Review: Kingdom Hearts Re:coded

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First released as an episodic mobile phone game in Japan, gradually rolling out between 2008 and early 2010, Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded is the latest DS spin-off in Square Enix’s fan-favorite crossover franchise fusing the charm and whimsy of Disney with the role-playing and production values of Final Fantasy.

Although Re:coded has been retooled from its original form, incorporating newer gameplay elements from more recent installments, its origins as a mobile phone game are readily apparent. So, while it is a definite step up from 358/2 Days, it still doesn’t quite manage to come together as a cohesive, fully-developed Kingdom Hearts experience.

Years ago when Coded was first conceived, its story was still fresh, and hadn’t been recycled over and over again. But now, after the two main PS2 games, PS2 and GBA versions of Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days on the DS, and Birth By Sleep on the PSP, it doesn’t seem like there is much background story left to cover until a Kingdom Hearts III comes along (if it ever does!) and creates new scenarios for additional spin-offs to build upon.

Square Enix attempts to mask the increasingly stale plot with a Tron-like twist that sees Mickey and his Disney pals creating a digitized avatar of Sora – known as Data-Sora — to send into a virtual recreation of previously visited worlds pulled from Jiminy Cricket’s journal after a mysterious message is discovered within its pages. Once the journal becomes digitized, they discover that the data has been corrupted by bugs and glitches — represented by Heartless and ‘blox’. And to uncover the mystery of the secret message Sora must search for backdoors in the code and debug the datascape.

But this twist really is just a facade. The script sounds like an intriguing change, but as the story unfolds you end up exploring worlds that have already been reused to death (Traverse Town, Wonderland, Olympus Coliseum, Hollow Bastion, Agrabah, etc.), with very little in the way of new sights to see and new narrative exposition. Up until the closing chapter when a direct link is established between this game and Birth By Sleep, there isn’t a single story thread in the preceding 15 hours that substantively expands the Kingdom Hearts mythos. The production values are as high as always, between the top-notch voice acting, the incredible CG cutscenes, and the colorful graphics and artwork. But I wanted more substance.

Fortunately, the game itself is typical Kingdom Hearts action-RPG fun. Save for the usual camera control quirks, the combat system is back in top form, incorporating the Command Deck system and finishing commands from Birth By Sleep for intuitive, fast-paced, real-time keyblade battles.

What’s particularly special about Re:coded is how it introduces new types of gameplay to the familiar hack-and-slash platforming. With the bugs causing things to go screwy within the journal’s datascape, each world comes with some form of a gameplay twist. In Wonderland, for example, you sneak past card guards through the hedge maze and collect ‘inklings’ to restore Alice’s memory in the proper order. Then in the Olympus Coliseum, the combat changes from real-time to a turn-based JRPG style akin to old-school Final Fantasy. Other surprises include side-scrolling platform and on-rails shooter levels, as well squad-based combat during which Sora has lost his keyblade and can’t fight, so instead you have to give Donald and Goofy commands in order to defeat heartless and solve puzzles.

A new leveling mechanic, known as the Stat Matrix, has also been introduced, combining the Panel system from 358/2 Days with the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X for what, in my opinion, is the series’ deepest system of character growth yet. As you complete missions and earn experience and loot by defeating heartless, you collect chips to install on the Stat Matrix, a circuit board of sorts set up like a board game with different paths to follow in order to unlock new abilities and accessory slots. When you level up, you are given a chip that must be placed on the Matrix for the benefits to be applied, and other chips can be used to increase character stats, such as HP, strength, defense, luck, and various magic bonuses / resistances.

For what it’s worth, Re:coded is loaded with replayable content, too. It can be tough to work up the drive to replay the same levels over and over again, but once you’ve completed the main quest, which should take you a minimum of 15 hours, you can go back to previous worlds to take on new side missions, continue to build Data-Sora’s Stat Matrix by replaying system sector challenges, and face off against bosses in Score Attack mode. And supposedly, by earning a certain number of the game’s optional trophy accomplishments, there is an unlockable bonus movie leading into the upcoming 3DS game, Dream Drop Distance, but I’m still a few trophies shy of unlocking it myself.

If all you crave is more Kingdom Hearts, and the mere promise of more fun, varied action-RPG gameplay is enough to scratch your Disney-meets-Final Fantasy itch, Re:coded will surely entertain. But personally, I’ve reached a point where I want more from Kingdom Hearts than a constant stream of spin-offs that retread the same plot points within the exact same Disney worlds, and only reward you with one small story revelation at the very end. If you’re in the same boat, you’ll enjoy your time with this game, but ultimately it will leave you feeling unsatisfied.

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Pros:
+ Typically fun keyblade combat
+ Varied gameplay styles provide a needed twist
+ Stat Matrix brings added character growth depth
+ Long game with good replayability options

Cons:
– Story is a shallow retread on old plot threads until the very end
– Recycles the same Disney worlds for the umpteenth time with no new sights to see
– Twitchy camera system requires constant adjustment

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 1/11/2011
Genre: Action-RPG
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1 (Tag Mode allows trading customized avatars and maps with up to four players)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!