Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories - Review  

Down to Hell, Up to Heaven
by Cortney Stone

Medium to Difficult
30-35 hours; 10-15 hours for Reverse Rebirth


Rating definitions 

   Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories entered a world where its predecessor, Kingdom Hearts, remains in recent memory, and its sequel, Kingdom Hearts II, looms on the horizon. By blending old memories from Kingdom Hearts and small glimpses into Kingdom Hearts II, Square Enix and Jupiter have created a game that stands as a fascinating link in the series. The game also goes beyond serving as mere filler and delivers a unique and challenging experience.

   Castle Oblivion is the testing ground for both Sora's memories and the player's patience. The keys to this formidable stronghold are cards of varying powers. The player's choice of cards determines the theme of each floor of the castle, the kinds of rooms, and the way Sora fights in battle. World cards range from Traverse Town to Hollow Bastion, although, disappointingly, Deep Jungle was left out. Each world card redecorates a floor of the castle into a facsimile of its Kingdom Hearts counterpart. The floors consist of a number of rooms, each with a random layout. Players can choose special conditions to impose on these rooms by opening the doors with certain kinds of cards; they may create a den of monsters, a quiet room with a save point, or a treasure trove. The goal of each floor is to unlock the story rooms and the boss room before progressing to the next level.

   Upon encountering a wandering foe, Sora is transported to a separate arena where he must defeat a group of enemies. Cards also play important roles here. In each encounter, players use cards from their preconstructed deck to deal damage, heal themselves, and call allies into battle. Keyblade cards can be stacked to create elaborate melee onslaughts, while magic cards can be stacked into stronger spells. Enemy cards may be collected and added to the deck, and using these in battle can enhance certain aspects of the fight, such as card attack speed to HP regeneration. Each card has a value from 0 to 9. Playing a card with a value higher than that of an opponent's card results in a card break, a move that disrupts an enemy's attack. Enemies can card break the player as well, so one's eyes and fingers must be quick to detect and counter the cards in play.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

   Taking control in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is neither easy nor difficult. Menus are fairly simple to navigate, but at times they can be inconvenient. In battle, a small stack of cards covers the bottom left corner of the screen, often obscuring small enemies and wayward balls of experience points. On a positive note, the ability to create three different decks is extremely useful, as one may wish to have a regular encounter deck, a magic deck for White Mushrooms, and a boss deck. The game's controls appear superficial, but in truly heated battles, players will find themselves simultaneously flipping through cards, stacking sleights, and dodge-rolling enemies at lightning speed. Finger cramps are likely to occur unless one has had training with fighting games.

   While the game is not easy on one's fingers, it is at least easy on the eyes and ears. While the graphics are flat, there are hundreds of complicated sprite animations that give each character and enemy a lot of life. The famous FMV sequences are simply stunning, and although they are slightly grainy and not PS2-caliber, they are as good as a GBA title can muster. The game pushes the GBA to its limits as it is. Contradictory to the reports of some previewers, there is some lag in the game when there are lots of sprites bustling around on the screen in battles. The game's music is mostly MIDI rehashes of tunes from Kingdom Hearts, and even "Simple and Clean" makes a return at the end of the game, although in a low-quality version. Almost all the songs are true to their originals; only the Destiny Island music sounds different, which is odd but not bothersome. The original music in the game is average; it is neither heartfelt nor grating. Most of the sound effects are generic; keyblade slashes, Sora's clomping footsteps, and enemy spells are of decent quality. The voice clips from the first Kingdom Hearts are nice touches to the game, even though they sometimes become repetitious.

Ooo...that'll leave a mark. Ooo...that'll leave a mark.

   Intermingled in all of this is the story of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Each floor's story is an odd revision of its counterpart in the first game. In between the floors, Sora, Donald, and Goofy engage in convoluted dialogue about memories, remembering, and forgetting. Button-mashing is the best way to get through these parts. The scenes involving Organization members are certainly worth reading closely, as they compose the relevant and interesting pieces of the plot. Sora's story is mostly bland and incoherent at the beginning, but near the end it improves as more information about the Organization and Castle Oblivion comes to light.

   Clearly, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories has some issues with originality, mainly the rehashed Kingdom Hearts music, worlds, and plotlines. Yet, there is enough new material to keep the game moving, and the unusual battle system provides a distinctive gaming experience.

   The most outstanding and notorious feature of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is its difficulty level. Challenging games can be fun, and beating them gives one a certain sense of satisfaction. The real problem is the great gulf of difficulty between the run-of-the-mill enemy battles and the frustrating boss battles. Regular encounters do not prepare the player for the infuriating rush from the bosses. Most of the cards in the game are useless, particularly the magic and summon cards, forcing the player to stick to certain kinds of keyblade cards in constructing a deck. Only nearly flawless execution of one particular strategy wins almost every battle, and there is no room for errors or alternative tactics.

   Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories would receive a much lower score if not for its saving grace: Reverse Rebirth. After enduring Sora's story, players are rewarded with the opportunity to play through Riku's side of the story. Here is where the game shines. Riku's story - with its amazing ending and sneak preview of Kingdom Hearts II - is much richer, and it has better ties to Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II than Sora's story did. His battles are enhanced by Dark Mode, which morphs him into a powerhouse of dark fury. The card battling system is the same, but there are certain conditions for Riku. He has ready-made decks that cannot be altered by the player, and these decks vary from floor to floor. Not only can the player not adjust the deck to his or her liking; he or she must become accustomed to a new deck on every floor. A few of the decks are horrid; most have a useful strategy built into them. Once players discover this strategy, boss battles become a little less difficult.

   Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a treat and a must-play for fans of the series who have the determination to grapple with the rapid-fire battle system and the extraordinarily difficult bosses. Completing the game yields satisfying rewards that they can truly appreciate. Average RPGamers may consider avoiding this title altogether unless they are seeking a real challenge.

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