Saturday, August 2, 2014

Impressions #10: Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix

The fact the I am a fan of the Kingdom Hearts franchise is not much of a secret. Even after my critiques of the series, I still find myself coming back to it over and over again. When I found a copy of Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5: ReMIX for $19.99, I just had to make the purchase. Having spent much of my free time with Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix in particular, thoughts on the game are gathering in the back of my mind. Before I start, I would like to warn readers that I write this assuming you are already familiar with Kingdom Hearts, and have at least played the original release of the game. With that said....

When I started my latest playthrough of the game, I noticed that the Final Mix version of the original Kingdom Hearts changed the initial choices of difficulty. While the first version had only two choices: Normal and Expert, the Final Mix had three options. They were Final Mix: Beginner, Normal, and Final Mix: Proud. Having played Kingdom Hearts many times in the past, I decided to bring in some challenge by tackling the Proud difficulty. This became a choice I would regret at first, because the initial levels in the game are fairly brutal without Guard or Dodge Roll. Once the game opened up a bit, unlocking some magic and abilities, I changed my mind. On Final Mix: Proud, the game becomes much more about timing and positioning. If the player leaves an opening, the enemy will capitalize on it. On Normal mode, attacks do not inflict enough damage to be very worrying. Proud Mode is a different story. Foes can easily take out half of Sora's health with a single blow. As a result, I found myself utilizing magic and items a lot more than previous playthroughs of Kingdom Hearts, where I would mostly just attack, using Cure for healing. It added to the game in a way that I would have never anticipated.

Another thing I should mention are the scenes they added to the game's main story. Most of them detail Riku's involvement with the plot. None of the added scenes are absolutely essential to understanding the story. However, they do add a nice context to Riku's character and how it evolves over the course of the game. With these scenes, it is much easier to understand exactly why Riku joined up with Maleficent, and how she convinced him to work with her. Also, when Ansem takes over Riku's body towards the end of the game, the extra scenes help explain how he ends up on the other side of the door to Kingdom Hearts along side King Mickey. None of this is necessary for the plot to make sense, but it is nice to have the game explicitly answer these questions.
Aside from that, the story to the original Kingdom Hearts is all here, and it is as Simple and Clean as it was back then. The first game excelled at telling a simple, Disney-style story. It talks about friendship, heart, and the duality between light and darkness such that anyone in its E for Everyone demographic can understand. While later entries in the series will delve into the more complicated, Final Fantasy-esque storytelling, Kingdom Hearts started out differently, and the writing was better for it.

On a core level, this is the same Kingdom Hearts that I fell in love with way back in 2002. The combat feels grounded. I would not call it “realistic”, but it has a sense of plausibility that later games in the franchise did not quite recapture for me. Even today, the gameplay holds up extremely well. Hit detection is solid and the player has a lot of feedback with regards to when something takes damage or when an attack gets parried.
Having said that, there is key difference that I made a note of. In the original game, when Sora uses a technique like Ars Arcanum or Sonic Blade, he is invincible during both the initial attack and during all of the follow ups. In Final Mix, I noticed that during the follow-ups of either Ars Arcanum or Ragnarok, Sora is open to attacks, making both moves less useful overall compared to Sonic Blade or Strike Raid. I am not sure whether or not I appreciate that change. On one hand, the two moves are not as good as they used to be. On the other hand, not only were they overpowered to begin with, but their reduced effectiveness encouraged me to use other techniques instead. With the addition of new abilities and adjusted level up charts to accommodate them, the game feels fresh even for people who have already played Kingdom Hearts before.
Other notable changes help to bring the game into the modern age. In the original Kingdom Hearts, players needed to scroll down through the attack menu in order to select the contextual commands. The HD version of the Final Mix changes that by mapping them all to the triangle button in much the same way that Reaction Commands work in Kingdom Hearts 2. Follow-up attacks from Keyblade Techniques are also handled this way. Further, at the start of the game, players can choose to either stick with the shoulder button camera controls from the original game, or change it to the right-analog stick. When I saw the prompt, I personally switched it the the right stick as fast as I possibly could. These are both really nice convenience changes that improve upon the game by bringing it into the current gen. Shoulder button camera controls have always had issues, like their limited axis of effectiveness and general unwieldiness. Purists might be turned off, but I welcome the additions.

Kingdom Hearts always had a knack for looking good, even back in the PS2 era. Because of the game's use of bold colors and a stylized, cartoonish look, the game visually withstood the test of time. With the HD treatment, this is even more true. Everything looks fantastic with the higher resolution. However, given that this is still a PS2-era game, there are some noticeable graphical hiccups that games from that system were known for. For example, they did not have the technical ability to render a character's high detail face outside of cutscenes. When in gameplay, and even in some cutscenes, the faces on the characters are noticeably of lesser quality. As a port of a PS2 game, this is to be expected. Unfortunately, sometimes the higher resolution works against the game in this case. When uprezzing some of the textures for the character models, there are a few isolated cases where there is noticeable pixelation on them. Thankfully, it is no where near as bad as when Final Fantasy X-2 HD, where most character models had that issue. I only noticed in a few small, highly isolated cases. The pixelation is only a blemish on an otherwise highly polished piece of art.

Overall, Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix alone is well worth the asking price for the 1.5 ReMIX. As of the time of writing, I have yet to complete the boss fight against Unknown that was added to the Final Mix. I do not feel leveled enough to be able to fight him on Proud mode and right now I want to take a break from the game. I also do not currently feel compelled to play through Re: Chain of Memories. When it came out on the PS2, I purchased it and completed it 100%. As fun as that was, I do not feel like I want to do it again after doing it on both the GBA and the PS2. Nonetheless, I am extremely eager to purchase and play through the 2.5 ReMIX when it is released.

No comments: