As much as it pains me to admit it, I pre-ordered, purchased, finished, and enjoyed the original Kingdom Hearts back in 2002. For me, this original entry held the same appeal as Super Smash Bros. or Marvel vs. Capcom: The sheer novelty of mashing multiple universes together, made even more enjoyable by how little sense it all makes.
In the early days of the PlayStation 2 era, Kingdom Hearts' weirdness fully justified the price of admission—which worked in Square's favor, seeing as the underlying game isn't all that great. Despite how many places the developer could go with such an imaginative idea, most of Kingdom Hearts' action involves mindlessly button-mashing your way through packs of palette-swapped enemies within sparse—but well-rendered—environments. The concept behind this Disney RPG might be whimsical, but the execution feels absolutely joyless—and, over the years, Square's done very little to change Kingdom Hearts' biggest problem. Regardless of how many systems and mechanics they graft onto its core, the series still feels the same as it always did: thoroughly average by early '00s standards.
But some would argue it's worth suffering through mediocrity just to witness moments like this:
The recently released Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix collects two of the series' many sequels: 2006's Kingdom Hearts 2, and 2010's Birth by Sleep—Re:coded is also included, but only in cutscene form (if that's how you'd like to spend your finite time on this planet). Now, when you're dealing with a series full of sequels, prequels, and interquels, approaching something like 2.5 HD Remix requires more than a little prior experience. Heck, Square-Enix even offers their own version of Cliff's Notes for the events leading up to the games contained in 2.5—try to make your way through more than half of that while still remembering what words mean.
If the events contained within that Kingdom Hearts story summary seem needlessly overwrought, congratulations: You've identified one of the most annoying trends that's afflicted the series since part two. Where the first game dropped you into the world of Square/Disney mashups without too much delay, the sequel chooses to open by focusing on an altogether new group of spunky anime teens on their aimless summer vacation. For a genre where games are typically known for their slow beginnings, none I've played to date have managed to outdo Kingdom Hearts 2—and unfortunately, the HD version doesn't let you skip this section, which would have been a welcome improvement. I get the sense that Square intended for these initial hours to set up the mystery behind Sora's blond doppelganger, but the game's intro video pretty much spells out his identity in explicit detail. (He's actually Sora's Nobody, who was created when Sora gave up his heart to save oh god why do I know this?)
The game gets better from there, but only because it leaves its worst parts behind. Part 2 continues the series' standard tour of Disney worlds, but this element almost seems like an afterthought this time around. The original Kingdom Hearts essentially let you play out the entire plots of Disney movies (albeit in a truncated format), so it's hard to work up the same excitement over visiting Agrabah, Atlantica, Halloween Town, Beast's Castle, and the 100 Acre Woods all over again. Worlds based on Tron (before it was "cool(?)") and Pirates of the Caribbean make for some creative choices, but the novelty of seeing Donald and Goofy decked out in full Light Cycle gear quickly disappears whenever Kingdom Hearts pushes aside these wonderfully strange moments for the sake of dropping more sequel-justifying melodrama and lore on your head.
The other playable game in this collection, Birth By Sleep, never crossed my path during its original release, and I'm guessing it couldn't have been all that popular in the States—PSP releases didn't exactly fly off of the shelves in 2010. If you've never played it, Birth By Sleep could be the least Disney-focused entry in the series: This PSP sequel completely ditches Donald and Goofy as co-op partners, and instead saddles you with one of three Keyblade masters who exist within the beginning of the series' continuity. Seeing the entire story involves playing through the game with all three characters, and should you set out to accomplish this task, you're going to be seeing the same areas a lot. And I'm not sure if Square buys licenses separately for each Disney property within a Kingdom Hearts game, but the choices on display aren't the most imaginative. Some worlds, like Snow White and Cinderella's, employ your generic, fairytale settings, and others, like "Disney Town," don't seem to have much of a theme outside of "here's some old cartoon stuff, I guess."
I've seen some people hold up Birth By Sleep as the high point of the series, but I can't really see why. It plays practically the same as any Kingdom Hearts game, and the complexity added to make up for the lack of party members ends up giving battles some extra clumsiness. In order to give your character more versatility, Birth By Sleep uses something called the D-Link system, which lets you use the moves of characters you've met along the way. Using this effectively, though, means you have to dig through a ton of menus while enemies swarm about, and the ultimate attacks for these D-Links—which play out like QTE mini-games—lock you in place, making you a target for enemies until the animation plays out. Ultimately, though, you only have to button-mash your way to success, which, again, is classic Kingdom Hearts. After coming off of a long weekend of playing Bayonetta 2, the slippery, imprecise action of Birth By Sleep—while no worse than the series' standard—felt especially undercooked. It doesn't need to be as complex as what you'd find in a Platinum game, of course, but I rarely felt like I had complete control over my character.
If I come off as being cranky about Kingdom Hearts, I have to apologize: The series doesn't actively anger me, but jumping back into these games just reminds me of their many missed opportunities—Disney Infinity might even be outdoing them at this point. As it stands, 2.5 HD Remix collects two unessential entries in a largely unessential series, though with Kingdom Hearts 2 quickly approaching its tenth birthday, there's bound to be some of you out there who played it as kids and currently feel the dull ache of nostalgia for your misspent youth. Much like the Tales of series, Kingdom Hearts doesn't feel the need to attract anyone outside of its devoted fanbase, which works just fine if you're already trapped within the many layers of its Disney/anime casserole. For everyone else, though, it'll take nothing less than a complete reboot for Kingdom Hearts to regain the promise it once had over a decade ago.