The PlayStation 2 release of Kingdom Hearts II was something of a landmark event for me; I’ve written a zillion words about it elsewhere on the site, and gabbed about it endlessly on our podcasts. Setting aside the game itself, I have two vivid, unforgettable early memories of my experience with it. The first occurred while I was living with my best friend in high school during a family relocation, with the two of us crowding around my tiny computer screen to watch low-resolution ripped videos of the Japanese release as they trickled out. The first time I heard “Tension Rising” as Roxas struggled to escape the clutches of the Twilight Thorn, I was in love with the new musical tack the game had taken compared to its predecessor.
The second memory is more a collection of fragments. My first car was a Jeep Cherokee that had a broken tape deck and a working CD player. In the months before the US release of the game (it felt like years), I had burned a copy of the soundtrack, undoubtedly scored from some bootleg popup-infested site in those days before YouTube made listening to unreleased material a piece of cake. Wherever it had come from, my brain is now incapable of not associating the green numbers on the CD player console in that Jeep with Kingdom Hearts, as my first time listening to almost every song in what would become one of my all-time favorite soundtracks took place there. I imagined what in-game shenanigans would accompany “Hazardous Highway;” cringed at the awful synths on “He’s a Pirate;” and got misty-eyed and emotional even before I had any idea that “Fantasia alla marcia for piano, chorus, and orchestra” would be the period at the end of the sentence that was Kingdom Hearts II.
Suffice it to say, I’ve got a lot of mental baggage packed into every one of the songs in that game. And from the moment I first heard the Video Game Orchestra’s Shota Nakama announce at a Video Games Live concert that they’d be re-recording the entire soundtrack, my expectations were through the roof. Would this new recording do justice to the originals? Would the PS2 game’s notoriously wonky synths translate into something that could match up to my memories of these songs? Would “Darkness of the Unknown” continue to be amazing? Perhaps most importantly of all, would “He’s a Pirate” no longer sound like a train had hit it?
Unlike its baby brother, the Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX soundtrack is a complete re-envisioning of nearly every track on the album. Some tracks, like “Passion,” “Fantasia alla marcia,” and so forth weren’t touched, likely because they already featured real instruments and live performances. For everything else, this soundtrack is a total rockestra redo, to purloin a phrase from the VGO’s self-description. The violins, pianos, and percussion here all ring truer than they ever once did, and as a result, there’s a more immediate emotional impact to nearly every song. Some tracks, like the oft-mentioned “He’s a Pirate,” are completely transformed by this new application of TLC. No longer a muddled, synthy mess, that song now sounds as bombastic and adventurous as Klaus Badelt’s original in the film it first appeared in.
One need only compare KH1.5’s “Fragments of Sorrow” to KH2.5’s version to get a sense of the scope here. The haunting vocals punctuate the tense strings, creating a weightier feeling than the song has ever had. My beloved “Tension Rising” has a punchy, deep percussive vibe that was hollower in the original, and slipping and sliding around the series’ iconic stained-glass window has never had a better, more dramatic musical accompaniment.
The character themes are now far more distinctive, too. The choice of instrumentation plus the plucky piano and upbeat melody make “Sora” even more of a contrast to “Riku.” The latter was always a challenging, emotional piece with somber piano that hinted at the character’s inner struggle, and the new recording’s fantastic use of a backing guitar gives it an earthy, human atmosphere. Roxas’ dual themes, “Roxas” and “The Other Promise,” sound equally poignant, with the latter in particular really capturing the disquiet and turmoil of Sora’s other. The build-up, a muted rendition of the theme, blossoms into a full orchestra and piano piece. It serves as an incredible complement to one of the most important battles in the game, and is a testament to the great understanding of the game material on the part of VGO’s arrangers and performers.
The world themes universally sound great, too. “Dance of the Daring” has all of that regal French-inspired countryside castle flavor that made the original so good, but the live performances give it so much more life. Likewise, “The Home of Dragons” captures the ethnic flavor that the original reached for but didn’t quite manage. Running in the opposite direction, “Monochrome Dreams” — one of the most heartwarming world themes in the game — is utterly charming in all its newly hi-fi lo-fi glory.
The original battle themes have always been a highlight of the series for me, and it’s in this regard that KH2.5 leaves me in a frothing-at-the-mouth mess on the floor. Every single battle theme sounds harder, more poignant, more dramatic, or peppier than it ever did. “Dance to the Death,” with its hard-hitting drums, piano half-notes, and discomfiting violin is unforgettable. The Final Mix-exclusive “Deep Anxiety” is one of the series’ all-time best themes, as the anxious, dissonant piano captures all of the mystery and tension of the game’s most challenging optional area. Another FM-exclusive tune, “Rage Awakened” makes its appearance on this album count with what is easily the greatest in-game rendition of the song. The main breakdown that comes in around one minute has never sounded more dramatic, and it is a perfectly fitting backdrop for the battle against the deadliest foe in the game.
It’s worth noting that all of the Final Mix material has been smoothly integrated into the soundtrack where appropriate; no longer do these tracks all crowd the end of disc 4. Additionally, two tracks from Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep appear at the end of the final disc. “Keyblade Graveyard Horizon” is a dark, unsettling piece that incorporates the themes of “Sunset Horizons,” KH2’s first secret ending video. While Birth by Sleep’s music was already made with real instruments, this live performance is a fuller, richer arrangement, and it’s hard to avoid a chill when the high-pitched violin overtakes the track around 1:30. The other track, “Dismiss,” is one of the most thematically-rich and narratively-resonant final battle themes in the series (and incidentally, one of the first musical things I ever wrote about for RPGFan!). The VGO performance, much like every other battle theme, understands what makes the original so excellent and knows exactly how to bring that out. It’s a shame that these are the only two BbS tracks in the game, because if they’re any indication, a full remaster of that game’s soundtrack would have fared just as well as KH2.5.
The VGO’s Shota Nakama told me that the final boss suite, “Darkness of the Unknown,” is one of the tracks he is most proud of. Its three movements are perhaps my single most-loved musical finale in any medium, ever, so when I heard his words, I was ecstatic. The track, nearly eight minutes in duration, is a complete success in its re-envisioning. The second and third movements in particular border on a religious listening experience for me, with the violin, percussion, piano, and utterly unforgettable melody reminding me of everything that I love about this increasingly-convoluted series. Narrative references are woven throughout the song, and the VGO’s performance highlights, underscores, and exclamation points each and every twist and turn. I do not hesitate in saying that if you’ve ever been a fan of this song, the album is worth the purchase for it alone.
This has all been a long-winded way of saying that I’m in love with this album. KH2 is one of my all-time favorite works by Yoko Shimomura, packing in thematic cohesion, genuine heart, and her amazing signature sound with some of the best material she’s ever produced. That the Video Game Orchestra understood what made that music so wonderful and managed to help it transcend technology is a profound relief and and utter delight to me, and will forever keep their work in my good books.