Review by Arkrex

"Bittersweet Memories"

When the brains at Squaresoft decided to joint-venture with Disney, there was never a doubt in my mind that their resulting offspring would be a success. Kingdom Hearts (Final Mix in particular) was a solid 3D action-adventure combining worlds and characters from the wonderful world of Disney with the immensely popular Final Fantasy series. The story revolved around the Heartless, beings of pure darkness, and it was up to the forces of good from both parties to put a stop to their dastardly plans.

Now a sequel has been born since then, and it is every bit as enjoyable as the first, with a more complex and brooding plot brewing. Kingdom Hearts: Chains of Memories is a portable GBA title that attempts to weave the abrupt ending of the first game to the mysterious beginnings of the second. You could say it's “Kingdom Hearts 1.5”, seeing as nearly all of the environments you go through are straight out of the original game, memories so to speak. However the battle system now lies under the rule of cards, and so now what used to be simple button-mashing for the most part, has a brand new strategic element to it. And it works rather well, most times.

Visuals – 8
Sound & Music – 8
Gameplay – 8
Controls - A
Longevity – A
(10-15 hours for Sora's story, 4-6 hours for Riku's)
Replayability – B
Difficulty – Moderate

Walt Disney's magic – 8

Disney + Square + 2D

There was no way that the 3D engine from the PS2 games could make it over to the GBA. As a result, mostly everything was done using 2D sprites. I'm not complaining though, because in my honest opinion the world of Kingdom Hearts looks just as good in this dimension as it did in the next. The entire Disney cast and selection of popular Final Fantasy characters are drawn big and look true to form. The game is viewed at an isometric point of view, which gives a sort of quasi-3D impression, and works well when navigating the different worlds you'll come across. During battles, the viewpoint switches to a side-on look just like what you would have seen in 2D scrolling beat'em ups of the last era. The visuals stay sharp at all times, and are always full of life. The animations look good, and so to do the spell effects (I would expect no less from the Final Fantasy maestros).

There are a couple of FMV clips to add impact to some of the game's key scenes, but they don't tell anything important by themselves. It is a nice addition to have though, and by no means has the 2D work taken a hit from the time dedicated to producing such videos.

Simpler and Cleaner
Kingdom Hearts had a wonderful soundtrack, with big thanks owing to the classic Disney tracks, but the original tunes did not take a back seat either. In Chains of Memories all the tracks used in the original have been stripped down for the GBA's less-meaty stereo. But if you hummed along to them before, I'm sure you will do the same here; it may sound like MIDI, but it's still very good, just a little “lite-er”.

When in battle, Sora and supporting cast members will grunt and yelp just like they did on the big screen. The vocals are mostly done by the same cast as before, and are of good quality. It adds to immersion (in a 2D portable that is quite rare) and you won't get tired of it during the long journey.

Room Decor
Chains of Memories comprises of 2 main parts: an exploration phase and a battle phase. In the former, viewed at an isometric perspective, you guide your hero through a series of rooms as you make your way to specially marked ones in order to initiate a key event (cutscene or boss battle or both). You need cards to progress from room to room, and which cards you use to unlock the inter-connecting doorways will determine the makeup of that room, from having it full of strong enemies, frozen enemies, or no enemies, to giving a strength/magic bonus in all battles. The system works well, although don't think these randomly generated rooms adds a lot of replayability; each room is still a small, simply-designed area and they can get very repetitive as you push on, even with the change of décor depending on which world you are currently in.

Shuffle and Slash
When you collide with an enemy (hitting them in advance gives you a pre-emptive strike), the battle phase begins, not unlike a certain plumber and his own series of RPGs. Once you shift to the fully 2D plane, your goal here is to wipe out everything on-screen. Every time you press the action button (B) you will perform the action of the card currently shown at the top of your deck. This can result in keyblade swipes (chaining successive hits for combos), to magic spells (stacking similar cards result in more potent effects), summons, and curative or replenishing items. At first glance it looks quite complicated as it seems you always have to look out for what cards are coming up to keep a good flow going. Each card also has a number from 0-9 which dictates its relative strength. When both you and your enemies attack at the same time (that is most of the time), whoever uses the strongest card at that time will ‘break' the other's card, and deal the damage.

It goes further than that, but let's just say, for the purposes of keeping things short, that the system works well. Despite some initial confusion you may have, you will get the hang of things after an hour or two, and then you will find that the strategy and degree of freedom allowed for makes the Kingdom Hearts fighting experience here so much more satisfying. (At the time of writing, there is a 3D remake in the works so that those who can't bear to play on a small screen can finally experience the great card system for themselves!)

Breaking Point
I really enjoyed the methodology used, but there were 2 things which could potentially break the game for some people. The first concerns the ‘0' value card breaking all. You are able to store up to 3 cards at a time and initiate some devastating offense (i.e. the sleights), or conversely a mega restoration, and since the sum of the values of all the cards used here represent the collective power, you must always be on your toes in case your opponents unleash some of these combinations. That is the theory anyway. But as I mentioned, the ‘0' cards break all, and so simply using one while a mega triple sleight is at hand will override it without any noise. Once you understand this, you can abuse this, and then the game is made real easy. There is a multiplayer component to try out to, and while it is still some good fun if you've got someone like yourself to play with, this broken problem makes many advanced techniques otherwise redundant.

The other pickle I found is when later doorways call for a specific numbered card to unlock them. If you don't have it you will have to fight enemy after enemy until one finally drops the one you need. This may take a short time, or it may take an age. You may have a better chance at obtaining lower numbered cards from earlier worlds, but this means exiting your current one, and since all doorways are reset when you leave, next time you return you will have to re-open them. It may not be a hassle early on, but later you will find doorways which require a lot of certain cards to open up, and well since you used a whole lot before, what are the chances you have enough left over now? If you are a slow gamer who thrives on being a miser with your cards, this won't be a problem. For the rest of us, it's a cheap way to artificially make this game longer.

Another ‘Great' Story!
Once you have completed the game with Sora, you will have a good understanding of the link to the events that unfold in Kingdom Hearts II. Many questions are still left unanswered, but it whets your appetite for more. If you are like me and have already played part 2, you will learn about the other members of Organization XIII and find out why they turned up absent in that game. The story here is more of an add-on than an essential part, but it blends into the mystery that is Kingdom Hearts so well that if you enjoyed the way part 2's tale wove itself (sorry but I think it's time to place less emphasis on the warm-hearted Disney and more on the thick darkness now), you will want to check out this prelude.

But once you are done in this game with Sora, there's still more; you can now play a parallel story as best friend Riku! Riku moves faster, hits harder, and uses darkness to aid him. Whereas you have full rein over customising Sora's deck of cards, Riku's one is preset differently depending on where you're at. At first it seems that he is way overpowered, but later on, since the game dictates what deck you're using (which are composed different enough to always require some adjustment in your style), you will have to plan some sneaky tactics to overcome the odds. However, he's still overpowered. The story of Riku is not a carbon copy of Sora's, and the events that unfold with him (and his partner in crime, the King himself!) add even more depth to the main thread. His reverse tale is of a very high standard, and although markedly shorter than Sora's adventure, it is every bit as fun and exciting.

Repetition killed the Rat
The battle system is a lot of fun, and is the main reason to replay this game again and again. The repetition of navigating through rooms which are slightly different, but look the same to our eyes, is a good reason not to replay this game. Since the story really only has impact the first time through, and since you can skip all story sequences (a blessing), subsequent runs pretty much consist of the good battles and mindless room-hopping, nothing more. Riku's mode is quicker and you don't start out equipped like a rat, and so his story may be something you will come back to again.

On your first play-through, it does drag down towards the middle of Sora's story as you are relegated to collecting lots and lots of cards in order to progress, which means lots of traveling between ever-so-slightly made-up rooms, and a bit of mindless attacking during battles. This phase only lasts about an hour or so though, and then you're back into it. The bosses are quite fun to beat, and while not as hair-pulling cheap as their 3D counterparts, they still pose a good challenge. Riku's story is good all throughout.

Chains of Memories throws a curveball, and ends up with some ideas which would have been great if they were patched up a bit here and there. With the remix coming out for the PS2 (hopefully to non-Japanese countries too!), I can only hope they add a few more tricks to the current game of cards, and change up the rules a bit to make things more fair and square. This game is still worth your time (quite long taking into account both the adventures) and if you liked part 2, you absolutely need to play this. You may not be into the whole card game, but you will never know until you try; nearly all card-based videogames are very different anyway. I thought this woudn't be my cup of tea, and it isn't, I don't really like tea; Chains of Memories is my cool, refreshing milkshake. Thanks again Disney & Square.

8.5/10 – A few new tricks up its sleeve; I'm impressed

My Score System – a score of 7 from me denotes a good, solid game. Excellence earns a higher grade, whilst 4-6 reflects a below average product; glitchy, unplayable games deserve less.


Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/06/07

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