I promise this is the last thing I’ll write about Kingdom Hearts for a while. After seeing all the great things the series does with Kingdom Hearts II and Birth by Sleep, it was only a matter of time before one of the games stumbled. Enter Kingdom Hearts Re:coded. It was a weak game when it first released on the DS, and its arrival on the PS3 hasn’t done it much better. Sure, the gameplay is no longer a problem, seeing how this version is just cinematics telling an abridged version of the story. However, the story itself has problems of its own. It lacks thematic development and can’t find any real, uncontrived tension. All it can really do is fill space.
Yet the story tries to do more, and fails each time it does. Consider Re:coded thematically, for example. While the game starts off with promising themes, not once does the story reflect them. Following the events of Kingdom Hearts II, Jiminy and Mickey set out to reconstruct the journal Jiminy kept during Kingdom Hearts 1. Seeing that it’s corrupted, they create a data version of Sora to go through the journal, chapter by chapter, and return everything to normal. Following that premise, and the game’s title “Re:coded”, you’d expect a kind of Kingdom Hearts bricolage; that the story would rearrange a well known narrative to create new meaning. It’s an encouraging formula that Re:coded utterly fails to capitalize on. Instead, we see the original story recreated almost perfectly. Nothing appears corrupted, and nobody has a problem with this. Our hero just goes through the motions, hardly investigating any of his situations. He exists only as an engine to drive the plot forward. No wonder, then, that the story feels so lifeless.
Or consider the idea of healing. Throughout the story runs a message about healing some forgotten pain. I mean that quite literally: in addition to fixing the journal, Mickey and friends have to solve a recurring message in the journal about mending an unknown pain. It’s a strange message to make, seeing how the story presents nothing for Sora to heal. The world’s don’t need any healing, as the corruption doesn’t harm them. At worst, it prevents them from going about their daily business. Most of the time, though, corruption is a nuisance that makes the world a little uglier with red and black blocks. And it’s not like the characters are aching that much more. Most of their problems are very minor and resolved as soon as they’re brought up. Alice loses some of her memories and…that’s about it. Or Donald Duck’s nephews go missing in a small, easy to search town. These conflicts are hardly enough that the player would feel the need to care about them. Not that the game’s larger conflicts solve that problem. They’re either too cryptic to understand or lack any real grounding.
I should stress that the game doesn’t have to be this great thematic treatise. I can see that the game’s aiming more toward action and intrigue, both of which are respectable goals. Yet that doesn’t absolve Re:coded of all responsibility. While the game no longer need worry about thematic consistency, it still has to present a story that excites the person watching it. Unfortunately, Re:coded fails by this standard, too. Now there are several reasons for why that is. The absence of a coherent narrative structure is partially to blame. The narrative spends three hours hopping from story arc to story arc until it decides it’s had enough. I don’t think the layers of complexity help much, either.
Yet if I had to point to any one source, I’d hold the lack of tension responsible. There are hints of it in the game’s lack for thematic grounding, but the issue becomes more pronounced when we examine the initial premise. The heroes’ efforts to restore Jiminy’s journal amount to an idle curiosity, at best. There’s nothing on the line. If they fail to set things right, then all they’ve lost is a written record of something most of the characters could easily remember, anyway.
But for the sake of argument, let’s suspend our disbelief and assume that restoring the journal really is important to the characters. Even along these lines, I see nothing they have to worry about. What happens if their Sora program becomes corrupted or dies? Mickey and friends can create another Sora and proceed as normal. (In fact, that’s exactly what they do in the third act.) Or what if the journal becomes too corrupted to repair? Assuming the journal functions like a computer, as the story would lead us to believe, then there’s nothing to stop the protagonists from rebooting to an earlier version and trying again. With nothing on the line should our heroes fail, we have no reason to care what happens on their quest.
Sadly, the other conflicts in the story prove to be more strained than this one. For example, around the end of the first act, Re:coded introduces two villains who aim to conquer the journal. They stand to gain nothing from doing so, and there’s nothing stopping them from conquering Mickey’s Castle while he’s busy repairing the journal. They’d stand to gain more by doing so. In fact, I get the feeling that the story slowly forgets the “digital” angle, and starts treating its events as if they’re actually happening in the world. However, because we still know that the world is entirely digital, the story’s higher moments feel contrived.
I can think of no better example of this in action than Sora. Despite Sora being a simulation of the real one, the narrative treats Sora’s character development not as some tool to better understand the journal, but as actual, honest to god character development. So when he’s presented as a real person who has formed a strong emotional bond with his friends, there’s no reason to take the story seriously. How are these events significant? This is what Sora was programmed to do. He’s a simulation of Sora, meaning he reacts as Sora would in these situations. So why am I supposed to feel anything when this Sora does exactly what he’s supposed to do? How could he have made some Pinocchio-esque ascension to real being when what he does only reaffirms the system? I won’t even discuss how Riku factors into all this.
If I had to praise Re:coded for anything, it would be how it summarizes gameplay. I’m not being facetious when I say this: this non-interactive version of Re:coded does a great job of capturing what the gameplay feels like. I can’t help but compare it to 358/2 Days and its failures in the previous compilation. There, 358/2 Days briskly summarizes major chunks of gameplay, botching the pacing and leaving the story feeling incomplete. Fortunately, Re:coded doesn’t suffer that problem…as much. I’ll admit, it still indulges in brief synopses, but thankfully, it uses them far more sparingly. More often, the story will imply gameplay elements directly in the cinematics. You see Sora fight his opponent and realize the strategies he has to use, just as he would have if you were playing the game. While this strategy can never match the exact feeling of playing the game, it’s a faithful recreation nonetheless. In any case, Re:coded avoids the problems that 358/2 Days encountered.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore the myriad other problems that plague Re:coded. After all, being able to communicate a story well doesn’t fix the story not being worth telling. We can’t appreciate the story for its action, because the premise provides weak grounding for that action. Nor can we appreciate the game thematically. While the premise is more workable along these lines, the story never realizes that. It’s the video game equivalent of a clip show: a cheap story with a flimsy premise that does little to advance an overarching plot.