Eleven days into 2011, we get a new Kingdom Hearts that is unusual even by that series' standards.
On January 11 in North America, Square-Enix will release Kingdom Hearts Re:Coded, a sequel to Kingdom Hearts II that involves fighting through a digital "datascape" of the diary Jiminy Cricket kept during the first Kingdom Hearts.
This Kingdom Hearts, like the console games, features Disney and Kingdom Hearts characters. Players control a "second Sora" who explores the recreations of Jiminy's memory logs. One brief gameplay sequence I watched involved Sora trying to track down Louie, that duck brother of Huey and Dewey.
Combat is real-time, using a similar ability-switching dial of options as other Kingdom Hearts games. Sora fights enemies in what looks like a conventional manner, essentially as another DS-scaled version of the series' combat. But there are design twists. Sora has to seek "debug sectors," which are essentially tears in the datascape that bring him into randomized dungeons that look more like something out of Tron. The "Heartless" enemies are tougher here.
The game's battle system also supports a tree of passive abilities. The longer the battle and the more successfully it is fought, the more likely the abilities at the tree's far ends will be activated. The ability activation cools down after combat.
The game's character-leveling system involves a complex circuit board called the stat matrix. As the player accrues experience points he or she can spend them by wiring circuits or plugging chips into that matrix. Connecting paths of the board activates new abilities for this second Sora.
Re:Coded is a remake of a 2008 cell phone game released in Japan. The more primitive origins may explain why cut-scenes involve more static portraits and word balloons than is typical for a Kingdom Hearts game. The game nevertheless appears to be a legitimate portion of the Kingdom Hearts fiction. Plus, it hides surprises. A Square-Enix representative who played through part of the game in front of me recently said that there are many alternate gameplay modes to discover, including rail-shooting sequences and traditional Final Fantasy-style turn-based battles.
Re:Coded is an unusual cocktail and an interesting one. We will hopefully have more coverage on it as the game gets closer to its early 2011 launch.