Kingdom Hearts Re:coded has recently hit stores as a Nintendo DS remake of the fourth game in the series. The original Kingdom Hearts coded was previously a Japan-exclusive episodic mobile phone game, which Re:coded collates and upgrades with new graphics, completely new gameplay and a new secret ending. However, both games involve a re-telling of a sort of the original Kingdom Hearts game, and with a lot of familiar content, does it stand out as an entry in the series worth playing?
The reason for this retread through Kingdom Hearts history is a little complicated, but we'll try to explain it. Jiminy Cricket's journal, which has chronicled the events of past games, is suddenly showing strange messages which Jiminy doesn't remember writing. Rather than see a psychiatrist, he takes the journal to King Mickey, who finally finds a use for his Computer Science degree and is able to digitise the journal into data in order to investigate. However, they find that the data is full of bugs, and so Mickey enlists the help of the virtual Sora who exists within the journal to clean out the bugs, and uncover the truth behind the mysterious messages.
Of course, this means the digital Sora must revisit worlds, specifically the ones from the first Kingdom Hearts (and yes this includes visiting Olympus Coliseum yet again, which is fast becoming the bane of our existence). You'll be exploring old haunts such as Destiny Islands, Wonderland, Traverse Town, Agrabah and Hollow Bastion. Story-wise, there really isn't a lot here that's surprising or really that interesting, given that we are now once again re-experiencing slight variations on the stories which occurred in all of these worlds, despite the occasional interlude with Mickey and co. Characters are still prone to droning on and on about darkness, light, friends, hearts and hurt at the drop of a hat, which you may find deep or confusing nonsense. To be fair, there are a couple of scenes that are important to the overarching narrative at the end (one being the secret ending), but unless you really want to sit through this Kingdom Hearts version of The Matrix, we're sure you know how to look that stuff up on Wikipedia, don't you?
Perhaps realising it stands on shaky ground in terms of originality, Re:coded seems to be trying exceedingly hard to spice up the gameplay. The bread and butter style of the game is still an Action-RPG, although it's been altered into a hybrid between Birth By Sleep and 358/2 Days. You can attack, as well as choose a set of your own commands (starting with three) such as 'Fire' or 'Sliding Dash' which can be cycled through on-screen with the L button and activated with X. In the menu, you can also level-up individual commands and combine two into more powerful variations. It's easy to get to grips with, and there's plenty of room to mix commands and create new ones to your liking, but once you've found a couple of 'go-to' moves you'll most likely won't find yourself straying too far from them.
Character levelling also takes a cue from 358/2 Days, although everything's been given a 'techno' make-over. Sora's progression is depicted as a motherboard with various paths Sora can fill in. You level up by collecting chips that add various attributes, such as 'Strength +4' or 'Level Up'. However, there are lots of gadgets on the motherboard that can affect your status as well. For instance, there are 'cheats' that let you control things like the difficulty of the game, or how much loot enemies drop, if you're able to reach them. Another peculiarity is that you branch out from a 'CPU', and connecting two CPUs together doubles the effectiveness of all chips between them. This means that (possibly completely unintentionally) you could be levelling up at a crawl to, say, level 15, before connecting two CPUs and suddenly find your level shooting up to 25 or so. It's different to say the least, and we can't say that we thought it worked very well, but it does at least let you switch on and off abilities which you may find annoying.
Generally, gameplay consists of Sora bonking Heartless over the head with his keyblade, or destroying the many 'bugs' throughout the worlds, which are shown as cubes. These cubes litter levels in an attempt to provide different platforming opportunities in the familiar levels, but they don't really do enough to change things up, except get in the way of the camera (which is still unwieldy). If you do happen to like the cubes, however, then you'll love the system sectors present throughout the game. These are dungeons which Sora must occasionally enter to find 'backdoors' in the journal, and essentially consist of you battling through Tron-like rooms until you defeat the requisite number of enemies. And yes, a recurring enemy is a cube monster. These sectors are a good idea in that they bring a little new content to the game, but there only appear to be a few different kinds of rooms, which start to repeat sooner rather than later.
The other way Re:coded tries to change the pace is by throwing a whole bunch of different gameplay types and challenges into the mix. For instance, you'll occasionally be playing decent (if loose controlling) 2D-platform levels, as well as weird on-rails shooter levels that see Sora forever running ahead and shooting lasers out of his keyblade. Olympus Coliseum becomes a light turn based RPG, which takes a lot of getting used to as suddenly all of your commands become something different. There are even incredibly annoying segments where you'll be required to continue on without your keyblade and your upgrades, and eventually you actually have to re-visit all of the worlds in the game. Again.
Kingdom Hearts veterans will appreciate these changes the most, as they attempt to put new spins on old content. There is definitely novelty value in playing a Kingdom Hearts 2D plaformer, turn-based RPG and shooter, even if these modes don't entirely succeed and do kind of come off as the developers saying 'Look see! It's different to the original! You have to jump on these blocks now! See!' Those new to the series will probably find the game fun, if sometimes frustrating, but have absolutely no idea what's going on. Despite the re-telling of the original game, many of the key events require knowledge of all of the past games. Overall, while there are frustrating bosses and certain levels, the game will last you around 15-20 hours.
Re:coded doesn't look quite as good as the DS' other Kingdom Hearts title, 358/2 Days, although it's certainly a step-up from the mobile phone version of coded. The graphics generally replicate the PS2-designed levels quite well, despite being lower resolution, but at times seem blocky, which is possibly intended. The framerate can also slow to a crawl as the action heats up. The usual suspects from the voice cast return for this game, with Haley Joel Osment unable to regress through puberty to make himself sound like young Sora again, but nonetheless doing a fine job. Music primarily consists of slightly remixed versions of old themes, although they wheel out the original 'Simple and Clean' again for the umpteenth time.
As a portable version of the original Kingdom Hearts, Re:coded is serviceable. As a proper entry into the series for fans that continues the story and expands the mythology, it's not really good enough. We've already seen a lot of this content already in Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, Chain of Memories, Re:Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days and to a small degree in Birth By Sleep, despite the fact that it's been remixed, re-cut, re-jiggered and (yes) recoded for this title. Perhaps we've been spoilt by the latter two games in that list, but Re:coded is just a game you don't really need to play. The new gameplay types only sort of work, the Action RPG side is fun but getting tired, the story disappears up its own recycled virtual backside and honestly we just want the series to move on. Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance is on the way, and appears to be the next major step in the saga, so perhaps it's worth holding out for that, because unless you're a huge Kingdom Hearts fan, you should have no qualms about holding onto your cash with this one.