Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded review: More than a Re:hash

While we've patiently waited for the inevitable Kingdom Hearts III, Square Enix has kept our appetites at bay with a steady stream of prequels, spin-offs and sort-of sequels. From 2009's 358/2 Days, to last year's Birth by Sleep, followers of the Final Fantasy/Disney mash-up have had ample opportunities to revisit its bizarre, but successful collision of emo-spouting pretty-boys and anthropomorphic theme park stars. Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded, a DS remake of an episodic Japanese mobile phone entry, mostly succeeds in continuing to distract us while we wait for that full-on sequel to finally arrive.

Given its phone-to-DS porting, I wasn't exactly dying to wield a Keyblade again in Re:Coded. However, despite some camera-crippled platforming and other minor annoyances, it managed to suck me back into the series' imaginative world. Sure, it revisits many of the locales from the 2002 original -- damn, has it been that long? -- but it also incorporates enough new tricks to put a fresh spin on the at-first familiar-feeling settings. Additionally, it reunites us with series star Sora, the spiky-haired hero who's sadly been absent from the last two titles.
%Gallery-104474% The set-up sees Jiminy Cricket's journals from the first two games corrupted, prompting King Mickey -- who's given a beefy supporting role -- to send a digital version of Sora into the books to debug them. While it's a questionable plot device, no doubt used as an excuse to go back to the PS2 games' worlds, it sets the stage for a cool Matrix-like makeover of the Disney film-themed lands. As the Keyblade-brandishing Sora, you'll bash digitized blocks, watch entire sections of the world be consumed by circuitry-looking viruses, and witness computer code streaming down both sides of the screen when hidden levels, heavily influenced by TRON's neon-infused environments, are approached.

While this sci-fi flavoring tweaks the aesthetic, it also bends the expected gameplay in some welcome ways. As "Data-Sora," the young hero's no longer restricted to the laws and physics of his human form, allowing the game to throw some surprises into the mix. At the end of Traverse Town, for example, he's shrunken down to an 8-bit character and tossed into a side-scrolling version of the world, complete with a level-capping boss battle that wouldn't be out of place in a NES-era Contra or Castlevania title. Other versions of Sora see him shooting Space Harrier-style and even fighting foes on a turn-based battlefield. None of these mini-games could support a standalone entry, but they do bring diversity to recycled settings and are a fun novelty when backed by the franchise's proven action-RPG pedigree.

Speaking of hacking, slashing, looting and leveling, Re:Coded also packs plenty of the addictive character progression and thumb-numbing action we've come to expect from the series. Mowing down hordes of Heartless behind a Keyblade is as satisfying, if slightly repetitive, as ever, and the RPG elements are a nice mix of old and new. Birth by Sleep's excellent Command Deck makes a return, allowing players to deal death on the fly with a variety of elemental spells. Even cooler, though, is the "Stat Matrix", a physical circuit board serving all your leveling needs. Various stat chips, including strength, magic, and defense units, are literally plugged into the board, replacing the genre's usual menu-driven number crunching with a novel new way to customize your character.

Even as a fan-service aimed entry, Re:Coded will occasionally try the patience of the most faithful KH followers.

On top of fueling typical progression, the Stat Matrix can be manipulated to grant perks, such as the ability to double your level increase by arranging "level up" chips between two CPU units--cleverly dubbed "Dual Processing"--and triggering legal cheats, like altering the game's difficulty. This crazy-addictive system is easily my favorite thing in Re:Coded and something I'd love to see further explored in one of the developer's triple-A console outings. Of course, these Sora-shaping tricks are just the beginning; you can also customize Keyblades with ass-kicking over-clock powers, convert spells into screen-clearing forces of nature, and rack up redeemable reward points by completing those aforementioned TRON-styled secret levels.

The robust combat and leveling is complemented by some of the best visuals to grace the DS's dual screens. Characters animate fluidly, spells are supported by eye-popping effects--filling the screen with from-the-heavens lightning bolts is a highlight--and boss battles stretch across the length of the play screen. While there's not nearly enough of them, fully voiced and animated cinematics are equally impressive, and even the more frequently used talking-head cutscenes hit a visual high.

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Considering it was spawned from a two-year old title you could play on a flip phone, Re:Coded does a decent job of revisiting the series' roots while taking some tentative evolutionary steps. That said, I'd advise newcomers to steer clear; despite providing an excuse to inject some sci-fi fun and gameplay innovations, the paper thin story is the franchise's weakest, and the mechanics may intimidate those who've never donned Sora's big yellow sneakers -- if you're looking for a jumping off point, without going back to the PS2 originals, the superior Birth by Sleep is your ticket.

Even as a fan-service aimed entry, Re:Coded will occasionally try the patience of the most faithful KH followers. The camera constantly needs babysitting -- my index finger was a near-permanent fixture on the repositioning trigger--and platforming sections can be a frustrating nightmare; floating, disappearing and jump-boost blocks require the sort of precise controls only games with "Super Mario" in the title can claim. Other flaws, such as a short campaign and repetitive combat, are mostly minor and shouldn't dissuade longtime fans from chasing this latest pre-Kingdom Hearts III carrot on a stick.

This review is based on the DS version of Kingdom Hearts: Re:Coded, provided by Square Enix.

Matt Cabral covers videogames, television, and film for a variety of mainstream and enthusiast print and online outlets. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @gamegoat.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.