Monday, December 31, 2018

Worldly Weekend: Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX

Full Disclosure: This article will serve as the "main" review for Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix, as I have no interest in importing the original version.

And so begins our journey into the world of Kingdom Hearts remasters. For the uninformed, the three we'll be reviewing are three-course meal packages -- two upgraded ports and a cinematic feature "retelling" the story behind one of the handheld spinoffs -- designed for the purpose of uniting the series onto one console in PlayStation 3 (barring Kingdom Hearts HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, which exclusively released for PlayStation 4 and would later be repackaged in Kingdom Hearts - The Story So Far on the same console). Given my peculiar relationship with this bizarre franchise, I simply cannot ignore reiterations that've hooked new fans, and so here we are.

In this case, we are reviewing Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX. Putting aside the series' latest in bizarre names, this first collection contains the "Final Mix" upgrade of the original Kingdom Hearts, PlayStation 2's Kingdom Hearts: Re:Chain of Memories remake of the Game Boy Advance game, and a movie version of Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. As you may recall, I have conflicting feelings on all three: the first one's an aged, wannabe masterpiece that's more of a bizarrely enchanting freshman project, Re:Chain of Memories is an inferior remake worth only for 3D novelty, and 358/2 Days' pretentious presentation can't mask its identity as mediocre product. For the weathered Kingdom Hearts fan as myself, barring the first-ever release of Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix in the West, this is not an especially enticing purchase, particularly when considering 1.5 ReMIX has been repackaged into two further collections:  Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX and Kingdom Hearts -The Story So Far-.

That does not, however, render it uninteresting to the curious observer looking into a daunting franchise. Again, said collections still exist, yet while I doubt anyone but the most ardent of collectors would go back and purchase the PS3 release (not that I'd blame them, considering the Limited Edition includes some neat concept art), I imagine reviewing all six/nine games/movies within would prove an exhaustive review. With most of what's contained in here still applying to those collections, I shall forge ahead with my original plans and review the original ReMIXes as is. (That, and I'm not about to repurchase collections I already own, 60 FPS be damned).

But where do we start? The star attraction in Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, of course, and I suppose it's time I explain what that is. To provide a brief timeline, three versions of Kingdom Hearts were released throughout 2002: the original iteration for Japan, an updated release for America/Europe that featuring new optional bosses and post-credits cutscenes, and a final cut for Japan that winter; in other words, the fabled Final Mix, including everything from enemy recolors, new secret bosses, and hidden movies paving the way for Kingdom Hearts II. It was a Kingdom Hearts Holy Grail, if you will, one that took 11 years to cross the Pacific (and yet, its featuring of English voices -- which I understand many Japanese fans actually prefer -- rendered it surprisingly accessible for those who made the import plunge,)

I could elaborate on the catharsis in finally experiencing it, but we must first acknowledge this is no simple HD remaster. For starters, the game was recreated entirely from scratch; believe it or not, Square-Enix lost the source code to the sands of time, and it was up to two plucky programmers to salvage the series' progenitor. Careless, sure, but I suppose we shouldn't expect corporations to preserve history. Anywho, they took the time to implement a number of significant graphical differences, and certainly there's nothing more notable than our protagonist in Sora. Having more or less recycled the main models over the past half-decade, the developers saved time by re-purposing Sora's Dream Drop Distance model to positive results -- compare this shot, depicting the group's surprise at the talking doorknob from Alice in Wonderland:

The original's blurriness aside, the differences are instantly apparent -- the rounder cheeks and thinner lips, particularly, granting Sora a more wide-eyed, youthful appearance. As expected with jaggie reduction, the character models are super-smooth, and I find no finer example than Sora's pokey hair. Would pulling on a pronounced strand produce a cartoonish sound-effect?

As always, the reductions in jaggies is always appreciated with these remasters-- everything is squeaky-clean, a much-needed boon for Disney cast: be they molded from human figures or cartoonish shapes, most have aged particularly well in spite of those awkward cutscenes I adore lambasting. Not that we still don't have to deal with those ugly "texture mouth" models from time to time, but these refinements make them a hell lot more palatable, and I'd like to think they otherwise suggest Square's mastery in capturing Disney's aesthetic.

Yoko Shimomura's lovely soundtrack has also been entirely retooled; ordinarily, I would consider this heresy as it remains my series favorite, but the kicker is that it's orchestrated by Taku Sakakibara via 20+ piece orchestra adapting one of her finest masterpieces into live form. Already, I'm salivating; what finer choice to adapt an ambitious Disney epic into similarly-utilized orchestral setpieces? And yet, to my eternal disappointment, such objections persist. As an individual wedged between his love for game music and being absolutely hopeless at discussing any sort of music technicalities, this is particularly difficult to elaborate upon, but my admiration for the original soundtrack means I must persevere and discover what went wrong.

From what I can tell: when it focuses entirely on orchestral performance as opposed to synth -- particularly when it complements subdued, poignant pieces -- the orchestra's condensed size echoes wonderfully. Dearly Beloved and Treasured Memories remain achingly poetic, Traverse Town is undeniably the faintest of wistful Disney nostalgia, and A Very Small Wish is unequivocally Pinocchio. This isn't to say it can't get ambitious: the Hollow Bastion themes were simply made for live performance, and it's not a stretch to designate Pirate's Gigue -- the Neverland battle theme -- as the orchestra's favorite: their opening castanets unveiling a unanimous, palpable delight, they sweep us away into a swashbuckling swordfight elevating Captain Hook's pirate ship into starry-sky heights never before dreamed by PS2.
It's when the team descends into synth -- or at least blended in with the post-recordings -- that things don't work so great. Not that I wasn't expecting, say, the guitar-ridden Having a Wild Time to be fully orchestrated, but compare the original Arabian Dream to the new one, and you'll instantly spot what's...I wouldn't necessarily say inferior instrumentation, but an awkward ensemble that channel none of the original's instant tension. There is the occasional winner -- the aforementioned Having a Wild Time, for one, and I rather like what they did with the first Gummi Ship theme, but tracks such as these give flashbacks to Shimomura's drearily cheap efforts for Re:Chain of Memories.

Alas, these awkward instrumental choices even bleed into the orchestral tracks -- Sakakibara aims for a more subdued direction with his adaptions, but that serves no favors for the game's "bigger" tracks, consequently smothering imposing nightmares like Destiny's Force into the merely serviceable. Given they apparently only had one day to record everything, I imagine a lengthier process would've resulted in more appropriate results -- and I feel terrible saying that given the insane work ethic described in the provided link, especially ven more so given Shimomura's direct involvement and approval -- but as it stands, I cannot claim it does one of her masterpieces justice. (This isn't getting into how the music occasionally skips for the PS3 iteration, although I believe this was fixed in future rereleases.)

But enough moping: there's Final Mix itself to discuss! Much of the upgrades range from the cosmetic to the substantial: you have your new Keyblades, your new abilities, and, my personal favorite, the new color swaps for most of the Heartless. Serving as a fresh coat of paint -- in other words, Final Mix's most overt signal for "THIS IS A SHINY NEW EXPANSION PACK YOU'RE PLAYING!!", these go a long way in successfully complementing the designs. Not everyone agrees on this, particularly for the opinion I'm about to divulge: My favorite lies in the early Guard Armor boss, decorated with primary colors upon silver armor that liken it to a nostalgic Christmas mall animatronic. (Of course, others emphasize coolness -- check out that wicked black patterns decorating the Phantom boss's white coat. Spooky!)

There also exist new cutscenes, provided for the sake of further context or beginning the cryptic trend of hinting at new releases. As they weren't about to rehire the American VAs for a Japan-only release, this version's presence of English voices means they're silent, often overlaying words across the screen to add a mystique appeal. While appreciated, the real star is what captivated a late 2002 internet: the secret "Deep Dive" CGI video, depicting hooded men -- some familiar, some not -- clashing blades and vanquishing Heartless in a rainy neon city as ambiguous phrases flash across the screen. 

That it still compels even today owes to the lighting -- any outdated renders and effects are obscured by a gloomy dusk expressing a grimmer future for the franchise (that the "brightest" sequence -- a comatose Sora soaring above an endless sea -- is framed within stormy weather and dull coloring speaks to its mystique). Not that Kingdom Hearts II ever delivered on such prospects -- if anything, I'm still mad salty they ended up ditching the city for a lame sci-fi finale -- but 2002 Internet couldn't possibly have foreseen that, so let's just all agree it's still damn cool to ooh and aah at. 

Of course, Final Mix isn't just interested in visuals -- Kingdom Hearts had already been gradually expanding its offerings in its trip across the globe, so why not top it off for the final version? Some work, some don't: the new optional boss in the lightsaber-wielding Unknown takes a page from Deep dive by beginning yet another trend (this time with KHII's big bad.), whereas an attempt to salvage the universally-maligned Gummi Ship missions features the likes of tedious missions and worthless score counts; like the dork I am, I completed them all. Doesn't make them any less shitty, but hey, at least they actually have purpose.

Does Final Mix -- or at least buffed for HD -- revitalize Kingdom Hearts for a new age? Not necessarily -- it's still very plainly a 2002 action JRPG, and no amount of model touch-ups can entirely repair wooden cutscenes or clunky platforming. Much like my beloved Tales of Symphonia, I'm afraid it's best appreciated as a "You Had to Be There" deal -- its strengths may remain unparalleled relative to its successors, but its evident amateur beginnings continue to stifle its ambitions. And yet for all my complaints regarding the remastered score, I can't ignore said improvements
render it more acceptable. For a wannabe-masterpiece just barely held together, there's no better place to start for the inquiring onlooker.

As it happens, this collection was my first experience with Re:Chain of Memories, although I am saddened to report there's not very much to say about it. It must be reminded the game was initially forged as an enticing bonus for Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix -- if anything, it could be considered a "Final Mix" in itself -- and of the seven remasters, it's the only one not in urgent need of an update (It's already a handheld-to-console renovation, so there's no need for a movie condensation). Aside from graphical touch-ups and the occasional orchestrated track, there's simply not much to discuss. It exists for those who desire it; nothing more, nothing less.

Concluding our trip is the 358/2 Days movie, and it is here where I profess I don't care for these adaptions very much. Hardly a deviant opinion, you understand -- they are, at best, disposable, routinely dealing with the most peripheral of Kingdom Hearts adventures. Sure, I suppose I'd rather sit down and watch it than waste my time playing it again, but while I'm happy to inform 358/2 Days is perhaps the most tolerable, that doesn't mean it's, uh, good.

Let's cut to the chase -- it's awkward, with abrupt cuts to provide text summaries of irrelevant events (often involving Roxas's tedious adventures in Disney worlds). This direction provides absolutely zero favors to fight sequences, namely those illustrated by boss fights. While it helps most of those were in the aforementioned Disney worlds, it certainly undermines the final fight more than a tad, what with the characters prepping for a big battle only for one of them to suddenly die. (I am aware the PS4 collections did patch a brief fight onto that, but from what I've witnessed, said brevity only highlights it as a tacked-on Band-Aid.)

My opinion of 358/2 Days as a game aside, I've always regarded its function in story -- Roxas's time in Organization XII between the events of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II -- as a fun idea that didn't necessarily need to happen. Yes, yes, follow the money -- Roxas proved himself extraordinarily popular, and his mere existence is admittedly prime for new material -- but contrary to Birth by Sleep's proper follow-up to Kingdom Hearts II's prequel teases, there's nothing that thoroughly demands we need another title within Chain of Memories' timeframe (aside from a much-needed elaboration on Roxas and Axel's friendship, putting aside Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix's unexpectedly beautiful compensation for that). Consequently, that makes it that much harder for 358/2 Days to prove itself, with a new character I have absolutely no use for (Xion) and a shambling attempt at a poignant tale that, for all its symbolism and touching one-liners, slips away from our memories the moment we turn off our PS3s and DSes.

To spare my body from incoming pitchforks: Relative to the horrors that await us in the future collectiI suppose that's a point in its favor alongside the voice acting: Jesse McCartney continues to work his unanticipated magic as a gentle, soul-searching Roxas, and I've long since grown into Quinton Flynn's laid-back Axel. (Although I must say that for his one scene, David Dayan Fisher obviously forgot how to voice Xaldin, and the results aren't pretty.) Even so, it serves as more of a reminder on the series' gross mismanagement as opposed to being a necessary piece of entertainment.

In summary, 1.5 Remix consists of an appealing aged port, an inferior novelty and a disposable movie. Not an especially strong collection, but I admit I'm being too harsh: my preference for Shimomura's original score will always hold an unfair advantage for what's already a Frankenstein game, and no amount of nitpicking will dismiss my fervor for finally, finally experiencing a Holy Grail denied to us Yanks for eleven years. I have no use for anything else on this disc, but my appreciation for another take renders it all the more worthwhile.

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