No Magic in This ‘Kingdom’

“Kingdom Hearts Re:coded” arrived in North America as one of the last Nintendo DS titles before the 3DS arrives in March. As such, DS and “Kingdom Hearts” fans eagerly anticipated this release, especially after “358/2 Days” and the recent PSP game, “Birth By Sleep.” However, “Re:coded’s” uninteresting story damages an otherwise solid game.

For the uninitiated, the “Kingdom Hearts” series is a highly popular and successful crossover between Disney and the “Final Fantasy” franchise. While at first glance it seems unlikely to succeed, the games’ mix of high production values, enjoyable gameplay and a heartfelt original story has connected with fans worldwide.

As the first game in the “Kingdom Hearts” series set after “Kingdom Hearts II,” “Re:coded” tries to build a game around the most insignificant of minor subplots in the series. In “Kingdom Hearts II,” the main hero, Sora, finds that the journal of his previous adventure has been mysteriously erased before he sets off on his main quest. The main story of “Re:coded” is based off that one moment. Mickey Mouse, who currently holds the journal, decides to digitize the journal to reveal the missing content after a mysterious line appears.

Not only is the premise lackluster, but its implications truly hurt the story. In order to rid the digitized journal of bugs, an already insipid task, players control the data version of Sora through most of the original game. Thus, all the maps, music and enemies, are carried over from the original. For fans, this is highly frustrating as this isn’t the first time the series has asked players to retread familiar ground, as essentially “Chain of Memories” operated on that same premise under a different context.

This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if “Re:coded” offered significant revelations, however fans will immediately understand the answer to the cryptic message in the journal the moment it is presented. As a result, one will play through and know the end of the game before it happens, which is very unsatisfying. In an uninspired move to make the game appear longer, you are forced to retread the already being retreaded areas a second time. Had it not been for the second quest aspect, the game would be over in about 10 hours or less, which is very short for a “Kingdom Hearts” game.

The saving grace for “Re:coded” is its gameplay. While the story of cleaning bugs and glitches from every world comes back to haunt your every objective, there are a wide variety of gameplay styles throughout. Part of what eases the frustration of revisiting the Olympus Coliseum from Disney’s “Hercules” for example, is that the game switches to an old school Super Mario RPG-style game. In this level, Sora teams up with Hercules and Cloud from “Final Fantasy VII” to delve into a labyrinth where a source of corruption resides. Every time you bump into a foe, a turn base battle initiates that has a surprising amount of depth for such a one-off experience. Other examples of the gameplay mix include a 2-D platformer and a 2-D shooter, both implemented to varying degrees of success.

While the new styles are fun in their own right, the familiar gameplay of the series has seen a revamping, leading to some of the best combat in the series. Dealing damage fills a gauge that in turn places various buffs and status effects on your weapon until you’ve maxed-out the gauge and can unleash a finishing blow. Depth is present in that you can adjust which buffs activate at each step in the process. Every weapon has different buffs and leveling-up that weapon, a first for the series, opens up more variety.

The command deck also returns and leveling up commands is again a major part of character growth. More interesting is the leveling-up system for stats, where you fill in chips on a computer to get stat boosts. Placement of the chips to maximize their potential is important, as are the various cheats one can activate along the way. With cheats you can add difficulty to the game to get more rewards. Cheats thus create an awesome risk vs. reward aspect that makes the game more exciting from moment to moment.

One frustrating aspect of “Re:coded” from a gameplay perspective is its heavy reliance on platforming. Sora is given an ineffective jump that must be called upon in far too many situations. All jumps must be incredibly precise to succeed, which isn’t possible on the D-pad. There is an awkward auto-jump option selected by default which doesn’t exactly fix the problem, as you’ll jump over or off things you didn’t want to, but it is practically necessary to progress. The camera is serviceable for combat, but in platforming it is a mess. Despite these frustrations, the gameplay overall makes up for it.

“Kingdom Hearts” is built off  of two central pillars, story and gameplay, and to fail in one means the game will suffer as a whole. If you are looking for a fun DS game before the 3DS arrives, “Re:coded” delivers, but the story can be painful beyond belief.

Rating: 3/5 Stars