Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix Hands-On Preview: Almost 9 Years Later, Kingdom Hearts II Brought Me Back

What were you doing when Kingdom Hearts II was released? I don’t mean things like “playing Kingdom Hearts II,” I mean your general life routine? What were your days like back then? What did you worry about? What did you look forward to? Whatever your answers, you are undoubtedly a different person in many ways, because that game was released almost nine years ago.
I had fun getting all introspective with Final Fantasy X when that got the HD treatment,  so I’ll be doing that again with Kingdom Hearts II.5 HD ReMIX. The comments here are not comparing the HD version to the original version, but about how well the games themselves aged, starting in this article with KH2. A separate piece about Birth by Sleep will go live in the near future, hopefully before the end of October. Finally, the import review will discuss the package and its quality as an enhanced port collection.

Keys to the Kingdom. Hearts. II.

Booting up Kingdom Hearts II, the first things I noticed were things I’d have rather forgotten. Yuck. The hours spent wit h Roxas in Twilight Town are some of the draggiest in the series, because of poorly laid out gameplay.

It’s not so much disdain for Roxas, but the gameplay segments Square Enix gave him are pure filler — except they’re at the beginning of the game. Spread your fluff out, and it’s harder for players to notice; make it the first 3-5 hours and ugh, you’re making people swim against the current for like, what’s that, round about 15% of the game’s total length. When that’s the first 15%, that’s a problem. Some people bag on Roxas — and I used to do this, too — but now I realize that Roxas isn’t so much a terrible character as he is the unfortunate victim of tepid game design and the developers’ indifference toward his town.

Let’s take a look at this trailer for a second:

How much of that was in Twilight Town? Uh huh, like three clips of a half-second each, and all focused on a character’s face. Disney and Soratachi add up to like 99 percent of that, while Roxas and Twilight Town in general are kept out. There’s no mystery as to why: those parts of Kingdom Hearts II are the video game equivalent of dragging a speedboat across pavement.

Twilight Town as an environment doesn’t help the early going. The town itself is rather bland, with no personality or unique feeling. You’re usually in either tight corridors with bland walls or wide open areas of nothing. You can make such areas look good with a little bit of artistic detail; the Disney areas all have this, Traverse Town had this, Destiny Island had it too, but Twilight Town is just a drag after your first half hour or so. As soon as you travel anywhere else in Kingdom Hearts II, the level of detail and genuine beauty takes you away. Within Twilight Town? Eh, place just looks big and dull.

But speaking of leaving Twilight Town, Kingdom Hearts II eventually opens up into a fantastic, accessible, great game. Things improve in Hollow Bastion and by the time you get to The Land of Dragons or Beast’s Castle, you’re like “Where has this game been?”

Them’s Fightin’ Words

I appreciate the battle system a lot more than I did before. I used to mock it as a “press triangle to win” sort of thing, but I can better notice myself putting Sora in situations where the icon is more likely to appear. It’s something you do unconsciously as a player, so I guess my college-boy ass didn’t notice it before. It’s still not my favorite Kingdom Hearts combat system, but I like it a lot more than I did so many years ago.

 I’m really missing the dodgeroll, though. I might be giving myself an extra level of damnation, because before buying this game, I’d been playing Dream Drop Distance on the Nintendo 3DS, in which I had the dodgeroll pretty much from the start. The reflect guard works when I remember how to time it, but I’ve needed an adjustment period.
What I like about KH2‘s combat is that it seems meatier than the original’s. It lets you approach challenges more skillfully, and the wide range of options allows players to get better through real skill rather than just unlock death spells over time. There’s a greater degree of improvement possible; the ceiling is higher. Am I saying this right?
The new version brings in Critical Difficulty, and I’ve experimented, but for now I’m sticking with on Normal for my first go at the HD version. And a damn good thing, because I guess I got shitty at Kingdom Hearts some time in the last eight or nine years. I got a Game Over in the Land of Dragons cause I was just like, on auto-pilot mashing O too long. Oops. I am not a bad enough dude to save the president.
I keep getting items called AP ups, and my old brain forgets if these are useful for anyone but Sora. I just pump them into him cause I figure that’s the one I’m guaranteed to not regret. Donald and Goofy don’t get nearly as many skills, it seems. Or if they do, it must be later on. I hope they get some, because making difficult choices is a big part of the fun for me. That’s one of the things I loved most about Final Fantasy XII International: Zodiac Job System (and when that inevitably gets an HD Remaster, get ready to have to deal with me swooning about another game from my younger days).
One thing that hasn’t changed is my adoration of the Disney worlds in this series. It’s part of what sold me (and so many others) the original Kingdom Hearts game back in 2002. I saw characters from Disney (awesome) and Final Fantasy (awesome) high-fiving each other in the same adventure and I was sold immediately. Yoko Shimomura’s compositions for the KH series are legendary, in part because of how well the BGM tracks match the style of their respective Disney movies. Running around in Beast’s Castle, the background music sounded like it came straight out of Beauty and the Beast, enriching the experience all the more. The same can be said of the other areas as well.
Speaking of which, did you spend entirely too much time running around Beast’s ball room? I did.
The Kingdom Hearts series is probably the best use of the Disney license in a video game, because the characters are actually going along with scenarios and storylines that make sense within their own universes.
But that only loosely applies to Kingdom Hearts II. While Square Enix (“Squaresoft” at the time) wanted to begin work on a sequel right away, Disney was a lot slower to get on board. But once Square got the sequel card, it held nothing back. New characters were brought in en masse, new subplots took shape, and the universe began to expand in all directions.
This was one of my bigger problems with Kingdom Hearts II when it was new. While there was some overlap, the original KH bits and the Disney bits seemed a lot more divided than they did in the original. Hollow Bastion and the Disney Castle are where the actual story is happening while the Disney worlds are like, eh, how you kill your time. Not as strong of a connection.
Final Fantasy characters, meanwhile, have taken a much more distant back seat — a trend that would continue as the series went on.
It’s not that the larger story is bad — it is convoluted as heck, but I enjoy it — but my problem back in the day was that it wasn’t what I signed up for. My money went towards a game that was marketed as a clash of Disney and Final Fantasy, so when I saw FF becoming only a footnote and the Disney worlds seeming only of peripheral importance, my excitement dwindled and I couldn’t get into the second game as much. With a zoomed-out scope of time, being able to see everything for what it is, it’s easy to just enjoy the ride.
But if you’d have told me nine years ago that as of the beginning of 2015 there’d still be no Kingdom Hearts III…wait, no, I’m getting off topic here.

My Heart’s a Battleground

I didn’t remember how much more intense the gummi ship thing got. In the first Kingdom Hearts, meh, you could kind of ignore it, and I did. Here, it’s a lot more fleshed out, which I find both good and bad. It’s good for obvious reasons: a more detailed minigame should be a better thing to have around, right? But it’s also worse because it means I’m required to pay more attention to those segments — parts that I’d honestly pay good munny to skip, if I could. I find myself preferring the simpler, cleaner, more mindless version of the first game more than this of the second. On the bright side, I only have to clear those sections once and then I’m done. I can live with this.
I’ve been immensely enjoying my time with Kingdom Hearts II and I thank you for reading my musings about it. I’ll be evaluating Birth by Sleep in the near future as well.