Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix HD - Review

 Back in the year 2002, a very strange game was released for the PlayStation 2. It was an RPG created by Square-Enix featuring Final Fantasy characters from a wide verity of games, but it also crossed over with another set of characters that no one would have ever imagined. The game was called Kingdom Hearts, and it was a crossover between Square's Final Fantasy, and Disney's cartoons and movies. Although at first glance the game may have appeared to be a very strange mix which would fail in the long run, in reality, it was a hit. It was a very unique game, it was filled with nostalgia, and it soon found a place in the hearts of gamers around the world.

A few months after the game's initial release in the west, the game soon found itself on store shelves in Japan for a second time. Due to the months between the English and Japanese release of the game, extra content was added into the English version, such as a few new bosses. Although this really didn't make a major impact on the game, it was extra content that Japanese fans wanted, and because of that "Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix" was born. While the Final Mix version of the game was mostly the same as the English version, it did add in a few new features which truly did make an impact on the Kingdom Hearts series. While the game added in new enemies, as well as some other minor extras, it also introduced a few new cutscenes and story points as well. Sadly the game never saw a release in the west, and because of that some fans were left confused. At times later games in the series brought up information covered only in the Final Mix version of the game, and that only left people wondering.

Well, here we are a little over 10 years since the release of Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix in Japan, and for the first time the west is finally able to play Final Mix as a part of the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Remix collection. It has been a long wait, but was it really worth it? And what about new comers to the series, is it worth getting into now? Well, how about we continue on with the review and find out?

The Story:

When Kingdom Hearts first opens players find themselves face to face with some cryptic messages. "I've been having these weird thoughts lately. Like, is any of this real, or not?" The message is read off by the game's lead character named "Sora" right before he finds himself waking up in a strange place.

As Sora opens his eyes, he finds himself in a large black space with nothing but pillars to walk on. Each pillar has a stain-glass type design on it featuring one of the Disney princesses. Although unsure of where he is, or if he is even awake, Sora soon finds himself following orders from an unknown voice. As the voice walks Sora though what needs to be done (which serves as a tutorial for the player), he soon comes face to face with strange "shadow monsters." Despite trying his best to beat them, Sora is sucked into a dark pit, and before he knew it, he was opening his eyes on the beach of his home island. But, was it really just a dream?

It turns out that Sora is a 14 year old boy who lives on an island called "Destiny Island" where he plays with his friends all day, everyday. The place is a paradise, and everyone who lives there is happy; however when an unexpected event occurred, everyone started to wonder about the outside. While Sora originally grew up with his best friend Riku, a third "best friend" entered the picture out of the blue. Her name was Kairi, and she was from another world. Up until that point, no one really thought about there being other worlds, but the moment they met Kairi, they knew they were not alone. Determined to see other worlds, Sora, Riku, and Kairi began to work on a raft that they could then take out to sea, and it turns out that today is the day they finally start to finish up work on it.

Although Sora, Riku, and Kairi are all good friends, there is also a rivalry between them. It becomes quite clear from the beginning that both Sora and Riku care about Kairi very much, and because of it they tend to compete quite a bit. Despite working on the raft together, both boys decide to make a contest out of everything they do, and they even take the time to stop and spar for a bit. They both drive each other to be the best, and they are always getting stronger because of it. Overall they have a good, healthy, friendship and rivalry, but unknown to them, that was all about to change.

One day while looking for food to take on the raft, Sora came across a strange man in a robe. Upon seeing Sora the man began to discuss how the worlds had become connected, but then vanished shortly after. Although Sora wasn't able to understand everything the man discussed, he knew that he had proof that other world's existed, and he was sure that the "raft plan" would work. Sadly, the plan would never make it to its final stage.

That night Sora was laying on the bed of his room when he saw a dark cloud forming above the smaller island where he and his friends hung out all day. It didn't look like a normal storm cloud, but Sora decided to head to the island anyway. The raft was still sitting on the beach, and he really didn't want to see it get damaged. That decision to return to the island is what sealed Sora's fate, and upon going back his life was changed forever.

The shadows from his dream were appearing in real life, a strange key shaded sword had appeared in his hands, Kairi vanished in front of him, and Riku stood in a portal of darkness. He had opened the door. The door to the heart of the world. In order to travel to other worlds, Riku had opened the door hidden deep inside a cave on the island, and by doing so he had sealed the fate of the island as well. As the world crumbled around them, both boys were sent through a portal, and became separated.

Meanwhile at "Disney Castle," King Mickey (Mouse) has gone missing, and sitting in his place was a letter. It turns out the King already has knowledge of the shadows that attacked Sora's home world, and he knows about the other worlds as well. As the King set out on a journey to protect the universe, he wrote a request for his best friends to carry out. The message was for none other than the mage Donald Duck, and the knight Goofy. It turns out a key called the "Key Blade" exists in the world, and the only way to set things right again is to use the Key Blade to close the hearts of the worlds to protect them from the heartless. Since the King had business of his own to take care of, he trusted his friends with the duty of finding the new Key Blade Master, and helping him with his journey. That Key Blade master was none other than Sora, who was now in a brand new world.

The main story of Kingdom Hearts actually overlaps with the game's world stories. While the game revolves around Sora trying to reunite with his friends, it also deals with quite a few Disney movies as well. Most of the worlds in the game actually come from (what may be your childhood favorite) Disney movies, and each one features a condensed version of said movie's story. For example early on you can go to Wonder Land where you will have to help prove that Alice is innocent of the crimes she was being accused of. Although the worlds do not cover the entire movie, they do cover the main aspects, or at least some of the key events. If you've never seen the movie the world is from you can easily pick up what is going on, but fans of the movies will find these story sections much more enjoyable.

Although Kingdom Hearts may seem like a childish game on the surface, it really isn't. In reality, Kingdom Hearts actually deals with a lot of dark themes which you would never expect from a game of this nature. The game revolves around light versus darkness, but it is really much more complex than that. While the original version of the game was a bit more self contained, Final Mix does add in quite a bit that points toward the future, and that future alone will change everything you know. In reality the events that happen in Kingdom Hearts are not what they seem, and with each new entry in the series, everything you know will be flipped upside down. The story truly is a complex one, and it is also one that continues to expand. Overall what seems to be a happy go lucky storyline soon evolves into an emotional rollercoaster. It really is no wonder that Kingdom Hearts became as big as it is today.

The Gameplay:

Unlike the Final Fantasy series, which Kingdom Hearts is semi related to, Kingdom Hearts is an action based game. In game you control the main character Sora, while your two partner characters are controlled by an AI. Just about everything takes place in real time, and at the bottom left of the screen is a menu. While the first option on the menu is your "attack" option (which is what it will stay on most of the time), there is also an option for magic, an option to use items, as well as an option to use summon characters, which are characters that temporarily show up to help you in battle. Although you can use the D-Pad to sort through the menu to pick the magic attack you want to use or the item, you can also set shortcuts to the L1 button as well; this allows you to use special abilities with just the press of a single button. It is a very useful feature, but you are limited to using the four face buttons.

Although Kingdom Hearts is an action game, the combat really isn't all that deep. The combos come down to just pressing the X button over and over again on either the ground or in the air, and the magic attacks are very basic single use attacks. Fire will shoot out a fireball, thunder will strike an enemy with lightning, and heal will, well, heal you. These magic abilities cannot be used to create true combos, and they are really only useful for hitting enemies' weak points, as well as solving puzzles. Even so, despite the limitations, and the button mashing, the combat is actually fun. The thing is, Kingdom Hearts doesn't need to have crazy combos to work well, and battles do actually require strategy to win. Some enemies have weak points you must attack, they have attack combos you must memorize if you want to have any hope of surviving, and sometimes fighting a boss is a puzzle. Despite being a "button masher," the combat system is still fulfilling; especially when you kill enough enemies to level up and gain new attacks and abilities.

Despite being a full action based RPG that takes place fully in the overworld, Kingdom Hearts still does feature a sort of random battle system. As you walk around the different worlds, you will come across different points where heartless will spawn. When you walk into their range, portals will open up, the heartless will pop out, and Sora will enter his combat mode. Although Sora can still attack, use magic, jump, and use all of his other main moves outside of battle, there is one major different with his combat mode. While in this state, NPCs cannot be talked to, you cannot open chests on the field, and you cannot use any other special action which requires the triangle button to use. This means you will have to clear the entire field if you want to open the chests on the map, or do anything else outside of fighting. This can become quite annoying as time goes on, but it never does become a real issue.

On top of the fighting, Kingdom Hearts features other "RPG standards" that most RPG fans have come to know. There are town areas you can walk around, you can talk to towns folk, you can go buy equipment and accessories from the shop, you can unlock different weapons for use, there's an arena to fight in, and there are other mini games to be found as well. The game also features its fair share of puzzle solving, and you will often find yourself having to back track as well. For example early on in the game you will see quite a few item chests that are out of reach, so your only option is to continue playing the game until Sora unlocks the "high jump" ability, or possibly another skills or ability. Just because you complete an area in Kingdom Hearts, it doesn't mean you won't ever return to it. There is a lot to be found in the game, and exploration is always rewarded.

The Gummi Ship:

Unlike Final Fantasy games, which normally have a massive overworld map, the structure of Kingdom Hearts is also quite different. Instead of exploring a single world map with town areas and dungeons to explore, the entire game is broken up into smaller worlds which you must travel to using the "gummi ship." On the world select screen you are given the option to travel to any one of the currently open worlds, but to do so you actually have to fly there. At this point in the game, the game switches over from a 3rd person action RPG to an on rail shooter. As you fly your ship through different space areas, you must shoot down enemies, collect new parts for your ship, and try to get your score as high as possible. It really is just a nice throw back to older arcade style rail shooters, but Kingdom Hearts actually takes it quite a bit farther than the games from back in the day.

As you play through the game you will unlock what is known as "Gummi Blocks." Gummi Blocks are, well, blocks that allow you to actually build your own ship from scratch. You can use them to design how the ship works, you can increase/decrease its stats, and you can even add your own custom weapons to the ship. Want a powerhouse of a ship with many guns floating around it? Well, you can do it! What about a ship that is extremely fast? Well if it fits your style, you can do that as well. Really you can spend a lot of time working on your Gummi Ship; especially with the inclusion of Gummi Missions which were one of the changes made in the Final Mix version of the game. Originally when traveling between worlds, you had no goal. The whole point of traveling was to get from place to place, and it did become quite the chore after awhile. Now that missions/goals have been added to these paths, traveling with the Gummi ship has become much more enjoyable, and it also gives you a reason to replay the same route over and over again. These missions alone greatly expand the use of the Gummi Ship, and they really are a nice extra to have.

Skills and Abilities:

During your playthrough of Kingdom Hearts, you will slowly come across different skills and abilities for Sora and his friends. By completing different tasks, and by leveling up, Sora will slowly begin to learn new attacks, skills, abilities, character summons, as well as new magic attacks. Although all magic and summons will be added to your list on their own, the abilities are actually something that can be customized to your liking.

As Sora and his friend's levels up, they will unlock "Ability Points" which can be used to equip different skills/abilities to them. Sometimes these abilities allow you to throw in an extra hit in your attack combo, sometimes they add new moves for you to pull off, and other times they actually allow Sora to do things he couldn't before; such as glide or even dodge out of the way. Since there is a limit to how many abilities can be equip at one time, everyone who plays Kingdom Hearts will most likely build a unique party to their own liking. While some players may prefer a wide range of mobility, others may prefer to ditch mobility for stronger attacks and more moves. It really is up to you to decide how you want to build each of your characters, and that is a very much welcomed feature.

The Changes of Final Mix:

If you have played the original Kingdom Hearts, you may be wondering; "are the changes made in Final Mix worth replaying the game for?" Well, truth be told, some of them are, and some of them are not. The main addition in Final Mix is the addition of a new secret boss (which ties the game in with Kingdom Hearts 2), as well as a few new cutscenes. Since some of these cutscenes have been used in future titles to help explain the story a bit better, they really don't add too much to the game. The truth is, this day in age there are other ways that you can watch these very same cutscenes, and because of that many die hard fans have most likely already seen them. They don't really add too much to the game, but they are nice, and they do fill in some gaps; its just too bad that they are not voice acted. Each cutscene only contains subtitles, with the characters mouthing the words.

On top of the cutscenes, the new boss, and the addition of Gummi Ship Missions (as mentioned above), some of the heartless and difficulty settings have been changed as well. Overall the game is a bit more balanced than the past versions, it has a harder setting for anyone who wants a challenge, and there are a few new heartless that help add a bit more verity. Some heartless have also undergone some color changes, but it really doesn't make too much of a difference on the game. Even so, what really makes a difference is none other than the addition of the cutscene skipper.

In the original version of the game cutscenes could not be skipped. Although you normally do want to watch scenes in RPGs, especially ones that are heavily story based such as this, not having the ability to skip them can cause some major issues. Later on in the game, for example, there is a very challenging boss battle. At this boss fight there is a very good chance that you will actually die quite a few times before you manage to win. Now this may not seem like a big deal, but the moment you realize you have to watch a ten minute long cutscene before fighting him, you will begin to hate it. Each time you lost to this boss in the original, you had to rewatch that cutscene time and time again. While the boss fight may actually only last five minutes each time, you may end up spending a total of one hour trying to take them on, and THAT is a major problem. Now with the addition of the ability to skip cutscenes, that issue is now a thing of the past, and fans no longer have a reason to dread this section of the game. Overall, this really did make the biggest impact out of all the changes.

The Changes of 1.5 HD:

The additions of the Final Mix release are not the only new features fans in the west get to experience, and once again Japan received an update as well. Due to Square-Enix losing the original files for Kingdom Hearts, a lot of the game had to actually be rebuilt from the ground up. While 1.5 HD is a near perfect recreation of the original Final Mix, it also adds in a lot of changes to help update the game to the series' current standards.

One of the major additions fans will notice right off the bat is the ability to use the right analog stick to control the camera. Originally the camera was self controlling with some limited camera control options, and that could be a major problem at times. Although it really didn't get in the way of the game itself, it really is nice to have full control over the camera in these types of games, and now we finally have the ability to.

Another addition to the game is the triangle button in general. Before the triangle button you actually had to select actions such as "talk" to talk to an NPC or actions like "open" to open a box from the menu; now all you have to do is stand in front of your target, and hit the triangle button just as you do in Kingdom Hearts 2; as well as other entries in the series.

The final additions to 1.5 HD come in the form of the HD enhancements in general. The game is now in wide screen which allows you to see a lot more of the game field, the textures have been updated to suit the new 720p support, and a few other minor touches were made throughout the game to really help make it pop. Now even though Kingdom Hearts doesn't look realistic, it really didn't need to. Kingdom Hearts has always used a unique, almost cartoon like, art style, and that style carried over to the HD version quite well. To put it simple, the world is beautiful and you may actually find yourself taking the time to just look around and admire what Square has created; even if you've played the game before.

Just like most other HD games of the current generation, Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix also features trophies as well. Although not important to the game, they do provide you with extra goals to try and complete, and they are a great way to show off your progress. Up until now all of your friends had to just assume you were telling the truth about defeating that secret boss, but now you have proof!

The Good and the Bad:

Kingdom Hearts is a great game. If you are a Disney fan you will be filled with nostalgia, if you are a Final Fantasy fan you will find the deep storytelling you may have come to know and love, and if you're a fan of action games, you will most likely fall in love with what Kingdom Hearts has to offer. Really the game appeals to a wide verity of fans, and it is sure to please just about everyone who gives it a try. The game is massive, it has amazing music, it has great character development, it has a great art style, and it is easily one of the best JRPGs to be released during the sixth generation. It really is a game all video game fans should at least try. Even so, it does have its issues.

Although Kingdom Hearts is a solid game overall, there are a few minor hiccups that may take time to get used to. First of all, the voice acting is a bit strange. While the Disney characters are spot on, Sora (who is voiced by a young Haley Joel Osment), as well as characters like Squall aka Leon (who is voiced by David Boreanaz), feel a bit off. While both are experienced actors now days, it is very clear that they were not used to voicing video game characters. Some of their voice work feels choppy in general, and you may even want to cringe. Even so, it really isn't that bad, and it is pretty easy to get past it. As the game goes on things do straighten up quite a bit, but the first few hours are very awkward.

The other issues with the game come from the controls in general. Overall the controls do work great, but a few minor issues may take some time to get used to at first. The camera controls feel slippery (the camera continues to move despite lifting up on the analog stick), the jumping is floaty and takes some time before you are able to judge your jumps right, sometimes Sora won't grab onto the ledge you are aiming for (or he will hit the platform's block keeping you from jumping on top of it), and sometimes the auto lock-on will target the wrong foe which may actually cause you to get killed. Sure you can adjust to these issue after a few hours of play, but the fact remains that they are there.

Either way, despite its flaws, Kingdom Hearts is still a great game overall. If you are a video game fan, you owe it to yourself to at least check this one out. Overall I give Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix HD a solid 8/10. It is a really good game, but it can feel dated at times.

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