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