"Square has done it a-BANG!!!"

It is almost painful to watch many companies water down some of your game series when they make the conversion from console to portable. A good example of this would be Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, which, while fun, was just not nearly as good the original FFT game. However, it is always a sweet relief much like relieving your bladder after a 32 oz Mountain Dew to see that the game does not completely bite. This game, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (KH:CoM), is much of the same. It is quite a watered down game and a slightly overused idea, but the game actually manages to be fun enough to play through at least once. While the idea of a card system may induce yawns and possible spasms, the storyline and the fact that the card system was kept quite simple makes the game enjoyable in the end.

In Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, you pick up where the previous KH game left off. I'll spare you the spoiler and just say that Sora, Donald, and Goofy have found themselves smack dab in a mysterious castle. Within the castle seems to be numerous floors that each seem to resemble different phases of the original game. While exploring the place, they also come upon strange robed figures who tell them that their memories are being stripped away by the castle and that lost memories will be regained as they travel on. Sora becomes oppressed by these new memories, but still manages to press forward until he can find a way out of this nightmare.

The plot throws in some good twists, many of which seem a bit logical or predictable, but keeps pace with the original game. It also introduces some characters that become somewhat key to Kingdom Hearts 2, which follows this game. Thankfully, Square Enix kept the plot fairly original by not just making this a basic save-the-world storyline and keeping the motives contained within the castle. This is also part of what keeps the game interesting, even at times when the game is not.

And what is the first thing you may notice as you're starting this game? A very well rendered cut scene? On GBA? It seems that Square Enix has, once again, taken the time to hone beautiful graphics even here. The cut scenes are eye-popping and marvelously developed for a small portable device. Then, you get to the regular graphics… Yeah, they aren't quite as eye-popping as the cuts, but they certainly do look nicely done. My only problem is that they seemed to use too many bright colors in many of the levels. Only a few levels actually come off with a dark aura about them, and ones that you thought should seem dark, like Castle Oblivion itself, are simply devoid of any kind of malevolence. You do have some, however, like Traverse Town, that are appropriately done.

KH:CoM plays a bit differently from the original, and in some ways slightly similarly. You start the game with Sora in the halls of Castle Oblivion. The screen perspective is similar to that of Mega Man Battle Network, with a slight 3/4 perspective tilt. Each floor is a series of interconnected rooms that are created by using cards that you gain from battle or by just finding. The rooms contain enemies, which will take you into battle, or environmental stimuli that you can jump on or smash in order to get money, health, or more cards.

Whenever you want to advance to another room, you simply attack a door and are given the choice to use a map card. Each map card has particular elements that identify: as color (red, green, blue, or yellow) and rating (from 0-9). Different cards will have different stipulations and restrictions on what kind of cards you must use, or even how many cards you must use. Sometimes, it will ask for a particular colored card of any rank, and sometimes of color, but of a certain rank. Other times, you will be given a cumulative number with which you must us an amount of cards whose rankings add up to the number shown. So, if the door says “20,” you will have to use cards whose ranks add up to at least 20. Each card also has a name as to which card it is, which will most definitely influence what kind of room you have. Red cards will be full of enemies and different ones give different effects to the enemies. For instance: Looming Darkness means that the enemies will relentlessly follow you in that area and keep on you pretty much until you engage them in battle or escape the room. Green cards give you advantages over enemies in battle. Sorcerous Waking, for example, raises the power of magic cards in battle; or Meeting Place will make it so that friend cards appear at the beginning of every battle. Blue cards bestow a kind of resting point or break in heavy battle. It is here that you can set up additional shops, save points, or rooms that contain treasure. Finally, the yellow cards are the ones that you gain through storyline progression and are required to advance the game. You usually get 2-3 different ones per floor.

While it may sound daunting because- oh no!- it's a card system, this actually works out very well. This level of customization to floors gives you the ability to build a dungeon as you see fit. If you want battle, you can build a room designed only for battle. If you feel you need a save point, set up a save point. The only limitation is that you must have a particular card that fits the stipulation given, which is not a hard obstacle to overcome if you fight battles regularly. This is part of what kept this little watered down bad boy from being just another ho-hum portable entry.

Battle takes you to a different screen in a perspective a bit like an arcade beat ‘em up like TMNT or Final Fight, except that the screen doesn't scroll.

Before battle, you must customize your own card deck to be ready for battle. Again, there are different kinds of cards used to in battle to give you the ability to do any action. Even simply swinging the keyblade requires a card. Yeah, that sounds irritating, but it actually works out once you figure out how to build a deck. Your battle cards consist of attack cards which allow you to use the keyblade (you can also use attack cards in rapid succession to do a combo attack, which is most useful), magic cards for casting spells, items cards for various types of restoration, summon cards to allow you to call upon different characters to led you aid (such as Dumbo, Simba, etc.), enemy cards which give you different support advantages, or friend cards which allow you to call a party member into battle for a one time attack. Enemies will swarm around you in battle, and you must react by using a different card in your deck to fight them off or keep yourself protected and healed. Now, you are not limited to the top card of your deck; you can scroll through and use different ones at different times. The only disadvantage of this is that it leaves you wide open while you're flipping through your deck.

When your cards run out, you are not screwed, so stop that crying! All you really have to do is hold still and charge your deck up and it's reloaded. The only exceptions are any friend cards or items cards. The former can only be used once period, but can be obtained at different times in battle, and the latter can only be used once per battle. Using the shoulder buttons, you can also set three cards aside and use them together to do a special combo attack. Using three of the same type can allow you to do an even bigger kind of action than you normally would. For instance, using three attack cards will allow you to do a high powered attack. The only downside to this is that one of those cards will become unusable until the next battle, and will not appear in the next reload. Doing some different combos will also allow you to do a special kind of attack called a Sleight, which can really bone the enemy over hardcore if done properly and not blocked.

Blocked? You mean attacks can be blocked? You see, each card has a rank from 0-9. Higher ranked cards block out lower ranks, so 2 beats 1, 3 beats 2, and so on. 0 can beat any number, but at the same time can be beaten by any number. So, if someone plays a 9, you can block it with a 0 card. However, should you bust out a 0 when your enemy is not stunned, they can simply throw any number out and counter your 0. Whenever you block an action, you not only prevent, but temporarily stun your enemy. This can allow you to get some more attacks in, heal without worry, or even reload without much trouble.

You may be wondering what the restriction is on your deck… Well, you re limited to a certain number of cards, though that limit is incredibly high. The only other limit is that each card costs a certain number of points. When you've spent card points, you can no longer add any more cards to a deck. This is where premium cards are supposed to come in, but I find them by and large overrated. Premium cards are standard cards that cost less, but can only be used once per battle. So, building a deck entirely of premiums is completely asinine. They can be helpful if used sparsely, but overuse them and you may find your deck running short after the first round.

The deck customization is actually fantastic. Because of the different types of cards, you can build a deck to suit your playing style. If you're a die hard button masher, you can build a deck out of mostly attacks and just button mash like all hell. Of course, this means you may have difficulty with certain parts of the game that require a bit more strategy, but hey, at least you have your own button mashing deck. You can also build decks that are composed mostly of magic or summons, or even mess around with different enemy cards to give you strategic effects to royally screw your enemy over. This is what ultimately keeps KH:CoM from being just another ho-hum card battle game. If you don't want to deal with the cards much in battle, or if you want to be anally strategic, you have those options and even the points in between.

Because of all that, the battles and the action become quite furious as you get farther along in the game. Towards, the end, the battles are completely insane and test not only your thinking and strategy, but your mettle and all around prowess, and even your patience. This difficulty is what keeps the action fresh and stops the game from becoming a stale set of gimmee battles and eye-rolling easy gameplay that comes with a lot of games of this type.

Now, an almost disheartening downside to battle: Simply put, there is a bit too much to keep track of. Not only do you have to pay attention to your own movements and the enemies, but your next card, the card your enemy plays, the ranks of the cards, what position a certain card is in your deck, whether or not your enemy's gearing to do a Sleight attack, and whether or not you'll be able to dodge or block it. All this eventually leaves your head spinning, especially in the later battles. This can make the game seem a bit more frustrating than it should, and may even turn a few people off to the experience as a whole.

Now, while this gameplay all sounds quite furious and riveting (okay, maybe not to all of you), it does have its drawbacks, one of which being repetition. It seems that you wind up fighting a lot of the same arrangements of enemies, which can make battle seem tiresomely redundant. There are also times in which you will need a particular map card, which you may not have, even despite your constant battling. This means you will have to battle for an eternity until you obtain one. This can be a long process, especially when combined with the lack of variety in enemy arrangement.

On a slightly off topic, one other thing I simply must say I did not like was Hundred Acre Woods. It was a dull, boring, and almost pointless side quest of sorts. I only say of sorts because you must visit the place, but call it a side quest because you do not need to complete all the events there to continue on. Why use the place? It does not seem to serve much of a purpose? Why not actually go to Tarzan's world? I'm sure Square could have cut HAW for Tarzan's world, but for some reason didn't. How sad… What really makes the level annoying is having to lead Winnie the Pooh around and try to find his friends. Some are out in the open and obvious, others are hidden in plain sight and just don't seem to want to talk to Pooh. You also must take your time, or Pooh will fall asleep. If you leave him unattended, he can also get himself into trouble because he's just too mentally deficient to know any better. All in all, it ends in a tiresome and dull romp through a world that really did not need to be in the game at all.

Finally, you have the sounds of the game. This area was actually very well done. Voices are present in battle much as they were in the original KH game, and fit in the game fairly well. You also have the background music, which is actually pretty much just a GBA remix of what was used in KH. No problem, really. The music worked before, and it still works nicely now. Halloween Town still sounds gloomy, yet campy and fun; Atlantica still thrums out “Under the Sea.” Sound effects also sound close to, if not straight from, KH. You may almost say it's lazy, but I say if worked before, why not now? It's better than writing an all new score that may actually not work as well.

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories succeeds at what it is supposed to be: a side story. It does not, however, excel at it. It's simply a good addition to the series that seems to have been made to pump you up for Kingdom Hearts 2, and actually worked well for me. The game bridges the gap in the storyline and keeps the events in the original semi fresh in your mind without having to go through all 40-60 hours over again. With a clever deck system that does not demand too much, but can be over blown if you want it to be; and a very unique dungeon system, CoM manages to stay well above average. Have another cookie, Square Enix. You've managed to water down another game and still make it enjoyable. Now, do a Vagrant Story sequel and we might just be back in business.

Graphics: Great cut scenes, just decent regular game graphics 8/10
Sounds: Adequate, as they are completely from the original and worked before 8/10
Controls: No complexity and very good response 10/10
Plot/Storyline: Intriguing and enlightening, but certainly not monumental 8/10
Gameplay: Unique and furious, and even sometimes a bit frustrating 8/10
All Together: 8/10

*Gorgeous cut scenes
*Well implemented and versatile card battle system
*Unique dungeon system
*Stellar controls
*Keeps the collective plot going nicely

*Too much to keep track of in battle
*Hundred Acre Woods was all around pointless
*Slightly repetitive
*Lack of enemy arrangement variety

Anyone who doesn't mind card games that really enjoyed the original Kingdom Hearts should give this a try. If you just like KH in general, you should probably just borrow it from a friend to see if you can stomach the battle system. For a card system, it's actually rather painless.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 06/12/06

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