Review by CrimsonGear80

"You've activated my trap card: Donald Freakin' Duck!!"

Kingdom Hearts 2 is, without a doubt, one of the best games I've ever played. Square Enix, in keeping with tradition, decided to release a “Final Mix” version of KH2 back in 2007, adding in some new bells and whistles to an already phenomenal game. In keeping with tradition, however, this “Final Mix” version was exclusively released in the Japanese market. Boo. However, KH2 Final Mix also came with another significant extra: an fully voiced, 3D remake of the Game Boy Advance game Kingdom Hearts: Chain Of Memories. This time, Square Enix decided to throw us westerners a bone (a year late bone, but a bone nonetheless) and give this PS2 remake a release, naming it Kingdom Hearts: Re: Chain of Memories and giving it a budget price! Does the more strategic and card-based gameplay of this title match up to the greatness of the main KH games?

CHAIN OF STORY

If you didn't already know, COM is the story bridge between KH1 and KH2. So if you were wondering why the hell Sora, Donald, and Goofy were sleeping in big, white pods at the beginning of KH2, or why some Organization XIII members were missing, well now's your chance to find out.

The story begins immediately after KH1 ends. Riku and King Mickey had just shut the door to darkness, leaving behind our three heroes to start the search for them. During their search, they are confronted by a mysterious man in a black cloak, who leads them to a place called Castle Oblivion, where he promises Sora that he can find his friends there. However, in Castle Oblivion cards govern all, and Sora must use them to go through each floor of the castle to relieve his memories from the first KH game. Only then, the man in the cloak promises, will our heroes see their friends again. However, Sora, Donald, and Goofy must pay a hefty price with each floor they clear. Then of course, we have Riku appearing at the bottom of the castle…

KH fans will most likely get the most out of the story, but even then the majority of it is made up of rehashes of the stories from the first Kingdom Hearts. Still, the original parts in Castle Oblivion and the colorful characters of Organization XIII that appeared exclusively in COM make up for it. Riku's story is pretty interesting as well, but I'll leave those details a surprise for those who don't want it spoiled. It might help to play the first KH first to be caught up with the characters and events, but overall you should be entertained.

CHAIN OF GAMEPLAY

Those who are familiar with KH1 and 2 should know that Chain of Memories doesn't exactly play in the same way. For the most part, the set-up is the same as any of the other KH games, as you guide Sora through each world talking to NPC's and battling enemies. Moving Sora around is the same as well, using the left stick to move and the right stick to control the camera in a full 3D environment. The circle button will cause Sora to jump, the X button will cause him to swing his Keyblade, and the square button activates a useful dodge roll. However, in Castle Oblivion, everything is governed by cards, including world exploration. Sora has to work his way up each floor of the castle using the world cards he receives to turn each floor into a “memory” of his visits to each world in the original Kingdom Hearts. Sora will get a card for every world he visited in KH1 (except for the Tarzan world. Damn the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs!) You can complete each “world” in whatever order you choose (except for the last couple of worlds) and the first thing you may notice is that going through each world is set up differently. While in a regular KH game each world is made up of different areas you make your way through, the versions in COM are made up of a set amount of rooms that you the player actually get to create. When you defeat enemies, they usually drop a map card. These cards are color coded and each have a certain cost to them, numbered from 0-9. When you get to a pathway in one of the worlds rooms, it will present you with a card condition you need to fulfill in order to open that pathway to the other room. Normal rooms usually only take one of a certain color card or a certain amount of cost to open, but the catch is that whatever card you use will be the type of room that will get created on the other side of the pathway. Red colored cards effect the enemies you'll face in the created room, green colored cards will effect your battle decks, and blue cards will change the properties of the room, usually by allowing you to spawn a save point or treasure chest. Using this room synthesis system, you can basically customize how you want to make your way through the game. Want to grind levels? Create a room with a lot of Heartless. Want to have an easier time? Create a room where your attack cards are powered up. There are a ton of different map cards to use and a ton of ways to play through COM. The only cards that will only open certain doors are the story cards you'll automatically receive in each world. These cards open up rooms that move the game's plot along and eventually opens the door to the final boss of that world.

Also seeing a fairly drastic change is the battle system. Unlike previous games where you fought enemies right on the world map as they appeared, COM has various single enemies appear on the field. If you touch one of these enemies or initiate an attack on them (or visa-versa), the game will shift to a battle mode where Sora and his opposition are put into a battle arena ala the Olympus Coliseum battles from KH1. Sora will once again be facing opposition from the Heartless, who also come in the same flavors and varieties from both KH1 and 2. Sora can move around the battle screen just like out on the field, only instead of a command menu from KH1 and 2 allowing him to attack and whatnot, Sora's actions are all governed by battle cards. You'll start the game with a certain amount of cards and will eventually earn more by striking objects out in the field and by creating Moogle rooms where you can spend accumulated Moogle points (or MP, also earned by striking field objects and selling off old cards) to buy new card packs. Battle cards come in five flavors: attack, item, friend, magic, and enemy cards. Attack cards allow Sora to attack with his keyblade, item cards allow him to use hi-potions and ethers and such, friend cards will allow Sora to call on the help of Donald, Goofy, or any of his other Disney and Square Enix buddies for some help, magic cards allow him to use spells and summons, and finally enemy cards are acquired from defeated enemies and augment Sora's combat abilities.

You can build up to three different decks to use in battle from the main menu, allowing you to mix and match your cards as you see fit. So if you prefer to just attack everything you see fit, fill your deck with attack cards and Sora will throw out fast-paced combos just like in any other KH game. Liked using magic? Then build up a deck full of spells. You kind of get where I'm going with this: the deck possibilities are nearly limitless and any player will be able to build a few suited to their style. Just like map cards, every battle card has a cost on it, from 0-9. Every enemy will also use their own cards to do their attacks as well. What this basically boils down to is a game of War: as long as Sora attacks when his enemies don't or if the card he currently draws has a better cost than the one or ones his enemy draws, then Sora will successfully land attacks and spells. However, if the enemy's card has a higher cost than Sora's, then Sora's attack will be nullified and he'll be open to a counter-attack. Sora can also stack up to three cards with the triangle button to add up their cost to unleash a three-part combo. Stacking cards will also allow Sora to use his Sleighs, which are basically his special attacks. Some are familiar, like Sonic Blade and Ars Arcanum, while there are a bunch of others that were created just for this game, like throwing a flaming keyblade at your enemies. Most Sleights will even utilize the context-sensitive button presses that were introduced in KH2 that can add some extra hits and damage to them. Combinations of card cost and type are required to unleash Sleighs, and experimenting with them and finding the ones you like can be the key to your success. You'll have to strategize as well, COM is easily a much harder game than both KH1 and 2. Regular enemies may not give you much problems, but bosses are a whole different story. Most bosses you'll be facing are exactly the same from the first KH, although some have been tweaked a little to accommodate the battle system (Ursula, for example). Although these guys can give you a run for your money if your not well prepared, the Organization XIII members you'll be facing in-between floors in Castle Oblivion WILL kick your ass multiple times before you finally figure them out. Prepare to shout obscenities as they constantly throw out high-cost cards and powerful attacks. Stacking and Sleighs are the key to defeating them, and those KH fans who may have found KH1 and 2 a little too easy will find plenty to like (or hate) here. Finally, you earn experience points for every enemy you defeat, and gaining a level will allow you to choose one of three ways to build up Sora: by increasing his health, increasing his CP (card points) which allows him to hold more cards in his decks, or by letting him earn a new Sleight.

It's not just Sora's show, however. After beating Sora's story mode, you unlock the “Reverse/Rebirth” mode where you'll play as Riku as he fights his way up from the bottom floor of Castle Oblivion. Riku will also get world cards and visit the same places as Sora, although Riku has no story sequences in these worlds, as his are reserved for in-between floors. Room Synthesis remains the same, however he does have some key differences when it comes to battle. For one, Riku's decks are always closed with fixed cards that change at every floor. Riku is mostly confined to his sword attacks, but he does have some item cards and he can call on King Mickey who happens to be the only friend card he can use. Riku can also enter a “Dark Mode” when he fills a meter next to his health bar by successfully attacking enemies. Dark mode will raise Riku's stats and allow him to use more powerful sleights. Riku can also enter a card war with enemies by pressing triangle when he uses a card that has the same cost as the card his enemy uses. Win the card duel by busting out higher costing cards than your enemy's and Riku will unleash a devastating counter attack. Finally, besides leveling up his heath, Riku can also level up his attack power and Dark mode points. Overall, with the set decks and more powerful moves, Riku's story is much easier to complete than Sora's, although the Organization XIII members he'll be facing can get tough.

If there was a major complaint I can lob at COM, its with it's camera system. COM goes back to the more zoomed in camera from KH1, rather than the zoomed out camera from KH2 that was much easier and better to manage. During battle, the camera can go pretty wonky when enemies are jumping around everywhere, especially if you decide to lock-on to one. If there was a minor problem I could lob at COM, it would be that some vets may find the change in gameplay to a more strategic style a little bit off-putting. I know it took me a bit to get used to it after playing two games with all-out action-packed battles. Not that COM has those, it's just that a lot of them can be slower paced than what some people might be used to. The difficulty also has a good chance of turning some players off, especially those new to the KH universe.

CHAIN OF TECHNOLOGY

COM, at least to my eyes, runs on the same engine that powered KH1. Everything still looks nice, and the worlds and characters are still masterfully designed and makes you feel like your inside both a Disney movie and a Square RPG with high production values, but unfortunately it's nothing we didn't see back in 2002. For the most part it's all recycled, except for the areas between floors in the Castle, but then even those are basically just white. Cut-scenes in the Disney worlds are done solely with the “standing around and talking” way, while movie cut-scenes move the story along between floors. Unfortunately, unlike the previous two games that used the in-game engine to do the cut-scenes, COM's are pre-rendered and definitely not as sharp-looking. Square also didn't match the lip-synching with the English voice-overs like in the previous games, so its basically like your typical anime dub. The game does run perfectly fine however with almost non-existent loading times, which is a huge plus. Overall, the game looks good and the animations are still top notch, but we have seen it all before.

The same can be said for the game's music score, which basically consists of tracks from KH1, some of which may be slightly remixed. That isn't totally a bad thing though, as KH1's score was fantastic. I still think the Hollow Bastion theme is one of the best pieces of music I have ever heard in a game. Voice acting is also very good, with Haley Joel Osment and David Gallagher reprising their roles as Sora and Riku, respectively. The supporting cast, and various other sound effects and such all get the job done as well. We may have heard it all before, but it's still fantastic.

THE GREAT CHAIN BINDS US ALL…

Beating Sora's story mode can take anyone between 25-30 hours, while Riku's is considerably shorter, clocking in between 10-15 hours (I actually beat it in a little over 8). There in no new game+ or anything, but starting a new game with a saved clear file on your memory card will allow you to find some rare cards during a new playthrough. Considering you get a lot of hours of gameplay for only 30 bucks, it may just be worth it for KH and JRPG fans.

KH fans, however, should not hesitate to add Re: Chain Of Memories to their collections, especially if they missed out on the original GBA version. It provides an almost customizable gameplay experience with a pretty fun card-based battle system with an interesting story with familiar characters. Others who are interested may find a rental to be sufficient if they are merely interested in the KH franchise, although I would start off with the first Kingdom Hearts before diving into this one or KH2. Overall, it get's a thumbs up and a smile from me :)

KEWL
+The original story is pretty interesting
+Room synthesis lets you customize your world exploration
+Card-based mechanics mixed with the KH battle system works well
+Reverse/Rebirth mode is a nice addition
+Excellent music and voice acting
+It's only 30 bucks!
+A must-have for fans

LAME
-Camera can get crazy during battles
-Most of Sora's story is a re-telling of KH1
-Graphics still look nice, but we've seen them before
-More strategic battles may turn off those who prefer the faster pace of KH1 and 2
-Difficulty may turn some players off


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/10/09

Game Release: Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories (US, 12/02/08)


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