NOTE: This review is exclusive to Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, not the entire 1.5 ReMIX collection. A separate review for Re: Chain of Memories is pending.
The Disney Renaissance came crashing into my cultural landscape when I was five, and it remained a huge part of my childhood whether I welcomed it in or not. I partook in Disney features if I was taken to the theater or if they happened to be playing in the same room, but by and large it wasn’t something I actively pursued.
Then in early 2002, a few months before I graduated high school, ads started airing about this weird conundrum of a Playstation 2 game called Kingdom Hearts. Suddenly I had to try this out. Part of it was the undeniable power of marketing.
The other part? Holy shit, I thought I’d been merely tolerant of it…but was I feeling nostalgic for Disney?
So I rented the original PS2 version, and I got so engrossed in the game’s real-time combat system that I failed to realize the sun had set. Stranger things were happening to me, however. I was supposed to be a manly man, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, but I was unironically helping Winnie the Pooh find his friends; fighting alongside Donald Duck and Goofy against great evil; searching for Pongo and Perdita’s missing puppies. I had a grand old time of it, and overall I’d say Kingdom Hearts did as advertised, which was to touch on some lost fragment of forsaken childhood innocence.
Eleven years and six sequels later, out comes a ‘must have’ for my Playstation 3 collection, Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Final Mix. FM was originally a Japan exclusive Kingdom Hearts release that included a host of needed improvements, added bosses and items. 1.5 gives it a nice HD facelift that with some minor exceptions, looks sleek.
But did Kingdom Hearts hold up in the decade since I experienced it, or was the appeal nostalgia for nostalgia?
In the Kingdom Hearts lore, all of the Disney and Squaresoft/Square Enix IP Worlds share a huge multiverse where they were once separated and thus kept secret from each other. Now the walls have mysteriously fallen, and in the aftermath Disney villains have formed their own Legion of Doom-type council. They scheme to unlock a door to the titular Kingdom Hearts, a realm of ultimate power and alleged almighty evil, by employing creatures called Heartless, or ‘those without hearts,’ to do the dirty work.
What exactly is a heart? I used to think it was the game’s kid-friendlier term for ‘soul’ until the Kingdom Hearts wiki explained that a soul is a separate entity. ‘Heart’ in the physical sense is already included in the third element of a humanoid’s makeup, the ‘body.’ In Kingdom Hearts, a heart defines a sentient being’s morale, emotive ability and drive to succeed; this is important because when deprived of their hearts, Heartless morph into these black insectoids hellbent on murdering to steal back their spiritual centers.
In the midst of this we are introduced to young Sora, who lives in one of the game’s few original, non-Disney Worlds, Destiny Islands. It seems like a normal down-to-earth place, with the exception of everyone wearing giant cartoon shoes as a fashion choice. Oh, and child versions of Tidus, Wakka and Selphie also hang out there. Perhaps this is the best time to mention that Kingdom Hearts is a very strange crossover.
Sora spends his days hanging out with his obligate future love interest Kairi and best friend/rival Riku. All is well and the kids are building a raft to escape across the ocean and explore other Worlds, which wouldn’t end as well if the Heartless didn’t attack the island first. Sora’s friends vanish during the ambush and he wakes up in the game’s home base world of Traverse Town with a giant magic key in his hand. There he runs into not only Donald Duck and Goofy, who have been sent on a mission by their absent King Mickey Mouse to find him, but Aerith, Squall (‘Leon’) and Yuffie. Thus, the insanity begins.
But before all that, Kingdom Hearts asks that you be patient. The game starts with planetary mass for pacing, beginning with an oblique tutorial and continuing through a boring item fetch quest. This can last under an hour if you’re quick about it; regardless, it’s not wise for a game to drag on this long before getting to the meat of matters.
Is it worth the wait, though? Yes. I am happy to report that the real-time Keyblade smashing action is just as fun and addictive as it was in 2002, and Kingdom Hearts offers so much more beyond that in terms of gameplay. There are many items worth collecting and tons of backtracking to do once certain abilities are unlocked. Kingdom Hearts is equal parts platformer, RPG and Metroidvania in a balanced package.
Final Mix addresses a lot of the original game’s problems, chief among them the camera. Its unpredictable nature was one of the biggest complaints about the original version, and now it has been tweaked to trim out constant babysitting.
Personally, I never had that many issues with the camera. My biggest problem was unskippable cutscenes. I can think of little else more annoying than losing to a difficult boss and having to watch the same scenario, over and over, while listening to the same unchanging dialogue before I am granted another turn. Fortunately this has been dealt with as well, and the story no longer has to turn into a snorefest if the player faces a difficult challenge.
Other issues have been left unchecked, however, such as companion A.I. Sora is always controlled while Donald, Goofy, et al. are run by the computer. Their A.I. can be tweaked from the configuration menu, which is a godsend because it sucks otherwise. Companions will waste their items and MP at the slightest provocation, ensuring that they’ll be practically useless by the time a boss is reached. It’s nice to be given control over companion behavior, but would have been better if they were more conservative by default.
As for the story, it’s interesting but not groundbreaking. I spotted many tropes as a result of years spent playing JRPGs and watching anime. Bad guys want a thing, so you must collect things to stop them from getting said thing. Riku’s silver-white hair and headstrong nature make it obvious where he’s headed, and he goes there. The whole concept of Kingdom Hearts recalls Square’s allusions to Gaiaism and spirits returning to the lifecore to be fermented, etc. The Disney protagonists are pretty much following the storylines of their respective movies before and after the monsters show up.
It’s also obvious that Sora and Kairi are fated to be romantically intertwined. Aside from treading on another tired storyline (he’s the main boy, she’s the only girl, therefore they must be together!) Kingdom Hearts does a fair job of depicting their burgeoning love story without being too weird about it, or at least pretending that romance at age fourteen can still be innocent puppy love. It’s a coming-of-age love story clean enough to maintain an E-10+ rating.
The game may fall short of telling a fresh story but nevertheless excels in its underlying themes. There’s commentary on friendship, betrayal, loyalty, and of course, the nature and meaning of a ‘heart’ to be found here. These philosophies are presented without being pretentious or made too difficult to understood. Adults can pick up on them right away; kids can learn from them.
The gameplay has always been key, though, and that’s still strong. In-between slicing through Heartless you get a cute story that’s old hat but not boring or grating. There is little room to go wrong here. Final Mix is the definitive Kingdom Hearts experience, whether one still has the old disc or lost it somewhere over the past fourteen years. Though we may have grown and aged, something here speaks to the kid in all of us.
FINAL GRADE: B