reviews\ Dec 12, 2004 at 7:00 pm

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories - GBA - Review

Do you ever stop and wonder who the daring genius was that decided to combine two totally awesome on their own things together to make something entirely new?  I mean, who looked in the cupboard and saw the peanut butter sitting next to the jelly and thought, “You know what, I wonder what those two things would taste like together?”  There are so many examples like this in our lives where two things you’d normally not picture together are combined to create something new and often times better.  It is with these thoughts that I wonder about the person who decided to combine Final Fantasy with Disney.  Was he laughed out of the room?  Did his boss try to have him committed?  Did he recognize the genius that such a marriage would create from the beginning?  In the end, it really doesn’t matter how or why, because if you’ve played the original Kingdom Hearts, you’re just eternally thankful that someone looked in the entertainment cupboard with a hankering for both Final Fantasy and Disney.

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is the follow up to the outstanding PS2 action/RPG title that took the gaming world by storm.  Taking place immediately after the events of the original KH, COM serves not only as a sequel, but maybe more importantly, as a bridge to the upcoming Kingdom Hearts 2.  The game picks up with the heroes from the first game, Sora, Donald, and Goofy chasing Pluto down a long, winding path where they are eventually confronted by a mysterious, black-robed figure, who will be familiar to anyone who’s been fawning over the screenshots and movies from KH2.  The stranger tells Sora that there is something ahead that he desperately needs, but in order to claim it, he will lose something very dear to him.  Confused?  Intrigued?  Both?  In order to solve the mystery Sora and friends continue down the path when they come upon a strange castle known as the Castle of Oblivion, which like Travers Town from the original, serves as the hub for the rest of the game worlds.  During the course of the game, you’ll encounter several familiar friends, foes, and locales, as well as a few surprises, as you begin to make sense of the stranger’s words and answer some of the lingering questions from the original adventure.

While the game undoubtedly captures the look and feel of the original, there are some massive differences in the way that you play the game.  Where KH was a pretty straightforward action/RPG hybrid, COM is equal parts action game, RPG, and gulp, a card game.  With that said, I can already hear KH fans screaming bloody murder.  While I can certainly appreciate those sentiments because I initially felt the same way, I am elated to report that it is totally unfounded.  Now I know most fans would have been perfectly satisfied with a stripped down version of KH as long as it featured the same characters and continued the storyline of the original, but the new game mechanics actually conspire together with all that we love about KH to create a game that not only feels whole, but also like a worthy successor and precursor to the KH games.

The simplest way to describe the way that the game incorporates the cards into its gameplay is to say that any and every action you take is dependent upon your deck of cards.  However, and I’m sure this will bring great relief to most fans, there is no Yugi-Oh type of card game buried within and the gameplay actually plays out just like the original KH.  You begin the game with a small number of cards in your deck, which can be increased as you find and or earn new cards and also by choosing to increase your Card Points as you level up.  There are several different kinds of cards, ranging from Keyblade swipes to magic to cards featuring friends you can summon into the battle (Goofy and Donald no longer accompany you into battle, they must be summoned).  Any time you perform any of these actions, the corresponding card is used up.  But don’t fret; when you use up your cards, you can recharge your deck, which returns all of your cards to your hand.  The catch is that you are completely helpless as you recharge and the more you are forced to recharge the longer it takes each time.  It’s a neat concept that forces you to be mindful of how and when you use the cards adding a great deal of depth and strategy.  Another facet of the cards that adds even more strategy to the pot is that each Keyblade card features a numerical value of 0-9.  As you wage war with the Darkness, they also must use cards featuring numeric values to attack you.  The idea of this is that the attack with the higher value wins, but there is a way to stack the deck in your favor, pun intended.  You have the option of stacking three cards at the top of the screen to be used as a combo.  Since the value of three cards combined is almost always going to be higher than a single card, the damage doled out by stacking cards is considerable.  As you level up Sora, you will have the option of learning “Sleights” which are special attacks derived from stacking three very specific cards together.

In addition to the cards already mentioned, there are also cards specifically for opening the games many doors.  Every door in the game requires specific cards, usually of a certain numeric value, to open, which is where yet another layer of strategy comes into play.  You have cards that can alter the type of room and resistance you meet on the other side of the door.  Some will cause treasure chests to appear on the other side, while others will limit the number of Heartless waiting for you, and others yet will stricken the Heartless with any number of effects.  The flip side is of course the cards that work against you, filling the next room with a massive number of Heartless and so on.  It seems like an awful lot to take in, but in practice the whole card system is very intuitive and easy to grasp thanks to the game’s early tutorials.  The game slowly and easily indoctrinates you in the ways of the cards, so it never feels too overwhelming.  After a while, the card management aspect becomes like second nature and it in no way detracts from the KH experience.  It might not be what KH fans expected or even wanted, but it definitely adds some depth to a game that could have easily been a less rewarding hack and slash.  The new gameplay mechanics fit perfectly into the story, which certainly will help gamers’ acceptance of it in the KH world.

Graphically, I’ve got two words for you, HOLY COW.  This is without a doubt one of the very best looking games to ever grace the system.  Part of the considerable charm of the original KH was its graphical stylings, perfectly melding the world of Final Fantasy and Disney into one cohesive world, which is recreated here with surprising, if not shocking results.  The worlds, characters, and enemies share a striking resemblance to those of the PS2 version, each one of which are immediately recognizable.  Now don’t get me wrong, you’ll never confuse the graphics of this cart to those on the PS2, but there is no denying the similarities and feelings they evoke.  For those that played the original, running around the worlds of this game will immediately bring the memories flooding back.  The characters are all well rendered and immediately recognizable, which is no small feat on the GBA’s small screen.  With that, I also need to offer a warning.  Make sure your jaw has a soft place to land when you view the full motion video sequences the game offers, especially the opening movie.  The GBA just isn’t supposed to be capable of such spectacle.  Making things all the more impressive is the sheer number and varying types of Heartless you’ll encounter on a single screen with absolutely no slow down whatsoever.

The sound fairs almost as well as the graphics, held back only by the audio capabilities of the GBA.  All of the music we grew to love with the original is here for us to enjoy with surprising depth and clarity.  Obviously there is no voice work, but the excellent music more than makes up for it.  Beyond that, the sound effects of Sora wielding the keyblade, magic being unleashed, or the sounds associated with the summoning friends to the heat of battle are excellent.  Simply put, the technical merits of this cart have instantly become the high points of what the system is capable.

Overall, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a very worthy successor to one of the most popular games of all time and stands as one of the greatest games available for the GBA.  Once fans of KH get past the new game mechanics they’ll no doubt be sucked in just as deeply as they were with this game’s forbearer.  It does take a little time to get used to card game aspects, but the game does a great job of easing gamers into it, while making them feel that it’s completely natural.  As a sequel it does a great job of continuing the storyline of the original while filling in a few of the blanks and as a prequel, it’ll have you counting and recounting the days until the launch of KH 2.  By way of the game’s storyline, you needn’t have played the original to enjoy this game, so what are you waiting for?  This, like the original, is an instant classic.

Review Scoring Details for Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories

Gameplay: 9.0
There is a surprising amount of strategy and depth here, especially for a GBA cart.  There is a slight learning curve, but once past this, the gameplay is a breeze.  While the card aspects might not have been what KH fans expected, strangely, it just works here.

Graphics: 9.5 
From the characters, to the worlds, to the full motion video, the graphics of this game are among the best on the system.  Had the graphics been a tad bit brighter, it would have easily scored a perfect 10.

Sound: 9.0
The music from the original game has been crammed onto this little cart and it sounds surprisingly good.  Veterans of KH will be immediately taken back to their last adventure with Sora and friends as soon as the first few notes flow from the speaker.  The hardware limitations are the only knock on the game’s sound.

Difficulty: Medium
With the depth and strategy required, its much more difficult than some would expect from a game featuring Disney characters.  Young gamers will likely grow frustrated very quickly, but such was the case with the original.  For everyone else, it provides a nice degree of challenge, which will keep you from breezing right through the game.

Concept: 9.0
I know the whole marriage of Final Fantasy and Disney has already been done, but the developer earns points for making a game for a portable system that feels every bit as big and important as the original.  The focus on the cards actually proves to be pretty innovative, helping to keep things fresh.

Overall: 9.1
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is without a doubt one of the best games available for the GBA and one of the best reasons for owning the system.  The characters, locales, and enemies from the original are all here, creating a compelling game and story on par in many ways with the original.  While the inclusion of the card system may initially turn some gamers off, all it takes is for one to spend a little time with the game to be pulled into its grasp.  The gameplay is surprisingly deep, with considerable replay value.  All in all, an outstanding effort that more than does justice to the original.


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