I remember many of my friends being excited for Kingdom Hearts 2 after seeing the end of the first game. Despite the fact that I did not own a PS2 until much later, I was on the hype-train as well since I loved Kingdom Hearts when I was a child and was so blinded by the concept that I had no idea how much the game would age. One day, when I was at my local game-store, I saw Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the Game Boy Advance, which both surprised and intrigued me.
I was a collector of GBA-titles since developers could not recreate what the consoles could offer in terms of power, so they had to change the game completely. This made the handheld-market something special for me, as I could discover lesser-known gems. The fact that they were often cheaper than the console-games was also a good driving force. When I played Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the first time, I felt uneasy. After Baten Kaitos did little for me as a kid and it would take years before I got into Magic the Gathering, I was unsure if I would enjoy this entry. However, it is never right to not give a game a fair chance, so I pressed on and told myself: “Baten Kaitos will have to wait for now, I wanna fight against baddies with Donald and Goofy!”
Tracing old memories
We start off right after the end of the first Kingdom Hearts, so there will be some minor spoilers in this paragraph, but nothing significant. Sora, Donald, Goofy and Jiminy Cricket are on the search for King Mickey and Riku who have disappeared. As they search for their friends, they are met by a mysterious, hooded figure who leads them to Castle Oblivion, which our heroes decide to enter. Once inside, they realize that this place is familiar to all of them, but oddly enough, they have forgotten all of their abilities. The hooded man appears in front of them and tells them that the further in they go, the more they will forget. However, they will also find new memories as they travel deeper. He gives Sora a set of cards, representing his memories and abilities so he can venture through the castle to discover what he has forgotten, and maybe even find his friends.
For newcomers, there is a nice journal that will get you up to speed on what has happened in the previous title and who the characters are, without going overboard with exposition, making it easy to get up to speed. For those who returned from the last game, you will notice that we are going through about 90% of the locations from the previous title. This might sound like a cheap copy-paste job for Disney-nostalgia, but Chain of Memories does much more than just that.
Since this story tackles the concept of memory, many story-segments involving the different Disney-worlds follow some familiar script, but have been rewritten. The reason for why the main cast are venturing through these worlds again serves a better purpose, with each main character talking about a theme and creating a message after each world’s story-segment. For example, we meet Aladdin in Agrabah where he again has found the lamp and wants to keep his promise to Genie to use his last wish to set him free. However, it is not just because he promised him, but also because it would not have been right to use Genie to get the princess. If he did, it would have been unfair against the princess herself. Some of these stories are a bit short, but they feel much more intriguing with good messages that are discussed between the characters, making the stories more appealing. It feels like a well made saturday-morning cartoon with a focus on delivering a good moral lesson in each world, and I welcome this with open arms, especially since it is clearly in tone with Disney’s atmosphere.
The characters, while few, are also much more intriguing. We meet mysterious villains that clearly have more to their motivations than what we see now, making them more than just simply bad guys. Our heroes also have better connection, talking about themes of memories, and trying to support each other when hope seems lost with both hard talk, but also humorous dialogue that has good messages to it. It really knows it is a cartoon and is not afraid of being silly, but also respects the audience’s intelligence with some nice philosophy and theming.
The overall plot is also more enjoyable, since progression is well focused on their overall journey and goal, despite the Disney-worlds breaking it up with their minor stories. While you can see how the ending will play out and it does have a clear progression without much else, it is still bittersweet and you will even develop sympathy for the one who is responsible for Sora’s struggles throughout his journey. This creates not just lovable characters and more interesting theories on what is going on, but also a good narration throughout. It gives just enough to be a fulfilling story, but also enough speculations to make me want more. I also love how they make the gameplay of cards a part of their lore and that they go a bit surreal with the Castle’s setup, since early on we begin to question what is real of Sora’s memories and what is not. After all, “memories can lie”.
Story Score: 8/10
It’s all in the cards
Through each floor of Castle Oblivion, you will be presented with one of multiple worlds which you can choose to visit, similar to Megaman. After you have chosen one of these worlds, you will be taken to it and will have to progress through small areas, with each room being a different setup. You see, when you come towards a door, you will have to use one of many “map-cards” that you get from defeating enemies. They can range between rooms with certain enemies, a save-room, shops, treasure-room, and so on. Each door will demand a certain amount of points, which you will have to give and every card, no matter the type, will have a value of 0 to 9, making it so you can somewhat choose what the next room will be. The only exceptions, are the rooms that requires a yellow story-card, since these will have a story-segment with either a dialogue-scene or a bossfight.
You get these yellow cards after a story-segment or the first time you visit the world, but they are always different, making it so the story is structurally told. There is also one door that requires a gold-card and it can hold some mighty treasures, but these cards are rare. Traveling through these rooms is quick and usually gives some variety thanks to the type of rooms you can create. The designs for these rooms are simplistic however, with blocky layouts and straight forward platforming, making them quite unimaginative. Thankfully, these rooms are small, making them a breeze to go through and clearly not the game’s focus.
Throughout these rooms, you will control Sora in an isometric view and he can move in 8-directions, jump, cling to any edge in his reach, and attack. However, when you attack or are approached by an enemy, it will take you to a battle arena, which is laid out similarly to a side-scrolling, beat em up. Attacking the overworld-enemy will stun those in battle, so it is advisable to do so.
In the battle-segments, you will be using your deck of cards to attack enemies. Hang on, cause this part can sound more complicated than it really is. Each card represents an action, with the red keyblade-cards being attack-cards, blue are different magic- and summon-cards, green are item-cards that can be used once per battle, and black represents enemy-cards that can only be dropped by bosses and enemies, which will have a passive effect when used. When you press A, you will use the current card you have chosen and can switch between those you have in your hand using L and R. However, it is much more than a button-masher.
You can cancel an opponent’s attack if your card has a higher value than the other. The value does however not mean strength. For example, a normal keyblade-card is weaker than the other keyblade-cards since they do more damage, have faster attack and/or can be reused quicker. However, if the value of the normal keyblade-card is higher than the opponent’s, it will cancel his attack and let you hit him/her. This is a really an intriguing setup, but we are not stopping here.
You can also combine 3 cards to give them a higher value, such as one fire-magic with a value of 3 and two attack-cards with 4 and 5, giving you the total value of 12. All 3 attacks can then be used at will and you can also combine them at any time, giving you an ace in your hand. Certain combinations and values can also create completely different attacks, such as a keyblade-throw, or a strong summoning attack. This makes the cards with less value actually important since their numbers also have a factor, which is a smart move. However, you can’t abuse this since the top card will be lost until the next battle, and you can cancel the 3-combo-cards (or a “Sleigh” as the game calls it) with a card of 0 value, which will also make the top-card gone.
Enemies will also drop friend-cards at times when they are attacked, which are represented by Donald, Goofy or maybe someone that you met in the current world you are in, such as Jack from Halloween Town, which works similarly to summons. If your deck is empty, you will have to charge to get the cards back in your hand. You can do this before you run out of cards, but it will take more charges each time you do this, upwards to 3. Besides the cards, Sora can also jump, double-tap to dodge, and automatically aim at an enemy, making it easier to hit them. This all makes it so you have to be fast-thinking, strategic and skillful. It might sound like a lot to take in, but I never found the speed in any battle too fast or too demanding, giving it a fantastically balanced challenge throughout the game.
The enemies come in a huge variety and flavor, with some being weaker to certain attacks or having shields, for example, giving you a good diversity of enemies to fight. The boss-fights especially are a treat, giving them a feel of a one-on-one battle, similar to traditional trading-card games. Here, you will be tested in both the different layouts of the battlefield, as well as how your strategy works for the specific fights. Some will be using combo-attacks more often, others will be better at canceling and you will have to read the opponents’ moves quickly and see what cards they use, what cards you have and what is going on with the battlefield. All boss fights are intense and incredibly satisfying. To add even more elements of surprise, you can pick up a Mickey-card in some of the boss-fights that pops out when certain conditions are made. These cannot be broken and help you throughout the fights, such as creating a better layout for you to hit the enemy or outright stun them, giving you more reward for learning about your opponent.
When not in battle, you can customize your deck and choose your strategy at will. This is very easy to do, as every card is well categorized and you can change the setup of when a card will appear, making it not too intimidating despite the huge amount of cards you can acquire. You can create 3 different decks and equip one at the time, so you can easily try out different strategies or vary up playstyle against the different types of enemies, which is highly recommended. Though you can’t add just any amount of cards you wish. Each card has a value of CP and you can only hold a certain amount of it in your deck. Upgrading this, your health, and getting new sleigh-attacks, is done through leveling up. Premium cards can also help out with this as they have lower CP than a normal card would and are represented by having their value-number being in yellow instead of white. They are quite rare, but well worth it, kinda like a sparkling Charizard-card.
Getting more cards is hard, but never unfair. You can find cards in chests or destructible objects throughout the game, but the most effective method will be to stop by the moogle-shops. Here you will, each time you create a room, acquire a set of red cards for free and after that, you are welcome to purchase a set of red, blue or green cards, or a combination of all 3 for a certain amount of munney, the game’s currency. These are not cheap and if that was not enough, what chance of cards the sets can hold are also represented by its wrapping. For example, a red-set with a leaf will most likely hold keyblades and lesser new cards, but one with a belt can hold newer cards that can be stronger. The value for each is random, however, so will you focus on having more of the same type, or try your luck and become stronger? This is such a good way of representing the realistic aspect of buying new cards, as getting a new set is always a joy because, while it is random, you can always create something interesting with them. Should you get cards you don’t like, you can also sell them.
Throughout the game you will always have a mini-map, the ability to quick-save, and grinding is kept to a minimum, which makes it so you are always making progress and have no bumps in the road. That is except for one part towards the end where I had to get a specific colored and valued-card, and had to grind for an hour. I never experienced this before, but that can also be because I had used my cards more frequently in the last part of the game. Regardless, it would have been nice to have the option to pay for another value-card, like a randomizer at the moogle-shop. Another odd part, is in the Hundred Acre Wood where you will be guiding Pooh through a linear path and dodging obstacles to find his friends. This is short, and thankfully you get some nice abilities and cards from it, but no matter how adorable Pooh is, I just wish I could pick him up instead of having to wait for him every minute and hope he would not stumble. These are the only real negative parts I can say about the game, as it mainly is mostly about the battles and those are always a joy, from the small enemy-fights to the big bosses.
Gameplay Score 9/10
A magical kingdom in your hands
We are once again blessed with the tracks from the first Kingdom Hearts with a couple of new ones, and they all sound fantastic, with minor differences to fit the Gameboy Advance’s hardware. The only odd thing was one track had a pause when it loops and it is unfortunate. This is luckily all I can criticize in the sound-department, as it is all ambitious, uses clear instruments, varies depending on what world you are in, and sounds wonderful. All the sound-effects of swords, magic, and voice-samples are still top-notch and impressive for the handheld, making any fight engaging through the audio alone.
The visuals are also impressive, with beautiful sprite-work on every character. Each has lovely animations to them, making them feel more alive, and even the portraits for visualizing who is talking are great with different facial-expressions and mouth-movements, adding to the immersion. The areas, while nice-looking and colorful with small details, can be bland because of the repetitive layouts. At least the battle-arenas look nice and the effects of your and the villains’ attacks can be jaw-dropping. Everything is colorful and bright, making it artistically pleasing. There are a couple of cutscenes throughout the game that use the PS2 in-game graphics and it is quite impressive to see these short bits on the system, despite them not being necessarily needed. You can also choose how bright the game is supposed to be, which is good since the original GBA had a much darker screen and the later ones had backlighting.
Presentation Score 8/10
A second story and card-battles
After beating the main game you will unlock a second story starring Riku. Here you will be able to see what he was doing while Sora and his crew were on their quest and even get insight into plot points that could explain more about Sora’s journey.
While he travels through the same locations as Sora, his style of gameplay is different, with a preset deck for each world, different stat-setup and a new transformation ability with his darkness. It is well-worth a second trip and is about ⅓ shorter than Sora’s story. If you feel for something different, the GBA version features a multiplayer-setup that is a blast. It feels like the boss-fights that were mentioned before, except for a mirrored version of you. Testing out different card-setup against each other, being able to customize backgrounds, and even being able to make our heroes at equal levels in case someone is higher or lower, shows great attention to details. It even made me go back to Sora’s story, just so I could grind for cards or search out for more Sleighs, without it feeling like a tedious padding. That in itself has got to be an accomplishment.
Extra Score 8.5/10
I had no idea that this could work out so well. An Action RPG card-game sounds like a recipe for disaster, but with so many smart design-choices, it became such a fantastic experience. The story was charming, the combat is a blast, the extras are neat, and the multiplayer is quite enjoyable. It comes highly recommended, even if card-games are not something for you to begin with. This is the proper start for the series for me, and one that I will remember fondly.
It was made for the handheld specifically so the PS2-remake can be a bit of a drag. It clearly has better visuals, more cutscenes, more voice-acting that varies in quality, and more bosses. However, because of the repetitive overworlds, battle-arenas are made much bigger in this version, and that there are more mini-games than before, this will, unfortunately, make the game needlessly long and thus stretch the game to the point of being unappealing. It was really made for on the go.