Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories review
Interesting, but somewhat unsatisfying
After their success with the first Kingdom Hearts game, Squaresoft and then eventually Square-Enix worked hard on a sequel, doing whatever they could to improve on the first game. But hold on, what's this second game doing on the Game Boy Advance? For reasons I cannot fathom, Square-Enix saw it fit to have another company – that being Jupiter – develop a game for the handheld that's one part direct sequel and one part spin off. In fact, until Kingdom Hearts 2 came out, we all assumed that it was a spin off game. It's a bit early to be doing spin off games, don't you think? However, it wasn't until plot elements from this game became a big thing in Kingdom Hearts 2 before we realized how relevant to the main plot this game really was. Oddly enough, the game itself could easily be construed as a mixed bag of jellybeans – it certainly has an interesting premise and equally interesting sounding battle system, but there's plenty of shit to wade through first.
Taking place during the very final scene of the first Kingdom Hearts game (no, not the secret scene), Sora, Donald and Goofy chase Pluto down a field, only for them to lose him. Eventually, a man in black leads them to Castle Oblivion where to lose is to find, and to find is to lose. It immediately becomes clear that the statement refers to their memories, implying that they'll lose the unimportant ones while finding the ones that were once repressed... well, it has more to do with Sora, but Donald and Goofy are adversely affected because of their closeness to Sora after all that they've gone through in their first adventure. Meanwhile, we're introduced to Organization XIII, who become far more prominent as the series continues – but for now, we have a handful of their members serving as the antagonists to Sora and company. Throughout the game, more is revealed not only about Sora's repressed memories, but also about the enemy's plan and what they hope to accomplish – somehow, I doubt merely luring Sora into their nest just so they can beat him to a pulp would be considered a great idea. The man in black would've disposed of him there and then if that was the case.
With that being said, Chain Of Memories has a bit more of a deliberate pace than the first game had. See, most of the plot development happens between each of the levels. The levels themselves simply consist of Sora, Donald and Goofy revisiting worlds they've gone through, reliving their memories of them. On paper, it's an awfully lazy way to go about it, but in execution, especially in tandem with the main theme of the game, it... makes sense. After all, it's about Sora wading through his memories to find the ones that really matter. In fact, not all of the levels consist of redoing entire worlds. There's one world that'll be featured later on in the series, Destiny Islands has quite the scene at the end that hints at a very big plot twist, and then there's the upper floors of Castle Oblivion. However, the majority of the story is played out in its hallowed hallways, and half of them – especially in the first half – simply consist of them repeating what they had said before. If I'm being perfectly honest, it's not until you complete Destiny Islands when the plot truly becomes its own beast. Before then, it's mildly interesting as it develops and kind of boring when it doesn't develop. I suppose it's all about the apex of plot mountain where the ascent is just a necessary step. That's quite a gamble there, Jupiter – what if you hadn't grabbed the player with the concept of finding what was once lost and vice versa? What if what was found and what was lost wasn't even remotely interesting, nor did it tease the player with a potentially excellent plot twist? You'd be right *bleep*ed, then! How lucky then that what could be construed as filler actually commands some interest, at least in spades anyway. Right after Sora's story comes to an end, Riku's begins, and immediately, you're bombarded with vastly superior pacing and a more interesting build up to what ultimately culminates into a brilliant climax. How his story wound up being better than Sora's is anybody's guess.
The production quality, regardless of whether you're playing this on the Game Boy Advance, Playstation 2 or the Playstation 3. While I am reviewing the Playstation 3 HD rerelease, I'll say this much about the Game Boy Advance original - it boasts a commanding soundtrack and top notch spritework, which is both expected for Kingdom Hearts and *bleep*ing amazing. Show me a better looking Game Boy Advance game and I'll film myself eating my own excrement. On the consoles, it boasts the same look as the original Kingdom Hearts. Whether this is a bad thing due to laziness or a great thing because the first game looked excellent is up to you; however, it cannot be denied that it looks fantastic. Although it isn't quite as imaginative as the first game, it still manages to retain the fusion of anime character and set design and Disney animation that helped to make the first game stand out. It's still as bright and colorful as can be, and its technical performance hardly skips a beat. Then again, given that Square-Enix themselves worked on the console remake, it's no surprise that it'd take advantage of the PS2's hardware. The HD rerelease on the PS3 is about what you'd expect – everything is clearer and sharper, and the card graphics and text during battles and scenes are especially crystal clear, but there are moments where, like many HD collections, it shows that it was originally a PS2 game with a coat of glossy HD. Even so, it's still better looking on a big screen television than a PS2 game could ever hope to be.
But one thing that'll remain lovely is the soundtrack. One thing I noticed is that the soundtrack is far from a typical Game Boy Advance one as it continues from where the first game left off – the songs are largely mood pieces that happen to be incredibly memorable. Part of it is that it has a shorter repertoire of songs at its disposal. Besides recycling the exploration and battle songs from the worlds of the first game, it contains two themes for Castle Oblivion, a couple of original level songs, a handful of mood songs and a few boss songs. Even so – and going on from how it differs from your average Game Boy Advance soundtrack – they're hardly short, repetitious filler; each song plays just the right notes in ways that give them their own feeling, like the boss songs feeling like climactic showdowns between Sora and whoever he happens to be fighting, or the moodier tracks that play during a shocking revelation to give it more feeling. It helped immensely in converting it to the type of soundtrack that'd be acceptable for the PS2. Due to this, it sounds sublime. With fuller production behind it, the songs stand out significantly more, further enhancing the mood they're portraying for the situation moreso than the MIDI tracks ever could, and since they themselves did a surprisingly marvelous job of it in the Game Boy Advance version... well, you figure it out from there.
Now, one point of contention most would have with Chain Of Memories is its combat system. Instead of simply being able to bash the enemy's brains in all willy nilly, you'll have to use cards. Every attack, combo, spell, item and even ally is bound to a card, or a set of cards in some cases. I have to admit, it took a bit of time to adjust, but after some time, it becomes easy enough to deal with. Basically, you use a card by pressing A. It helps them deal with the fact that the Game Boy Advance has significantly less buttons than the Playsation 2 controller meaning that it cannot have the menus that the first game had, though given that it allows some form of tactical warfare coupled with it becoming second nature at a reasonable time, it allows itself to work on the PS2 and PS3. By tactical warfare, I mean the way that you'll be able to construct your deck (at least when you play as Sora – Riku's given a fixed array of cards) and having to time some of your hits so you can effectively interrupt your enemy's attack. See, each card has a numerical value, and the one who plays the higher value is the one who gets to attack. Some quick reflexes are necessary as it's all done in real time. Not to mention that some of the combos you learn can only be pulled off by combining three cards whose total value equals a certain number.
But as you can imagine, I do still have some issues with this game. Collecting decent cards is definitely one of them. While it's neat and all to add some strategic gameplay, you're effectively collecting cards the same way you'd collect Yugioh or Magic The Gathering cards in real life – either through booster packs you buy with money or by simply finding them somewhere. Luck plays a major factor in this since you can potentially be given a lot of shitty cards, even if you pay top dollar for the best booster pack in any given level. This can be annoying when you're one to use combos since there are different Keyblades that can be played as single attacks. No, you cannot perform a combo if you happen to place an Oathbearer with two Kingdom Key cards in the sleight plane (press the two shoulder buttons together), regardless of value. Worse yet, the means of which to buy these cards is, in and of itself, luck based. See, when you defeat a set of enemies, you'll acquire a key card that'll allow you to unlock a door that'll allow you to progress. However, there are a lot of different cards and they, too, have a numerical value. Doors will require cards at a value lower, higher or sometimes equal to what's on screen. That's not even mentioning when you'll find yourself needing certain colored key cards. Anyway, one of these cards is a shop. As you can guess, the cards you acquire are randomly generated, so you'll need luck to acquire a shop card that happens to be of a certain value – and no, there are no shops in the hallways of Castle Oblivion. No, that'd actually be convenient... Oh, and item cards require the utmost timing since they take an age to use, meaning that enemies can break them with ease. Ditto for spells – always use them in combos so that it's harder for the enemy to interrupt your spellcasting.
It's a bit silly to complain about what could essentially boil down to a tactical flub like the slow item and spell usage, but the battle system operates at a rather fast pace and the difficulty only gets higher, especially towards the end where enemies and bosses will have cards with higher values and a few tricks up their sleeves. On top of that, having to sort through your cards during battle to find the one that may turn the tide of battle depends on whether you can quickly dodge the enemies' attacks or not. It's like you have to have one eye on your cards and the other on the enemy. Things can get rather hectic. Despite everything that's said and done, for me, that's something of a minor complaint. It's actually the unsatisfying the battle system where I begin to get crabby. Even after adjusting to this combat style, it always feels like it was done just to compensate for the Game Boy Advance's lack of buttons. I know Jupiter wanted to open the floodgates for some tactical action, but really, all I and anybody else I knew did was stack the deck with Keyblade cards and maybe one or two enemy cards just so more damage can be dealt or increase the value of our cards. It was just as effective as messing with all of these different cards. Not to mention that besides the bosses, acquiring enemy cards requires the kind of luck you're better off using in Vegas – that is to say, you'll either get them rather easily or it'll likely take you a century of battling the same Heartless again and again to get it. Even if you do mess with them... then what? I'm still going to use Keyblade cards to whack the enemies to oblivion and Fire spell cards to take down Vexen easier. I just have less room because of these other cards.
Apologies if you're getting a bit confused – if I'm perfectly honest, I'm of two minds in regards to Chain Of Memories. I get that it wanted to take a game that had worked on the Playstation 2 and adapt it to a Game Boy Advance, and if this was the best that they were able to do, then I have to commend them on at least getting that far. Not to mention that there was room for a more tactical action RPG with the different cards and card values. The problem here, however, is that it's no more tactical than the first game. A lot of the different cards you acquire are either far too situational or are absolutely useless, meaning that you'll likely stack a deck that focuses on whacking enemies right upside the head. In THAT respect, it's both a success and a bit of an underwhelming game. It does manage to become a halfway engaging game of whack-a-mole, but in regards to what it could've been, it could've been oh so much better. Not to mention that with the cards, it manages to overcomplicate what actually devolves into a rather simple game. Appreciate the thought, but not quite the execution. Add in the luck based stuff and the middling parts of the story, and the game's got a few marks above being a totally average game.