“Kingdom Hearts.” Those two words are synonymous with "taking risks." For a franchise that has spanned seven games over four platforms, it's safe to say that no two games have ever been alike. “Kingdom Hearts Re:coded” is no exception to that rule. However, this game makes me wonder if perhaps the series has finally gone too far in delivering its brand of unique gameplay.
Re:coded is the second Kingdom Hearts title to be released on the Nintendo DS, and the fourth title on a handheld platform. With “Kingdom Hearts 2” being the last numerical title in the series, and no “Kingdom Hearts 3” in sight, the last three KH titles (four if you count “Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories” on the PS2), have dealt with plotlines occurring in between, alongside, or otherwise outside of the plotlines of the first two Kingdom Hearts titles. Re:coded carries on this tradition. After two successful journeys in Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2, Jiminy has completed two journals. However, the contents of the first journal have been wiped out in their entirety, save for one passage that is a mystery even to Jiminy: "Their hurting will be mended when you return to end it." A digital version (Matrix anyone?) of Sora is created within the digitized world of the journal to relive the journey once held in its pages and save it from total corruption, all the while unlocking the mysteries within.
Now, that's a real fancy way of saying that you are going to play through another version of the original Kingdom Hearts, much like in “Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories.” All of your favorite worlds have returned once more: Destiny Islands, Traverse Town, Wonderland, Olympus Coliseum - just to name a few. I must admit, even though the story is an interesting take off of the original Kingdom Hearts, I found the entire game to feel a bit stale after very little play time. Despite how they remixed it, it felt a bit tiresome to be trouncing through Wonderland for the fourth time in an original Kingdom Hearts title.
Visually, this game is on par with the graphics of the original “Kingdom Hearts,” and is identical to those of its fellow DS release, “Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days.” That said, there is one area that separates this game from its predecessors. At certain points in the game, Sora enters a back door in each world - a secret area from which he can restore the world and rid it of the virus within. It's basically Kingdom Hearts Re: Tron. The enemies in these areas are identical to those in the rest of the world, but with binary makeovers. Nevertheless, this change of scenery is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise predictable game.
The boss battles in this game are a bit…unorthodox, to say the least. Each boss battle is different from the last, and not necessarily in a good way. One boss battle is fought in the traditional real-time combat used the rest of the game, while another is fought in a side-scrolling fashion similar to Mega Man. Yet, another boss battle is fought through turn-based combat a la Final Fantasy, and another is fought like a classic shoot-em-up. While I would never mark down a game for trying to expand its gameplay, Re:coded tried to expand a bit too much. This was very much one of those “…and the kitchen sink,” scenarios. Perhaps choosing one alternate fighting method would have sufficed, but the multitude of battle-styles made each boss fight feel like a mini-game, and not like a satisfying end to a hard-fought battle. I feel like Re:coded tried a bit too hard to be different, and ended up having a bit of an identity crisis in the process.
In keeping with tradition, the control scheme in Re:coded is nothing like its predecessors. It has neither the card battle system of Chain of Memories nor the panel system of 358/2 days. Instead, Re:coded utilizes a combination of what are called the “Stat Matrix,” “Command Matrix,” and “Gear Matrix.” The Stat Matrix is similar to the panel system of 358/2 days, but is laid out more like the sphere grid system in “Final Fantasy X.” Instead of just gaining abilities throughout the course of the game, you must use chips that house different leveling up capabilities to fill in various paths that lead to these new abilities. For example, you will not learn the ability to block, or even dodge, until you blindly fill in enough spaces to reach the parts of the matrix system where these abilities are housed. As the game progresses, Sora will unlock more areas of the matrix grid and will have access to more abilities.
The Gear Matrix simply allows you to assign a finishing command to your keyblade (used when you fill up your limit gauge) and armlets to Sora that protect against certain attacks. This serves as the most basic of the matrixes, and you'll find yourself spending the majority of your time with the other two.
The Command Matrix allows you to assign various commands and abilities to Sora, ranging from magic, to keyblade attacks, to items. Once two attacks are used enough in battle, they may be merged together to form a new attack, which Sora may continue to level up and merge with other attacks. This system allows for near infinite possibilities in customizing Sora's exact attack pattern. All of these attacks are assigned to the X button and can be scrolled through with the L button. However, there is a pretty big downside to this. In 358/2 days, the camera could be controlled by pressing the L and R buttons to swing the camera left or right. Since the L button already has a designation in Re:coded, the camera is controlled by holding down the R button and pressing left or right on the D-Pad. As someone who picked up this game directly after playing 358/2 days, I found this to be very awkward, especially when trying to adjust the camera while running. Over time you will get used to the control of it, but the camera still feels jumpy and is not as seamless as in 358/2 Days.
Bottom line, Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded felt more like a vacation slideshow than a stand-alone game. The story makes a worthy effort out of revisiting past worlds for the third/fourth/fifth time, but it simply isn’t strong enough to carry the entire game on its shoulders. Re:coded lacks the in-depth story and character development of even its DS brother. It required roughly one-third of the total play-time of 358/2 days, which I think is an accurate indicator of what Re:coded truly is: one-third of a game. An interesting story is not enough to make up for a game that simply feels like an add-on, or an expansion pack, to the original Kingdom Hearts. If you want to replay the original Kingdom Hearts with half of the worlds and half of the fun, I'd suggest picking this one up. Otherwise, I'd strongly recommend spending your money on the superior DS title, “Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.”
The Good: Intricate matrix system provides the most customizable Kingdom Hearts experience yet. The Bad: Lackluster character development that fails to propel the story. The Ugly: Boss battles that masquerade as mini-games; or rather, mini-games that masquerade as boss battles.