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February 5, 2016

Kingdom Hearts Re:coded (Part 5)

Go back to read all the previous parts to understand what’s going on in this final part of the review! And even then, nothing says you’ll understand much… Alright, so Castle Oblivion was a major trial of memories and emotions for Data-Sora, his mind, heart and athletic capabilities put to the test over vague remembrances of his journey. All this under the eye on a mysterious hooded figure wiho's trying to make Data-Sora realize how unimportant he is. And yet, Data-Sora’s spirits aren’t weakened! He chooses to accept the pain of all these souvenirs! This enrages the hooded figure, who provokes him to a fight.

Dual wielding? Really? That's not fair!

How convenient that Castle Oblivion was transformed into a circular
area for this final battle.
This is Data-Roxas, the final boss of the game – and it shows. He’s HARD. (Yet, despite being a Data version of Sora’s Nobody, he still uses light-based attacks? Huh. But don't be mistaken, he's still very difficult.) Thankfully, like most bosses, it will be a lot easier if you keep your distances, dodge and roll away from his more dangerous attacks, and use Action Commands that shoot towards the enemy from a distance. Eventually, all of Data-Roxas’s life bars are depleted. And thus we get to see the ending. Instead of suffering, Data-Sora decides to keep the pain inside himself. As a result, Data-Roxas gives Data-Sora the World Card of Castle Oblivion and then fuses into Data-Sora. That’s when Mickey shows up.

They go together through the door, using the last World Card… and meet a blonde-haired young girl on the other side.

And I probably never will.
Let me present you Naminé. A most enigmatic character, with a joyful personality and an incredibly complex backstory. I said it at the beginning of the review, I repeat it now, re:coded is the only Kingdom Hearts game I have ever played. As a result, the sudden appearance of this girl in the ending – when her only appearance in the game previously was during the very intro – puzzled me for the longest time. I had to read her page on the official Kingdom Hearts Wiki. …It didn’t help much. Go read it if you want. Maybe you’ll understand. All you need to know is that Naminé is very closely connected to Sora’s heart and memories, and thus she is a key player in anything that involves either of those aspects of Sora. Same for this Data-Naminé, who appeared because she needed to relay an important message to everyone, hence why she added the odd line in the journal: “Their hurting will be mended when you return to end it.”

Adjust the blur on the damned camera! ...Oh. It's voluntary. My bad.
Her contribution caused the glitches you spent the whole game battling. She lets Data-Sora have a very important look into his own heart, which lets him see the source of the painful memories he had: Namely, characters Data-Sora never encountered, but who exist in the world outside the journal and whose fate had been left ambiguous by the time Re:coded came out. Namely, Axel, Roxas, Xion, Terra, Aqua, Ventus, as well as the real Naminé herself, Considering the popularity of this series, you may have heard some of those names, you may know some of those characters. They’re hurting… and yes, their hurting will be mended when the real Sora returns to them to mend it. There you go. Took me a while to understand this, again because to me, Data-Naminé came out of nowhere and her explanation didn’t make sense. Hm, maybe that’s what the guy meant when he said Re:coded was a bad idea for my first Kingdom Hearts game…

Shhh, I'm looking for the X on this treasure map!
What do you mean, it's not a treasure map??
Data-Naminé asks Mickey to deliver that message to the real Sora, then Data-Sora thanks her and she vanishes. Later, we see Mickey writing a letter to Sora, Riku and Kairi, and sending it to them in a bottle. Apparently this was a reference to the ending of a previous entry (Kingdom Hearts 2, to be precise), sending them on their next quest, with the goal being to save the bunch of characters previously mentioned from their suffering. The real Sora receives the letter and the game ends, thus setting up the events of the next games, Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance and, of course, Kingdom Hearts 3, which is eagerly awaited by many.

This can be considered a filler arc in the franchise, although outside of its sequel hook ending it does raise a number of interesting questions. What’s the value of a being created artificially? Data-Sora gains his own value through the game, eventually losing the preprogrammed Keyblade and earning an actual, honest-to-God Keyblade from the heart he grew through his interactions with Donald, Goofy and Mickey. This game basically says that anyone who doesn’t start off with a “heart” in this series CAN grow one, given the time and effort. A much interesting info, considering the villains are called Heartless and the members of the main group of villains, Organization XIII, is a whole bunch of Nobodies (like Data-Roxas) who aren’t supposed to have hearts… therefore, such a revelation is actually a pretty big deal. I won’t get to see what happens afterwards in the series, but I hope it makes good use of this revelation.

The wizard from Sorcerer's Apprentice still looks
menacing... but that hat still looks better on Mickey.
A secret, unlockable ending (found when you collect 20 Trophies) reveals that a certain Xehanort may well still be out there, ready to carry through with a particularly terrifying plan… Since this is a franchise with Disney characters, I doubt this plan will be as scary as it is built up to be, but hey, we never know… Kingdom Hearts delves into some pretty dark stuff on a regular basis.

Alright, that was the plot. Now that the story has been covered, explained, scrutinized in utmost detail – screw me and my ambitions of always writing lengthy descriptions – what else is there to do in this game?
Completing challenges? Sure!
-You can revisit each world, where the pre-programmed enemies may get a little stronger; you can also replay through the episode as you please. Extremely useful if you’ve forgotten something for any reason. When the Story Mode is beaten, you get a new ability to spot more bugged System Sectors, most of them suggesting a minimal level when Sora is about to enter them. These bonus Sectors, whose recommended Level range from 20 to 80 (!!!), are usually many floors long, and the higher the required level, the harder the objectives are on each floor. By the endgame, these Sectors are one of your last chances to get chips to add to the Stat Matrix; they’re also a great way to gain levels. The hidden Sectors that recommend that Data-Sora is Level 60 or more also have incredible rewards if you bet 50% of all your current SP on each floor and complete every challenge successfully. Those range from mission quest items to new Keyblades! The hardest one, which recommends that Sora enters at Level 80, has a boss fight against the cube snake, one floors requires Sora to defeat the Eliminator, and the final floor contains an even more powerful version of Data-Roxas, with eight life bars. Good luck against that one, you'll need it!
-When you revisit a world (not replaying through its story, mind you), one character in it will have multiple requests for Data-Sora, asking him to retrieve something they lost. Selphie, Cid, Alice, Philoctetes and Aladdin are the characters with requests, three requests each. The items they ask for are usually the most SP-expensive item in the System Sectors (through Story Mode or in postgame), which means you need to ace that System Sector in order to buy the item with SP and bring it back to the person who requested it. A nice reward awaits Data-Sora when he does. Mostly new, very powerful Action Commands and Finishing Moves.
Beating the Ice Titan?
No problem!
-The Olympic Coliseum is open again. This time, when you replay through this world’s Story Mode, you can choose to go through only 5 floors again, but you can also choose to go through 15 floors. When you do get through fifteen floors (and defeat the Rock Titan awaiting on the 15th), you can choose to go through it again, this time going all the way to 30 floors. On the 25th floor, Data-Sora, Hercules and Cloud will fight a Behemoth, and on the 30th they fight the Ice Titan. There’s also a Keyblade hidden in a prize block in one of the late floors…
-Bringing all the Keyblades to their final level and finding all the accessories through the game is also a neat challenge.
The Eliminator?
-An option in the Start menu, named Debug Report, contains info on all the elements of the game. There, you can see all the items you can find in the game – and which ones you’ve found. A second section reports on the eight worlds, detailing what happened in each. Another section gives a small bio to every enemy type in the game, provided you fight – and defeat – them at least once first. That includes the Eliminator, hands-down the toughest enemy in the game, which can randomly appear in a System Sector floor once you’ve cleared the bugs. That thing is a goddamn Terminator, good luck defeating it. Theres also a bio for all the characters met on Data-Sora’s journey. The last section is a list of Trophies Data-Sora can earn by completing certain challenges. There’s 30 of those, and getting 20 unlocks the secret ending. Each Trophy can be pretty difficult to get, as many of them require to be close to finishing 100% of the game. Of those trophies, 8 involve speedrunning through all the worlds, others are plot-related (like defeating Data-Roxas), others require bringing an Action Command to Level 100, bringing all the Keyblades to maximum level, beating the bonus bosses… good luck with all that.
-Last but not least, there was a multiplayer mode called Avatar Sector, a special System Sector with 100 Floors that you could unlock by playing online through the wireless Wi-Fi connection, but since the connection was terminated in 2014 – and it’s almost impossible to get new floors for the Avatar Sector without it or anything similar – then this mode is almost useless. Originally, the idea of this mode was to unlock numerous avatars and costumes to use during multiplayer play.

I guess that’s all there is to this game. I don’t think I’m forgetting anything… So, what’s my final verdict on Kingdom Hearts re:coded?

I like it!

I nwas floating in a void when I landed on a giant
circular platform representing Snow White and
the Seven Dwarves. Make sense of that!
Before I go over the many elements of the game itself, I feel it’s important to go back on the plot and judge on whether or not this was a good way to start playing KH. Here’s my verdict: By itself, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded is distanced enough from the main overarching plot to be enjoyed as one’s first foray into the franchise. Of course, it would be better to start off at the beginning and get KH1, KH2, and anything between the two… but by itself, the plot of Re:coded is not tied enough to the other entries to be a problem. Only a few elements and characters, such as the Sora Heartless, Data-Roxas or Naminé, will be puzzling to a first-time player; anything else in the surrounding mythology of the series is explained well enough that one can still understand the concepts that drive the plot. Said plot, while I’m talking about it, may seem at first like just an excuse to have this adventure with the particular mechanics that are added to it, but the return to the multiple Disney worlds, and how they're adapted to the new mechanics, is interesting. What’s more, the plot takes enough turns despite its apparent simplicity to keep the player invested. The story only starts getting really interesting when the journal reveals himself to be the hooded figure, Data-Riku. There are some things I don’t get, some things aren’t explained too well (like how did Pete hack himself plenty of powers when the others who got into the journal didn't get powers?), but in the end it’s not so bad.

Sure, it may be underwhelming compared to the other entries in the franchise, but it’s still more interesting than a lot of stories we see in other games… Instead of keeping it to a basic excuse plot, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded furthers the mythos. That’s more than we could say of other games out there…

The frequent changes in gameplay, from a world to the other, and the multiple mechanics one needs to master to enjoy this game to its fullest extent, don’t make this a game very simple to learn. The short explanation you get in the Menu is insufficient and you pretty much need to learn, through trial and error, to use all the features. In fact, you’ll spend quite a bit of time adding chips to the Stat Matrix, leveling up Action Commands, and picking new Keyblades and paths of abilities to use. In a way, all of these features are meant to let Data-Sora adapt to any situation. This comes in handy to complete the challenges on the floors of most System Sectors. Need a Data-Sora versed in Fire-type magic? Equip Fire-based Action Commands, and there’s also a Keyblade to help for that. Need to send enemies flying? There’s a Keyblade for that. Need to hit back after you block? There’s a Keyblade for that. Need to earn more money when you defeat enemies? There’s. A. Keyblade. For. That. Darned Keyblades, they’re just like apps!

Stupid yellow cubes.
The battle system works well, although Data-Sora automatically targets the enemies when they’re nearby, which can be a problem when the Keyblade wielder is attacked from behind by an opponent while his attention is diverted to a different enemy. It takes a moment getting used to, but otherwise it’s alright. The most awesome aspect of this game is how the Stat Matrix allows you to play around with the difficulty in so many ways, by decreasing Sora’s HP or making the enemies stronger. You can set this game just the way you want it, whether you’d like it to be a walk in the park or a dangerous trip where a single mistake leads to death.

One of the things that annoy me about this game is the “Virus” mechanic in the System Sectors. Sometimes, completely at random, a floor on a System Sector may gain a virus that forces you to bet 100% of all the SP you collected thus far. No skipping it. If you lose that challenge, you lose all the SP you collected thus far. Sure, you get a GIGANTIC reward if you succeed, but if you don’t? You’ll never go back to the amount you had. In fact, when you enter a System Sector with challenges on each floor, you already have to bet at least 10% of the amount you collected thus far. What’s more, the virus makes all the glitch enemies even stronger than they were, and spawns more of them.

Freaking Eliminators, if only I could eliminate you all!
Another factor left to luck in the System Sectors is the appearance of Eliminators, those insanely powerful enemies. In all my playing time, I tried to kill many, I only ever managed to kill two or three. These monsters are tougher than most bosses, and if that’s not enough, they also grow along with Data-Sora, gaining attack and defense as well as Hit Points when the main character goes up a level. As if that was  not enough, they can teleport so Sora can never escape them - except by going to another room on that floor - and one of their main attacks is to release balls of light that cause a random status effect on Sora. Eliminators are probably harder than the final boss himself, so much so that there’s a Trophy for killing an Eliminator. Seriously. And those things can pop up at random at any moment while you’re moving towards the exit of a System Sector floor cleared of bugs.

Another slight issue I have with the Story Mode is that the large presence of cutscenes, most of which consist of characters talking with limited animation, means you’ll spend a lot of time mashing the A button to get past what they’re saying – and that’s even worse if you get into a discussion with a section where you have to choose between multiple options. Sure, once you’ve seen all the cutscenes you can skip them by pressing Start, but that’s still a lot of cutscenes to skip, especially when you’re re-playing through a world’s story. At one point, you get so quick that you spend more time skipping cutscenes than actually playing.

Next issue I have is the often random change of gameplay; going through a 2D section in Traverse Town, a shoot’em-up in Wonderland, it’s all fine and good, but those parts are a little too long in my opinion; two entire levels in Traverse Town (when one could have been enough), almost ten minutes of shoot’em-up in Wonderland – with the boss and its gigantic amount of HP, which is a pain to deplete when you first encounter it.

This game has pretty good graphics for a Nintendo DS game, and the actual, animated cutscenes are as beautiful as the ones in Kingdom Hearts games on home consoles. It also has some excellent musical pieces.

Now, I’ll be completely honest and say that, despite my praise of it, the story is probably the weaker aspect of this game. It doesn’t hold a candle to the gameplay, that’s for sure. Yeah, it takes a while getting used to this fully-customizable Sora and the Stat Matrix, the Actions Matrix and the Equipment, but ultimately it leads to what’s probably one of the best examples of gameplay in the entire franchise. Add to this an incredible replayability, what with all the bonus dungeons (unlockable System Sectors) and all the side-quests you can play through, and you get a game you’ll be going back to.

"Goodbye, round-ears."
"Goodbye, weird-hair."
In the end, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded might be a disappointing entry in the franchise if you’re a long-time fan and expect a deeper plot instead of a semi-rehash of the first Kingdom Hearts with new plot elements, but for whoever decides to start playing and doesn’t have much time to figure out all the plot twists the franchise had previously, it’s an okay first KH game. There is another Kingdom Hearts game on the Nintendo DS, titled 358/2 Days, but its plot is tightly tied to the main storyline: In it, we follow Sora’s Heartless Roxas through his missions with Organization XIII. Look for it if you know enough about the series. There’s also the 3DS installment, Dream Drop Distance, which looks very promising. Maybe in the future I’ll find and buy either of those two games. We never know. But my first experience with the Kingdom Hearts was pretty good. If you have a Nintendo DS or 3DS, try it. You might enjoy it.

I’m still in an action RPG mood, so I might look for an action RPG I own on the Wii… Oh, there it is! Damn, this is a long name… Come back next Friday for the next review: Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen And The Tower Of Mirrors! ...I'll probably shorten that title.