It's that time of year again. The best time of the year. With Kingdom Hearts III on the (still distant) horizon, and winter making us feel like staying inside and wrapping up warm, comes the perfect excuse to say goodbye to the world outside for a few weeks - the second half of Square Enix's HD remake collection, Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix. While the title may be a bit buzz word heavy, all you really need to know is that this is a spruced up collection of two (and a bit) of the old Disney-meet-Final-Fantasy role playing games, containing upgraded version of the PS2's Kingdom Hearts 2 and the PSP's Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep, along with some cutscenes from the DS's Kingdom Hearts: Re:Coded. So dust off your Keyblades, put on your clown shoes and spike up your hair, and get ready to lose yourself in lose yourself in the magical world of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix.
Emerging from the wreckage of a collision between the beloved Disney characters and the popular Final Fantasy worlds, the Kingdom Hearts series is the story-driven role-playing game, famed for it's rather convoluted and confusing tale. Packing some simple fast-paced battles, it's bright colours, bags of personality and huge quantities of Sea Salt ice creams have won it favour with fans of both Square Enix and Disney alike. But, with there being no main entry in the series for almost ten years, and with Kingdom Hearts III still a while away, there's a whole generation who may have missed out on the magic the first time round (including your writer). Which is where this year's game comes in.
Before we go any further though, you ought to know that the story of the Kingdom Hearts series is complicated with a capital C. In a nutshell, the series follows the story of a boy named Sora, who has been chosen to save the world, write wrongs and save all of existence from darkness. Then he gets his memory wiped, spends a few years in stasis; his best mate has a fight with what he thought was Sora's doppelgänger but turned out to be a piece of a different guy from way before Sora's time; and to top it all off, Sora's somehow connected to three Keyblade wielders from the past too, who managed to alter his future. And King Mickey is in there somewhere, with Goofy and Donald as his knights, and.... yeah. With seven major releases across a number of consoles, its tale has become so convoluted, it's pretty much impossible to sum up without an extensive series of graphs, diagrams and several leaps of logic.
Luckily, that doesn't mean you can't have a lot of fun with this.
Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix
The main attraction of the collection, Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix is the definitive, previously-only-released-in-Japan version of Kingdom Hearts II, telling the tale of Sora's continued search for apparent hide-and-seek champs Riku and King Mickey, whilst trying to find his way home to his other friend, Kairi. But, strangely enough, Kingdom Hearts II doesn't actually begin with the familiar trio of Sora, Donald and Goofy - instead, you play as a semi-unknown guy who looks a little bit like Sora, known as Roxas, who, between his escapades with his school friends, seems to be plagued with nightmares and flashbacks of his lookalike's escapades from the first Kingdom Hearts game. Turns out Sora is stuck in some sort of stasis, and him and Roxas share some sort of psychic link - and through a rather convoluted series of steps, control eventually switches over to Sora, now awake once more. Turns out the 'Heartless' are back causing trouble, and this time they've bought friends - the 'Nobodies', beings who have lost their hearts to the darkness, but, unlike the Heartless, keep their intelligence and will, making them much more formidable enemies.
Before long, you end up in more familiar Kingdom Hearts territory, travelling to all manner of Disney worlds, from Mulan to The Nightmare Before Christmas and even Pirates of the Caribbean. Each has its own unique missions and stories, whether it's helping Mulan prove herself as Ping to the Captain, solving the mystery of the Beast's strange behaviour, or escaping from a cybernetic prison in a TRON-like world. Each split into a mix of combat, puzzle solving and collecting, there's rarely a dull moment either, whether you're Keyblading your way through hoards of enemies on a snowy Chinese mountain top, or playing a few mini-games with Kanga, Roo and the gang. And while the cutscenes don't use the official voice actors for the majority of characters, the voices are still surprisingly good.
As always, each world is infested with the game's 'Heartless' enemies, causing chaos and generally making life in the lands less than perfect. Being Square Enix's number one Heartless-whacker, it's up to Sora and friends to send them back from whence they came, using a combination of physical attacks from the legendary Keyblade and a smattering of magic spells. Battles are real-time, fast-paced and mostly button-mashy, and, with the exception of certain boss fights, pretty straightforward. Depending on which of the three weapons you pick at the start of the game - the sword, shield or staff - your stats and the skills you earn as you level up will vary accordingly. The sword is the more standard, physical attack focused weapon, while the shield priorities defence and health, and the staff bolsters your magical capabilities instead. As Sora's levels increase, you unlock various abilities to equip, letting you see enemy health bars, block incoming attacks or make items restore a higher portion of your health when used - but you can't just equip every single one you unlock willy-nilly. Each ability costs a certain number of AP (Ability Points) to equip, out of a maximum which grows as Sora's levels increase.
For his new adventure, Sora has a new set of clothes - and a new special ability. Known as his 'Drive Forms', he can harness the power of Donald, Goofy (or both!) by transforming into a more powerful form of himself (and getting a new outfit to boot) during combat. Powered by his Drive meter, these form changes can only be unleashed when the bar is full enough, from picking up the yellow Drive orbs defeated enemies drop. As you play through the game, new forms can be unlocked, and existing ones levelled up to give Sora one heck of a deadly wardrobe.
As a new addition for the Final Mix version of Kingdom Hearts II, some 144 collectable puzzle pieces are scattered around the various Disney worlds, each of which fits into one of six different jigsaw puzzles. These pieces are generally found in some quite hard to reach places, often requiring the use of special moves you can only get through levelling up Sora's various Drive Forms, giving you all the more reason to go back and replay previously-visited worlds. Gummi Ship missions make their return too, filling in the routes between Disney worlds with some on-the-rails, spaceship-flying, shooter action. With the help of friendly rodent engineers Chip and Dale, you can build your own ships with collected parts and blueprints, before flying them through the courses, looking for hidden collectables, shooting enemy ships and avoiding asteroids, walls and other such solid objects.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Final Mix
This one is a remake of an old PSP game, Birth By Sleep, in its definitive once-Japan-only Final Mix glory. Set some ten years before the events of the original Kingdom Hearts game, it tells the tale of a trio of Keyblade wielders, saving the world from darkness once more. Alongside Master Xehanort's mysterious disappearance, dark villains known as the Unversed have been released, heading into the obligatory Disney worlds and feeding on character's negative emotions, warping the well-known stories and otherwise causing chaos. But the cool thing about Birth By Sleep is that each of the characters - Aqua, Ventus and Terra - have their own unique (and intertwining) stories to play through. Only by completing all three paths will you be able to unlock the truth behind the whole shebang, and put a stop to the Unversed menace.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Kingdom Hearts game without a few jaunts to some well-known Disney worlds. The new menace, the Unversed, have invaded various films, from oldies like Snow White and Cinderella to the more recent Lilo and Stitch, causing chaos by praying on the darkness in the characters' hearts, and warping the popular tales. Whether its holding off the enemy hordes so that the little mouse Jaq can free Cinderella from her imprisonment, beating up the Magic Mirror boss to help lift Snow White's curse or fighting your way out of Maleficent's domain with Sleeping Beauty's Prince Philip at your side, it's up to you to put things right.
In the traditional Kingdom Hearts style, combat is fast-paced, flashy and real-time - a button-mashy mix of regular Keyblade strikes and fancier special attacks, known as 'Commands'. Each of the characters has their own unique combat styles, with big, burly Terra focussing more on physical, brute-force attacks, with Ventus specialising more in speed and agility while blue-haired Aqua deals mostly in magic. Each character also has a ranged 'Shotlock' attack, which locks onto as many enemies as you can move the cursor over within the time limit - thereby having a potential for massive damage, and coming in especially handy when you're surrounded.
As you fight battles, gain experience and level up, new skills and abilities are unlocked, which can be swapped in and out of your current 'Command Deck', a list of moves for use in battle. The more you use a move in battle, the higher it levels up, increasing in power each time - and once they reach a certain level, you can Meld (read: fuse) them together to create new Commands. The Dimension Link feature meanwhile, lets you borrow the powers of your friends for a short time, fully restoring your health in the process. Initially, you can only channel Terra, Ventus and Aqua, but as you set the Disney worlds to rights, it expands to include various Disney and Final Fantasy characters too, such as Cinderella, Donald or Final Fantasy VII/Crisis Core's Zack Fair.
But battling isn't the only way to level up your Commands - by playing the 'Command Board' game, you can boost them outside of combat too. Basically a Kingdom Hearts take on Monopoly, you roll a dice to move spaces around each of the themed boards, buying squares by placing one of your battle Commands on it, and anyone who lands on it will have to pay a certain amount of CP (Command Points) to you, helping to level up the corresponding Command in the process. It's an interesting, if a little long-winded, method of upgrading your moves, perfect for when you're a little sick of battling.
Another cool diversion is the game's Sticker Book - scattered around the Disney worlds, often in hard to reach or hidden places, are a number of collectable stickers or various Disney characters, props and decorations. Each character has their own Sticker Book, with a unique scene you can place the collected stickers on, earning points based on how close the position is deemed to be to the 'correct' one - and, as Bruce Forsyth is all too fond of saying, points mean prizes!
Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded
Bringing up the rear comes Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded - or rather just the cutscenes from Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded. Originally released on the DS, given the Touch Screen related nature of the game, Square Enix's excuse is that they couldn't have remade it for the big screen, adapting it to the PS3 controller, and instead opted to just redo the cinematics, giving us three hours of watching to do with nothing to play. Personally, we'd rather track down a copy of the original DS game and play instead, but hey - at least it's an easy set of trophies!
The Collector's and Limited Editions
Of course, it wouldn't be an HD re-release of a fan favourite game without a few collector's editions to choose from - and Kingdom Hearts 2.5 is no different, coming with two different packages.
The first, the Collector's Edition, is the most spectacular of the two - but it carries a price tag to boot. Coming with a plush, a 30 page art book, a rather swish collectible pin, and both Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD and 2.5 HD, this would have set you back £79.99 - but, unfortuantely, within a few hours of going on sale it's become like the proverbial hens teeth. Your best bet is to try eBay or Amazon's Listing
- but be prepared for scalpers.
If love Kingdom Hearts so much you can't just settle for the normal version, though, you can always go for the Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMix Limited Edition. Coming in a fancy cardboard box, this bundle includes both a copy of the game, and the same fancy, exclusive Disney pin that comes with the Collector's Edition. Done in the same fashion as the Disney pins that go down a treat at theme parks and in Disney stores across the country, these pins are highly sought after - and this one is particularly nice, coming complete with Sora's dangling chain on his keyblade. It's pretty sizeable too, and will be taking pride of place amongst our pin collection. If you're into pins, it's well worth splashing the extra few quid on the Limited Edition - which is still in stock at Amazon.
All in all, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix is another winning collection of Kingdom Hearts games - great for both newcomers and old fans itching to play it all over again. If you haven't already, we'd recommend starting with last year's Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, if only to make a bit more sense of the story, and to avoid any potential spoilers. They may simply be more of the same, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - chilling out with Winnie The Pooh, taking in the Agrabah sights or singing undersea songs with Sebastian is as fun as it ever was. Fast-paced battles, winning characters and a surprisingly deep story makes a winning role-playing game you can lose yourself in - whether you're a newcomer or a seasoned veteran. And given the collection's more budget-friendly retail price, for 60+ hours of role-playing games, it's hard to say no.