Kingdom Hearts Retrospective, Episode II.5: Unlocking True Potential

As alluded to in my previous article, the Kingdom Hearts franchise is the PS2 equivalent of the Harry Potter books: a coming-of-age story that’s become nothing short of a religious text for those who grew up alongside it. Seeing Sora, Riku, and Kairi fight back the darkness with characters from the Disney pantheon only amplified this connection, which makes the experience of playing HD 2.5 ReMix, specifically Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, nothing short of puberty incarnate.

Messy? Perhaps, but an appropriate comparison if ever there was one. Realizing the adventure was not told in a simple and clean fashion, tracking all the bits and pieces has only gotten more confounding over time. But for all its labyrinthine, disorganized story parts, the emotional impact and gameplay improvements in II and Birth by Sleep, a PSP prequel with its own Final Mix update, make this middle chapter a hell of an unforgettable journey.

II was lapped up by critics and fans on release, but playing it has turned this sequel into a divisive creation. Playing as Roxas for the first few hours in an extensive tutorial showed both a commitment to Tetsuya Nomura’s vision and a disregard for what others think—hardware purchases be damned—and that vision pays off magnificently.

Like any good action blockbuster sequel, II sands off the rough edges of the original, buffing and streamlining it to a fine sheen. Combat feels much less stiff, and as Sora levels up, he gains new movement abilities that allow him to zip across the battlefield with ease. The most impactful of these are the context-sensitive Reaction Commands: pressing the triangle button at key moments breaks up the otherwise straightforward battles with magnificent splendor that never buckles under the weight.

Kingdom Hearts Sora
Sora ATTACKS in Kingdom Hearts.

Not to say all that weight is carried with ease. Getting to the next plot point is much easier, without nearly as much combat frustrations, but the amount of plot points and elements, especially the introduction of Nobodies, can be a lot under any circumstances. The hamfistedness from previous games has also been amplified, with one rather goofy scene pushing things to the breaking point. But even then, its sheer emotional impact is enough to transcend the bad story structure, lack of challenge, and frankly terrible songwriting.

The narrative may not improve in the same way as the mechanics, but II still remains one of the most remarkable achievements of its generation, if only for being 120 percent committed to its insane vision. In contrast, Birth by Sleep lacks the narrative bombast or spectacle but fleshes out the world and combat in meaningful ways.

Taking place a decade before the original game, BBS on the PlayStation Portable follows Terra, Aqua, and Ventus on their own journey to become Keyblade Masters. Their efforts are sabotaged by a prevailing darkness in the form of evil creatures called the Unversed, manipulated by Xehanort and his masked apprentice Vanitas. Given its status as a prequel made after the other games, the outcome may be expected (and a bit sappy) but nonetheless impactful. With the exception of Ventus, the main cast feels like a static means to an end, not helped by some stiff voice acting.

The only saving grace here is Xehanort, given a fantastic English performance by the late Leonard Nimoy. Predictable though he may be, seeing Spock playing such an illogical character remains a novelty worth experiencing, and the same can be said for arguably the best combat system in the series.

Kingdom Hearts Art

Building off the deck-based mechanics of Re:Chain of Memories, all special attacks are assigned to a Command Deck controlled by the triangle button. The Commands move in a set order, and more powerful ones have longer cooldown times, adding a layer of strategy and compromise to previously straightforward battles. Compounding the system are finishing moves that change depending on the Commands used to fill it; a Deck with Thunder spells, for example, finishes off with the Thunderbolt style. What makes the system interesting is how the limited options make it hard to cover all the bases, requiring adaptation instead of spamming high-level moves ad nauseum.

While not anything original or revelatory, BBS proves its worth on mechanics and narrative impact, and the Final Mix version on PS4 helps it reach the audience it deserves.

Compared to the highlights of II and BBS, Re:Coded warrants but a single paragraph. The original release debuted episodically on Japanese cell phones before getting a DS remake, and the cutscenes from that version are enhanced in this collection, much like 358/2 Days. Amounting to little more than revisiting worlds from the first game again, the “movie” feels like cynical padding with minimal payoff; worth viewing once, but nothing more.

By this point, the Kingdom Hearts series made good on fixing the gameplay quirks of earlier titles, but at the cost of plotting and constantly circling in on itself. All of this would come to a head in the final pre-III release, HD II.8 Final Chapter Prologue, where the best and worst of Kingdom Hearts are on full, almost horrific display…

To be concluded in Episode II.8: Keeping the Door Open.

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