Mixing the worlds of Disney together with the role playing masters over at Square Enix, it was pretty much a given that Kingdom Hearts would go on to be a huge hit. Now, with several of the other titles getting a HD remaster under the somewhat awkward Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX moniker, and with Kingdom Hearts III in the works, we sat down with Tai Yasue, the Co-Director on the Kingdom Hearts series, to talk about how the game came about in the first place - and what's in store in the future.
Kingdom Hearts has a very complex story - perhaps one of the hardest for us to sum up in articles. So, as the game's Co-Director, if you had to sum up the plot of Kingdom Hearts in under 100 words, how would you do it?
I think that's kind of impossible! Very difficult! Er... in a hundred words... erm... ok. I guess in Kingdom Hearts right now, we have a dark secret side with the Xehanort, the arch-villain, and uh, Sora battling. It's, I guess, sort of a story of light against darkness, and Sora, Aqua, Ventus, Terra and the people from the light who use the keyblade, go to each Disney world and discover things of the heart and they actually learn things, with different characters from Disney. And they use that to fight the villains.
That's probably pretty close to 100.
Yeah, I dunno. 100 words sounds kind of impossible. It's very complex.
Tell us about it! So, which games make up the Kingdom Hearts 2.5D HD ReMIX collection?
For 2.5, there's Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix, the origin story, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Final Mix, and Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. For Re:coded, there's no gameplay - it's all cutscenes. We remade [the game as] three hours worth of cutscenes - and we've added that in, so you can discover the story more.
Will there also be text passages like the first one?
Oh that's right - yeah! There's text, and this time round we have a voice as well, mixed with the text, so you have an understanding of the story. And also, there'll be battle scenes. For 1.5, a lot of our players, wanted the battle scenes as well included, so we remade some of the battles in cutscene form; put cinematics in.
What order would you suggest newcomers should tackle the games in?
OK, well, I guess Birth By Sleep is the first one - so I'd say absolute zero for that one. And then after that maybe Kingdom Hearts II, and after that Re:coded. Re:coded actually sort of connects Kingdom Hearts II and Birth By Sleep, and it tells the player that Sora has to rescue the characters Aqua, Ventus and Terra from Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. So yeah, it's sort of a bridge. So I recommend Birth By Sleep and then Re:coded, but I guess it depends on what the player wants! If you want to play II first, that's fine as well!
One of the things you usually notice with games, is that when you go back to old games, they can often feel a lot harder than you remember. Is this something you've noticed when you go back to the original PS2 games, compared to how games are now?
You know, that's one of the things we really take into consideration, but we really don't want to change Kingdom Hearts too much. I mean, Kingdom Hearts II isn't that difficult I think, even now. Birth By Sleep too. Yes, there's a lot of challenges, and trophies now too, but I think if you just want to clear the game and get to the very end, it's not that hard. It's made for a casual audience as well as hardcore gamers. For the latter, we've added new, challenging bosses that you don't really have to fight to [clear] the story, but we have added some stuff like that. Basically, we want both casual players and hardcore players to enjoy the game.
Have there been any big changes for the 2.5 remix? Any old features or modes that maybe didn't work so well that have been tweaked or removed?
When we're making a game, there are a lot of aspects we strike off because they're not that fun, but for2.5, we didn't really remove anything important. For Birth By Sleep, there was a multiplayer mode, which we've changed to a single player mode, so I guess that was a big change. But other than that there's not a lot, there's nothing that's actually been removed.
Why did you choose to change the multiplayer mode?
Multiplayer was actually made for the PSP, and it's a totally different technology when you go to make it on the PS3. And we were making Kingdom Hearts III simultaneously, and we really didn't want to slow down the development of that.
Are there any other big differences between the original games and the remakes?
Other than the graphics, there's the sound. For Kingdom Hearts II, we've changed 99 of our songs. We weren't able to use live instruments for Kingdom Hearts II on the PS2, so we rerecorded some using a string orchestra in Boston - I guess that's a big change. Also for Birth By Sleep, like I mentioned earlier, Arena has been changed to a single player mode, with an added rule - the 'bonus medal' rule - a sort of challenge.
So, beyond the new graphics and sound, it's pretty much the same game as it was?
We didn't really want to change it too much, because both Kingdom Hearts II and Birth By Sleep were really very well received. If we had changed it, we think it would have been a betrayal, and we really didn't want to change what was good about it.
But at the same time, it is a new release in the shops, so I'm sure some were hoping for a more substantial remake rather than a reskin?
Yeah, I guess. But for the Final Mix, there's a lot of added new content that our audience hasn't actually played yet. Graphics-wise and sound, I think we did a lot of work on that - we had a seventy member team doing that, so it wasn't an easy task at all! It's not like we simply had to press a button and it automatically converts - it took a lot of hours, a year to create, using seventy members, so I think our designers and our sound designers put a lot of effort into not changing it, but making an evolution, sort of.
Can you tell us a little bit more about Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix? As far as I'm aware, it's a sort of complete edition that never made it out over here - what are the extra bits for that?
For Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix and Birth By Sleep Final Mix, there's tons of new content that was never released outside of Japan. For Birth By Sleep, there's a whole new stage, the 'Realm of Darkness' that you can play using Aqua, and you fight a new boss, so you can see what happened 'afterwards', after Birth By Sleep. And for Kingdom Hearts II, there's a lot of added bosses, such as the Lingering Will, an amoured guy who's very frustrating to fight (laughs). He's very difficult! His weapon sort of transforms, but I think the hardcore audience in Japan think Lingering Will is the best Kingdom Hearts boss out there, so I guess you might enjoy that. It's still well-balanced, but very difficult - it is do-able, but you need technique and skill!
Are you finding that the people buying these games are people who played it the first time round, or is it getting a whole new audience that maybe didn't have a PS2?
Both actually. It's been almost twelve years since the original Kingdom Hearts I, and we're still making Kingdom Hearts III - so there's a long time lapse between the games. So I guess we wanted to reintroduce I and II to our new users, and also our players that have played it, but have forgotten the story. So both, I guess.
Why did you make the choice to only include cutscenes from Kingdom Hearts: Re:Coded? Why is there no gameplay from that one?
I really like the game for Re:coded for the DS, but it's played using the Touch Screen, and, as you can imagine, that's kind of a difficult thing to recreate on the PS3! To do that we would really have had to change the game and how it's played. There's also a schedule consideration too. In terms of staying true to the original game, if we change things too much, it's like a whole new game.
Here's a question I've always wanted to ask, although you may not know the answer to this as you said you weren't around when they made the first games. Final Fantasy games always had turn-based battles, but then Kingdom Hearts jumped to real-time. Do you know why that happened?
Well, I guess that's something that Nomura chose. But to be honest, I dunno. Kingdom Hearts has sort of real-time battles, and personally, I prefer that!
Is there any reason why there's no PS4 version of the collection?
A PS4 version? Well, erm, when we were actually starting the project for Kingdom Hearts III, we also planned 1.5 and 2.5 at the same time. And at that time, the PS3 was the current console, and we wanted our players to be able to play it on the same console, on the PS3.
Even though now Kingdom Hearts III is going to be on the PS4?
That's right, yeah. In the end it didn't quite work out that way. But at the moment, we're not making any more announcements for the PS4. We're not saying we are, and we're not saying we aren't.
Will Kingdom Hearts III be the next title to be released, or is there likely to be something in between?
Erm... I'm afraid I can't say. I can't say if we are or we aren't. We're actually definitely working on III though! Well, technically 2.5 AND III!
What other games have you personally been part of?
Well, I guess I've made Vagrant Story for the PS1 - that was my first title. I also made Tetra Master (a card game from Final Fantasy IX). That was very fun; I enjoyed it a lot. We had a small team, and that was a lot of fun for me. I guess also Musashi: Brave Fencer II. But mainly Kingdom Hearts!
What can you tell us about the third game then, Kingdom Hearts III?
The third game? I get a lot of questions about that. I don't know! I mean, really, I'd love to tell you, but... I'm very excited. There's a lot of new technology. I mean, I go to my team's booths and PCs and they're doing new stuff that's never been done before. I know that's very ambiguous, but I can't really say! There's a lot of new stuff I haven't seen before in a Kingdom Hearts title, so that's very exciting. A lot of new technology, of how expressions are done. Creative-wise, for our previous events we've had a Jet Coaster flying around - kind of Disney attraction sort of themed.
Yes, I was going to ask about that. There seems to be more theme park references in this one, Kingdom Hearts III - there was a Big Thunder Mountain train done up in the Main Street Electrical Parade style. Is that something we're going to be seeing more of?
That is, definitely. Technically, it's not Big Thunder Mountain, even if it may look like it. One of the things we wanted was to make the game feel like you were at a theme park attraction, for example.
I want to see more stuff like that! That was a nice reference!
I think that's something which is very Kingdom Hearts. It's not something you could do on any other game. That's very distinct. That's one of the things we put a lot of effort into - I think you'll see a lot of attraction-themed gameplay inside the game.
With Kingdom Hearts 2.5 being pretty much the perfect build up to Kingdom Hearts III, will you need to play through 1.5 and 2.5 to understand the story in III properly?
Well, it's not a must, but yes, if you really want to understand the story, I guess 1.5 and 2.5 would be good. It's a complex story, but I think even if you dive in and just play Kingdom Hearts III or II or whatever, each Disney world has its own original story that's not that difficult to understand, so I guess you could enjoy it without even really knowing the whole thing. But if you want a deeper understanding of it, playing 1.5 and 2.5 is [a good idea].
How did the idea come about for the game? Was it something that Disney put to you guys, or you put to Disney, or...?
Ooohhh, originally... erm... Yeah well I guess I've heard - this is legend, not necessarily facts, as I wasn't actually there - but I heard that some of our... my boss, Hashimoto and the person from Disney met in an elevator. Our Tokyo office is located - was located, previously - in Meguro, which was also the same building that Disney Japan had their offices. So my boss and someone from Disney, they met in the elevator, they talked about it, and then they decided to maybe co-operate. That's just [what I've heard though].
Disney are famously very protective about some of their characters - has there been anything you haven't been able to work with in the games?
Well, [obviously] Kingdom Hearts can't be gory, can't be bloody obviously, and we can't really change the original story from the feature films. So you know that's, I guess, that's a balancing act we have to do. [But] because of the restrictions, I think it really fuelled our creativity in a way? Because we couldn't have our characters bleeding, so we made it so when you hit someone we had stars flying all over the place - so I guess we made it cuter. So it wouldn't look violent.
Has there been any Disney properties you've tried to get in, but haven't been able to?
Let's see... Disney properties... Yes there is, but I don't think I can comment. There are some things Disney is, er, sensitive to. I guess if it really fits, when we're coming up with our worlds to use in Kingdom Hearts, we really want it to fit some of the things we want to do. We really want to surprise the player, and we really want to make sure it actually fits into the overall gaming experience. We don't want the same sort of types of Disney worlds, Science Fiction for example, in continuation, right.
Or Star Wars?
Or Star Wars. I can't comment on Star Wars at all (laughs). There's a lot of things we've taken into consideration, and I guess a lot of things Disney had to think about as well.
How do you go about choosing which Disney worlds you put in?
We sort of make lists, and see which ones we want to enter first. The thing is, we want variety in our selections, because we don't want the same sort of types of worlds, so we need to see if they're different enough. Another thing is that we want to surprise our players, so for example, with Winnie The Pooh, it wouldn't be much of a surprise (as it appeared in a previous game). Obviously some worlds are expected, and while we might include that, but we also want to come up with something new and different as well.
Things like TRON and Steampunk Willie are sort of kookier Disney things.
Yeah, we want something kooky and fun as well as something people expect.
Will you be using more Pixar things in future then?
Ohhhhh... Pixar... I can't talk about that (laughs). Pixar... yeah. I have a lot of respect for the Pixar IPs, and I am a huge fan - I watch them with my kids - but that's all I can say.
How about things like Frozen?
Frozen? Well, that's something I also enjoy very much. I went to see the movie. And it would make a good level, with the snow and the ice castle. As an animated feature film, I enjoyed it very much.
Is there any chance the partnership could go the other way, and you might see some Kingdom Hearts rides or attractions in theme parks?
Ahhhhhh.... I think that's something you might have to ask Disney! I'm not in charge of the theme park or anything, so I don't have much of a say.
Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX is out now on PS3. Check back in a few days for a full review. In the mean time, we'll start dreaming about how awesome a theme park ride based on Kingdom Hearts might be.