The Final Fantasy/Disney crossover Kingdom Hearts should have been simple. Some familiar cartoon icons over here, some spiky-haired androgynes over there, have them cast fire spells at Jafar. This being a Square-Enix game, some melodrama would be appropriate, and then you’re good to go. No one could have predicted that this series would become Square’s most convoluted, sentimental, and downright ridiculous serial tale. The latest game, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, is the eighth KH title in eight years. It’s the second remake of a re-telling of the events of the first game, and a sequel to the series’ only proper numerical sequel. The entire game takes place in a Matrix-ified version of Jiminy Cricket’s journal chronicling the adventures of Sora in Kingdom Hearts, but the digital world has been corrupted, so Mickey Mouse needs to direct the digital Sora in fixing the world to determine the meaning of a mysterious entry in the journal. For series veterans, it reveals the contents of a letter Mickey sent Sora at the end of Kingdom Hearts II. Seriously.
The premise alone is enough to make the game’s quality shocking, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg: Re:coded’s inspiration, Coded, was a Japanese cell-phone game. And the game is for the DS, a platform whose low horsepower rendered the prequel, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, an ugly, unplayable mess. Make no mistake, Re:coded is excellent, a perfectly paced action game that borrows its character-building mechanics from disparate sources in the Square-Enix canon. Rather than just have Sora’s statistics (health, strength, etc.) grow steadily as he fights the Heartless and familiar Disney antagonists, the game has players fill a colorful circuit board with stat tiles found during play. Each tile represents an a character attribute—life, elemental resistance—and filling in the grid lets you unlock new abilities, like a higher jump or access to more battle commands. It recalls the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X, though it provides slightly less choice. Even better: You can eventually unlock a number of difficulty sliders on the grid, recalling The World Ends With You; one lets you lower the character experience earned in battle in favor or more points for leveling spells, another changes the number of rare-item drops, and so on. The character building is satisfying without being overly complex, and it brings pleasant depth to a linear adventure.
Unlike in other Kingdom Hearts games, there’s no choice as to what Disney world you take on next in Re:coded. You proceed from stage to stage, beating bosses and talking to familiar characters. Re:coded has some nice variety, though. The majority of your time is spent hitting monsters with a giant key and jumping on floating boxes and ledges, but Re:coded throws some curveballs with a few 2-D platforming levels and a couple of Space Harrier-style shooting stages, and the Hercules-inspired Olympus is actually rendered as an old-style turn-based role-playing game. Rather than a mishmash of disparate elements and recycled plot, the game ends up feeling lean, a refreshing sub-chapter in a series that has become bloated in recent outings. As overwrought as the tale that frames these satisfying structures is—Mickey Mouse and the gang wax philosophical on the triumph of light over dark in men’s hearts, as well as the mercurial nature of memory—it’s also rewarding for series vets. The dense, self-serious plot will mystify new players, but they’d be hard-pressed to say they didn’t have a good time while getting lost.