Review by KMAnsem

"A direly awkward and deeply grating outing that ultimately falls short of greatness."

Now, everyone who knows me knows I love this series, and the main reason why is the sheer magic of it all. It's a place where you can be rubbing elbows with Santa Claus in the morning, crossing blades with evil pirate zombies after lunch, and squat-dancing with a retro Mickey Mouse for dessert. You could wake up in a life-or-death clash of the century with your best friend-turned-traitor-turned-mechanized-menace today, and you could be pushing Winnie the Pooh on a creaky old swing set tomorrow. It's a place of utter romance, and not lovey-dove-y romance, either, but literally, true romance, extreme intensity, emotion, feeling, tenderness and rage, heartbreak, everything, every glowing little beam in the spectrum of human experience, where a strong heart and a kind soul are everything you could ever need. A brain? Who needs it!? Adventure is your brain! And amazement is your pants. There's a billion, billion stars out there, and they're all just waiting for you, and where your heart goes, you follow.

See, that's the key to the kingdom here: the heart. Everything has a heart. Whether you're a spiky-haired thick-head or a little wooden puppet-thing, even if you're the world itself, the ground beneath our feet, you've got a heart way down deep inside you, and that thing is precious. It holds your feelings. It crafts your memories. It's you. And it's so much more than everything else.

Think back to Kingdom Hearts II for a second, where Ansem the Wise and even Tron himself told us how breathtakingly unpredictable the beating heart of a living soul can be, how no computer in the world could ever hope to grasp it, how "the heart is so much more than any system," how "hearts cannot be contained by data," how any stupid attempt is "destined to fall" because the sheer might of emotion, perseverance, courage, and hope are too much to be calculated or contained. Think about how some of the most celebrated heroes in the entire series are the ones who defied their programming and refused to be limited by experiments or data or facts or figures, who define their own existence regardless of technicalities, kicking logic aside and doing the impossible, being whatever they want, just because they can. Remember all the magic and wonder, and the ineffable spirit, the victory of true emotion over all.

Now, throw all of that away, because this is Re:coded, a game that does everything in its power to completely reverse it all and grind the series to a standstill.

STORY: 2/10.

"Their hurting will be mended when you return to end it."

That's how it all begins, with a message left inside Jiminy's journal. Trouble is, he never wrote it. In fact, he doesn't even know where it might have come from. So, he hands it off to Mickey Mouse, resident King of the world, who scans it all into his computer and turns the contents of the journal into a digital landscape, where they can see for themselves that this mysterious message is warping everything else, distorting the other journal entries, filling them with bugs and glitches. So, they enlist the help of someone within the journal, inside this new data world, to help. So, you play as Data Sora, the digital embodiment of Jiminy's records of the real deal, roaming the worlds and setting right what once went wrong, hoping to track these distortions to their source.

But if I can be frank, you could take a machine gun to Swiss cheese, and it still wouldn't have as many holes as Re:coded. We do eventually find out where the note came from, but nothing adds up. The answer makes no sense. We never learn why this one little message corrupts the entire book. We never even learn how a pen-and-paper book can be "corrupted" with glitches and viruses to begin with. They never even try to explain how our mysterious message-writer expected us to find the answer to his/her little riddle, because this kind of technology was never before seen in the series. And for that matter, they never explain why it was a rhyming riddle to begin with. If he/she really wanted to deliver this message so badly, why not just do it? Why lead us on a wild goose chase with enigmatic clues? It's extremely out of character for the ultimate culprit to do this.

So, the foundation is complete nonsense, and naturally, the ending falls flat because of it. But the bigger problem is the middle, the bulk of the game. The developers knew that this little mystery of the note would never be enough to fill a whole game. You have to have battles, and excitement, and more than fifteen minutes worth of content. So, do they come up with something new, something nice, a decent little story to fill in the rest? No. They give us Kingdom Hearts 1. Literally. Most of the game, seven out of eight chapters, is spent trudging through a shallow, shoddy, bare-bones pseudo-remake of the original game. They figured that since we were already traipsing through written records of the first game, they could just recycle most of the exact same plot. So, the mystery of the message soon becomes an occasional framing device as the actual "meat" of the game becomes...redundant filler, basically, done just to pad out this one already flimsy idea into something they could masquerade and sell to us as an entire game. The upside is that new players probably won't notice and may even appreciate the recap. The downside is that anyone who has played Kingdom Hearts 1 will be mind-numbingly bored and more than able to see how lazy and cheap it was. The odd thing, though, is that you can't even call this a game for the new players only, because the few new scenes are incredibly continuity-heavy, drawing from at least four other games, so even new players are bound to be confused and alienated at crucial points, too.

I feel I should also talk about the mood and the themes of the game. The good news is, if anyone didn't like the heavy-handed cheesiness of the main games' light-and-darkness talk, there's pretty much none of that to be found here. The bad news is, what you get instead is Goofy giving you tips on debugging a database. The other games may have had technology, but the moral was always, always that magic and wonder beat circuits and diodes any day, no contest. Here, computers are the focus of absolutely everything. Where before virtual worlds were the last refuge of a desperate old man who knew it was futile to be using them, now they're the magic miracle solution, with any actual magic and fantasy elements downgraded to background details in the gameplay only, at best. It's jarring, frankly. It's alienating and bizarre to hear Donald Duck talking about this stuff. I just can't get behind it.

And as if the story weren't poor enough already, there's always the constant knowledge that what you're doing doesn't matter. There's no reason this mystery should even exist, which sort of puts a damper on solving it. And there's no reason we should be playing through Kingdom Hearts 1 yet again, so that makes it even worse. But above all, you always know that your character isn't real. Your "Sora" isn't actually Sora. He's a computer avatar. These "Heartless" aren't really Heartless. They're just data, too. No one is ever in any danger, so there's no consequences, so there's never any excitement or tension. Even if all these Heartless were to escape into the real world, the real Sora deals with bigger and better things every day. After facing down Xemnas and the Organization, a simple Darkside Heartless doesn't pose a threat.

The dialogue in this game is another disappointment, and it's a three-fold flaw. Some of the voice actors are very inexperienced with their characters, which makes even some of the best lines come out stilted or hollow. Then you have the fact that the characters' lips are actually not synchronized with their dialogue. The mouth movements were animated first, with the voice actors struggling to match their pace afterward. Some of the better actors can actually manage it pretty decently, but most of the others are left flailing for dear life. The third and most fundamental facet here, though, is the writing of the script itself. To its credit, it can be pretty darn good when it wants to be. But when it doesn't, it either recycles quotes from the first game literally verbatim, or else just plain lacks any emotion, highlighting the least interesting characters, the least intriguing possible stories, or opting for soulless techno-talk huddled around a computer.

So, for so many reasons...it just sort of falls desperately short of the mark.

GAMEPLAY: 7/10.

Most people will tell you the gameplay here is fantastic.

This, I find, is only partially true.

The battle system is fantastic. It's a very easy contender for the best one of all -- not my personal vote, but undeniably a contender. It's deep on so many levels, highly customizable, with a huge and epic scale that actually almost works a miracle and begins to recapture the series' classic feelings of edge-of-your-seat excitement.

The game's difficulty, for example, is completely up to you. It offers four basic levels, as always: Beginner, Normal, Proud, and Critical. But your level, your stats, your everything can be nearly instantly modified either way you want. If you're a series pro, and Critical is still too easy, level down. Take it all the way down to level one, if you want to, and take on the world with only the barest, barest basics. You're the player, and that's your right. Taking a page from The World Ends With You, keeping your level low can earn you increased item drop rates from your enemies.

Now, your weapon's always been customizable, but this one takes it to a new level. Kingdom Hearts II introduced the idea of weapons carrying abilities that maybe extend your combo or power up your magic, but here, each one actually has several, ranging so incredibly drastically, called clock abilities. They unlock as you fight; the more hits you land, and the more enemies you defeat, the more clock abilities activate themselves. They usually revolve around increasing certain stats or tweaking things a little more in your favor.

Battle itself is pretty straightforward, copied from the PSP's Birth by Sleep almost verbatim. You have your basic combo, like always, rudimentary blade strikes available to you whenever. But beyond that, your commands are fully your own choice. Magic spells, special attacks, items -- whatever you want; your setup all depends on which commands you equip, with more and more as the game goes by. It's quick, it's smooth, the well for innovation and creativity runs pretty deep.

One of the biggest innovations, though, comes in the form of the Stat Matrix. It's basically a computer motherboard, and by plugging certain chips into it, you can increase your level, gain new abilities, modify your stats, and everything else you could want. It's basically a revamp of 358/2 Days' panel system fused with some inspiration from Final Fantasy X's Sphere Grid.

And I think you'll notice that's a recurring theme: Everything I mentioned has already been done. It's been done by Square, and it's mostly even been done by the series. And it's all setup, not execution. It's all technical background details, not things you'll actually use in the heat of the moment. If that's all there was, I wouldn't be raving about it. I'd be lukewarm, really, at best. But the single biggest revolution, the part that really recaptures the fantasy and thrill-a-minute heart-pounds, would be this: the world gimmicks. Each world, now, for the first time ever, has a very unique twist. The gameplay shifts to a totally different genre. Suddenly, the last half of Traverse Town turns into a side-scrolling 2D beat-'em-up. Olympus Coliseum takes Cloud's cameo to a logical extreme and lets a Final Fantasy-style turn-based system take over entirely. Wonderland becomes a really good on-rails shooter. They're easily the most exciting parts of the game, the list goes on, and honestly, they were just a really magnificent idea.

Of course, that's not to say it's flawless. I think they milk the idea too much, to the point where these game-changing revelations become...padding. Wonderland's shooter mode is easily twice as long as it needs to be. You know, after a certain point, it becomes a matter of "Hey, look what we can do!" tossing out all proper pacing and just becoming a chore. They drastically overestimated how much these segments would keep us entertained, and maybe none worse than the Coliseum, especially; turn-based battle is the most new and novel here in a series that's never had it once before, but after so many fights throughout a whole world, it loses the magic fast. These were glorious concepts with sometimes iffy execution.

But of course, like I was hinting at before, there's more to gameplay than just butting heads, and everything else here tends to be brutal. I'd like to know whose idea it was to make Traverse Town revolve entirely around babysitting the most irrelevant, obnoxious characters in the entire level. It pains me to think we could be saving lives or anything else when, instead, we're spending our time reminding Alice what her name is. I'm trying to keep these example limited to the early game to avoid spoilers, but one in the late game is just too monstrously egregious to ignore. The game stops completely and makes you play through a recap of every world you've been to. Which, given the basis of the story, makes that bit a recap inside a recap, which all kinds of ridiculous.

So, is the gameplay important? Absolutely. Of course. If story was the only facet here, this would be a movie. The gameplay is vital. Is it good? Most definitely. Does it innovate? Yes. Are there a lot of good ideas in there? Sure. But, sadly, it just slows to a bland and boring stop way too often, even in the very best of times. And when it does, it becomes more frustrating than I possibly could have imagined. So, because of that, while it may be good or sometimes even great, I have to say it does not carry this entire game.

REPLAY: 5/10.

On the one hand, from the third world onward, the game does offer you a chance to replay any world or any boss completely at your own whim. On the other hand...I was mostly tired of this game before I beat it once. There are literally no new bosses in this game, so virtually anything you do is already almost a "replay." Some of the new gameplay twists make a decent effort and reinvigorating them, but they're driven into the ground so much that by the time I was finally done once, I pretty much never wanted to see them again. Late in the game, for example, there's a really interesting boss...for his first couple forms. But the fight just keeps going and going, padded by more and more minor transformations, more than any other boss in the series, that it was a chore by time I finally won. After that, the idea of revisiting it just made me sick to my stomach. This is a game that might be okay to kill some time with while it lasts, but after it's done, I personally think it's mostly done. So, they gain points for putting the effort to add the feature, but they lose just as many for not really having anything to use it on.

GRAPHICS: 7/10.

Of course, as much as the gameplay seems to defy them sometimes, there are some limits to what the DS can do...but surprisingly, not as much as you might think. 358/2 Days translated the Kingdom Hearts experience from the PS2 to the DS nearly flawlessly, and Re:coded takes up the mantle right where it left off. Your characters are more defined and less "blob-like" than they were in Days, and the people and the worlds are much more colorful. Both of which are helped along by the fact that Re:coded's entire cast isn't clad head to toe in black overcoats. With more colorful outfits and more visible body parts, they really had the chance to take things up to a higher level, and for the most part, I think they succeeded. The natural limits are still there and still noticeable, but the most egregious complaints have been fixed. The full-motion video graphics are great, too, every bit as amazing as games on far more powerful systems than this. I do think they're a bit wasted on what's mostly confined to one single room and mostly stationary characters -- certainly, there are much livelier scenes here much more worthy of the time and attention a full FMV requires -- but as much as I question the wisdom and the use of the graphics, there's no denying their actual quality.

MUSIC: 5/10.

Since most of the game is recycled from Kingdom Hearts 1, most of the music tracks are, too. They're the songs we've all heard a thousand times competently but not remarkably redone for the DS, sometimes slipping too far to the shrill side but hitting fairly well on-target often enough. The few new tracks, like the data world themes, are generally catchy and definitely have a way of sticking in your head, whether you like it or not. It's a solid attempt, but ultimately nothing special.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10.
2 + 7 + 5 + 7 + 5 = 26 / 5 = 5.2

When all is said and done, this game was a roller coaster for me, always up and down. The lows were very low, and the highs were only decently high. In the end, it's an average game. Sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, and reconciling the two wild and reckless ends lands us firmly here, at a very average five out of ten.


Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 01/11/11, Updated 01/12/11

Game Release: Kingdom Hearts Re:coded (JP, 10/07/10)


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