Review by Fraghappy

Reviewed: 11/23/05

Mixing Innovation with Unoriginality

When considering the plight of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, which, to outward eyes, would seem like nothing more than a mediocre attempt at 'midquel,' we must remember that it was merely crafted as a “bridge” between the first and second games in the series. Since its plot and premise were written and the game was completed between the concept phase and the completion of Kingdom Hearts II, it, unfortunately, seems to be somewhat rushed, recycling a lot of old plot elements, bosses, and worlds from the first game, sometimes as verbatim as the Game Boy Advance's hardware is able. When viewed in context, it manages to establish its existence as an average addition to the relatively weak repertoire of role playing games available for the Game Boy Advance.

The story begins right where the first left off—Sora and company are attempting to track down Riku and King Mickey, who disappeared after the group locked the world of Kingdom Hearts. They venture into the ominous “Oblivion Castle,” where a mysterious man in black informs them that inside they will find their heart's desire, at the cost of many of their heart's cherished memories. Rushing further in, they find an exact facsimile of Traverse Town, a projection of Sora's own memories. As the cast pushes forth, they revisit most of the other old worlds from their adventure previous, each of which puts them one step closer to their final goal, but everyone, Sora included, has had their memories blurred, forcing everyone to relive the events that Oblivion Castle has robbed from their memories.

Most of the game cycles around the mysterious group that inhabits the castle who simply calls itself “The Organization.” Unfortunately, this new element tot he story progresses very slowly for the first three-fourths of the game, usually only advancing slightly between each floor of Castle Oblviion. In this regard, the writers could have done a much better job—it is not until the last portion of the game that the brunt of the story develops to a point where we, as the players, can truly be engaged.

Each world is not as beautiful and detailed as those rendered on the Playstation 2, but Chain of Memories strives to push the graphics capabilities of the Game Boy Advance to their maximum. Thrown into the mix are a few CG cut scenes, cut down slightly in quality to save space on the Gmae Boy Advance cartridge. The only flaw is that we are rarely given a taste of anything more than a more pixelated form of our favorite worlds from the original game. SquareEnix had fun showing a souped-up version of the Final Fantasy VII opening cutscene as rendered on the Playstation 3, but unfortunately, this principle just does not work in reverse. The game would have been much more fun if the creators had really strived to bring in more originality in this realm, so that we could explore the realms of other Disney and Final Fantasy favorites. This can make the middle part of the game seem almost like a chore, as you find yourself rushing through the de ja vu of the characters to experience something new and worthwhile.

Sound-wise, this game is about average in comparison to other games on the console. Minus the somewhat annoying “Kyeah!” shouts that Sora so poignantly delivers as he strikes a foe in battle, there is no actual voice acting, while the sound effects seem to do their job without particularly standing out as being one of the game's strong suits. Most of the music tracks were just recycled from the fist Kingdom Hearts game, though they were transferred over to the less technical Game Boy Advance with a surprisingly low loss of quality.

However, the real stand-out trait of the game is its battle system. Unlike with other traits of the game, SquareEnix scrapped everything from the original and created one of the most unique and innovative battle systems in a role playing game to date. Due to Sora's memory loss in Castle Oblivion, he must use special cards in battle to “unlock” those abilities he has since forgotten. These cards can also be put into stacks and used simultaneously to form special combinations called “sleights.”

Unlike conventional RPGs, where leveling and button-mashing can be an alternative to strategy, this card-base battle system forces characters to strategically prepare card decks to be universally prepared for what might come their way in battle. Each card is assigned a level from zero to nine, which represents its influence in battle. If a player uses a card of a higher level than the one his opponent is currently using, he causes a “Card Break,” which haults the opponent attack. However, decks can only be made so powerful—each card as a CP (Card Point) value, which cannot exceed Sora's level-dependent maximum. The higher level and the higher power the card, the more CP it uses. Additionally, each time a player executes a sleight, they temporarily lose their lead card from the set. Those these cards are automatically returned to the player at the end of the battle, for longer battles, excessive sleights may wear down the player's deck, so it may be necessary to include special CP-hungry item cards which can restore these lost cards back mid-battle.

The floors of Castle Oblivion are also based entirely off of the card system. Sora receives “world cards” that he must use to create the world facsimile on each floor of the castle, and each floor is also sub-divided into rooms, each of which must be synthesized out of cards, as well. On completion of most regular encounters, players are rewarded with one of these room cards, each of which carries a special trait that it will bestow on the room it is used to synthesize. For instance, a “Calm Bounty” card removes all heartless from the room and provides a treasure chest, as opposed to “Teeming Heartless,” which greatly increases the number of heartless in the room. Special events, such as plot progression and boss battles, can only be unlocked with certain room cards on certain doors, but the synthesis of the rest of the world is completely left up to the player's discretion.

There are no items, equipment, or abilities beyond what the powers of the cards entail, and “munny” has been removed from the game accordingly. Instead, players may find little red orbs called “moogle points,” which are hidden in barrels, boxes, trees, and elsewhere scattered across the game. Players may then use “Moogle Shop” room cards, which may be used to synthesize everyone's favorite Final Fantasy creature into a room. Instead of direct shopping, players may instead use moogle points to buy decks of cards, which contain a random assortment of levels and types. Conversely, players may exchange unwanted cards for moogle points, although the rewards for most of the less powerful cards are not considerable enough to earn a large number of points.

The game's controls are unbelievably simple, and do not take long to master at all. Perhaps the only flaw is a sensitivity issue with the L and R buttons—both must be pressed simultaneously to add a card to a sleight stack, but if one is pressed, it is supposed to cycle through your deck. Quite often, it seems, the game picks up one before the other when trying to press both, and it cycles instead of adding the card to the deck.

Chain of Memories also boasts a secret unlockable character upon completion of the game, which boosts its otherwise average replayability. Due to the absence of any in-depth sidequests, however, it is fairly typical to finish one play-through of the game in twenty hours, and, with the somewhat more limited unlockable Reverse Rebirth character, you will find yourself breezing through the game a second time even faster than that. This totals to a somewhat disappointing thirty-to-thirty-five hours of gameplay, much less than we should expect from a game of this nature.

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is ultimately the average of a mix of innovation and recycled material, a somewhat flawed and rushed game that is saved from its own lack of originality by its engaging and inventive battle system. For the most die hard fans of the Kingdom Hearts series, it is a must-play, if only to better bridge the story gap between the two Playstation 2 titles in the series, and, for others it may make an average addition to a collection of game titles. It is suffice to say that it will never be held in as high esteems as its Playstation 2 brethren, though it may hold a lasting impression on the hearts of few. Hopefully, we can expect something a bit more engaging from this series in the future.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

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