[This is an import review of a Japanese game. Features discussed are subject to change.]
Kingdom Hearts is a series whose quality has varied wildly. Yet, the odd mix of Final Fantasy and Disney has produced a rabid fanbase, eager to play each new title regardless of the series’ spotty track record. When Kingdom Hearts coded was released on Japanese cell phones back in 2008, many feared they were missing a vital part of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. They were wrong.
Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, the Nintendo DS remake of coded, was released on October 7, 2010, in Japan and will be released on January 11, 2011, in the west. Chronologically, the story takes place between the ending and epilogue of Kingdom Hearts II. After Jiminy Cricket discovers a new message in his previously erased journal, Mickey, Donald, and Goofy attempt to unravel the mystery by reconstructing the journal in digital form. The player controls a “data version” of series protagonist, Sora, as he explores several worlds from the original Kingdom Hearts.
Herein lies Re:coded’s biggest flaw. These exact Disney worlds, as well as the character interactions within them, have been visited already in four of the previous Kingdom Hearts games. The setting and plot are redundant at best, with only the framing device providing any new content. This lack of originality seeps into the gameplay as well. Around half the maps are pulled pixel-for-pixel from the first Kingdom Hearts, as are nearly all of the enemy sprites.
However, rehashing ideas from other titles is not always a bad thing. The excellent battle and magic systems are nearly identical to last year’s Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Sora levels-up by using the Status Matrix, which is more than a little similar to Final Fantasy X’s sphereboard, and the platforming mirrors the 3D Zelda games with its helpful auto-jump feature.
The highpoint of Re:coded is how the gameplay is interspersed with that of several different genres. In Transverse Town, the game becomes a side-scrolling platformer. In Wonderland, it becomes a stealth game, a quiz game, and finally a rail-shooter. The Coliseum even uses a Mario RPG-like turn-based battle system. While Re:coded is as much a mini-game collection as it is a traditional Kingdom Hearts game, all of these mini-games have practically no learning curve, and the constant changes keep the experience feeling fresh and new. While they certainly don’t represent the best of their respective genres, they rarely overstay their welcome.
Another positive is the new focus on platforming. While platforming has always been present in the Kingdom Hearts series, Re:coded spends as much time on jumping from block to block as it does on defeating enemies. With this in mind, the camera and movement controls have been tweaked to constantly put Sora at 90-degree angles to the outer walls, keeping him lined up to traverse the block-based environments with maximum ease.
While the data block motif was probably chosen for ease of programming as much as for aesthetic taste, it fits well into the idea of a pixel-made digital world. The in-game graphics are at least on par with past Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, and the semi-animated conversations work far better than static portraits or motionless sprites. As always, the cutscenes look great in screenshots, but hardly consist of anything more than people standing around talking. That these cutscenes are the only voiced portions of the game is just another in the string of disappointments that is Re:coded.
Most of Re:coded’s sins stem from its roots. The original coded was a quick cash-in for Japan’s thriving cellular games market, tasked only with answering a single hanging plot thread while invoking Kingdom Hearts nostalgia. This remake cannot escape its trite origins, despite the newly voiced cutscenes, improved graphics, and adequate combat. The redundant story and recycled locales strip away any feeling of adventure, and while the numerous mini-games do keep the physical act of playing from becoming boring, that is due more to their variety than their quality. Everything in Kingdom Hearts Re:coded has been done before, and done better.