Even for fans of the franchise, Kingdom Hearts Coded may not be a game you are familiar with. It’s probably because it saw quite a niche release, as a Japan-only episodic mobile phone game. Released 2 to 3 years after coded, this version of the game is, like re:Chain of Memories, a full remake. This time, thankfully re:Coded saw an international release.
Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded (NDS)
Released Oct 2010 | Developed: h.a.n.d. | Published: Square-Enix
(Note: Screenshots in this review were taken from the HD Cinematic Scenes of re:Coded from the Kingdom Hearts 2.5 Remix on PS4.)
re:Coded is set after Kingdom Hearts II – yes, a sequel, finally! Jiminy Cricket, who has been accompanying Sora on his journeys and documenting everything in his journals, has found a pair of mysterious messages in his journal that he swears he didn’t write. Mickey, along with Donald Duck, and Goofy, decide to digitize the journal to try and analyze it only to find it riddled with bugs and corrupted data. In order to combat this they create a data facsimile of Sora (named Data-Sora, of course) to wade through the digital corruption and restore some order to things.
The plot is bananas, even for Kingdom Hearts; an overly-complicated framing narrative to explain why it’s yet another game in which Sora has to go back through levels and worlds we’ve already seen. This has to be one of my most significant criticisms of re:Coded; despite being originally released in a post-Kingdom Hearts II world, we have yet another game where we’re going back through the same handful of levels that we played through back in the first game. Disparate elements from multiple games seem to crop up all over the place; an unknown character in a black cloak shows up to bother Sora, Pete appears in his Kingdom Hearts II guise to torment Mickey, and hints of Castle Oblivion even make an appearance right out of Chain of Memories. It all comes together in a weird mish-mash, a barely coherent framing for a barely-coherent narrative. Kingdom Hearts has a reputation for bonkers plots but I think re:Coded is the first time I’ve felt that sense myself.
There’s a lot of repetition at the heart of re:Coded, and not just the worlds themselves but within them as well. In each level Sora must repeatedly track down sources of glitches by finding hidden backdoors and then entering a room of pure data in which he must track down and fight Heartless to purge the glitches. There’s an interesting concept here in that sometimes elements of worlds are closed off or missing and purging glitches restores them which could have created a neat progression, but the repetition undermines it. Still, sometimes there’s some cool visual effects done with this; an impressive early example sees an entire building fluctuate between flattening out and trying to reassert its 3D structure.
Scattered about the world are Blox, which are essentially cubes of data. Red and black Bug Blox exist to be destroyed, but some other types aid in platforming; some bounce you high, some phase in and out of existence on a loop, and others are there to be smashed for loot such as munny and upgrades. As should be expected, the Heartless also plague the worlds of re:Coded, though it’s quite a sparse collection of enemies this time around. I’m assuming that’s a limitation present in both the original version and the DS remake but it’s still a shame to fight similar encounters all the way through the game.
Combat is the usual Kingdom Hearts action-RPG fare at its core, but with some interesting changes. The Command system from Birth by Sleep returns; Sora can attack normally and he can equip Commands to his Command Deck giving him access to special attacks, magic, and items. Once used these have to recharge, with more powerful Commands taking longer to do so. By tapping the L button players can cycle through equipped Commands to find the one they need at that moment which can be frenetic but it worked well enough in Birth by Sleep and so it does too here.
As in Birth by Sleep there’s also a means by which new Commands can be crafted. Equipped Commands earn experience and when they’re fully levelled up they can be combined with others to build new, more powerful ones. A neat feature to re:Coded’s implementation of this is that Commands don’t have to be permanently fused at first; each slot has a secondary augment slot allowing you to equip an additional Command to the main one and potentially change its properties, such as using a Fire spell to add that element onto an attack. Once both parts have earned enough experience they can be fused, usually into a higher-level form of the initial Command, though by fusing the right things the result can appear with augments such as faster reload time. However, I found it quite difficult to predict what combinations would fuse to create something useful, let alone fusing to create brand new Commands which was a simpler prospect in Birth by Sleep.
As Sora attacks, he fills up a gauge called the Clock Gauge. Each time a bar is filled Sora unlocks new passive abilities which come into play until his bar empties again; eventually enough bars will fill and Sora can use a powerful Finish attack. Again, this is a modification of a system used in Birth by Sleep; unique to re:Coded though is that the passives Sora unlocks are staggered out in a tree and by using the touchscreen you can select which passives you want to unlock at that time. For example, Sora’s first Keyblade always activates Medic at Clock Level 1 which increases the potency of healing items, but then it branches into 3 abilities at Clock Level 2 and players can tap the touchscreen to choose which one should activate. This is interesting in theory but in practice it’s clunky to access during combat unless you have a few extra pairs of hands.
One of the most interesting facets of re:Coded comes in the form of gameplay changes. Once Sora enters the Keyhole for each world suddenly the gameplay shifts, and often in forms never seen before in the franchise. In these gameplay shifts the majority of Sora’s Commands are not accessible but instead powerups drop and the gameplay is built to make use of Sora’s basic combat and platforming abilities. Some sections put Sora in side-scrolling stages, and others adopt an autorunning shooter style; the most memorable world even opts to refigure the entire stage as a turn-based JRPG. It’s a cool idea in concept and one that I wish a little more had been done with as one or two later levels eschew it in favour of just plonking you into a boss battle. I feel like there was quite a lot of scope to explore a bunch of different genres and it might have helped give re:Coded a more unique sense of identity.
I love the way this game handles levelling up. Sora has access to the Stat Matrix, a kind of stylised motherboard upon which you follow a path of circuits by installing chips which grant bonuses to stats and level ups; it’s a little like the inventory Tetris of 358/2 Days combined with the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. There are some permanent blocks attached to the Matrix which unlock Abilities when you create circuit lines to them and as Sora visits new worlds, new CPU units are added and connected circuit lines between these activate “Dual Processing”, which doubles up the power of every stat chip connecting them. This makes juggling what chips you place in empty slots a matter of tactics though chips can be swapped out with any you have in your inventory, so you can return to an already filled part of the board and swap in more powerful ones from later in the game for more effective stat boosts. The board also houses Cheat units which are used to creatively modify re:Coded’s difficulty through trade-offs; for example, one unit lowers Sora’s HP in return for better enemy loot drops, while another increases the amount of experience Sora gains but makes his Commands level up more slowly. While the game can be taken on without ever touching these, manipulating them can make for much more interesting options during gameplay and I suspect those who want the most from re:Coded will need and want to dive into them.
Still, for those who just want to get through re:Coded for that juicy Kingdom Hearts lore, they will find this entry quite a short game at only 10-12 hours or so. The brevity isn’t a great mark against it; given the repetition of worlds, events, and characters, a quicker Kingdom Hearts experience might be welcome to players. There is some scope for a longer time spent in re:Coded’s datascape world however, as levels can be replayed to complete extra quests. I found it difficult to drum up any interest in these quests though; they mostly require you to explore more of the hidden data rooms and take on harder challenges to recover specific items from them. It feels a significant step down from the secret bosses or battle arenas of previous entries, and again feeds into that repetition that is at the core of the re:Coded experience.
Kingdom Hearts re:Coded is a tough sell. The ending is hardly worth it; there’s no pathos like in 358/2 Days and no turnabout like Chain of Memories; it’s just a damp squib that holds a vague and faint promise for later games but it’s hard not to look at that promise and think that it could have just been part of a larger game’s narrative. If you’re playing Kingdom Hearts out of investment in the plot, this game has nothing to offer you that can’t be just as easily gleaned by looking up some cutscenes of the finale. For those who simply enjoy Kingdom Hearts for its gameplay re:Coded is at least passable and it is quite a fair recreation of the franchise’s style for a portable console but it’s held back by the constant repetition of gameplay loops and the revisiting of worlds we’ve seen time and time again. It might be a perfectly adequate, even good, time for the 12 hours or so spent with it but once you’re done with re:Coded it’s easy to place back on the shelf and completely forget about.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.