Saturday, 6 August 2011

Summer Backlog: Kingdom Hearts Re:coded

Sharing a similarity with films, video games that get enough sales in their initial release periods are almost guaranteed to see a sequel. Mainline developers that produce only standalone titles are few and far between. This can be attributed to fan recognition - why make a new platformer mascot or sports game when a Mario sequel or FIFA will bring home the big bucks? When you have those kind of assured sales figures, you can get away with making games that aren't designed for the newcomers. Die-hard fans make for the easiest sales pitches, and no series uses this notion more than the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
Starting out as a strange but relatively innocent action RPG on the PS2, Kingdom Hearts was an unexpected crossover of Final Fantasy and Disney - and even for gamers who aren't particularly fans of either franchise (I know for sure that I keep the amount of Little Mermaid in my life to a minimum), it became a hit due to it's then-uncommon gameplay and well-told story. But the director of the series, Tetsuya Nomura, wanted to make his story more ambitious. Sequels were put into production, and although the games were backed by waves of fan popularity, the stories became an increasingly convoluted mess. Nothing made sense unless you had played the previous games, and even then you might have trouble.

You would think that the games covering side-plots would be easy enough to understand on their own - but not here. At a glance, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded (Called such because it's a remake of a series of mobile phone games – Kingdom Hearts coded. Yes, the name is silly, but they've been sillier) is a DS game that even newcomers to the series can get behind. It's a retelling of the initial Kingdom Hearts, but with an interesting twist - it's only a 'virtual' version of the initial game's locations; and like any computer, the thing's ridden with bugs and glitches.

Having played a fair number of Kingdom Hearts games, though not in the right order (which made things confusing down the line), I found the premise rather charming. It's not often that a series will willingly parody its own plot, and knowing the story well enough so the intentional subversions and differences stand out. As far as game play is concerned, it means the landscape is ridden with 'blox', scattered across the landscape. Somewhere in all the mess is a source of all the glitches, a Backdoor that leads to a series of challenge stages. Defeat 30 enemies. Complete the stage within 2 minutes. Don't use any healing abilities. Finish these arbitrary requests, and you'll fix whatever errors that were barring your progress.

My run through of this game was rather straightforward. Like Call of Duty or Street Fighter, if you've played one instalment of the series the others become a lot easier to adjust to. The game goes to great lengths to ensure it's possible for anyone to finish - the difficulty can be changed at any time; 'Cheats' to mess with enemy health or how much experience you get from fights; and a helpful hint for what to do every time you die against a boss. But what got to me were the frequent changes in genre...

Like a lot of a recent games, it's not enough for Re:coded to stay the Action RPG it advertises itself as on the box. Every so often the game will set aside the rules that you've learned and turn the game into a 2D platformer. Or a Scrolling Shooter. Or in one instance; removal of the ability to defend yourself entirely, and the inclusion of (incredibly dense) AI partners to fight for you instead. These points were novel to start with, but more often than not I found them to entirely mar my gaming experience. It's a reasonable experiment to see if a game engine can handle multiple styles of play, but I can't be alone in thinking that a game that only does a single genre, but executes it in the best possible way is far more preferable. Re:coded has a great pedigree, with the controls refined from the 5 previous outings; but around half the game ignores it or heavily simplifies.

If you've already played a Kingdom Hearts game, you already know whether you want this title for your collection; but for those who've not heard of it, or glossed it over due to the Disney content, I do recommend giving the series a try - but don't start with Re:coded; it's a fan-bait game on all accounts. The original PS2 game is very abundant and can be picked up on the cheap, so have a little gaming history lesson and experience a game that had a hand in shaping the modern Action RPG.

 This article can also be found at The Yorker.

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