Kingdom Hearts is a vast franchise which, sadly for most console-only gamers, has been limited to just two games, that was until last year's 1.5 HD remix which contained the final versions of three fantastic games all dollied up to look the part on last-gen consoles.
Now Square Enix has returned with another two games, Kingdom Hearts 2
, Birth by Sleep
, a movie cut from all the cinematics and abridging narration from King Mickey.
The good news first - If you enjoyed the Kingdom Hearts 1.5
collection then you will also enjoy this.
Now for the really good news - it all looks and plays absolutely stellar. We'll go through them one at a time as is only fair treatment to a series of games that deserve to be judged on their own merits.
Kingdom Hearts II (actually fifth in the timeline, but more on that in my closing thoughts) opens with Roxas, a young boy living in Twilight Town. He has a mysterious connection to Sora, the series' main protagonist. After playing as Roxas for a while events force you back to playing as Sora and the game properly begins.
Once again you are tasked with helping worlds based on Disney franchises in a fight against The Heartless and new bad guys The Nobodies (what remains of a person who has lost their heart to the darkness). Combat is largely unchanged from its predecessor and remains really enjoyable, if a bit 'floaty' and confusing at times.
Transport between worlds has changed. The Gummi Ships now function like an on rails shooter, allowing the player to concentrate on shooting. It still takes time away from the actual meat of the game and remains my least favourite part of the franchise.
When you arrive on each new world be prepared to be stunned by the crisp beauty this re-master delivers. It almost sparkles with polish. Each world has its own story that ties back in to the overarching plot, a plot which I won't even attempt to properly summarise. Even though I've played every game in the franchise I remain confused on some points and the parts I fully understand would require whole essays to detail in any meaningful way.
Overall Kingdom Hearts II
is a faithful and brilliant re-release. It delivers a solid core story that builds upon story threads from games that hadn't even been made at the time of its original release and remains one of my favourite games of all time.
Birth by Sleep
(technically first in the timeline) was originally released on the PSP and told three separate, but interconnected stories. Three friends training to be Keyblade Masters: Terra, a serious young man who takes himself way too seriously, battles the darkness within his own heart; Aqua, a young woman with a pure heart and fierce determination to protect her friends and uphold the teachings of their mentor and, finally, Ventas a young boy who was brought to Master Eraqus to supposedly heal after an accident with the then-unknown franchise antagonist Master Xehanort.
Their names are Latin for Earth, Water and Wind respectively, just like Sora and Riku are derived from the Japanese words for Sky and Land, with Kairi filling the water reference (her name is derived from the Japanese word for Sea) with the added meaning that the full name means Nautical Mile, alluding to the distance always put between the characters.
Each leave the Land of Departure for their own reasons and you play through each character's story in its entirety before starting the next. They run in to each other and their stories connect and eventually spiral down to one conclusion viewed from multiple perspectives. I have always found Aqua's perspective of the ending especially heartbreaking.