Kingdom Hearts coded – Remember the Digital Age?

We join this new, digital Sora, known as “Data-Sora” later the game, as he descends to a digital Dive to the Heart. Just like in KH1, Data-Sora is offered a Dream Sword, Shield and Rod, and then asked to choose another item to surrender. Wait, hold on a second, I have to adjust the camera controls and… holy shit I can access the config menu from the start of the game! I don’t have to bake this game’s bones into my bread! It’s a Christmas mira– wait. [checks calendar] Fuck, this is going up in late July? Uhh… it’s an… August Civic Holiday… miracle!

We take control of Data-Sora at this point, and the basic tutorials begin. The film will be sitting on its butt for a while, but that’s normal. While we’re on the subject of cameras, let’s talk about them here. The remake uses the same camera as in Days, but that means they’re still tied up with other parts of the gameplay, so we’ll have to put that off until we have a wider context. Still, it’s mostly familiar. But how about that cell phone original?

The original coded uses 3D rendered rooms with 2D sprites that are, in turn, renders of 3D models (ala Donkey Kong Country). It’s an interesting look, not unlike a new take on those PSX RPGs that used flat 2D sprites in a 3D world. When it’s standing still, everything looks great! But the moment characters start moving, even in an idle loop, everything gets shot to shit. Which is why so few characters even have an idle loop! I… think I have to respect them cutting those! Sora looks the best, since he has the most frames of animation, but everyone else… ugh. It might have worked if they had followed those PSX games by using sprites instead of renders?

The 3D rooms in the original coded are presented like dioramas, or even a stage: the camera follows Sora laterally, looking down at a relatively low angle and at a fixed rotation, and does its best to leave Sora at the centre of the screen. This means that the camera can never, say, “turn around” to look towards objects beyond the bottom of the screen. The only way to see anything in that direction is to move that way, which might be dangerous in combat, given the short but fixed distance between Data-Sora and the bottom edge of the screen. The camera also doesn’t rotate to the left or right, even if you’re, say, entering a hallway with limited visibility in the usual perspective. A few sequences in the remake outright borrow the cell phone camera angles, but you’ll probably get a better idea of what I’m talking about by checking out the cell phone screenshots, or better yet, HATOSUKE’s video (again, here is the link to KH13). I’ll admit my screenshots don’t do it justice: I promise this looks better in motion, and probably looked even better on an actual screen. Frankly, it’s remarkable HATOSUKE worked out any way to capture this at all!

All in all, this unique camera setup is not without its faults, but it seems like it worked better than you might expect (obviously I haven’t controlled it myself, but I can extrapolate from the video and press reports). It helps that the developers accounted for their camera’s limitation in the level design. Consider our current situation. In KH1 and also in Re:coded, the plinths with the three Dream items appear at the edge of the Station of Awakening, each 90 degrees apart, with a 180 degree gap between the Shield and the Rod. In the original coded however (above), the three plinths are set something like 30 degrees apart, so that Sora can see them all from his starting position at the centre of the Station of Awakening. We’ll see even better examples once we start to hit actual obstacles!

Nanani says that the Dream weapons “influence your stats and growth” but they don’t got into specifics, so we’re going to have to skip that part of the discussion and move on to the remake. In Re:coded, these choices do not affect Data-Sora’s level-up development, no matter what some sources might say. That would be impossible, considering you have a very fine degree of control over Data-Sora’s development. Instead, let’s establish that Re:coded is a Command Deck game, built on BBS’ framework. Now that you know that, I can tell you that the three Dream items determine Data-Sora’s starting Commands. Nothing more significant than that! Taking a weapon gives you one thing, and giving up a weapon gives you another, and the only way they interrelate is that taking a weapon obviously prevents you from giving it up in the second round.

Since the information isn’t readily available on the internet, I’ll even give you the full list:

  • If you take the Sword, you get Quick Blitz. If you take the Shield, you get Round Blitz. If you take the Rod, you get Fire.
  • If you give up the Sword, you get Cure. If you give up the Shield, you get Sliding Dash. If you give up the Rod, you get Rising Strike.

I personally recommend that you “give up” the Sword to get Cure, and not just because I refuse to field an army without at least three priests and a master monk. Re:coded carries on the Kingdom Hearts tradition of not giving you Cure until somewhat later in the game, specifically during the second world. Giving up the Sword is your chance to break that pattern!

One thing I find interesting in this section from Nanani’s translated script for Docomo is that the flavour text for each weapon also includes a negative virtue. Were these in the Japanese KH1? (Ed. They were!) The shield is described as “cowardly,” the sword as a means to “hurt strangers,” and the staff as a way to “devastate [your] soul.” Yikes!

After you’ve made your choice, we finally get a really good look at the various ways coded likes to convey in-engine scripted sequences. They’re both hideous in their own unique ways! In the Docomo version, scripted sequences take place in the game world. As a result, everything I said about the animations looking like crap applies here, and I’ll repeat that NPCs have way less animation than Sora. For that matter, Sora has far fewer dramatic animations than combat, and even things that could be covered by combat (aka automatically) weren’t necessarily added to cutscenes (quite possibly manually), making them look worse. Take a look at Sora rotating during scripted sequences in the second video of the Let’s Play and see what I mean. Text is conveyed via text balloons with character portraits, as per CoM and Days.

While dummied content in Re:coded tells us that they considered bringing over the character portrait style from the Docomo game, this didn’t ultimately happen. Nor are scripted sequences shot in the game world! What we see instead is a separate mode, with a 2D screenshot of the area used as a background, and full-bodied screenshots stand in for each character, with speech balloons attached. These rendered talksprites are all very expressive, but gives the game the appearance that it’s being acted out by cardboard standees. The whole thing comes off like a strange puppet show, especially with the flat backdrop. It’s… stylistic, that’s for sure, and the rendered sprites get point for arguably being a reference to the mobile original. It’s also no doubt cheaper and easier to produce than hand-drawn portraits, leading to a lot more expressions per character. But damn, it’s just really unattractive to me! In short, neither game looks that great when it’s time for plot. The film wins this round, at least when it’s got a counterpart scene at all!

Where Chip announces that they’ve “rewritten” Data-Sora and he’ll be able to the Keyblade from the outset, instead of having to wait for Destiny Islands to be… you know… eaten. Just then, something goes wrong and the two of them have to leave the room to correct the problem… a problem with the machine in this room… and King Mickey fills in Donald and Goofy about the weird message that appeared in Jiminy’s journal. Since it’s important that Donald and Goofy know what’s going on, but also polite not to bore the player with repeated information, Mickey is interrupted and presumably fills them in after the fact. It’s not a bad way to handle things. It’s similar to Sora filling in Leon when they meet in KH2, but without Sora vaulting off-world the moment Leon turns his back.

The interruption comes from Jiminy, who just spotted something on the screen: a figure in an Organization cloak inside the dream. The figure refuses to speak to Data-Sora, but Mickey wants Sora to chase the stranger, so he somehow uses the device to speak to Data-Sora, and our cooperative hero does what he’s told. This seems even more appropriate when you remember that in KH1, Sora was following the orders of a mysterious voice at this stage in the game, a voice who was probably Mickey, but if you’re new to the series, Data-Sora probably just comes off as really cooperative! Unfortunately, while Data-Sora follows the figure from one Station of Awakening to another, Cloaky get away, and all Sora finds are Shadows.

Like I was saying earlier, Re:coded’s battle system is an extension of BBS’. But wait, you say! BBS uses the left stick for movement and the D-Pad to select commands: the DS doesn’t have a left stick! That’s right, you interrupting jerk! You might remember that I said that Re:coded would use the camera system that Days called “Type A,” which works like an N64 Zelda game in how holding R causes the camera to pivot behind you (this is no longer as slow as it was in Days, thank goodness), leaving the L-button open for cycling through Magic. In Re:coded, the idea is the same, except replace “magic” with the command deck. Expanding on Days’ controls, you can tap L to cycle through the deck in one direction, or hold L and tap either X or B (the top and bottom face buttons) to scroll in the direction of your choice. Hold L and tap A (the right face button) to jump to your pre-arranged shortcut, and as an new bonus, you can set the game to automatically use the shortcut command when you jump to it, supposing it’s not in cooldown (be careful, because if Data-Sora is flinching when you hit the shortcut, the command will not automatically trigger. You can hit X right afterwards, but it’s easy to forget if you were counting on it to work when you pressed the button!). One notable upgrade from BBS’ command deck system is that the game no longer forces your entire deck into cooldown when you swap in a new command via the main menu. Only the commands that were swapped are forced into cooldown.

The original Docomo coded lacks anything so fancy as a Command Deck. It might also help to describe how one actually handles the cell phone to control the game. A video by wayTTdawn shows them playing on a Docomo Prime P-01A. You hold the phone sideways, with a set of arrow keys on the left, and a traditional twelve-button, touch tone, telephone number pad (0-9, # and *) on the right. The P-01A also has several extra buttons, but I can’t be sure of their official names. The generic language Nanani uses in their translation to describe the keys suggests that keys were either re-assignable, or were different on different phones. Like KH1 and 2, the Docomo coded has a menu in the corner, and you can toggle through entries using one of the phone’s custom buttons (the one in the top-left on wayTTdawn’s phone). You’ll notice the menu is incredibly small: rather than display all entries at once, it only appears in full after you hit a button. I presume the entry in the corner is the currently-selected entry, but I actually can’t tell because HATOSUKE uses it so infrequently and the resolution is such crap! (There are also two even tinier blocks in the bottom-left, under the menu, but I’m not clear what they do. Can anyone who can read Japanese – like, enough to make out kana even when it’s blurry as shit – take a look at the videos and fill me in?) The 0 key uses the current menu entry, and progresses text and selects dialogue options. Jumping is accomplished with the * key, while double-tapping a direction or using the 9 key (called the “Escape Key” in Nanani’s translation), uses Dodge Roll. That’s all we see wayTTdawn use, but according to Nanani, there are also buttons for the submenu and a separate one for Guard. Assigning Dodge Roll to a button in a different column already sounds pretty wacky! If I were assigning these buttons, I’d probably have assigned the submenu another of the phone’s custom buttons, while Guard would be #. But what do I know?

Sora’s movement in the game is purely orthogonal, but he automatically locks on to the closest enemy and can attack at any angle, even moving directly to an enemy to follow up his combo (Nanani claims this this auto-lock is part of an Ability unlocked later in the game, but HATOSUKE seems to have it from the start of the game?). Sora will even automatically follow through to the next enemy when the first is defeated, so combat doesn’t seem to suffer as much as you might expect. In fact, it’s loosely similar to KH1’s handling of combat in Atlantica. To help the game along even more, you can hold the 0 key to do combos, rather than hammer away at the tiny cell phone buttons and risk screwing up your timing.

After clearing these tutorial battles in Re:coded, Sora will level up, and the game will direct you to the menu, where you learn about Re:coded’s highly unusual level-up system, the Stat Matrix. Supposedly, this system was intended to be a “simpler” version of Days’ grid system (that’s my fuzzy memory of an interview somewhere), and I suppose it ultimately is… but dang, were you really trying? If you were going for “simpler” and ended up with “nearly as complicated but for different reasons,” did you really succeed at all? Don’t get me wrong, I actually like Re:coded’s Stat Matrix, but…”simpler?” And it’s even worse to describe in text! With Days, all I had to say was “put the panels in the my grid, and good luck with their weird shapes.” Here, on the other hand…!

Okay, let’s start with the premise. Being a computer program, Data-Sora’s statistical build is powered by computer, uh… hardware. Don’t think too hard about that, it springs a leak after the first few thoughts. This is the Stat Matrix, and it looks like a bunch of circuit slots punched into a motherboard, and you’re going to provide the circuits, which fill the role of tiles from Days. Each chip provides stat improvements, elemental attack boosts and, in the latter half of the game, even Luck boosts and elemental resistance chips (I imagine they hold off on the resistance chips because they’re not as useful, certainly not at the start of the campaign). And yes, Level Ups also take the form of chips. Unlike Days, the matrix isn’t a grid filled with tetronimoes. Instead, chips are all 1×1 and must go into the prepared slots. These slots are arranged into lines which interconnect special larger elements on the circuit board. You can only place chips so long as they’re connected to CPUs that appear in the Stat Matrix, or to chips that are already connected, and so on in an extended chain. There is only one starting CPU, so the Matrix is a lot easier to understand at the outset, but that’s about the only concession to “simplicity!”

As you place chips, you unlock other devices that are soldered to the Stat Matrix. For example, once you place this Level Up chip in the only available slot, you’ll immediately unlock a device with a switch that turns out to unlock the Dodge Roll ability. You can also use this switch to turn the ability off, if you’d rather not have it (like, say with the Combo Plus abilities). There is no way to learn which ability these switches contain before you connect to them, meaning they’re something of a gamble, unless you’re willing to cheat with a walkthrough! Trickier still, once you place a chip anywhere on the matrix, that slot must remain full. You can swap chips out with other chips, but you can’t remove them entirely to build in a different direction, which might leave you in a tough spot when you’re waiting for new chips. To help you unlock content in the Stat Matrix, you’ll sometimes find Blank Chips that serve no other purpose but to build towards tempting features in the distance, or perhaps to play low-level challenges with abilities still on the table?

Another device is already active when you first arrive on the Stat Matrix. This is your first “Cheat.” Cheats are special devices that outright change the game’s internal numbers, usually in a fashion that increases the game’s difficulty in exchange for some reward. This first risk/reward “Cheat” is one you’re already familiar with: the difficulty selection, which you can change at any time! What’s the reward for cranking the difficulty? That’s simple: the difficulty determines the drop list that will be used by enemies, similar to Square Enix’s The World Ends With You (actually, the very idea of Cheats feels like an successor to many of TWEWY’s progression systems). If you want the best drops, you’ll want to set the game on Critical, but if you’re looking for a very specific item, you might need to dial the difficulty back temporarily… though if you’re doing that, you’re probably following a walkthrough. Sure, the Journal lists each enemy’s drops after you find them, but that’s no help! That means the Difficulty Cheat isn’t something the average player will touch more than once in the game, if ever.

That’s a fair introduction to the Stat Matrix. I would talk about the mobile version’s progression system, but weirdly enough, it’s not available until the end of World 2! It presumably wasn’t a part of the original build of the game, either because they ran out of time or to keep the game simple and a smaller for its “pre-install” episode, but why they locked it off until the end of the second episode instead of the start is a mystery to me!

The tutorial proceeds. After being introduced to save points and the fact that he can now ignore every lock in existence, Data-Sora is kicked out of the Dive to the Heart and finds himself standing at the door between beaches at Destiny Islands! Oh god dammit, Square, I’m trying to find a natural break to end this post, you can’t leave me on this fizzled-out crap!

Of course, we’re on the first stretch of beach, since I’m not entirely sure the developers even remember the second beach ever existed (you know, the beach where Sora and Riku raced to name the raft? Do you remember that happening? At this point, me neither). Mickey happens to speak to Data-Sora again, and Sora decides that while voices in his head might have made sense in a dream, they certainly don’t belong on the Islands, so he starts asking questions. He’s actually polite about it, and is frustrated for only a second before asking if he and the disembodied, high-pitched voice from the sky have met somewhere. Mickey introduces himself (in the film, he introduces himself as “Mickey Mouse,” which I believe is the first time we’ve heard the full, iconic name in the series?), and only manages to confuse Data-Sora further. Mickey tries to break the facts down by telling Data-Sora that he needs to solve a mystery but can’t be there in person to investigate, so could he please help?

By the way, on Docomo, Mickey’s text continues to appear “fading in” on the screen, as it did during the Dive to the Heart in both this game and KH1! This is a nice effect when it appears as part of the current scene, but in some instances he turns the screen black like the tutorials in KH1 only did from time to time, and that’s a lot more disruptive in my mind. On the DS – and remember, DS cutscenes are done in special “puppet show” sequences of their own – his text it appears from a speech balloon that points to the top of the screen, which is solid, it gets the idea across. In the film, Sora still looks up at the sky, clearly inspired by the DS. The film also gave Mickey some microphone distortion that makes him hard to make out, so thank goodness for the subtitles. I’ll take the speech boxes this time, thanks.

Sora and Mickey strike a loose arrangement, and Mickey asks if Sora sees something that might be a glitch in the system. Sora points out something that was already obvious to Docomo and film players, since they could already see the game world: Destiny Islands is infested with large black-and-red cubes, identical to the ones we saw when the virtualization machine first went haywire. The games will come to call these “Bug Blox,” and they’re representative of the glitches in the device/diary. While I’m okay with Bug Blox being a common sign of glitches, I’m disappointed that they’re often the only sign. I would have preferred, y’know, active tears in reality, or some of the stuff we’ll see in the next world, however briefly. Remember that one of my favourite sections of KH2 is Day 5 of the Prologue, the day Digital Twilight Town started to go haywire, which was incredibly creative and loads of fun, without getting anywhere near “tears in reality!” This could have easily been my favourite Kingdom Hearts game from premise alone, but they didn’t bother to take any inspiration from good old Day 5! For what it’s worth, the Bug Blox were chosen for two very specific gameplay purposes, so my stylistic complaints are strictly that. That said, one of the two reasons they were created was unique to the Docomo release, which makes the Blox feel less appropriate on the DS!

But that’s going to have to wait, because again, I need to break up this post somewhere. Come back next Sunday, when the gameplay really gets started, and we and Mickey traumatize this poor digital boy by blowing up his homeland, fully aware that it’s going to happen!

This Retrospective’s screenshots of the mobile phone version of coded come from HATOSUKE’s Let’s Play from DS and film screenshots were taken by me.

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