Kingdom Hearts is ridiculous, yet I can’t help but love it.
The game series, which combines characters from Disney’s stable and major players from the Final Fantasy games in an original story, is eight games deep and filled with enough twists and turns to make a soap opera seem mundane. It can, frankly, be difficult to follow.
Yet the insane, endearing charm of Kingdom Hearts has never been on display as transparently as it is in Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMix, a compilation that reflects the series at its best and worst.
2.5 ReMix collects remasted versions of Kingdom Hearts 2, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, and story sequences from Kingdom Hearts Re:coded—yes, this series’ naming conventions make about as much sense as the Fast and Furious films. These three titles demonstrate the games’ highs and lows: In 2006, Kingdom Hearts 2 made a host of spectacular additions that still hold up today, including the villainous Organization XIII, some fun new Disney cameos and storylines, and gameplay alterations that feel meaningful and dynamic. The 2010 prequel Birth by Sleep deepens the franchise’s mythology and makes a lot of new elements retroactively integral to the entire series.
Re:coded, by contrast, shows the franchise’s tendency to throw in unnecessary filler while the important entries take years—almost a decade when it comes to Kingdom Hearts 3—to release. Kingdom Hearts is mired in that type of frustration. Still, the franchise is undeniably entertaining. Watching beloved Disney characters reenact scenes from their films while engaging in protagonist Sora’s original story, all with the charm that made everything from Aladdin to Steamboat Willie to Mulan so lovable in the first place. And Sora is just so damn nice, surrounded by an incredible cast that pulls on your nostalgic and emotional heartstrings. The cheesiness of the franchise’s thematic choices feels earned and exciting, not cloying. In a medium stuffed with cynical plotlines and end-of-the-world scenarios, Kingdom Hearts has always remained about finding the good in yourself and the world around you.
The series bears its intentions as blatantly as the characters on Arrow—but here, it’s pulled off with the magic instilled by decades of Disney’s most memorable faces. Where else can you find Mickey acting as a king and swinging a giant key around while spouting platitudes about love and friendship, like he’s CGI Yoda? Or Maleficent ganging up with Oogie Boogie and Captain Hook to fight Donald and Beast while Cloud from Final Fantasy VII pops up in the background?
Even with Re:coded, Kingdom Hearts 2 and Birth by Sleep include enough heartwarming character beats and interesting plot shifts to be well worth revisiting or experiencing for the first time. The collection blends bizarre but delightful narrative and character twists with gameplay additions like Sora’s different combat forms, which are fun to play around with.
2 and Sleep‘s flaws have become more apparent with age, though. The voice acting can be rough—let’s collectively pretend the Johnny Depp impersonator in the Pirates of the Caribbean level never existed—and some Disney inclusions are dated (does anyone still care about Chicken Little?). The collection also demonstrates some disappointing design choices; much of the original game’s verticality has been replaced with relatively flat levels that temper exploration. They still remain wonderful recreations of Disney classics, but many feel more like extended corridors than the franchise’s best levels.
Most importantly, for those interested in exploring the series for the first time, start off with Kingom Hearts 1.5 HD ReMix, last year’s compilation—which makes the story’s operatic plot machinations much easier to follow.
I poke fun at Kingdom Hearts as much as I sing its praises. The story has become convoluted, yes, and there are some Hearts games that feel utterly ancillary. But at its core, there’s such a simple and clean theme tying Kingdom Hearts all together: Even in the face of absolute darkness and evil, strength can always be found in the love and support of your friends. That becomes irresistible when married with the spirit of Disney.
So even when Kingdom Hearts seems like it doesn’t make a lick of sense, if you’re willing to give it a chance, you may not be able to help loving it too.