It’s amazing that a game whose story is so concerned with the purity of heart can feel like such a soulless cash grab.
A remake of the Japan-only mobile title Kingdom Hearts Coded, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded starts off… pretty fantastically. When a mysterious quote appears in Jiminy’s journal, King Mickey and his subjects digitize the contents of the book and find out what “Their hurting will be mended when you return to end it,” means. The gang creates a digital Sora to travel into the computerized journal entries and search for whomever is putting Bon Jovi quotes into Jiminy Cricket’s book.
Because the journal contains the events of Kingdom Hearts, Sora will revisit some very familiar places and meet all our old friends from the first game. That is, he will visit them for the first time as this is a new Sora, not the one we’ve been playing for the entire series. As a big fan of the first game it was nice to see the old worlds with fresh eyes. As much as this game is a remake of KH:C it’s also a remake of KH. The Disney worlds are recreated as well as they could be on the DS. While they’re certainly more limited than their PS2 counterparts, the DS recreations are impressively large and feature plenty to do. I was ready to write off revisiting the worlds as another useless spinoff only released to sate us until KH3 but Re:coded threw me a curveball. Each world feels familiar but plays like a completely different type of game.
Visiting Wonderland is like playing a classic adventure game as the player solves the mystery of everyone’s missing memories. Hercules’ Coliseum features turn-based combat, a throwback to KH’s Final Fantasy roots. Agrabah more or less plays just like the PS2 Aladdin sequence, but in Hollow Bastion Sora loses the keyblade and is joined by Goofy and Donald whom he has to control passively with commands that make the section feel like an RTS. Each of the play styles are very simplistic, but don’t stick around long enough to get boring. There are also a couple of Space Harrier style shooter sections that get old very fast and a few tacked on 2D sequences. I don’t know what this trend lately with 2D sections being crammed into 3D games is about but it’s just getting more and more annoying.
At first I thought it was odd that so few worlds were featured in the game but don’t worry, because Square Enix finds a way to stretch a great 8-10 hour game to 15-20 hours. Each world is visited at least twice. The second time they each play exactly the same way and don’t feature any of the cool control switch ups from earlier in the game. This is a cheap way to extend a game’s playtime and the excuse they find for it does not make up for all the extra frustration. A digitized Riku has shown up to help and much like the book Sora is venturing through, he’s corrupted. So now Sora has to travel inside the computer program inside the computer program and find out what’s controlling him.
While traversing the worlds Sora will find bugs in the system that are corrupting or changing the computer’s data. Sometimes they manifest in the form of Heartless, giant cubes or even alter the landscape of the level until Sora fixes them. He does this by defeating enemies or traveling into rifts in the data that lead to computer-y stages reminiscent of KH2’s Tron world. These are pretty cool at first and reinforce the game’s whole digital theme, but they become frustratingly common later and only serve to break up the story’s pacing. This isn’t helped by the fact that later on the story goes off the deep end, as Kingdom Hearts games are wont to do.
What starts out as a fine little gaiden story later remembers it’s a Kingdom Hearts game and has to keep piling on connections to the past titles in the series. At this point in the story the villain is still pretty undefined and we really didn’t need Pete and Maleficent to saunter into the game just to make us forget who we’re chasing. The only reason they show up is because they’re in the first two games and add to the list of reasons this game may just be a pointless cash grab. Re:coded didn’t need to tie into the series in a big way but the very tenuous connections only serve to shine a light on how useless the story is and remind players that Kingdom Hearts 3 still hasn’t been announced. Really only one thing in the entire game has anything to do with furthering the overall plot of the KH series and that’s one incredibly crammed in nod to Birth By Sleep.
If you’ve seen the third Lord of the Rings film, you know what a false ending is. At least twice Re:coded pulls some of this crap and leads you to believe the game was over just to unnecessarily push you into another 8 hours of gameplay. After the second “final” boss battle, Sora is transported to a white room with one large door. At the door he is told to replay situations from each world in the game, but in this room with the characters from the worlds. Depending on how you go about completing these tasks (that you’ve already done just a few hours ago) you will be given one of three cards for each world. The combination of cards you receive will unlock one of several endings. It’s like if you get to the end of a film and you need to go out to the lobby and get a second ticket just to find out how it ends. Some games implement the multiple ending scenario very well and they’re usually affected by things you do throughout the entire game such as Chrono Trigger or Silent Hill 2. In Re:coded it just serves to waste some more of your time and make a portable title feel like a full console game just because it’s long.
Story-wise, KH Re:coded is not the worst Kingdom Hearts but it’s still a complete mess. What is a good 6-8 hour story gets streeetched way too far. If you’re a series completionist, there’s no problem with giving this game a pass. If you’d like a nice action RPG to play then maybe give the first half a throw. The combat controls aren’t perfect but they’re as good as any 3D game I’ve played on the DS. Birth By Sleep’s deck system is adapted here and possibly even better than in BBS. Like in BBS consumable items also act as attack commands. Potions and Ethers can easily be wasted when trying to attack some heartless. This also creates stockpiles of useless items that just sit in your menu for the entire game. Luckily health is plentiful, as are save points.
The camera feels like a PS1 game from the pre-dualshock era, but some things almost make up for it. The upgrade system is reminiscent of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid and allows you to manipulate certain features of the game like the ability to change the difficulty at any time. There are features that attempt to get around the poor camera like a Zelda-esque autojump. This would have been way more useful if there were any interesting platforming in the game, but KH has never been known for that.
Presentationally the game is beautiful. I’ve never liked 3D graphics on the DS. They just never feel right, but KH Re:c pulls them off. Lik a lot of RPGs, the cutscenes are presented in three different styles. The basic text over sliding images is there and looks fine. Some cutscenes are done in the in-game graphic engine which show off the DS’s power, but what really shines are the pre-rendered cutscenes. These sequences look ripped right out of the PS2 game. Sure, they’re pre-rendered and are just displayed with a video encoder, but it’s still impressive to see how far we’ve come from the first Professor Layton’s artifact encrusted 2D animation.
In short, KH Re:c starts out nice but the façade falls quickly and it’s revealed as the complete inconsequential cash grab we’ve come to expect from the series. It’s great to have a portable version of some of your favorite KH worlds from the first game but it’s not very fun to replay them over and over for little reward. The story is not content to stay at the scope appropriate for a handheld spinoff and gets too big for its britches trying to be a full series entry rather than a small gaiden title. The pre-rendered cutscenes are gorgeous for the DS screen but are few and far between. Plus they make me think about the passing of the late great Wayne Allwine who previously voiced Mickey Mouse since 1983 and passed away in 2009. New guy is pretty good but needs some acting lessons. If you really, REALLY need to play every bit of the KH series then give this one a look, otherwise pass on it.