If it feels like Square Enix is overdoing it on Kingdom Hearts games, then you're not alone. This brand new Nintendo DS game (a remake of a mobile phone game only released in Japan) marks the third portable Kingdom Hearts game to be released in the last 16 months. And don't look now, because development is in full swing for a Nintendo 3DS game (Dream Drop Distance), another PSP outing (Birth By Sleep Vol. 2) and, if the rumors are true, the large console release of Kingdom Hearts III. That's a lot of Mickey, Goofy, Donald and the rest of Disney's lovable cast of characters. After playing through Re:coded, I'm starting to think that maybe it's too much Kingdom Hearts.
As I mentioned before, Re:coded is the Nintendo DS remake of Kingdom Hearts: Coded, a Japanese cell phone game from a few years ago. This 2011 release updates the graphics, adds some multiplayer functionality and offers English dialog. It has all the components to be another winning entry in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. But it's not. This is the first game in the franchise I've actively disliked. It's marred by the worst camera system imaginable, horrible pacing and a storyline that is laughably bad. Re:coded is what you get when you try to make too many games at once.
The set-up is simple enough: One day Jiminy Cricket (the character tasked with chronicling all of the keyblade exploits) notices something strange about Sora's book. It turns out that it's empty; wiped of anything resembling an adventure. This troubles Jiminy, as it would any author who just saw their manuscript erased with no known back-up. He alerts King Mickey and together they come up with a plan to add the text back. Unfortunately, the only way to do that is to scan the book through a computer and force the written version of Sora to, well, re-code the story. It's an unrealistic plan, but I have a hunch that it's going to work out in the long run.
Silly concept aside, this gives the player a chance to join Sora on yet another grand adventure. And since this game takes place after the events in Kingdom Hearts II, we're technically seeing a glimpse of the future. But don't get too excited, because this side story is nothing more than a lot of busywork connected by a long, yet shallow storyline.
Much like past Kingdom Hearts games, Re:coded has our hero jumping from one Disney-inspired world to another. We see Wonderland, Agrabah and Hollow Bastion, all of which are worlds we've explored in numerous other Kingdom Hearts adventures. In fact, much of this game has us replaying levels from the 2002 original. I know I sound like a broken record when I say it, but it's always a little disappointing to see the same familiar places and faces repeated for the umpteenth time. Is it too much to ask for at least one or two brand new worlds? I fear that they're saving the good stuff for the inevitable console sequel.
We may fight through the worlds of Kingdom Hearts 1, but at least we're doing it with the modern combat engine. The one thing these portable prequels and side-stories have done is refine the basic combat. That's good news, especially for those of us who remember how archaic the first game was. The game's auto-aim makes fighting the Heartless a breeze and I had a great time with the leveling up mechanic. It's also nice to be able to counter-attack and roll out of the way. The different powers are also pretty cool, especially as Sora becomes a high level character. There are also different weapons to use, each with their own powers and abilities. Throw in some magic and you have a fun combat mechanic that almost makes this game worth playing.
Unfortunately the modern combat mechanics is just about the only thing Re:coded gets right. I have a list of complaints longer than Pinocchio's nose, but I'll start with the most pressing issue -- the camera. In Kingdom Hearts you control the camera, in the sense that you have to hold the right trigger and use the D-pad. This means that you can't move around and control the camera, which means that you constantly have to stop and fiddle with it. And did I mention that the game doesn't have any sort of auto camera? That's right, the if you change directions (which you do constantly) you'll be forced to stop and fiddle. I spent more time fighting with the controls than I did actually fighting the Heartless.
The game's presentation also takes a hit. At first I wondered if I was unfairly comparing this DS game to the PSP's Birth By Sleep. Sadly, that's not the case. The in-game graphics take a noticeable hit. It's not that the game is ugly, but rather that it can't even match the 2009 release. To its credit, Re:coded's cinemas are spectacular looking. These videos feature gorgeous polygon characters and full voice acting. Sadly, those are few and far between. Most of the cinemas involve two still images talking to each other through text bubbles.
Another problem is the pacing. Originally this mobile phone game was episodic, which might explain why so many of the levels are truncated versions of their console cousin. Instead of wondering through fully realized Disney worlds, you are forced to fight in a few small areas. It's easy to tell when each episode begins and ends, since that's when the bulk of the story is unfurled. Most of the game has you doing busywork in order to get a morsel of story, none of which is worth the trouble. The narrative isn't just poorly paced, it's downright awful. There's not enough story to fill the 20 or so hours it will take you to beat it, which ultimately left me disappointed in the shallow journey.
Kingdom Hearts also features a four-player mode ... kind of. The back of the box suggests that you can play with up to four players, but it's not multiplayer in the traditional sense. Instead what you can do is create unique levels and share them with your friends, who in turn can play through them. If that doesn't sound very exciting, it's because it's not. Sharing boring dungeon maps is hardly a reason to get your friends together, you would be better off going back to 358/2 Days.
Of course, the game isn't all bad. It does attempt to introduce a few new game types into the mix. You get everything from side-scrolling to turn-based action to an on-rails shooter. I commend Square for adding some variety, but it would have been better if they had refined the controls. That's not to say that they are bad, I had a reasonably fun time with the shooter, but even then I had to adjust to a rather forceful change in pace. Still, I like what they are doing and would like to see this style of variety perfected in future Kingdom Hearts releases.
Had Re:coded been a budget title, I might understand picking this up. After all, the combat is good and fans of the series will likely want to see it through. But as a full-priced Nintendo DS release, this is a hard game to justify. Remaking a three year old mobile phone game is fraught with perils and it feels like Square Enix hit every one. If only they could figure out a way to flesh out the levels and fix the pacing, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded would be worth picking up. As it is, even hardcore fans should wait a few months for the inevitable next installment.