Not content to tell the tales of battles fought and won, the Kingdom Hearts franchise continues to peer into the souls and minds of its characters to explore its themes of friendship and perseverance. Set after the events of Kingdom Hearts II, Re:coded brings us back to the past to show us a glimpse of the future. This foray into the files of Sora's history doesn't cover a whole lot of new ground, and what ground it does cover is made more difficult to navigate by an uncooperative camera and cramped quarters, but it's still nice to spend some time with old friends.
It all begins with bugs. Jiminy Cricket, dedicated royal chronicler of adventures, picks up his original journal of Sora's travels to find that a mysterious message has been added. Because the volume was almost fully erased after the events in Kingdom Hearts, this causes the dapper little fellow enough consternation to bring it directly to the attention of King Mickey. A decision is made to use the technological talents of rodent wunderkinds Chip and Dale to digitally delve into the data believed to be imbued in the volume despite its empty pages, but what they find--instead of answers--are the classic worlds filled with glitches and corrupted data. They need a helping hand to clear out the bad blocks and get to the bottom of things, so they create a digital version of Sora and his trusty keyblade, and the newly rendered boy hero is only too happy to assist.
The dismemberment of Heartless and other foes is as fluid and functional as ever, with auto-aim targeting that ensures every swing finds its mark easily. You still have to watch your positioning and keep your guard up for particular enemies, but the joy of smashing your keyblade button and dancing around in a shower of munny and experience orbs is retained. You access special abilities built into your keyblade by consecutively striking monsters, which gives you a boost as you fight. Each weapon has its own set of bonuses, such as faster attacks, the ability to dodge automatically, or protection against magic. Almost all of these are situationally useful and painless to execute as you fight. Sora can also equip extra melee strikes, magic spells, and items through an ability menu, which can be shuffled on the fly in battle. There's also an upgrade system that allows you to equip chips on a circuit board called the stat matrix, increasing your attributes like strength and health while unlocking even more powers like evasive maneuvers and extra item slots. You can even unlock cheats to lower the difficulty, cause better items to drop, and increase the appearance of other fabulous prizes. That's a ton of goodies, and it makes annihilating enemies an enjoyable pursuit.
On top of the standard fare, Re:coded mixes things up with different types of gameplay; there's a side-scrolling platforming section, a rail-shooting section, and some turn-based battle action. Some of these work better than others. The turn-based battles utilize timed button presses for combo attacks and blocking, which can significantly affect your success; the rail shooter makes use of abrupt changes of orientation and controls that are jarring. While these modes mix things up in a mostly positive way, they are sparsely used and come with an instructional session to acclimate you to a whole new set of commands. The flow of the game is then somewhat bogged down by tutorial sermons. It all ramps up to the boss battles for each world and a gratifying takedown of the dark forces that seek to erase the lands of the journal.
Unfortunately, much of the rest of the game is constructed around platforming in convoluted spaces, with a shiftless camera that needs a lot of manual direction and a little bit of verbal abuse. Because the data of the worlds is corrupted, all of the environments have a variety of bug blocks that need to be dealt with or clambered around. Some can be simply broken with your keyblade, and may contain helpful or rare items. Others can injure you, explode violently, or fling you far away when you touch them. Trying to navigate what can be claustrophobic rooms filled with monsters and then blocks that want to kill you, blow up on you, disappear from under you, or send you in the completely opposite direction because your camera angle was off is decent when it works and otherwise tests your good nature and will to survive. It's not uniformly terrible, but there are numerous moments of wiggly control and camera wrangling as you strive to collect the doodad of the moment to progress.
Originally an episodic game released for mobile phones, Re:coded betrays its heritage with slow and awkward story pacing and only small pieces of some classic Kingdom Hearts realms. There's minimal and superficial contact with the Disney cast through such locales as Wonderland, Agrabah, and Olympus, and these areas consist of only a few rooms. Part of the time you spend in any given realm is spent "debugging" data by killing foes in a special code area that feels very Matrix-esque, which further saps some of the charm. Much of the dialogue is text with static posed portraits, but there are some lengthy in-engine story sequences that are great. The personality bursts out of each character, and the great voice acting and music are worthy of the narrative traditions of the series, even if the meaningful revelations are few and far between.
Despite this, at about 25 hours, it feels like this game takes an awfully long time to tell a short and shallow story. The punch picks up at the very end, but the majority of it feels like a slow retread of old territory without much new information to impart. Once you finish the game, there are additional debugging challenges to take on, trophies to earn, and a "secret" ending movie to unlock that leads to the next chapter. You can trade dungeon maps with friends via tag mode, and completing the trials in these maps will net you chips to be used during the main story. Kingdom Hearts Re:coded hits all the typical notes, but much like the reused musical themes that stud this adventure, you've heard this song before. While some of the new gameplay features are fun to splash around in, this game suffers from its pacing and cranky camera, even as it shows glimmers of the true spirit of the series. Sora and friends are not in their finest form, but fans can glean what they will from the notes in Jiminy's journal.