts to War (you remember how that works, right?). I confess I’ve only had time to fiddle with the HD version, and it’s identical to the PS2 version except for its upgraded visuals, but I can confirm the latter are as lovely as they are in the Kingdom Hearts Final Mix remaster.

Which is all basically to say, here you go Kingdom Hearts wonks, your holy grail until Kingdom Hearts 2.5 and 3 arrive. For $39, you get two remastered, faithful ports (warts and all), plus a third game’s videos elegantly arranged for multiple viewings, all three looking so crisp and artful, you wonder how we ever managed before HD came along.

Version reviewed: PS3

Score: 4 out of 5