"Fans have every right to be angry at Re:coded. The series is better than this... and there's really no excuse for it."
Well, it has finally happened: the Kingdom Hearts series has let me down. After years of feeling like my die-hard fan status was justified because of the series' quality offerings, Re:coded manages to make me lose my justification to purchase every iteration of Kingdom Hearts. You see, the "re" in Re:coded seems to mean repeating a mass amount of content not only from other Kingdom Hearts titles, but even from within itself. Re:coded is so lacking in original content that it is a disservice to the fanbase. This is the game that finally proves to me that the series has cashed in. I truly hope Dream Drop Distance restores my faith in Kingdom Hearts and puts this entry to shame, for it is easily the worst iteration of our favorite series. Fans have every right to be angry at Re:coded. The series is better than this, it has more potential than what we've been given here, and there's really no excuse for it.
It's a Fake Sora!
Re:coded features one of the weakest stories to hit the Kingdom Hearts series. Taking place after Kingdom Hearts II, it begins with Jiminy Cricket, the resident Kingdom Hearts historian, looking through his journal that chronicles the Kingdom Hearts journey. Jiminy is surprised to find that the journal is blank, except for a cryptic message: "Thank Naminé." There enters the first problem: those who played Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories already know about Naminé and why she should be thanked. The story shows its simplicity with the next vague message that appears: "The hurting will be mended when you return to end it." These messages are rhymes a first grader could make and unfortunately, all the messages that follow are in the same suit: mindless and unimaginative.
Since Mickey and his friends apparently lack the brainpower to decode these simple messages, they decide to pull up the journal on a computer for further inspection. This only generates more chaos as they soon discover that the journal's data is corrupted with an exorbitant amount of bugs. The solution should be obvious to everyone: have a data version of Sora tackle the bugs and fix the journal, of course! Not only is this story on a whole new level of ridiculous, but it just doesn't have a strong emotional appeal like past Kingdom Hearts games. I know this game was originally made for mobile devices, but it's obvious that little has changed aside from graphics for this edition. I wish there was at least a little more depth to Re:coded's story. As well, like the laughable messages, the dialogue in this game is by far the worst I have ever encountered in a Kingdom Hearts title. None of dialogue is enjoyable and it feels like it's just there to fill space by stating the obvious: "Sora, why don't you go explore that large corrupted area that's staring you right in the face?" Unless you're a small child, it's an insult to your intelligence. I'll say it right out loud: this game lacks the Kingdom Hearts magic in regards to its narrative. Re:coded's endings are the only reasons to pay any attention to the story, as they give you not only insight into the series as a whole, but also tie into the upcoming Dream Drop Distance. There is one aspect of Re:coded, however, that might be worth your time: its gameplay.
Let's Try Something New with Gameplay = WIN.
The varied gameplay of Re:coded is truly its saving grace, though it hardly makes the entire game palatable. Essentially, Re:coded offers the opportunity for you to visit a few Disney worlds. The problem? We've seen all these worlds before: Agrabah, Olympus Coliseum, Traverse Town, Hollow Bastion, and Destiny Islands, just to name a few. Thankfully, the game does try to combat the familiarity of the recycled content by spicing up each area a bit. Each town in Re:coded has corrupted "blox" of data for you to destroy for goodies. These corrupted blox also act as jumping puzzles to obtain hard to reach bonus items. This makes exploring areas fun, especially if you're a completionist who sets out to get every item.
The action battle system that we all know and love from past entries has returned, except this time it has a twist. You won't necessarily be utilizing it in every world and this helps keep some of the old content fresh. Each world throws a new challenge on you with its gameplay. For instance, one world changes the battle system into a timed turn-based system akin to Super Mario RPG, another to a side-scrolling level reminiscent of most platformers, and there's also a shooting level that may remind you of Sin and Punishment's gameplay. Even with the regular battle system, there's a level where you lose your keyblade and have to order Donald and Goofy around to battle enemies and break boxes for treasure. These are welcome changes for the series, as they keep the combat always fresh with new challenges.
Re:coded also takes a nod from the Final Fantasy X sphere grid with its resourceful Stat Matrix. Keeping pace with Re:coded's computer theme, your Stat Matrix has CPUs on its board that supply energy. On the matrix, you install chips that you acquire; these chips can boost your stats and even level up your character. You work outward by connecting each chip, and once you get enough chips in a certain succession, you unlock new abilities for your character. There's even a way to double the power of all the chips you have in a given area. The Stat Matrix also features a way for you to cheat, or should I say "hack," your game. For instance, you can always change the difficulty in your game on the Stat Matrix. Additionally, you're capable of formulating stronger enemies to ensure they drop superior items. The Stat Matrix is impressive because it really does give the player the ability to alter how they experience Re:coded.
Special skills are not limited to the Stat Matrix, however. Each keyblade (which you can also level up) grants you certain "clock" abilities. These are passive abilities that help in battle as you fill up your clock gauge. Once you get the gauge to overclock you can unleash your powerful finish command. You unlock various finish commands throughout Re:coded, and there's likely one with a command sequence that fits your playstyle. This was my favorite battle system of the Kingdom Hearts series: nothing was too complicated to figure out, and I had fun unlocking a great deal of perks from combining abilities and unlocking new ones on the Stat Matrix.
Additionally, Re:coded does feature a quality character customization system. Following in the vein of Birth By Sleep, you have a deck onto which you load all the special moves and magic you want to bring into battle. This deck does come with limitations: only a few unique abilities can be equipped at once, fewer than its PSP cousin. You can also combine two abilities to make them stronger or even create a completely new ability. It works rather well because not only is it entertaining to experiment with creating new abilities, but it's also equally worthwhile to attempt to level up your abilities to their maximum levels.
Unfortunately, the system areas you explore are the one part of the gameplay that feels stale. Each world has a hidden system area you must locate, a randomly generated level that looks like you're out for a night of cosmic bowling. Honestly, close your eyes, think of Tron and combine it with A-ha's "Take on Me," and you'll get a glimpse into the atmosphere of these areas. They start out being heaps of fun, because they're inventive and different. However, they turn humdrum quickly, because not only do you enter system sectors frequently, but they all start to look and feel identical.
Every time you enter system sectors, random enemies spawn as well as a certain number of blackened digital bugs you must trounce to progress to the next floor. At the end of these levels, you gain Sector Points, which you apply toward items, special attacks, stat boosts, experience, etc. The developers did try to keep the task of trekking through sector areas fresh by offering up special SP challenges. Are you a gambler? If you like to bet, you're in luck. Before you start the level, you're asked to wager a percentage of your SP for completing a special objective. The objective can be as simple as using your finishing move two times or as difficult as taking damage no more than ten times. If you complete the challenge, your SP amount prospers; if you don't, you lose the percentage of the SP you wagered. You can't opt out of the gamble either, you must put some SP at stake.
These areas start off enticing and then simply lose their appeal, because as the challenge heats up in the game, they begin to get exasperating. For instance, say you've spent twenty to thirty minutes navigating a system area making sure you got every possible item you could, but then you get to the last part and you end up dying. Well, instead of respawning from where you died, you have to start the entire system area level over again. Replaying all that rehashed content over is a chore and focusing on a special objective becomes difficult when you're simply trying to make it through alive.
Despite all my shining praise for majority of the gameplay, there is one thing that hindered it: the controls. This series still hasn't figured out exactly how to combat some of its camera issues; there were times I had to adjust the camera three or four times to get it in position to make a difficult jump. During the shooting levels, as well, the lock on system isn't as sensitive as it should be. Many times I'd be trying to lock on to enemies and it just simply wouldn't respond. It's more than frustrating, especially when you get to bosses where there is little room for error. In my opinion, the Kingdom Hearts games have never adapted well to the DS; I have a blister on my thumb to prove it. The lack of an analog stick is a big hindrance in a 3D title, and Re:coded proves it. Adding to the control mess is the awkward jumping; when you move in the direction of where you want to jump, the game auto-jumps for you. This works well at first, but then transforms into the devil during some of the tougher puzzle sequences because of its ultra sensitivity. It seems as soon as you get on a block it makes you jump before you get your bearings. All-in-all, the controls just feel a bit too clunky; it's really a shame, too, because these nuisances do impact the enjoyment level of the game at times.
There is an online mode in this game, as well. Is it necessary? No, it's another aspect that feels tacked-on. In the online mode, you create your own distinct avatar (which can be exchanged with other players). You then compete with other players in special combat challenges to win new avatar parts. There's not much awaiting you in online mode that is worth exploring. It's there to simply satisfy the gamer who wants bragging rights, since it broadcasts your trophies and assigns you a rank.
Walt Wouldn't Approve: Disappointing Sounds and Graphics
For a Nintendo DS title, the graphics look decent, but obviously the DS doesn't have the power of the PSP, so it doesn't even compare to Birth by Sleep. Even if I hadn't played Birth by Sleep, I'd say the graphics aren't anything special. In fact, at certain points they appear quite grainy with their low-resolution textures. As for the recycled worlds, there sure wasn't much done to separate them from their previous iterations. Even the new system sectors could have been more imaginative. The environments are simply too dull to be impressive. On the other hand, the special scenes we get look more than adequate on the DS screen, but they still fall short of jaw dropping. It's a shame the developers weren't able to push the graphical boundaries of the platform a bit more on Re:coded. The graphics are similar to those of 358/2 Days, but with the time that has passed since that release, I wanted something more stirring, not graphics akin to the previous DS game.
The graphics aren't the only thing lacking: I can't stand by the music in this game, either. Why? Because we've heard the majority of these songs over and over again in other games. Re:coded only features four new tracks and none of them are great enough to make you put down the game to purchase any of them. And maybe the music just doesn't cut it because the songs are attached to such an uninspired story that they lose meaning in the scheme of the plot. Now, the reused songs are ones fans have all come to know and love, but at this point it's safe to say, even those are wearing out their welcome. There comes a time where reusing a great deal of music from past games is no longer acceptable. I wasn't expecting a huge, long composition of songs like you'd see for a console game, but I at least wanted songs that were memorable. This is the first Kingdom Hearts game that I felt no connection to, and there are various reasons for this, but the music sure didn't help.
One Angry Kingdom Hearts Fan
Developers really have to try to step outside of the box with every entry to keep their series fresh. Reusing a great deal of content for a game will not win developers any awards or fanfare. It's difficult to justify a game at a $34.99 price point that's simply rehash from previous installments. I understand that this was originally a cell phone game, but if you're going to charge full price for a DS game, you've simply got to do better. Re:coded will take you around twenty hours to complete, but the sad thing is that it could have - and should have - ended at the ten hour mark. In the last ten hours you are madly repeating content; I'm sure I drudged through the same worlds at least three times. It's like the developers just wanted to draw the game out to justify the price tag, and I'm not for meaningless content that is more a chore than something exhilarating to play. At least with the announcement of Dream Drop Distance, there is the promise of new worlds, because, frankly, the repeated use of the same content is really starting to get stale. Do yourself a favor and wait until this game hits a major price drop. Honestly, I've never felt so let down by a Kingdom Hearts game. As fans of the series, we all deserve better than this.