Those who become Heartless lose their memories, as well as their minds. But that didn’t happen to Sora. Why? This question, along with many others, permeates the latest game in the Kingdom Hearts series, aptly named Chain of Memories. Perhaps it is the strength of his heart – the heart chosen by the Keyblade. The heart is a mysterious thing, and Square-Enix’s latest union between the worlds of role-playing and Disney animation takes players on an adventure to uncover these mysteries as they explore the enigma known only as Castle Oblivion, a place wherein memories are clouded the longer one stays inside. Along the way players will come across many familiar faces, both as friends and foes, as these nostalgic touches are the bread and butter of the series. However, while this game, like its predecessor, is strong on many fronts and in the end delivers a worthwhile gaming experience, there are a few facets of Chain of Memories that come off not quite as well developed or fully realized as might have been ideal.Though playing through the original Kingdom Hearts is in no way a prerequisite to appreciating the story woven by Chain of Memories, there is a certain continuity in the series that begs to be experienced in its entirety. This is in contrast to most console RPGs, which as a rule seem to pride themselves on their loosely connected or more often than not totally independent stories. Chain of Memories picks up with Sora, Donald, and Goofy traveling through a seemingly endless field, thoughts of having locked Riku and the king in darkness weighing heavy on their hearts. Suddenly they are met with a vision of a man who speaks cryptic words, and directs them to a nearby fortress called Castle Oblivion. The man tells them that in this Castle lies something they need, but to obtain it they must loose something dear. So the group heads into the mysterious building, hoping to perhaps find their lost friends, while worrying what more this new quest will cost them.
For something as ludicrous as a Disney-uninspired role-playing experience, this plot is not only well told, but it maintains a very satisfying balance of drama and levity throughout the span of the game. While not as engrossing as its PlayStation 2 predecessor, the script does a respectable job of keeping the player interested for all of the few hours that the adventure lasts. This is not a long game by any means, and again, it is not essential to have experienced the previous game, but the numerous story references will no doubt inspire those who have not experienced the original Kingdom Hearts to go back and see what that game has to offer.
Gameplay in Chain of Memories is built upon the concept of using cards to perform actions in the game world. These cards fall into two general classes: Map Cards, which are used to determine that types of rooms available in the Castle, and Battle cards, which are used during combat. As Sora moves about the Castle, he will often come upon locked doors that require certain cards to open. Some doors simply require any general Map Card to be used, while others are more specific in their requirements. The type of card can also determine the type of room that becomes available on the other side of the door. For instance, there is a Moogle Room card that, when used to open a door, will cause the next room to house a Moogle Shop that sells cards. There are also special Map Cards that are used to open a few select doors on a map, and these advance the story by causing events, such as boss confrontations, to take place.
Combat in Chain of Memories is unique and complicated, arguably overly so. Integrating a card game mechanic into a game that does not necessarily warrant such a system has become a popular experiment among recent game development efforts. Such is the case here, and while combat is functional the pains of learning how to adapt to its shortcomings could have easily been avoided if a more conventional fighting system had been used. Here cards are used to represent any and every action that Sora can undertake while in combat, from summoning his friends for a short time, to casting a spell, to simply attacking with the Keyblade. The primary problem with fighting here is that it takes place in real time, but players are forced to sift through a deck of cards to find the action they wish to perform while combat continues at an all too frantic pace. The easiest way around this is to build your deck beforehand in such a way that as little attention as possible needs to be paid to which card is being dealt at any particular time. This reduces combat to a button-mashing affair, which is itself a less than ideal situation, but it is at least much less frustrating and much more functional than having to flip through all of the available cards to find the one you wish to use at any one time. Unfortunately once a deck has been exhausted it must be reshuffled in order to reclaim the used cards so they are again available. This action not only makes Sora unable to move or defend himself while shuffling, but it also takes longer and longer each time the deck again needs to be replenished.
Compounding the frenetic nature of conflict in Chain of Memories is that the enemies are using cards at the same time as the player, and when cards are used at conflicting times, their face values are compared. If one card’s value is greater than the other’s, the effect of the lower valued card is countered. This is a great and strategic element to the game, but when injected into combat that is already so furiously paced this particular gameplay element can lead to considerable frustration. Imagine trying to heal, only to have your card trumped by your opponent’s card. Thankfully this particular area of combat becomes less of an obstacle as time goes on, as players will find and earn more powerful cards with higher face values, and by incorporating these new cards into their deck their prowess in combat becomes much more formidable. A workable strategy often calls for waiting until an opponent uses their card, and then either countering with a superior card, or waiting until their attack has passed before using the card of choice.
As if this was not enough to think about while fending off numerous Heartless, there is also the concept of Sleights to consider. Sleights are special attacks that are learned throughout the game which add that little extra punch that is needed time and again in order to survive. Sleights come in numerous shapes, sizes, and potency, but they are all triggered in the same manner. While in combat, up to three cards can be stocked by holding down both shoulder buttons when the card of choice is currently active. Instead of activating this card, it will instead be placed at the top of the screen in the form of a tiny card icon. Done twice more, and the three stocked cards are ready to be unleashed. Depending on the cumulative value and types of cards stocked, pressing both shoulder buttons again will unleash the Sleight attack. Examples include tossing the Keyblade like a boomerang across the screen, or causing the area surrounding Sora to erupt in an inferno. However, something to keep in mind is the first card in the triumvirate is lost until the battle concludes, so these sleights should be used only when needed else Sora’s deck be fatally diminished for the duration of the conflict.
As mentioned previously, deck building plays an important role here, and taking some time to carefully engineer a workable and efficient deck is the key to lessening frustration later on. Thankfully the deck can be retooled at anytime outside of combat, so experimentation is in order to design a compilation and order of cards that best suits a particular style of play. While at first only small decks can be built, by gaining levels it becomes possible to construct larger, and much more formidable groupings of cards. In addition, multiple decks can be built and saved for different occasions. For instance, you may thoroughly enjoy stacking your deck with fire-based spells, but there are a few bosses in the game that are immune to, or even heal from fire, so having another deck equipped that focuses on a different set of cards is advisable.
As is par the course for a Square-Enix development effort, the presentation in this game is simply amazing. Chain of Memories is quite possibly the most visually stunning piece of work yet seen on the Game Boy Advance. The backgrounds are rich and colorful, with each world showcasing its own unique look and feel. Levels are accompanied with their own Disney or game-inspired themes, all of which have been sampled and remixed spectacularly for the GBA platform. The worlds each manage to capture the look of the particular Disney franchise that they are taken from, from Pooh Bear’s 100-Acre Woods to Jack Skellington’s Halloween Town. The different Heartless are likewise as varied and impressive, as are the numerous bosses. If a complaint must be levied against the presentation, it has to be the inability to skip past the sometimes quite lengthy narrative sequences that precede the boss encounters. Make no mistake, some of these fights are quite difficult, and as such players will find themselves having to retry the fights multiple times until they get a working strategy in place. While the game is nice enough to let players continue from the room just outside the boss’s lair, having to enter that room, and then mindlessly press buttons to skip past the dialog so the fight can begin again can become tedious.
Taking only a few short hours to complete, players may be put off by the game’s length. However, the developers have included a couple treats to help entice players back after the game is completed. Finishing the game opens up a second quest, called Reverse/Rebirth, which is a new game mode wherein the story is told from a different point of view. Here even more secrets surrounding the game’s story are uncovered. This mode also features a slightly different game system, so players will have to rethink their strategies a bit. Additionally, completing the game will open up the ability to link up to another player for a one-on-one versus battle. These battles work essentially like the single-player battles, with players able to select their deck, the world where the battle will take place, as well as various handicaps.
Chain of Memories is a fantastic continuation of the strange, yet strangely compelling marriage of two separate mediums, and serves as the perfect appetizer to tide players over until the release of Kingdom Hearts 2. Though certainly not without its flaws, the most problematic of which being the somewhat mismanaged combat system, this is nonetheless a terrific game that delivers a fun quest, stellar presentation, and an added incentive to revisit the game after it has been completed. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a title that, for a short time at least, lets a player of any age feel like a kid again.