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.

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.