Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Note: Given that this game’s story is heavily dependent on other Kingdom Hearts games for its story, some spoilers may follow.
For the uninitiated, Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded is the latest in the long line of Kingdom Hearts series spin-off titles. It was originally released as a Japan-only cell phone game noted for pushing the envelope of what a cell phone game could be. This new DS version may be noted for its large amount of variety or its fairly enjoyable combat and customization systems – but what it will most likely be remembered for is for being almost wholly comprised of rehashed content.
The story behind Re:coded begins with Jimminy Cricket. As he peruses his journal (some time after Kingdom Hearts II), he ponders the meaning of the message, “Thank Namine.” His curiosity at this message leads King Mickey to digitize the contents of the journal, only to discover another hidden message… and a whole host of data corruption in the worlds contained within. In order to combat the corruption, the King and his posse enlist the aid of Data Sora, also culled from the journal data (hence the Kingdom Hearts I-era threads), and they set off to erase all of the corrupted data and find the meaning of the cryptic messages.
The story itself is wholly unsatisfying for several reasons. First, unlike the recent (and much, much better) Birth by Sleep, it almost entirely lacks emotional focus. There are no plot developments which do not mirror the first or second numbered Kingdom Hearts games (which, while logical given the context, isn’t any more forgivable). This first point is somewhat explained by the game’s cell phone origins, however the bigger problem is that the core mystery of the game simply feels forced. The fans of the Kingdom Hearts series (towards whom this game is squarely aimed) have known since Chain of Memories exactly why the journal says “Thank Namine,” and spending almost an entire game trying to regain knowledge that we already have is not compelling. Only in the final hour or so of the game are there any interesting plot revelations, and in some regards even these revelations feel like a forced attempt to connect the plot to Birth by Sleep. Truly, the only completely new plot information comes in the form of the now traditional secret video, and even that only serves to promise yet another spin-off title (likely Kingdom Hearts 3D) before fans will finally get their hands on a true Kingdom Hearts 3.
The graphics, while great for a DS game, are still underwhelming if only because we’ve seen them before. We’ve seen them in much higher resolution on the PlayStation 2, and we saw them in an identical form in 358/2 Days. Also, much like 358/2 Days, when too many things appear on screen at once, the game suffers from some slowdown, although this never hindered the gameplay for me. Additionally, the few new areas in the game are filled with uninspired ‘digital’ designs, and become incredibly repetitive very quickly. The bright spot in terms of art and design comes in the form of the glitched-out sections of the classic worlds, where the data corruption has done some interesting things to the architecture. Also, the last world, while rehashed from a previous Kingdom Hearts game, still looks very haunting and is effective in the context of the story.
The music, much like the graphics, is disappointing. From the standpoint of composition, these are the same strong pieces that fans have come to know and love from the series. Yet, therein lies the exact problem; Re:coded offers approximately four new songs, none of which have any plot significance, and none of which reach the emotional heights found in Birth by Sleep’s soundtrack. Everything else in the game is rehashed from one of the other games, which again lends Re:coded a sense of tiresome familiarity.
Very fortunately, the gameplay is enjoyable enough to validate your purchase. Re:coded offers a traditional action-RPG experience with two particular wrinkles. First, the worlds have been littered with bug blocks: physical representations of the corrupted journal data. These blocks are arranged in such a way as to create a variety of platforming puzzles which, while contrived, are enjoyable and add some spice to the otherwise standard ‘run into a room and kill all the Heartless’ formula. Additionally, sometimes the journal data is so corrupted that entire areas in the worlds have glitched, creating odd visual anomalies and making normal progress impossible. In order to repair the damaged data, players must locate a hole in the data world that leads to a System Area.
System Areas are randomly generated dungeons of varying numbers of floors. In order to clear each floor, you must locate special “bug” Heartless (denoted by the “digital” visual effects around them as well as increased speed, strength, or tenacity) and defeat them. As players navigate System Areas, they acquire SP, which are used to purchase a variety of items after clearing the entire dungeon (or opting to escape before reaching the bottom floor). Each floor also offers a “floor trial,” in which the player must wager 10%, 30%, or 50% of their SP total to complete an optional condition on that floor (such as, “freeze 20 enemies” or “don’t get hit more than 10 times.”) and double their wager. Failure to complete the condition results in the loss of the wager.
System Areas start out enjoyable and very quickly become incredibly tedious for many reasons. The number of randomly generated areas is fairly low, so very early on in the game you will start to see repeated rooms; visually, every single System Area looks identical. The floor trials occasionally have ridiculous conditions, such as ‘do not clear this floor at night.’ Also, while in the early parts of the game the floor trials are optional (and fairly easy), they quickly become much more difficult and are essentially required in order to acquire all of the prizes without having to repeat the dungeon several times. Death in a System Area results in the loss of all of your wagered SP as well as a death penalty of even more SP, which essentially means that more than one death will obliterate your acquired SP total and invariably result in you having to repeat the entire area in order to acquire the prizes. This is a frustrating occurrence that is exacerbated by the fact that there is no way to exit from a System Area until you finish the floor you’re on; if you die several times and lose all of your SP, you still must clear the floor before you can escape the area and start again from the beginning. This can be heartbreaking when it happens on the final floor of an area or after completing an exceptionally tedious floor trial.
The second big wrinkle in the gameplay comes in the form of the mini-games. While the combat is the primary focus in most worlds, a few of them totally change up the gameplay. The latter half of Wonderland is a rail shooter in the vein of games such as Rez or Panzer Dragoon. Olympus Coliseum changes the game from action-RPG to a timing-heavy turn-based RPG much like the Mario RPGs series. At numerous points throughout the adventure, the game also flattens into only two dimensions and becomes a side-scrolling platformer. One particular world also has you stripped of your keyblade, instead issuing attack, movement, and ‘destroy block’ commands to your party. This sequence works out surprisingly well. All of these variations feel fresh and add some very welcome variety to an otherwise rehashed experience, and for that they stand out as the high points of the adventure. However, it should be noted that the controls are not quite responsive enough to be satisfactory in the 2D platforming sections, and oftentimes you may find yourself simply being dragged along through them, falling into pits and reappearing directly over another pit to repeat the process.
Speaking of controls, it bears mentioning that the game undoubtedly suffers from a lack of buttons. The D-pad functions very well for platforming, but for movement during combat it falls somewhat short. The game also sports an auto-jump feature, in which Sora will automatically jump when he reaches the end of a platform. Early on the game, before players acquire increased movement speed and high jump abilities, this feature is useful and can help navigate platforming sections. However, the auto-jump does not factor in the optional movement abilities, and quickly becomes almost useless, frequently sending you flying way over your intended destination. Worse still, there were numerous times when I did not want to jump (during combat near ledges and boxes, for example) that the auto-jump kicked in, and a few times I was sent to the bottom of an area or smacked in the face by Heartless because of it.
The core combat utilizes a command system that is similar to Birth by Sleep’s, in which you select commands (which include items, magic, and keyblade skills) to put into a deck of up to seven slots. Each of the seven slots allows you to attach up to two abilities. If you opt to attach only one, such as Fire, you will be able to use the vanilla variety of the command. However, if you decide to mix two commands, the result will sometimes be a more powerful version of the original, or even an entirely new one. Commands gain experience points through use, and once both commands are maximum level, you can opt to fuse them together permanently, or to swap them out and try something new.
The lock-on function (engaged and disengaged by pressing both shoulder buttons) is useful when it works properly. More often than not, however, when two or more enemies are on-screen, the game makes illogical choices regarding what to target: enemies that are father away, or enemies not directly in front of you, for example. Also, certain types of platforming blocks are able to be targeted, which leads to countless frustrating situations in which you will be trying to lock on to a dangerous foe and instead will select a block or a much weaker, much less imminent threat. For the most part, sticking with the soft lock-on (which causes Sora to swing in the direction of the nearest hittable thing) is the way to go, but this method will also frequently result in Sora swinging in the opposite direction that you want him to (again, for example, at blocks instead of foes.)
During combat, commands are activated by pressing the X button. Unlike Birth by Sleep on the PSP, however, the DS’s lack of buttons makes selecting commands a chore, and quickly navigating to a command (such as Cure) in the heat of combat is more difficult than it should be. Holding the L button and pressing X and B allows you to scroll through your commands, and pressing A allows you to execute a command, but this function is also somewhat difficult to manage during combat and will sometimes result in the player rapidly using three or four commands, thinking that Sora is attacking with basic keyblade attacks.
Hitting enemies and successfully using commands fills up a tiered Overclock Gauge. Every time one level of the gauge is filled, Sora is granted a new passive ability. Each keyblade offers its own set of abilities and typically has 2-3 abilities that can be selected per gauge level. When Sora maxes out the Overclock Gauge he can execute a powerful finish command, but doing so resets the gauge to zero. The existence of the Overclock gauge means new keyblades are more than just stat boosts and a facelift, and it makes acquiring new ones much more interesting and rewarding.
Sora levels up normally through combat, but he can also augment his abilities through the Status Matrix, essentially a more linear version of Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid, which is presented as a series of circuits and microchips. Players gather chips such as ‘Attack +1’ and ‘HP+2’ and insert them in the appropriate squares on the board. Along the pathways are special squares that, when activated, grant special abilities like Combo Plus and Leaf Bracer or unlock more command and accessory slots. Upgrade chips can be found throughout the worlds, but are primarily the coveted prizes in System Areas. The leveling system is enjoyable and the promise of more abilities and command slots is the primary impetus behind completing the otherwise tedious System Areas.
There is also a mode in which you can construct an avatar from a variety of custom parts (culled from various Disney, Final Fantasy, and original Kingdom Hearts characters) and share with other Re:coded players via wireless tag mode. Meeting up with other players (or compue) nets you, typically, a scratch card that can be used to unlock items in the main game and new costume parts for Sora. Each time you meet another player, you also acquire a new randomly generated System Area floor, up to a maximum of 100. At any time, you can take your Sora through these floors to gather prizes, and every 10th floor you engage in a special battle or boss fight. The unfortunate part about this is that it is predicated upon playing through one hundred floors worth of System Areas, which to my mind is an unbearable thought. Nevertheless, the inclusion of some wireless connectivity options is appreciated, and the idea of having a hundred floors worth of gameplay will undoubtedly appeal to some players.
At this point, some of the worlds in Re:coded have appeared more than four times in different games. In this game alone, you will trek through some version of the worlds as many as three times, which is unbelievably tedious and nothing more than an excuse to pad out the experience. Much of the music has appeared in every Kingdom Hearts game to date. The graphics are torn straight out of 358/2 Days. The amount of truly original content in Re:Coded amounts to almost nothing; there are scarcely more than four new songs in the game’s soundtrack, and what few original locations it contains are somewhat uninspired both visually and in terms of design. The point is, the Kingdom Hearts series needs fresh content, and it needs it now. Re:Coded is an enjoyable game, but one that is tiresomely familiar, even to an avid fan of the series. Above all else, it shows more clearly than ever that Square Enix is coming dangerously close to damaging the integrity of this franchise with the number of spin-offs. The gameplay is fun, if flawed, and prevents the experience from being a total bust, but beyond that, this Kingdom Hearts has little to offer.