Sunday, January 13, 2019

Worldly Weekend: Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX

Disclaimer: This article serves as the "main" reviews for Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix and Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Final Mix, as I possess no interest in importing the original versions.

Now, here's something certainly more bang for your buck: two Final Mixes in one collection. Sure, there's a rancid movie adaption included, but why complain when there's two Holy Grails finally localized into English? To say Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX -- the second of the three Kingdom Hearts collections we're reviewing -- chronologically focuses on the post-Kingdom Hearts portion of the saga would be a tad misleading considering the presence of prequel Birth by Sleep, but it's not like 358/2 Days -- a game requiring intimate knowledge of Kingdom Hearts II -- being present in the first collection made much sense either. As we've elaborated countless times, no one really knows what goes on with this series, so let's just roll with it.

So anyway: Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, Birth by Sleep Final Mix, and a movie adaption of Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded. For the moment, let us pretend that last one doesn't exist, and observe the majesty previously denied to us Westerners. True, dedicated PSP owners may've circumvented the handheld's region-free capabilities for Birth by Sleep, but let's not pretend the English language's presence doesn't produce convenience for everyone else. Yet with Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix being the more famed of the two, it's only natural we begin with the collection's main attraction.

In case I haven't hammered this enough, Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix has always been the highest-regarded Final Mix, and I'd like to agree. Not that the original was anything to sneeze at and there's some fun surprises waiting for us in Birth by Sleep, but I discern this being such for two reasons -- a) with the series' expectations set in stone, Square-Enix certainly recognized by 2006 what would  allure series fans, and b) Kingdom Hearts II's vanilla release betrayed its pompous, protracted presentation with minimized side-content. Recognizing room for improvement, Square-Enix put all the stops to make this an appealing enhanced edition, one that'd go beyond including a shiny 3D Chain of Memories remake.

For starters, consider the overall package in relation to the first game's Final Mix; namely, new cutscenes. The original provided additional scenes that, while expanding upon certain scenarios, weren't entirely necessary and felt relatively low-budget with no voice-overs. Here, they fill in much, much-needed gaps -- Organization XII getting together and actually scheming achieves some level of presence on their part. This common-sense extension on their Game Boy roles is already appreciated, but that Square goes the extra mile with their gatherings tying into the series' future (past?) with enticing clues towards Birth By Sleep -- most notably in one character's private ritual of ascending down a concealed, hidden staircase -- brilliantly capitalizes upon our anticipation and ensures our rapt attention for what's to come. (Unless, of course, corporate management and an over-ambitious director get far too carried away with countless spin-offs, but we've harped on that enough.)

I must pay heed to one cutscene in particular -- a meta-physical discussion between Roxas and Axel late-game -- as perhaps the series' finest writing-wise, challenging our preconceptions on Kingdom Hearts II's newfound lore, tying up character arcs with such grace and heartfelt melancholy, and sprinkling seeds for the hopeful future. It's enough to finally forgive the direction they've taken with Axel -- something initially far too sudden as one acquainted with Chain of Memories to previously accept -- with his particular exit producing every drop of sympathy 358/2 Days wished it provided. Its precedence by mending the original's most obvious cut corner with an actual Sora vs. Roxas boss fight -- previously reduced to a mere cutscene -- is further appreciated, particularly with Yoko Shimomura's The Other Promise tragically expanding upon Roxas's Theme as a saddening, fruitless ballad.

Which, by the way, brings us to all the gameplay goodies here -- to my memory, the aforementioned Roxas fight was the campaign's only major addition, but there's plenty of new side-quests and the like keeping us occupied. Further drawing upon the Organization, there exist not only mysterious portals pitting us against Chain of Memories' brand of black-hooded goons, but an actual dungeon (Cavern of Remembrance) unearthing additional data "rematches" against all thirteen members. Playing into the group's mystique and producing the series' most satisfying challenges to date, it serves as Final Mix's meatiest offering of engaging fanservice. (And that's not even getting into the "final" secret boss, this time previewing Birth by Sleep -- expect controller-throwing rage.)

Meanwhile, there exist simpler side-quests breathing some life into Kingdom Hearts II's claustrophobic, linear worlds, with item-granting puzzle pieces strewn about and those familiar, absent-minded Mushroom Heartless up to more cryptic hijinks. I don't hold these in especially high regard -- not that they ever would've matched the shiny new dungeons and boss fights, mind, but these Disney World attractions are simply far too confined for any engaging exploration, leaving them awkwardly shoehorned. Had this been Final Mix's emphasis, I would've walked away disappointed, but as Square wisely focused on crafting new combative outlets, their "cherry on top" presence is appreciated.

And for anyone who thought Kingdom Hearts II's challenge was lacking even in Proud Mode, Square-Enix introduces Critical Mode for the curious. Doubling our damage intake, it is indeed brutal, rendering even the game's first boss fights life-or-death challenges demanding every last one of our limited resources. Let it be known I'm not one for intense difficulty -- I succumb far too easily to their innate heart-pounding tension -- yet I was never not amused by how fights previously regarded as pushovers (Possessor and Saix) were rougher than those I've struggled with (Xaldin and Xigbar, although the latter owed to a spontaneous Anti-Sora transformation -- that Drive Form's double-damage absorption ordinarily would've spelled certain doom, but its immense combo potential stunned in its instant finish of Organization XII's sniper). Sadly, not every fight is made for it -- true to The Nightmare Before Christmas's name, Oogie Boogie's death traps in narrow, claustrophobic conveyor belts and surprise bags are nightmares unto themselves -- but this unpredictable dichotomy birthed an anticipative thrill for each and every encounter.

And as for the HD uprezz? Being a late PS2 release, Kingdom Hearts II's animation and modelling aged far better than the original. While not nearly as ambitious as reconstructing Kingdom Hearts from scratch -- to my knowledge, only the background textures received similar dedication -- your typical HD buffs smooth out not-quite-realistic-but-not-necessarily-cartoonish-anime-esque character designs in a big way. As seen below, the Pirates of the Caribbean cast remains the graphical star, transforming what was already perhaps PlayStation 2's finest tech-work into something that could easily pass for Playstation 3-born models. (Facially, anyway; just don't stare at Barbossa's coat for too long.)

Ah, but the music -- now there's a showstopper. Performed by the Boston-based Video Game Orchestra, Shota Nakama's conductions are far more to my taste than gaQdan's softer 1.5 ReMIX arrangements. Maybe, perhaps, it plays into my desires for Kingdom Hearts II's need for stronger instrumentation  -- He's a Pirate hits that vindictive swashbuckling note desperately missing before, and Fragments of Sorrow finally echoes the imposing chilliness of the original game (if not more so) -- and even compositions I previously had no use for are now immensely ear-pleasing. The authentic Orientalism of the Mulan themes eagerly spring to mind: whatever mystic Chinese voodoo that Erhu-player concocted to channel something resembling an actual chorus is beyond me, but know it perfectly complements the 1998 movie.

And the themes that were already great? Far, far too much goodness to dive into: Missing You's genuine piano produces riveting poignancy alongside the melancholic acoustics of Riku's Theme, and it's impossible to single out any one boss theme from Vim and Vigor, The Encounter, and The Thirteenth Dilemma. If I wanted to, I could cherry-pick certain tunes I prefer in synthesized form -- something about Rowdy Rumble's opening xylophones doesn't gel with me -- but they're hardly off-putting relative to 1.5's stinkers. Nakama's efforts don't merely elevate Kingdom Hearts II alongside Shimomura's best efforts in Kingdom Hearts and Birth by Sleep -- they collectively channel Kingdom Hearts' original purpose of adolescent nostalgia, and firmly remain that objective's sturdiest -- if only -- constitution.

There exist claims of Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix being one of the finest character-action games ever created, particularly when factoring in Critical Mode. I cannot challenge such claims -- I possess limited knowledge in that area outside of Platinum Games' Bayonetta and The Wonderful 101, and my heart's too frail to challenge the optional bosses in Critical Mode -- but between said mode, beneficial cutscenes and generous gameplay additions, it's certainly a heck of a lot better. Any problems with bloat, world design and story aside, it's undeniably far more approachable than its freshman progenitor; really, for all my previous hang-ups, I can't complain when it's this charitable.

In comparison, Birth by Sleep Final Mix is hardly ambitious; true, there's plenty of new gameplay accommodations -- mini-game additions, secret bosses, and new Command Styles, Command Boards, what have you -- but as the game didn't require much of a clean-up, I'd prefer not to begrudge it for anything. As discussing, say, Pete's Dimension Link wouldn't make for the most interesting paragraph, let's stick to the most appealing additions.

There's a new-post game ("A fragmentary passage") featuring Aqua -- for the sake of spoilers, I shan't discuss the exact context, but I only wish it was a little longer. Not that that wouldn't have been a difficult task -- given she's making something of a solitary journey in Kingdom Hearts' most nebulous residence (one framed as a linear expedition, at that), I imagine crafting additional story may've been too much to ask (0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage in Final Chapter Prologue takes place immediately afterwards, and forcibly drafts other characters to properly function). Still, for all its brevity, it successfully taps into the series' rare instances of "Dark Disney" -- particularly with the final scene's reveal.

Plenty of new secret bosses also join the party, albeit with mixed results. Any scale nitpicks aside, the series' first hidden Disney boss in Pinnochio's Monstro is much appreciated, cleverly intertwining the beast's history and girth into ever-shifting battlefields. Alas, I wish I could say the same for most original bosses tying into the series's present and future -- they're either insanely obtuse or wildly unfair, lazily relying upon instant-death combos and penetrating Cure shields. I hardly mind gimmicks in Kingdom Hearts' optional boss fights -- Kingdom Hearts' Phantom made clever use of setting, and let's not forget Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix's Data fights -- and overcoming heart-pounding cutthroat duels is the series' gameplay at its best, but none of these operate in the interest of fairness.

Thankfully, a much-needed uprezz for the remaster overrides any Final Mix woes. While it could be argued the PSP's limited tech renders its graphical age more evident via geometry and scale, observing the two screenshots above confirms it wasn't a half-baked remaster, with the adjustments to Aqua's darker hair and Ventus's armor offering a more palatable HD offering. Nothing rivaling Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush models, mind, but the more pronounced textures go a long way.

If only the same could be said for the lamentable Re:Coded movie. Let it be known I possess negligible interest in Re:Coded; so irrelevant I find it, in fact, that I have absolutely zero idea how the original DS (or should I say mobile?) game plays. Despite this, the brief glimpses of related discussion I've witnessed regard it with surprising quality, with gameplay supposedly ranking among the series' higher echelon. I perceived these comments with doubt, as it doesn't take more than a cursory glance at screenshots and story to recognize Re:Coded is the most periphery Kingdom Hearts game. Perhaps that's unfair to the game's actual function, but barring my laser-focused interest within Nintendo's catalog, I bear no interest in something functioning entirely as mercenary product.

After having watched this movie, I don't care how good it is -- it is an excruciating endeavor, based on the most ludicrous of concepts (A digitized copy of Sora wandering about Jiminy Cricket's journal -- its records manifested into digitized form -- under Mickey's watchful guidance) rendering it impenetrable in comprehension and utterly worthless to the narrative at large. Scream "the ending!" all you want -- that it bloats what's already a convoluted narrative with Datascapes and digital characters is both unacceptable and mind-boggling.

Worse -- far, far worse -- it clocks in at three whole hours, surpassing 358/2 Days's swollen purgatory (two-and-a-half hours) and morphing into elongated audiovisual torture. Okay, that's too harsh, but I'm still bitter at its nasty prank in seemingly wrapping up everything within two hours, only to effectively reset and stretch far past any point of logical sustainability. I was left begging, pleading for the contemptible thing to be over, and not even Jesse McCartney's remarkable magic as Roxas -- I'm sorry, Data-Roxas -- could soothe my pain.

The most offensive part? It is completely, utterly pointless, derived only from answering one scene (what King Mickey wrote in Kingdom Hearts II's epilogue). There's no need for this endeavor: this was, more or less, already answered within Birth by Sleep's Secret Ending, and there's no contextual need for why Mickey and co. require stumbling upon this answer from an opaque world of computers and Datascapes. Anything else could've served as a throwaway excuse, and crafting an entire game around that isn't just a waste of everyone's time: its mere existence further alienates those who've already awaited far too long for a mainline entry.

Clearly, our only solution is to continue pretending it doesn't exist, and dismiss any and all future references as technobabble recalled from some obscure Japanese novel adaption. I shan't let it ruin this collection -- and why would I, considering we have two of the best Kingdom Hearts experiences right here? That one was enough to make peace with an initially disappointing entry is more than worth the purchase, although I suppose that's rendered irrelevant now with the succeeding collections. Regardless, only time will tell if Kingdom Hearts III capitalizes upon the goodwill offered here -- my affinity for Chain of Memories aside, both Final Mixes are Kingdom Hearts at its most accessible. Poke fun at their writing and failed concepts if we must, but their constant engagement is no joke.

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