Version tested: PlayStation 3
On the face of it, Kingdom Hearts would appear to be a worthy subject for a remake. This was, after all, the unlikely crossover that spawned an enduring franchise - an action-RPG that, against the odds, managed to capture the hearts of two seemingly incompatible fanbases: Disney and Final Fantasy.
By happy accident, two of the games in this three-strong package are the only two Kingdom Hearts games I haven't played, and as a fan of Kingdom Hearts 2 and PSP side-story Birth By Sleep in particular, I was looking forward immensely to tackling the game that started it all.
Four hours later, that enthusiasm had gone. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Kingdom Hearts' opening hours are dreadful, a glacial, tedious introduction that I'm amazed anyone managed to overlook a decade ago. There's a series of multiple-choice questions which seem tangential to your quest yet which can lead to you inadvertently committing to a more difficult start. That's followed by not one but two fetch quests, the latter involving some seemingly basic platforming that is rendered inordinately frustrating by one of gaming's worst ever jumps (I began to think protagonist Sora's oversized feet must be to blame). Clumsy and unresponsive, it's a grating annoyance throughout, not least in some later sections that require a level of precision the controls simply don't allow.
Once you're accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the platforming - after many, many instances of falling to the bottom of a stage and having to climb back up to where you were - you've then got one of the worst third-person cameras of all time to contend with. Whether you choose the automatic or manual option, it will actively hinder you in and out of combat. It's particularly problematic in the early stages because Sora can't take as much punishment in battle, and with no defensive or cure spells, you'll have to find a safe place to glug down a healing potion. Which naturally isn't easy when you can't see who's attacking you.
Even assuming you're a huge Disney fan who collapses into paroxysms of delight at the mere sight of Donald Duck and Goofy - who join your party in the early hours - it takes an age to get to the good stuff. You'll have to spend quite a bit of time in Traverse Town, a world between worlds, before you get to the first Disney-themed setting of Wonderland. And what immediately awaits you when you arrive, via a sub-sub-Star Fox trundle through space? A fetch quest. If he hadn't been cryogenically frozen, old Walt would be spinning in his grave.
With some poor signposting leading to a lot of aimless meandering, and many early enemies hovering out of reach (thus forcing you to employ that awful jump just to get to them) you could be forgiven for abandoning hope entirely. Press on, however, and things pick up dramatically. As Sora levels up, you'll unlock new abilities that make combat more fluid and dynamic. Goofy and Donald - and the other partners you'll sporadically be paired with - are reasonably efficient fighters, and as long as you keep them equipped with potions and manage their own selection of skills, they'll become reliable allies, healing you when you're close to death and enthusiastically thumping foes you've stunned.
After your second visit to Traverse Town you'll start to enjoy yourself. A much wider selection of worlds is available to you, each with bags of secrets to uncover, mini-games to try out and tournaments to enter. The camera remains unhelpful but you'll be able to survive a few hits without keeling over and the Cure spell is an ever-ready get-out-of-jail-free card. It gets tougher towards the end, nowhere more so than in an optional battle against a familiar villain, but by then you'll feel far more in control of your fate than at the beginning.
When you do hit a snag, it's the allure of the worlds that pulls you free. From Hundred Acre Wood to Neverland via Jack Skellington's Hallowe'en Town, the settings are beautiful, combining Disney magic with Square Enix polish and grandeur. The stylised aesthetic of the original makes it a great fit for HD, like seeing a classic film remastered on Blu-ray. If the story verges on the saccharine at times, it touches upon darker themes than Disney would ordinarily go near, and there's a wistful, perhaps even mournful, undertone that's captured expertly by Yoko Shimomura's sublime soundtrack.
As this is the previously Japanese-only Final Mix edition of the game, there are a few more cut-scenes and some extra content that alludes to events in the first proper sequel. Before that, however, came Game Boy Advance title Chain of Memories, which got a PS2 remake in 2007 that never made it to Europe. This HD update of Re:Chain of Memories is the first time many of us will have encountered this card-based spin-off, and it's more than just a curio.
Its combat, for instance, allows you to move around the battlefield as normal, but asks you to lay cards to attack. These range from basic melee attacks to spells and ally summons, though once you've exhausted your deck, it takes a few seconds to reload it, the time increasing each time you reshuffle. The focus, then, is on tactical play: you'll need to deploy your cards efficiently, like corralling enemies into a tight space so you can attack two or more simultaneously.
You'll gain further cards from fallen enemies, and these are used to create new rooms, whose occupants may be weakened or dizzy depending on which cards you synthesise with. While progress is still relatively linear, this allows you to forge your own path between the key story points, and with sleights and combos factoring into combat, this unusual system has genuine depth. Its biggest problem is that you're visiting the same worlds you've already seen in Kingdom Hearts, and when you've just played through 20-odd hours of its predecessor, the whiff of déjà vu eventually becomes pungent.
Still, that's more than can be said for Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. One of the series' weaker entries, it's only here in non-playable form, as a collection of cutscenes with written memos covering the gaps in between. By this stage in the Kingdom Hearts story, a fairly simple narrative has become as bloated and needlessly convoluted as the title of this collection, and watching them I was reminded of Sora's exasperation at the start of Re:Chain of Memories: "Who cares about that? It's too confusing!"
So that's one RPG very nearly torpedoed by a terrible start, a very decent albeit familiar spin-off and a token bonus for the handful of players who enjoy the Kingdom Hearts universe enough to watch hours of cutscenes, but not enough to have played the game or have sought out a plot summary. When you look at it like that, 1.5 Remix isn't quite the bargain it first appears. It just about passes muster as a stopgap release to tide fans over until the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts 3, but those looking to rekindle fond memories may find nostalgia's bubble all too easily pricked.
6 / 10