Kingdom Hearts Re:coded
The Kingdom Hearts series has always tackled adult philosophies with themes of light, darkness, and friendship featured prominently within its canon. Its multi-platform-spanning half sequels continue with Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, the DS remake of what was originally an episodic Japanese flip phone game. While it includes everything you’ve come to expect from the Square/Disney mash-up it contains a greater focus on the adventure and gameplay than the philosophies themselves. It also marks the first time we’ve had a Sora-centric game since the Game Boy Advance’s Chain of Memories in 2004 (and later its PS2 remake).
I liked this game at first: the gameplay is fresh, and the camera is only minimally annoying, but somewhere around the halfway mark I realized I didn’t actually understand the story’s relevance to the series or how its events could ever effect the game’s canon.
Re:coded takes place directly after the events of Kingdom Hearts II with a story that can be a bit hard to follow in relation to the series, and it took me a while to get it straight myself. Jiminy Cricket, who had recorded in his journal his adventures with Sora, Donald Duck, and Goofy, discovers a line he didn't write and all other pages blank. But it gets a bit weird when the King (the iconic Mickey Mouse) digitizes the journal's data through his computer to recover Jiminy’s entries. He finds that the journal’s data is corrupted and full of bugs, so with the help of Chip ‘N Dale a digital version of Sora and his Keyblade are created to investigate the bugs from the inside. But though they're supposed to recover exactly what Jiminy had originally recorded they notice changes in the data that misrepresent the previous games’ events, so the digital Data-Sora takes on the task of cleaning up the datascape.
While I don’t want to spoil the story, I feel the following spoiler is needed to make sense of the story and why it’s a bit of a canonical mess: What Mickey, Jiminy, Goofy and Donald don’t realize is that the whole adventure is actually Naminé’s plan gone wrong in an attempt to clue everyone in on Roxas, Xion, Axel, Aqua, Terra, Ventus and Naminé herself’s need for help (apparently she’s never heard of a telephone). This isn’t revealed until the end portion of the game, but is hinted at through similarities to events from Chain of Memories - specifically the journal being blank, as Naminé’s power is to erase and rewrite memories.
The premise allows the events from the original Kingdom Hearts to be re-explored with major changes to their happenings as “Data-Sora” is tasked with fixing the digital bugs that are causing the glitches in the information. He ends up not only fighting digital Heartless but debugging and locking each world as well while tailing a hooded Riku, who turns out to be the digital personification of the journal itself, only related to the real Riku through his recorded memories.
The game’s underlying theme is very modern, as it continually reminds the player that while evil itself can be frightening and dangerous the digital landscape can inflict just as much harm upon the real world. The plot borrows heavily from Tron’s ideas, in that living things can cross between the real world and the digital datascape, and the bugs can presumably effect the real world as well if manipulated by the wrong person. It’s a technology we’ve seen once before in Kingdom Hearts II’s Tron level, but in that case the computer world was a its own living world and not made up only of memories. This one feels like more of a stretch.
While the plot is a bit confusing to follow in the grand scheme of the series and feels irrelevant overall, in the end it ties together events from Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II, 358/2 Days, and Birth By Sleep. Some players will feel validated by this but others will feel like it’s time wasted because in the end everything Data-Sora learns is unconnected to the real life Sora, which is why King Mickey was tasked with contacting the real Sora at the end of Kingdom Hearts II.
The game borrows heavily from the great ideas the recent Birth By Sleep brought to the PSP. For example, Re:coded’s “clock gauge” unlocks various keyblade abilities as you fight and ultimately “overclocks”, ending on a special move similar to Birth By Sleep’s “finishes”. Re:coded takes it further, though: whereas Birth By Sleep mixed things up by having players explore new portions of familiar worlds in the series, Re:coded takes the events of the first game and alters them, so sequences from the first game of the series become new experiences and Data-Sora must get to the cause of the problem -- often a boss battle -- and set those digital memories right. You’ll do this by mashing attack combos and casting spells from the series’ standard third-person action style and switching to other genres of fighting depending on the world. But while Data-Sora has verbal help from his Disney friends he spends a majority of the game fighting solo, further demonstrating that this game is somewhat removed from the main series, which boasted fighting for each other with each other and gave way to more cinematic events. Though cutscenes between worlds are fully voiced and animated, regular dialog is done through static 2D character cut-outs and speech bubbles.
The journal’s bugs Data-Sora sets out to destroy show up in the form of “blox”, black cubes with a red matrix running over it. He must also destroy Heartless and other villains that have been infected by bugs that cause them to act differently than they originally had. The bigger bugs are not in plain sight, however, and they cause significant glitches like everyone in Wonderland losing their memories or Traverse Town’s doors leading to the wrong districts. In cases like these Data-Sora must look for a “backdoor” to the System Sector, a Matrix-like datascape riddled with bugs in the form of digital Heartless, sometimes concealing the cause of that world’s glitches. This culminates in a boss battle which often utilizes an alternate way of fighting, as the glitches can effect Data-Sora’s abilities. From 2D side-scrolling platforming to sneaking through a hedge maze, to third-person shooting, to party-based RPG battles, Re:coded incorporates a variety of battle styles that helps keep the gameplay fresh. The System Sectors also allow you to gamble 10%, 30%, or 50% of your SP (which is only available in those areas) in exchange for completing challenges, like getting hit no more than 10 times, for example, or defeating 26 Heartless. SP can be redeemed for stat increasing chips, experience, or munny.
Data-Sora can level or increase specific stats up by installing Level+1 or Defense+1 computer chips as well as other stat-enhancers on a circuit board called the Stat Matrix, which draws parallels to Final Fantasy X’s Sphere Grid and Final Fantasy XII’s License Board, allowing for deep customization of his skills. You’ll lay panels down along various paths, unlocking abilities as well as accessory and command slots along the way. New Keyblades are acquired after completing each world and have the ability to unlock new fighting abilities as they level up. The command menu is back as well, letting you cycle through commands with the L trigger and combine two commands or spells to create a new one. The Stat Matrix also allows you to unlock cheats legitimately, but for every cheat there is a penalty. For example, the Loot Cheat allows you to increase the amount of loot received up to 16x, but drops Data-Sora’s health to up to 10% as you do.
While the gameplay is extremely fun, exciting, and throws unexpected change-ups at the player, the camera can spazz at times and screw up your jumps and the story suffers from a major pet peeve of mine: forcing you to replay portions of worlds after a plot event. I never liked it when Mega Man made you fight all the game’s bosses again and I don’t like it here: it always gives the feeling of repetition, false initial accomplishment, and designer laziness. It’s made worse by the fact that anyone who’s played the other games in the series has already visited these worlds too many times to begin with.
Re:coded is fun, but this is now the fourth portable game that has come out between 2006’s Kingdom Hearts II and the upcoming highly anticipated Kingdom Hearts III. What’s worse is that the series spans multiple platforms, and with a new game coming to Nintendo’s 3DS Square Enix has made it very difficult for non-handheld owners to go from Kingdom Hearts II to III without reading some sort of wiki page or database (see Metal Gear Solid 4). But even if you’re not thrilled with the filler-y story, Re:coded’s gameplay will keep you excited as you party up with Hercules and Cloud in turn-based combat, rail shoot your way through Wonderland’s System Sector, and earn in-game trophies that unlock the game’s secret ending that teases future storylines.