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Nintendo DS Review: Kingdom Hearts Re:coded

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To be up front about it, I am a huge fan of the idea behind the Kingdom Hearts series – mashing up Disney Characters with Final Fantasy ones to tell a new story is odd and yet the first title manages to fit the two groups together so perfectly that you can’t help but think they were always intended to be that way.  As the franchise has expanded, they have had some ups and downs, and unfortunately the latest title is a little more down than up.

Although the story may be minimal, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, starts off in fairly confusing and in-depth fashion for those who haven’t played a Kingdom Hearts title before.  The game, sort of, takes place after Kingdom Hearts II, and you’re still playing as Sora (the main character), sort of.  You see, the chronicler of Sora’s tales, Jiminy Cricket discovers at the opening of the game that his journals about Sora’s adventures have been erased and brings the books to King Mickey to look at.  When new, cryptic, entries appear in the book—entries not written by Jiminy—Mickey sends the Sora from inside the journal to figure out what’s happening.  So, you’re playing as Sora, but you’re playing as a digital Sora who has no knowledge of what the real Sora’s been through.

After that little bit of an intro, the story doesn’t really bother you all that much during gameplay.  As Sora, you go to various Kingdom Hearts‘ worlds, destroying the different bugs in the system that have caused this digitized version of the story to become… I believe the technical term is “wonky.”  You revisit some of your favorite places from past Kingdom Hearts‘ games, but the worlds here all feel very small, and most of the time, where you have to go and what you have to do is laid out before you and you’re given little choice about venturing off on your own to explore.

The worlds do manage to seem slightly larger at first than they truly are and we have a horrible camera to thank for that.  Although it can be repositioned, the camera nearly always manages to find the world possible point of view, making it difficult to see where you’re heading and where any enemies may be lurking.  The bottom of the two DS screens is a map, and sadly it is often far easier to use it to navigate than the top screen which shows Sora moving through the worlds.

Re:coded almost makes up for its camera and story faults by bringing great mechanics and an excellent level-up system to the table.  It is still truly fun to hack and slash with the keyblade, Sora wields it beautifully and takes out Heartless (the bad guys) like nobody’s business.  Rather than just being an RPG-actioner, the game also flips to other genres (like a side-scrolling platformer) from time to time just to throw you for a loop.  Within the world of the game, this sort of genre switch is explained as being possible due to the fact that the world is digitized and the code is full of bugs.  That’s a semi-ludicrous notion, but the entire story told in the game is semi-ludicrous from the start.

Going back to the levels themselves for a minute, there are also these things called System Sectors in the various worlds, which are hidden places where the code for the worlds reside.  You’re required to “debug” these areas which really just consists of your killing the bad guys that lie within.  System Sectors are kind of an unfortunate addition to the game as they completely remove you from the world you’re in, and what makes Kingdom Hearts great is playing through the worlds, not being outside of them.

As you progress in the game, you pick up computer chips which can be deposited in the Stat Matrix.  These chips give you added strength, defense, magic, and can increase your overall level.  Then, within the Stat Matrix there are other unlockables which open up as you connect your chips to one another and the CPU which processes the whole thing.  These unlockables give you new support abilities, more command slots during a fight, and even cheats to help get you through the game.  There is also a Command Matrix which lets you set certain abilities/items (potions and magic) and those too level up as you fight more battles.  The different leveling systems are really incredibly in-depth, clever, rewarding, and brilliantly thought out.  They are, by far, the highlight of the game.

Kingdom Hearts Re:coded is very much an up and down game.  It has moments of sheer brilliance (like the matrices), great combat, and the characters you want to see in a Kingdom Hearts title.  It also has hugely frustrating aspects, like the camera and the feeling that you’re simply being pushed through small worlds accomplishing small tasks.  It doesn’t always give off that sense, but it does all too often.

With a story that drops you into the middle (sort of) of events that have already unfolded and minimal exposition, this is clearly not a title for those who haven’t played a Kingdom Hearts game yet.  However, Re:coded offers fans of the franchise a small expansion on the universe and an opportunity to revisit the characters they’ve grown to love.  It certainly isn’t the best Square Enix and Disney have offered up to us, but it has its moments.

Kingdom Hearts Re:coded is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.