"This is a game that contains a scene in which you fight to avenge the death of Goofy. Just go buy it."
I wrote the introduction to this review about four times, trying to think of the most concise and the most honest way to communicate to you, dear reader, how much Kingdom Hearts II as an experience means to my life. Some might argue "it's just a game," and they'd certainly be right. But people are moved all the time in numerous ways by great works of art, just as I was moved by this one. And so, after several overly lengthy iterations of this introductory paragraph, I've found a really succinct way to sum up my thoughts on Kingdom Hearts II.5 HD ReMix:
This is a game that contains a scene in which you fight to avenge the death of Goofy. Just go buy it.
Maybe not the most eloquent way to phrase things, but certainly as accurate a representation as words can come to how much I love the games involved in this remaster package. Featuring the Final Mix versions of Kingdom Hearts II (a substantially bigger upgrade over vanilla than Kingdom Hearts Final Mix was) and Birth by Sleep alongside HD-ified cinematic sequences from re:Coded, Kingdom Hearts II.5 HD ReMix is an insane value for what it costs. The playable games included here are the absolute best in the series, representing the height of the creativity, charm, and refinement it has developed over the years. What's more, unlike I.5, there's a substantial amount of new content in Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix for those who never played the original Japan-only release, so there's plenty to offer even seasoned veterans. That re:Coded is among the biggest, most poorly-paced 15 minutes of plot stretched over several hours of cutscenes ever made should not deter you in the slightest.
So what's different? Kingdom Hearts II was already a pretty game, and the HD remaster keeps things running at a smooth framerate at 1080p resolution. Some elements of the environments (like the houses during the clock tower scene in Twilight Town) look ghastly; but those moments are few. Birth by Sleep looks comparatively humble, given its origins. However, the jump to a full controller for camera controls and a wider viewing angle, along with the rock-solid framerate and colorful graphics still make for a pleasant visual experience. All of the menus and interface elements are sharp as a tack, and the remastered CG cutscenes are just as stylish and enjoyable to watch now as they were years ago. In short, she's real purty.
More importantly, at least to folks such as myself, is the absolutely knocked-it-out-of-the-park phenomenal new music. The first game's remaster opted to take the same tracks and perform the synthesized portions with live instruments, which, while successful, wasn't quite as drastic as what has been done here. The Video Game Orchestra (whose other recent performances include Lightning Returns and the Final Fantasy XV TGS trailer theme) has completely re-recorded the vast majority of Kingdom Hearts II and two tracks from Birth by Sleep. The results are, at least to the lover of this series' music that I am, irrefutably fantastic. Tracks which fell flat in the original, like "He's a Pirate" from the Pirates of the Caribbean world, now sound as bombastic and exciting as they were always meant to. Tracks which were quite good back in the day, like the world and battle themes in Mulan's world, hit harder and have significantly more distinctive instrumentation and capture the excitement of battle and the flavor of the world with far greater grace. Critically, the epic three movements of the final boss track have been so infused with life and power that it's hard not to get the chills when hearing it. I've got plenty more to say about the soundtrack, but that'll come in a separate review!
So, great visuals and music are all well and good, but if you've already gorged yourself on these games, you'll find the new Final Mix content to be the real draw. Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix offers a bunch of new things to do, such as a Trinity mark-like side quest that sends you all across every world trying to find hidden pieces of a puzzle. There's a new Sora-only Drive mode called Limit Form that brings back some classic attacks from KHI in style and addresses the issue in the original of the Drive gauge being mostly useless in fights without Donald and Goofy. There are somewhere around twenty new boss fights (including two with every single member of Organization XIII), and they'll each test the mettle of even the best players. There are new abilities, a new dungeon (also with rad music), and plenty more. Birth by Sleep's Final Mix is a little more modest, but you'll find a fascinating new epilogue chapter and several new optional boss battles, one of which I'm fairly certain is responsible for my current high blood pressure.
Speaking of Birth by Sleep, the multiplayer Mirage Arena world has been retooled to support only a single player. While it's a bummer that the fairly enjoyable co-op play has been stripped out, there's still plenty of new content for players of the original, and its all now playable and possible with only a single person.
Much like with 358/2 Days in KHI.5, re:Coded is included here as a lengthy movie. Unlike 358/2 Days, there is almost no merit to be found whatsoever in re:Coded's storyline, akin as it is to badly-written filler episodes of your favorite TV show or anime. The story's cell phone roots are embarrassingly obvious, in spite of the addition of lots of voice-acting and some fairly enjoyable new battle sequences that help at least make the movie flow better than its predecessor. The inclusion of a few new story scenes (likely to tie-in with Kingdom Hearts III) does at least help it from being a total wash, but don't come into this expecting creativity or fun anywhere near the levels of the other two parts of the package. When re:Coded first released, it was far too little story stretched over way too much game, and it's now far too little story stretched over way too much movie.
That aside, with the fancy new presentation and all this lovely new stuff, it's a punch to the gut that there are some technical issues in this remaster that were not present in the original games. Both Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep feature fairly lengthy load times. There are moments in both games in which the game will freeze for a moment as something new is loaded on-screen. Birth by Sleep in particular has a few seconds of dark-screen loading when the main menu is opened up. Most frustrating of all, though, is the loading during form changes. Whether it's a Drive form in KHII or a D-Link with another character in Birth by Sleep, you'll almost always be treated to several seconds of your character floating in the air (invincible, thankfully) as the game loads. While the invincibility means you at least won't suffer a cheap death, it does feel clunky and is absolutely a step back from the original PS2 and PSP games. There's at least one boss battle in Kingdom Hearts II that is dependent upon using Wisdom Form and is made significantly more difficult because of this load time, but by and large it's mostly a disappointment rather than a deal-breaker. I have to imagine this has to do with the slower read speed of a Blu-Ray disc versus a DVD, but that doesn't make it any more excusable in what is otherwise such a great remaster.
You probably already know if you're interested in this obtusely-titled game. If you've never played either game before, I urge you to check it out, as it's some of the most exciting action-RPGing around. KHII and Birth by Sleep are two of my favorite games ever, so for me this is an easy recommendation. The technical missteps knock it down a few pegs, but the awesome new content, beautiful visuals, and amazing soundtrack are more than enough to keep it high up on the board.