For almost a decade now, the Kingdom Hearts series has been inching closer to its third mainline chapter at something of a snail’s pace, Square Enix all the while releasing an assortment of side stories and remastered greatest-hits collections to keep impatient fans satiated. Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX falls under the latter category, and it’s a modest improvement over 2013’s Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX. Just as 1.5 ReMIX bridged the gap between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, 2.5 ReMIX aims to serve as a chronological conduit to 2012’s Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance and an aperitif to the forthcoming next-gen Kingdom Hearts III. The inclusion of both Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep in PS3-format high-definition (again both dubbed “Final Mixes”), arguably the two best games in the franchise to date, is enough to recommend this compilation to not only Kingdom Hearts aficionados, but those attempting to jump into this enchanting mishmash of franchises for the first time.
Kingdom Hearts II’s placement on Slant’s list of the 100 Greatest Video Games of All Time is no fluke; it has aged tremendously well, and remains the highlight of the canon. The story is one of the most thematically complex in writer Kazushige Nojima’s revered résumé, dealing heavily with the false fulfillment of the soul (the doomed plight of Roxas) and the ultimate definition of heartlessness (the breakdown of Organization XIII). With the graphical overhauling in 2.5 ReMIX, Square Enix does what it can to smooth out the rough textures and unvarnished environments of the PlayStation 2 version, and the results are uniformly solid given the system’s limitations. Character models are supplied with an extra dosage of pixels for a less fractured appearance, and battlefield movement is enhanced with the game’s sizable uptick in framerate. The vocal track, audio effects, and Yoko Shimomura’s excellent score have also been significantly revamped; background melodies for worlds like Traverse Town, as well as signature menu music, sound terrific when filtered through a decent set of 5.1 speakers. For all its aesthetic augmentations, though, it’s very much apparent that Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix began its life as a PS2 game. Even as it does well to improve on a classic, it can’t help but feel slightly antiquated from a design perspective.
The same can’t quite be said for Birth by Sleep, only a five-year-old game in comparison to Kingdom Hearts II, which is nearly double that age. Initially a PSP exclusive, Birth by Sleep marks the earliest occasion when core Kingdom Hearts combat mechanics were significantly altered. The introduction of the Command Deck, a customizable revolving door of quick button-press actions (attacks, magic, items) made the already outstanding fight sequences in Kingdom Hearts II that much more free-flowing. Using the DualShock 3 instead of the often awkward PSP here is a huge benefit, rendering Birth by Sleep Final Mix the easiest to control of any Kingdom Hearts installment yet put forth. Those seduced by the layer of complexities appended to Sora’s tale in Kingdom Hearts II might be taken aback with the simplistic narrative route presented in Birth by Sleep. It’s a prequel, taking place 10 years before the events of Kingdom Hearts. A trio of central playable protagonists, Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, are less interesting than Sora and his mercurial affiliates. Their comparatively stereotypical, linear quest to achieve Mark of Mastery from Master Xehanort and preempt the impending Keyblade War is sans lingering excitement, lacking the twists and turns dished out by Kingdom Hearts II. Nevertheless, as with previous Final Mixes, new levels, weapons, and boss encounters are tossed in to supplement the weak points of this commonly glossed over episode.
Similar to how Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days was depicted in 1.5 ReMIX, 2.5 ReMIX recaps Kingdom Hearts Re:coded through cutscenes that summarize its various happenings. It’s mostly an unnecessary rehashing of everything attentive players have previously been exposed to, but the fact that it’s one seamless multi-hour mini-movie instead of chopped up as 358/2 Days was in 1.5 ReMIX, the deluge of information is relatively painless to process. On the whole, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX, in addition to being a mouthful, is a dutiful reworking of perhaps the finest crossover of the last console generation. If you still can’t see the unanticipated union of Disney and Square Enix as divine matrimony, you likely never will.