Re:coded, Re:cycled, Re:viewed
I really want to like the Kingdom Hearts games. Having two juggernauts like Square-Enix and Disney merge their complete stable of franchises together to create one of the most impressive crossovers in the entertainment industry is a very appealing concept. Unfortunately, after actually playing the original Kingdom Hearts all the way up to the end, I found myself considerably underwhelmed. The problem with Kingdom Hearts is that it wants to be a 3D platformer like Sly Cooper, but it also wants to be a Final Fantasy-style RPG, and on top of that it also wants to be a character action game like God of War. And those are just the most prominent influences – Kingdom Hearts games frequently echo even more gameplay styles (such as a Star Fox-style rail shooter or a Tony Hawk-inspired skateboarder), making it the textbook definition of “Jack of all trades, master of none”. No single gameplay element is very good on its own, and I personally sleep-walked my way through the first Kingdom Hearts, finding nothing really challenging or particularly special about the game. Despite my boredom, as the series continued I could not help but keep tabs on where the franchise headed next. It was inevitable, then, that I would eventually find myself giving the series another chance to win me over, and that ended up being Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded for the Nintendo DS.
Perhaps that was not the smartest idea – Re:coded got its start as Kingdom Hearts: Coded for mobile phones in Japan. Re:coded obviously leverages a slightly higher budget to rework the game up to Nintendo DS standards, but that does not change the fact that it is essentially a thinly-veiled excuse to retread most of the content from the first Kingdom Hearts game. And not just any retread: Re:coded comes after multiple other Kingdom Hearts games repeatedly forcing you back through familiar locations like Traverse Town, Hercules‘ Colosseum, and Alice‘s Wonderland. When I say that Re:coded is the same way, I’m not trying to be clever – the small handful of locations it cribs from the original Kingdom Hearts are pretty much as identical to their Playstation 2 counterparts as the Nintendo DS can muster. Re:coded does make an effort to freshen up these recycled environments in the form of “data glitches” (more on those in a moment), but for the most part, if you remember how to get around Agrabah from Aladdin, a lot of that knowledge still applies.
The plot kicks off with Jiminy Cricket (who was typically in charge of saving your game) discovering that his journal is mysteriously blank. In something that only makes sense in the context of the Kingdom Hearts universe, we learn that Jiminy’s journal is actually some sort of magic supercomputer and that the data contained within – records of everything that happened in the original Kingdom Hearts – have become “corrupted”. Utilizing the aid of King Mickey Mouse, they create a digital A.I. version of Sora, who is released in to the Journal’s “datascape” to repair the damage by hand. What follows is a typical “this seems kind of silly but the characters are treating it deathly seriously” Kingdom Hearts plotline that you’ve either come to love or hate over the years.
In gameplay terms, this means that while you may find the layout of Traverse Town to be nearly identical, the game will sometimes change things up in the form of “glitches”. Sometimes, glitches are as simple as the addition of dozens of crates strewn around the environment. Other times, glitches manifest as brand new VR-mission-style challenge rooms, where you wager money and experience on completing special tasks in small, controlled environments. The biggest changes are generally reserved for the end of a given world, where glitches frequently transform Re:coded in to a completely different kind of game, such as a side-scrolling platformer or a turn-based RPG. Unfortunately, like the original Kingdom Hearts before it, many of them are too simplistic and lack the depth and polish you get out of games dedicated exclusively to those specific mechanics.
Which is a shame, because when Re:coded isn’t indulging its own schizophrenia, the changes and additions it makes to the base Kingdom Hearts gameplay are welcome. Sora’s abilities are augmented by what the game calls “matrixes”. Of the three matrixes, the Stat Matrix is the most interesting: essentially presented with a motherboard layout, you plug microchips in to connect circuits. Building circuits to expansion slots will unlock new abilities for Sora, and bridging multiple processors greatly enhances Sora’s strength. Then there are cheat processors, perhaps the most interesting element of the Stat Matrix – complete a circuit to one of these, and you can modify base game functions, like how strong enemies are versus how frequently rare loot drops, allowing you to customize the difficulty of the game any way you see fit. On top of that, the Stat Matrix grows in size each time you complete a world, and it’s not long before you have more options than you do chips, forcing you to make choices on how you want to build out Sora’s abilities. That’s not even touching the Gear Matrix, which allows you to equip new keyblades and customize their various tech trees – or the Command Matrix, where two offensive spells are powered up and combined to make new attacks. In short, Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded gives you a lot of room to define your own play style, and when the game sticks to Sora fighting Heartless, it’s genuinely enjoyable.
I came away from Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded a little more impressed than I initially expected. It corrects some of the issues that made me initially steer clear of the Kingdom Hearts franchise, like the complete lack of difficulty and the bland combat. That being said, I hesitate to classify the game as “good”. There’s some really cool, fun systems in here, but too often they’re obscured in favor of yet another distracting gameplay shift, and its reliance on recycling content from 9 years ago make it more apt to classify the game as simply being “tolerable”. It’s one of those games that you don’t really hate – instead, it remains just enjoyable enough to hold your attention to the ending. I’m not going to tell you to avoid Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded, but it’s difficult to recommend the game and maintain a clean conscience.