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A Losing Hand From Chain of Memories' Deck
By: Nick Ferris
For many who followed the adventures of Sora, Goofy, and Donald in Kingdom Hearts, the wait until the release of Kingdom Hearts 2 has been agonizing. After all, who could resist the compelling story and unique blend of Square and Disney characters? Well, hopefully you will be able to resist it until the true sequel to Kingdom Hearts comes along because Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories will do nothing to satisfy your craving for more keybladey goodness.
The story of Chain of Memories picks up exactly where Kingdom Hearts left off, though it veers off in a different direction almost immediately. Sora and company find themselves in Castle Oblivion, a generic mysterious RPG castle in dire need of a good interior decorator. There, an equally mysterious figure in a black robe starts Sora on his re-adventure through the worlds of the previous game, each of which has been recreated on the various floors of the castle. The worlds have been converted into a series of cubical rooms connected Zelda-labyrinth style. Sora starts each world with one card key that opens a room deeper into the floor. Several battle-filled rooms later, Sora arrives at the first of three predetermined plot rooms, and a snippet of story unfolds before Sora continues through several more rooms to the next plot room. Each floor culminates in a boss battle against a familiar Kingdom Hearts baddie. Beat the boss, and it's back to Castle Oblivion for some more cryptic story bits that create more questions than they answer. This cycle repeats without much variation over thirteen floors. Sadly, each floor differs only in length and Disney-inspired color scheme. The gameplay remains mind-numbingly monotonous throughout.
At first, the gameplay of Chain of Memories seems pretty innovative. Sora trades in his keyblade for ... well, cards. The cards come in a variety of types including attack, magic, item, summon, and enemy. Each battle card also carries a number from 0 to 9 with higher values indicating stronger cards (though 0 cards can trump all others if used a certain way). The player can customize a deck from cards collected from treasure chests, characters, and moogle card shops. Goofy, Donald, and world-specific characters like Ariel and Aladdin make their appearances as battle cards, though most of them are not worth using.
The real strategy of Chain of Memories involves using these cards while navigating a crowded battlefield full of monsters trying to hit Sora with their card attacks. The player can negate an enemy's attack by playing a higher-valued card than that of the enemy. Once Sora's deck is depleted, reshuffling is a simple matter of holding down a button for a few seconds (during which time Sora is completely vulnerable) or using an item card for a faster reload. Sora's battle cards can also be combined up to three at a time to perform powerful spell and attack combinations. Using too many combos, however, has its drawbacks. For instance, they are easily broken by well-timed 0-valued cards, and the player loses one card used in each combo for the remainder of the battle. Card loss through overuse of combos rarely comes into play in normal battles because a half-dozen combos are enough to eliminate every enemy on the field. In fact, as soon as Sora learns a few strong combos relatively early in the game, winning every normal battle in no time is a simple matter of pressing L+R over and over again (three times to load cards for a combo, and a fourth to execute the combo). Battles quickly become tedious obstacles between story moments. Fortunately, the player can choose what waits in each room by using cards collected at the end of battles. Red and green room cards create rooms full of Heartless, while blue cards provide a reprieve from battle in the form of save points, moogle shops, and treasure rooms. Of course, skipping all battles would lead to a wimpy Sora with a worthless card deck.
The biggest problem with Chain of Memories comes in only a small portion of the game: the boss battles. The early boss battles are quite difficult, but the player can triumph after a couple of tries as soon as the necessary strategy becomes apparent. However, around mid-game, the boss battles go from teeth-clenchingly difficult to virtually impossible. Several of the bosses can move around the battlefield and attack faster than one can blink. In some cases, one must simply wear down the boss by waiting through dozens of combos until the boss is constantly reloading and unable to keep up his barrage of devastating attacks. This strategy fails on more than one occasion because the boss's attacks are simply too furious, and waiting to go on the offensive is just not an option. In these cases, victory becomes a matter of sheer dumb luck. Furthermore, boss battles can be physically exhausting and can last anywhere from a few minutes to over an hour. While hour-plus battles might be acceptable in a turn-based RPG, they have no place in a fast-paced, always-moving action RPG like Chain of Memories. Never before has a single flaw in an RPG ruined the entire game as much as the boss battles do for this game. A word of warning to those who make it to the end of the game: before entering the final battle, make sure to fully charge the GBA's batteries.
The basic controls are simple to learn, and a tutorial at the start of the game will make sure the player knows how to handle Sora's new arsenal of deadly pieces of paper. There is a small problem when it comes to attempting combos. While the L and R buttons allow for cycling back and forth through the deck during battle, pressing them simultaneously loads cards for combos. In the heat of battle, a slipped finger can result in an incorrect card being loaded into a combo. This is even more likely to happen during the frustrating boss battles where the player must expertly navigate the battlefield and the card deck at the same time.
The player's fingers will throb from button-mashing, but the eyes will appreciate the fairly faithful transition that the Kingdom Hearts worlds have made to the Game Boy Advance. While each room in any given world looks annoyingly similar to the others, they look about as good as can be expected for a portable platform. There are some brief animated movies sprinkled throughout the game, the longest of which comes right at the start. However, these movies seem to be little more than a "look what we can do" from Square Enix as they serve no real purpose and provide nothing that non-movie scenes could not have accomplished.
The sounds and music of Chain of Memories are standard GBA audio fare. There are familiar Disney themes in the different worlds along with some of the themes that originated in Kingdom Hearts. There's not much in the way of new music, and what little new music there is pales in comparison to previous accomplishments of the series' soundtrack. Worth noting is the inclusion of many of the battle sounds from the first game, but there are no original dialogue recordings.
Those who persevere through this game will be rewarded with the ability to play it again as Riku with a different story and a link option that allows two people to pit their decks against each other. A quick run through just Sora's adventure can be achieved in 10 to 15 hours. There isn't much in the way of side quests except for a few rooms that require special rare cards to unlock, but a play through Riku's quest provides double the game time.
The Square Enix localization team did a fair job with the translation, though tiny dialogue boxes just can't capture the real essence of the PlayStation 2 characters. Plain English also doesn't do anything to help solve the mysteries presented throughout the story. While the story is weaker than that of the previous Kingdom Hearts, the sheer number of cryptic plot pieces do manage to salvage some of the game's entertainment value.
While fans of the first game may want to pick this title up in anticipation of Kingdom Hearts 2, they also shouldn't expect it to play like the first game. This is an entirely different kind of game decorated with the sites and characters of Kingdom Hearts. While different can be good, nothing that Chain of Memories accomplishes can be described as very good and certainly not enough to overcome the inconsistent and sometimes frustrating difficulty value.
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