Kingdom Hearts is, and has always been, something of an oddity. Part of me wishes that I’d been there to listen in on whatever meetings spawned this bizarre fusion of Disney and Final Fantasy (and that I, uh, spoke Japanese), because it’s such an unusual and far-fetched concept. Crack-conceived though it might have been, that isn’t to say it didn’t end up working out well: though not without some glaring flaws (looking at you, camera system), the first Kingdom Hearts was a charming and successful game, and people loved it. In order to bridge the gap between Kingdom Hearts and its inevitable sequel, Square released Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the Game Boy Advance – now properly joining its two brethren on the PlayStation 2 with the remake, Kingdom Hearts: Re: Chain of Memories.
As remakes go, it’s remarkably faithful to the source. If you’ve played the GBA game, imagine it in full 3D a la KH1 and KH2, and that’s pretty much what you’ll get, for better or for worse. The cutscenes are now … well, proper cutscenes, complete with voice acting, and more than a few cast members reprise their roles from the other two games. If you liked CoM on the GBA, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll like this remake.
Chain of Memories starts quite literally exactly where the first Kingdom Hearts ended: that game’s ending makes up a good chunk of the sequel’s introduction. Sora, the series’ plucky young hero, and his adventuring companions Donald Duck and Goofy are off searching for Sora’s friend Riku and King Mickey Mouse, who vanished at the end of the first game. CoM assumes prior knowledge of the series and story, and despite a half-hearted attempt to catch everybody else up via a short montage of flashback clips, the plot doesn’t really work without that knowledge. If you never played KH1, you won’t really know who the characters are, or how they relate to each other, or how the Final Fantasy cast fits into the mix … and you probably won’t give a damn.
Sora & Co. make their way to a mysterious fortress called Castle Oblivion, and as they venture inside progressively lose more and more of their memories (conveniently stripping them of all their abilities and combat prowess that they learned by the end of the first game). In Castle Oblivion, explains one member of the cloaked-and-hooded Organization, everything is determined by cards, which is the main thing that sets Chain of Memories apart from the other two Kingdom Hearts titles – the card-based gameplay.
When they say that everything is determined by cards, they really do mean everything. Sora’s fading memories of his adventures are transformed into cards representing the various Disney worlds he visited from Halloween Town to Agrabah, and between each floor in Castle Oblivion you get to choose which world you want to go to next – in whatever order you feel like playing them in. Each world consists of a series of connected rooms, and every room has a certain requirement to unlock it that can only be filled by – surprise, surprise – using cards.
The requirements vary from room to room (use a card with a value higher than 3 or lower than 5, or use a blue card – to name a few) and the specific card that you use determines what the room will contain. Some cards create stronger, more aggressive enemies that actively hunt you down, some cards create rooms full of merchants who buy and sell cards, some rooms boost the power of your magic attacks, and that’s just scratching the surface. Via the card system, you effectively have the power to customize your journey through Castle Oblivion however you see fit (to a point, anyway), which is a pretty nifty concept and makes the game feel like it’s less of a rehash of the first Kingdom Hearts than it actually is.
Unfortunately, the cards don’t work quite as well in combat. The card-based battle system was one of the most frustrating parts of Chain of Memories on the GBA, and it’s one of the most frustrating parts in the remake. There are three categories of cards – basic attack cards, magic and item cards, and summon cards – and every card has a value from 0 to 9. If you and an enemy both play cards at the same time, whoever has the higher value card will win, stunning the loser for a brief moment. You can also load three cards to play at once, either for a powerful combo or for a special attack called a Sleight, which have various requirements to use (for example, three cards of the same type with a combined value between 10 and 15).
On the positive side, the system is pretty balanced and actually rather intricate and flexible: Sora’s deck is limited by his maximum Card Points (CP), and higher-value cards use more CP than others; loading your deck with only high-value cards to prevent a Card Break means that you’ll run out more quickly than someone with a more balanced mix, and re-shuffling your deck takes longer and longer every time you do it. It’s important to choose carefully when constructing your deck, something that appealed to my inner strategist.
The system’s major flaw is that, like the other KH games, combat is in real time, and there is nothing you can do without playing a card other than jumping, dodging, and running the hell away. With the jump to 3D comes the less-than-stellar camera of the first Kingdom Hearts, and between wrestling with the camera and dodging your opponents’ attacks, there’s really no time to think about the action or to strategize: y’know, the things that actually make card-based gameplay entertaining in the first place. Finding the right cards to unleash a Sleight, or frantically flipping to a high-value card to counter an opponent’s attack is annoying and cumbersome above all else.
To be fair, Re: Chain of Memories does improve on the GBA’s combat. Not only are the cards larger and easier to see, but there are simply more buttons available on the PS2 controller. Reaction Commands return from KH2, opening up special attacks and actions in specific situations, so combat is slightly more varied than it was before. None of this addresses the simple fact that combat in Chain of Memories essentially comes down to mashing “X” as in both other Kingdom Hearts titles – except this time around, you’ll randomly have your abilities interrupted when someone plays a higher-level card than you.
It’s not all bad. The production values are still pretty solid (though the loading times start to grate on you after a while), the music and voice acting are largely pleasant to listen to, and for a last-generation title it looks pretty decent. I’ve always liked the series’ stylized, dreamlike aesthetic, and that hasn’t gone anywhere. If the card system weren’t in hectic real time, the game might actually have turned out to be pretty awesome; instead it’s more of a chore than anything else.
In the end, Re: Chain of Memories feels oddly self-defeating. The only reason to really play the game is for the story bridging Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, and anyone who hasn’t played those games A.) won’t understand the story and B.) won’t care one bit. By definition, the game is aimed at fans of the series – the people who have played the games that do everything that Re: Chain of Memories attempts, only they do it better.
If you’re interested in Kingdom Hearts: Re: Chain of Memories, you already have a PlayStation 2. Go play (or re-play) either of the two main games in the series, because you’ll get the same type of experience, except it won’t be frustrating. Well … as frustrating, that is.
Bottom Line: Good production values, a wonderful aesthetic and the oddly compelling blend of Disney and Square that made the other KH games good, crippled by a sounds-good-in-theory system of card-based gameplay that could have been awesome if it weren’t entirely in real-time.
Recommendation: If you’re a die-hard fan of the series who must have Chain of Memories in voice-acted 3D … well, you’ve probably already bought it. Otherwise, just play Kingdom Hearts or Kingdom Hearts II instead. If you must see the redone cutscenes, YouTube them or something and save yourself the headache.
John Funk is going to have the Traverse Town theme song stuck in his head for at least another two weeks.