Square Enix's excellent Kingdom Hearts series has finally fallen into the pit of diminishing returns. The latest entry for Nintendo's DS, the clunkily titled Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, feels like it should have been called Kingdom Hearts Re:heated.
The action's set right after Kingdom Hearts 2, but this is no sequel. Jiminy Cricket has discovered that the journal he kept of the events from Kingdom Hearts 2 has been wiped out and replaced by a cryptic (and cheesy) call for help. So King Mickey tabs Sora -- or rather, a version of Sora who happens to still be trapped in the data matrix -- to find the culprits and "debug" the story.
And then the recycling begins in earnest: Return visits to the same environments, battles with the same types of enemies and encounters with the same Disney characters we've seen in the other six Kingdom Hearts games. Let's just say that familiarity has effectively erased the magic.
Re:coded's attempt to spice the cloying mix comes in the form of arena-style "debug rooms." These are Matrix-like rips in the fabric of the Disney environments where Sora has to enter and battle blocky enemies in order to restore a key piece (a bridge, a door, etc.) in reality. In theory, it's a great idea, but the controls make it maddening. Battling the game's cramped camera and floaty jump mechanics while trying to stick a landing on a ghost block that's going to vanish any second -- is worse than being stuck in a three-hour line at Space Mountain.
There are good, even great ideas among the rehashed content. The game's customized level-up system, which finds you collecting microchips with stat bonuses and plugging them into your own personalized circuit board, is clever and effective. The avatar system, meanwhile, nicely distills one of the best features of Square Enix's consumer website.
Last fall's awesome Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep proved that there's still plenty of magic left. Square Enix just has to figure out how to recapture it. The next game in the series is supposedly slated for Nintendo's forthcoming 3DS, since the original Kingdom Hearts development team is still tied up working on the sequel to Final Fantasy XIII.
I never thought I'd say this, but it's going to take a lot more than 3D effects to make this kingdom worth revisiting.