After experiencing the three titles that make up the Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix compilation in quick succession last year, I needed a break. It was a desire to join in on the zeitgeist surrounding the release of Kingdom Hearts III that prompted me to finally jump into the series, though truth be told I’d always been interested. I started itching to get back into the series while playing the F.E.A.R. games last year, if anything to experience something a little more uplifting. First up: Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix.
Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix is an expanded version of the PlayStation 2 original, which debuted in Japan in 2005 and was released elsewhere in 2006. The Final Mix version was originally exclusive to Japan when it launched in 2007 and wasn’t available in the west until the December 2014 release of Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 Remix. This compilation was originally only available for the PlayStation 3 (the version I played), although it’s since been made available on a handful of platforms.
Whereas the first game was a relatively straightforward tale of good vs. bad, Chain of Memories, the connecting release between the first and second games, began to lay the groundwork for the convoluted narrative the series is now known for. In that entry Sora, Donald, and Goofy relived the events of the first game, in order to recapture their lost memories. Their memories had been stolen by Organization XIII, a mysterious cabal of black clad anime antagonists, for nefarious reasons.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t Sora I controlled for the first few hours of this game. Donald and Goofy were nowhere to be seen either. Instead, I was put in the shoes of Roxas, a similarly earnest youth with a pack of reliable friends. Strange things were happening to them on their vacation, and between these events and segueing cutscenes involving mysterious characters from Chain of Memories, all was explained. Comprehended? Well now, that’s another story.
In simplified terms, Roxas was Sora, just a… different version of him. Organization XIII, whose members were the main antagonists of this entry, were also different versions of other people, too. Their motivations were explained over the forty hours it took me to reach the end credits, but they were factional, even amongst themselves. To fully understand Organization XIII’s goals, events that took place well before the first game were explained. I think I had a pretty good handle on everything, but when in doubt it was easy to boil it all down to “Organization XIII bad, Sora good.”
In all honesty, despite my desires not to study wikis like homework to “get” everything, I really enjoyed the story. And the character designs were just fantastic. Series creator, director, and character designer Tetsuya Nomura really went overboard with Organization XIII. Not to mention the variety of Final Fantasy characters, which were coincidentally, also created by him. His style came through loud and clear. And while they all start to blend together when evaluating his portfolio of characters as a whole, they’re definitely evocative of that time. Square Enix was the premier developer of JRPGs then and his anime influenced designs were just too cool. Time hasn’t changed that fact, at least for me personally.
At its core, the combat system was much as the same as it was in Kingdom Hearts. When I engaged enemies, I hacked and slashed until they were no more and collected the rewards: experience, items, and if I was lucky, rare crafting goods. I got by with just mashing the attack button and had an enjoyable time doing so, although there were all manner of combos, special attacks, and magic at my disposal. Donald and Goofy, or depending on the setting a Disney character, provided Sora backup most of the time. They too had a variety of abilities and combo attacks that could be equipped for further assistance. Much like the narrative, there was a lot of subtle depth to the combat system. And similarly, it wasn’t necessary to fully engage it to have a good time.
New this time around were Drive Forms. These were special abilities that allowed Sora to “consume” his partner(s) and unlock a variety of super powered forms. The Wisdom Drive Form, for instance, caused Donald to leave the fray, but Sora’s magic was powered up and he gained access to a few unique traits. These forms could only be activated when the Drive Form gauge had reached a certain level (by dishing out and taking damage), and he reverted back to normal when the gauge reached zero. These Forms powered Sora up in a variety of fun ways that mostly seemed to accentuate the button mashing combat, and allow for faster movement.
One of the hallmarks for the series has always been interacting with Disney properties, and Kingdom Hearts II brought some really great ones into the fold. The world based on Steamboat Willie in particular was awesome. The audio/visuals changed to reflect the classic black and white cartoon that introduced Mickey Mouse, and it was just the tops. This treatment was done to a lesser extent, but obviously with much appreciation, for each property and it was thrilling to see where the gang would wind up next. Again, like with the previous games, I wanted to watch the movies these worlds were based on afterwards, and up my dosage of Disney.
The trio visited most every world a couple of times over the course of the game, and the events that unfolded usually skewed closely to the source material, albeit with a Kingdom Hearts twist. Members of Organization XIII, and sometimes even Maleficent or Pete, entered the worlds for one malicious reason or another and generally caused a ruckus. Sora and company chased them out, returning the world to a state of peace, and in the process learned a valuable moral relating to trust or friendship. Countering evildoers was of course a primary objective, but more than anything Sora wanted to reunite with his friends.
From a level design standpoint, the worlds weren’t particularly impressive. I mean visually, they were lovely, as were the adaptations made to the trio’s outfits, but the levels were mostly linear action romps. Sidequests and minigames, of which there was a ton, added extra things to do in each world. Just as the narrative and combat system rewarded those who sought more, the quantity and quality of postgame content was very satisfying. Personally, I spent an additional thirty hours with the game to unlock some of the prestigious trophies, and even then I tapped out with a fair amount of stuff still to do.
Making a return in a much more substantial form were the Gummi Ship missions. Before Sora and the gang accessed a new world, they had to travel through space aboard their Gummi Ship. These space shooter missions lasted a couple of minutes and played like levels straight out of Star Fox. Once completed, quick travel was allowed, but there were a variety of objectives and loads of Gummi Ship parts on each route incentivizing repeat playthroughs. Constructing Gummi Ships was a little more approachable this time around, but the user interface was still laughably complex. I unlocked an assortment of premade ships that thankfully limited how much I needed to rely on custom-built crafts.
At this point, Yoko Shimomura is my favorite video game composer. I think my first conscious awareness of hers was enjoying some of the tunes from the Front Mission rerelease on the Nintendo DS and since then, I’ve come across her compositions in numerous JRPGs like Xenoblade Chronicles, Final Fantasy XV, and of course, Kingdom Hearts. As in that game, this soundtrack was a mix of original compositions and arrangements based on Disney properties. Her production was consistent across songs evoking disparate concepts like passion, reflection, and action. Some of my favorites included a returning character theme: the wistful “Kairi,” “Cavern of Remembrance,” an all new background pastiche for the Final Mix release, and of course Hikaru Utada’s dreamy alt-rock theme for the game, “Sanctuary.”
I’m still early in the series but it’s going to be tough for future entries to top Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix. The developers at Square Enix took the format laid out in the first game, and improved upon everything. I thought the narrative was entertaining and accessible enough to get by, but rich with details for those really wanting to squeeze out all the juice. The same can be said for the combat system. It paled in comparison to the fast-paced and varied combat of a dedicated character action game like Devil May Cry, but nonetheless featured an astonishing amount of customization and depth. It wouldn’t have been a Kingdom Hearts game without a gratuitous amount of Disney fan service and this entry delivered with a great assortment of worlds and characters. I’ll not forget my time with this game, in part because so many lovely songs will keep the memories alive for years to come. In short, the bar has been raised.