Regardless of whether or not you understand all the details surrounding the story of Kingdom Hearts, all you need to know about Kingdom Hearts Re:coded is that it takes place after Kingdom Hearts II. While it may be based on an episodic series on mobile phones in Japan, the DS version has been updated with new controls and features to make it a feel like a Kingdom Hearts game. We had an opportunity to play a demo of the game at the Tokyo Game Show this year, which is a part of this updated hands-on; however, we also got a chance to explore the Coliseum with Hercules and test out some turn-based combat.
Re:coded's gameplay is particularly interesting because it changes depending on where you are in the game. We're only allowed to share two major areas with you--Wonderland and the Coliseum--but there are a lot of different gameplay styles, ranging from role-playing-game-style turn-based combat to a scrolling shoot-'em-up. This particular story takes place in Jiminy's Cricket's journal, which he used to document Sora's first adventure in Kingdom Hearts. When Jiminy discovers a bizarre message inside, King Mickey, Sora, and friends decide to jump in and find out what it means. The world that you wind up in is like a digitized version of the kingdoms you've visited in previous games, so they have a feel similar to them.
The first portion of the preview build put us in Wonderland, where we met the young girl Alice who appeared to have lost her memories, including her own name. Sora, who is always eager to help, offered to track down "inklings" to help jog her memory. Here, we ventured through multiple areas trying to track these sparkling inklings down. Some zones have you sneaking by the queen's guards in the hedge maze, while others are crawling with the shadowy heartless and blox to destroy. Because you're in a digital world, bugs have created block-shaped objects over the datascape (the world that you're in), which you can destroy with your keyblade for pickups and other items. When things go wonky in the datascape (an example would be when the queen's guards suddenly start moving at a ridiculously fast pace), you need to find a backdoor and enter a matrixlike system sector to clear out the bug. Because the combat style changes as you go through the game (and we'll explain these as we go), the basic gameplay still has you use your keyblade to attack, as well as block and use spells by cycling through a deck that you set up beforehand.
System sectors are challenges where you are given a specific goal to complete to fix a bug. They can range from clearing out a certain number of heartless to taking only a limited amount of damage. Generally, as long as enemies are cleared, the bug is fixed and a terminal will appear to teleport you back out. You'll gain sector points (SPs) by defeating enemies and destroying blox, which you can redeem afterward for rewards like deck commands or other stat-boosting chips. You lose SPs when you get hit or lose the challenge, though. Before you enter, you're asked how many of your SPs you want to wager, which can be multiplied if you win or deducted if you lose.
Once we found all of Alice's memories, we tracked down the keyhole to the world and transported to an area that was like an arcade rail shooter, which we played at TGS, so for more info, please read here. We jumped ahead to the Coliseum and bumped into the satyr Phil, who told us his trainee Hercules wasn't back yet and that the Coliseum was starting to look funny. Because this was likely another glitch, we jumped into the multiple layers of the Coliseum to clear out heartless until we came face-to-face with the ever-so-moody Cloud. This part of the game played like a turn-based role-playing game, similar to the Mario RPGs where you can deal extra damage or block when it's the enemy's turn to fight after having timed your button presses correctly during an attack. As we went through the layers of the Coliseum, we picked up combat licenses, which were like power-ups that we could cycle through in our deck and use in battle to boost our strength or defense or autoblock for us. Other than changing up the genres entirely, the bulk of the gameplay will feel familiar because it borrows elements from such previous Kingdom Hearts games as Birth by Sleep and 358/2 Days.
Visually, the game doesn't have the elaborate worlds and towns that you may be used to, but the datascape is just as colorful and lively. Like many other Japanese RPGs, your dialogue is presented with character portraits, and we didn't come across any cutscenes. Re:coded is very much a compilation of different games, offering quite a bit of variety in terms of gameplay. The missions are broken up into digestible chunks that are suitable for a portable game, and a helpful minimap at the bottom of the screen helps keep track of your direction and the locations of your enemies. This comes in handy because there are times when it's tricky to see where your enemies are coming from as you adjust and pivot the camera on your own.
We'll be looking forward to finding out what other gameplay types are included and seeing just how Sora gets himself out of this one when the game ships on January 11, 2011.