Kingdom Hearts, released in 2002, was a surprise hit for Square Enix (known as Squaresoft at the time). While a flawed game, it brought in a significant audience with it's mix of Final Fantasy and Disney properties, stylish combat, gorgeous visuals, surprisingly complex characters, and a story filled with heart and soul. With it's success and a cliffhanger ending, it was very clear that Sora's story wasn't over yet. So Square did the only logical thing, and released a sequel.
On the Gameboy Advance.
It later got a PS2 remake and was released in Japan alongside Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix + (don't worry, we'll get to that), and received an English translation and release 2 years later. With its inclusion in the 1.5 Remix, RE:COM is now considered the canonical version of these events, and this will be the version I'm reviewing. As the Kingdom Hearts series' first "bridge" game, does it leave a good impression? Let's find out.
Keep in mind this review WILL contain spoilers.
Chain of Memories picks up immediately where Kingdom Hearts left off, with Sora, Donald, and Goofy continuing their quest to find Riku and King Mickey. The trio find themselves drawn to a mysterious castle known as Castle Oblivion, led by a group of men and women wearing black, hooded cloaks. With the promise that the trio may very well find their missing friends by proceeding through, Sora and co. begin their journey to ascend to the top of the tower. However, as they climb, they find their memories starting to fade, and new memories appearing. As they climb Castle Oblivion, it's up to Sora to discover the meaning of these memories, and how a mysterious girl named Namine ties into everything.
Meanwhile, Riku manages to escape the Realm of Darkness, and finds himself appearing at the basement level of Castle Oblivion. With no way to go but forward, Riku starts his own mission to escape the castle, all while dealing with more black-cloaked conspirators, and coming to terms with the terrible things he did in Kingdom Hearts 1, and his own inner darkness.
Chain of Memories is this weird odd duck in the Kingdom Hearts storyline, in that it's simultaneously important, and completely irrelevant to the main story. The Organization would go on to act as the main antagonists of Kingdom Hearts II, and this game explains why half of them are already gone by them. This game also serves to introduce us to Namine, AND it explains both how Sora falls asleep before KH2, and how Riku got out of the Realm of Darkness. That being said, the game ends with Sora losing all of his memories of the events of Castle Oblivion, and they're never REALLY addressed in future instalments, so it's like the game itself doesn't know if it's important or not.
The story is a real mixed bag, I'm not gonna lie. There are elements I like, even LOVE. Sora, throughout the first game, didn't really grow or change in any major way. But here, he finds himself being pushed to his mental breaking points. He's constantly being antagonised by this Organization, his memories are being manipulated with every floor, he begins to turn on his closest friends, and it seems like no matter what he does, he's only moving further into the Organization's clutches. The idea of Sora having no idea what's real and what's not has the potential for some great drama, and it delivers at moments. But there's one major problem: there's no mystery for the PLAYER. We KNOW Sora is being manipulated, and by who. We KNOW which of his memories are real and which aren't. There's nothing for the PLAYER to solve, only SORA. So while this is an idea that's filled with potential, it ends up being frustrating more often than not.
The same can be said for the villains. Marluxia and Larxene are great antagonists to Sora and his friends, and act as great foils to each other. Larxene, the sole female member of the Organization, is also its most violent and sadistic member. She relishes in watching people suffer, and finds no greater joy than in tormenting Sora. Marluxia, on the other hand, is a very unique antagonist for the series. He's incredibly powerful and has a lust for power, but he hides it behind a wall of calm elegance. He's strong, yet he knows his limits. His first instinct isn't to fight, but to think. He only steps out of the shadows when absolutely necessary, but when push comes to shove, he can easily hold his own against the Organization's personal assassin, Axel. While Vexen really serves to be a plot device to spout exposition, Larxene, Axel, and Marluxia help drive the story.
But the problem HERE is that we know nothing about WHY they do what they do. We know they're part of an Organization. Who are they, though? Marluxia and Larxene are out to betray them. Why? Vexen constantly pulls out ranks, but what do those numbers actually mean? None of these are addressed. Some will get answers in future instalments, but if we don't know the characters' motivations NOW, it's hard to care about them NOW. We know the who, the what, and the how, but the most important WHY is left completely unanswered.
Thankfully, Riku's story, which is unlocked by beating Sora's main campaign, fairs much better. It's significantly shorter, making everything feel far more important. His villains are Zexion, Lexaeus, and the one and only(?) Ansem. Since we know Ansem is already a threat, the stakes are already well established. Meanwhile, Zexion and Lexaeus have motivations that tie directly to Marluxia and Larxene, so what drives them is understandable. On top of that, his opponents UNDERSTAND Riku, and know what makes him tick, which only makes them that much more dangerous. He claims darkness is his enemy, yet constantly finds himself entrenched in it. He wants to reunite with Sora, yet was trying to kill him not too long ago. Riku's story is one of redemption and self-discovery, and it feels personal. While it may not be dramatically important to the main plot, it's important for RIKU, and you feel that Riku develops greatly through the events of Castle Oblivion. And unlike Sora, these events stay with him, and become a part of his character for the remainder of the series.
So yeah. Hope you like card games.
Chain of Memories retains the action-based combat of the game before, but with a twist: instead of attacking using a menu, you attack with cards. You have cards for Keyblades, Magic spells, Items, and various characters you encounter through the game. For the most part, it's self explanatory; Keyblades use regular attacks, Magic cards cast elemental spells, Items reload your deck, and the Character cards act as brief summons. You also obtain Enemy cards for, you guessed it, defeating certain enemies and bosses. These can be used once per fight to give Sora temporary buffs in combat. Each card has a numerical value from 0 - 9, and enemies use these same cards to fight you. If you and an enemy attack at the same time, the card with the higher value will win. If they're the same, both cards are lost and neither enemy attacks. 0 cards will automatically break any card it's used against, but can also be broken instantly if it's used FIRST. In order to progress through Castle Oblivion, you must also use cards on doors. Each door has a specific requirement to be opened, and depending on which cards you use to meet these requirements, the room before you will change. Some can be empty, some can be littered with enemies, some can contain Save areas and Treasure. It's up to you. Sora also has access to Sleights, which are activated by combining up to three cards together for various results. For example, you can create a basic 3-hit combo with a higher number value than 3 separate cards, you can combine 3 of the same spells together to form a 2nd or 3rd tier version of the spell, and by meeting certain requirements, you can unleash your most powerful abilities. That being said, you will lose the first card you used in the Sleight for the remainder of the battle, so unless you're stacked with Elixirs, Sleights cannot be used lightly.
Riku follows the same basic rules, but with several variations. Unlike Sora, Riku CANNOT customize his deck; he's given a specific set with every new floor, and that's what he has to use. He also has a very limited set of Sleights he can access when compared to Sora. That being said, Riku also gets his own bells and whistles to make up for this. Unlike Sora, Riku can reload his deck instantly. When two cards of the same value are played against each other, Riku and his opponent enter a "Duel Mode," where you have to rapidly break several of your opponents cards. Doing so will allow Riku to unleash a devastating attack on his enemy. Riku also has access to "Dark Points" which increase as you break enemy cards. Once the meter fills, Riku will enter Dark Mode, where he dons his dark suit from KH1. His attacks become significantly stronger and he gains access to several new, incredibly powerful Sleights. This form lasts until Riku takes a certain amount of damage. It's just enough to make Riku feel refreshing and unique from Sora.
Honestly, I actually like CoM's combat system. While KH1 had some sharp difficulty spikes towards the end, "Mash X to Win" was still a pretty viable strategy for a vast majority of the game. With CoM, however, you have to be a bit more strategic than that. If you just spam your most powerful abilities, you could very well make it through the basic battles with ease. But as the Heartless grow stronger, and begin to break your cards, your forced to rely on timing more than anything else. This is a combat system that forces you to stop, think, and use your opponents cards against them.
Or rather, it WOULD be, if it wasn't easy to completely break the game with it.
It's pretty easy to gain currency to buy card decks from Moogle shops, and with them, you can quickly amass a pretty powerful deck. Load a bunch of 9 cards in, add a few Elixirs and cures, and you're set for life. In addition, while Sora gets plenty of strong attacks through Sleights, there's one that was added just for RE: COM: Lethal Frame.
This is the single best ability in the entire game. It's easy to set up (one stop card + two attack cards of any value), it's easy to hit enemies with, and it will clear a full health bar off of any enemy in the game. There is never any reason to NOT have this sleight in your hands. Unless you're up against an enemy that can teleport or fly, it should be your go-to attack in almost any situation. Up against a low-mobility boss? Lethal Frame. Enemy with a shield? Lethal Frame cuts right through it. Multiple health bars? Just use 2 Lethal Frames, and they're dead if not seriously wounded. It makes the majority of the game a cakewalk.
So naturally, the game looks gorgeous, that shouldn't be any surprise. Unfortunately, while technically good looking, the art-pallet takes a significant hit. Most of the game takes place in Castle Oblivion. Which means a lot of white. A LOT of white. Gone is the vibrant colour pallet of KH1, replaced with...... white. In addition, while the story in Castle Oblivion is decent at times, the Disney sections in between are an absolute SLOG to get through. They add absolutely nothing to the plot, and are, once again, basic retellings of Disney movies, but with the theme of "memory" somehow tossed in there. On top of that, every single world (save for 100 Acre Wood, returning as the mini game world) is the same. They only actually differ in 2 aspects: the Heartless that appear, and the colour of the backgrounds. Because the room layouts are decided by cards instead of the world itself, no matter which world you're in, each room will look and act exactly the same, with no unique mechanics. These were included only to pad the run time of the game, and they add nothing to it as a whole. In each campaign, only 4 worlds ACTUALLY contribute something. For Sora, it's Traverse Town, Twilight Town, Destiny Islands, and Castle Oblivion. For Riku, Hollow Bastion, Destiny Islands, Twilight Town, and Castle Oblivion. See the problem here?
Even the voice acting takes a punch. Most of the main cast reprises their roles (with Sora sounding far older in his KH1 design, thanks to Haley Joel Osment being 6 years older), and the newcomers all fit into their roles with ease. Unfortunately, unlike KH1, they didn't bother to sync the lips to their English voices, which means the actors are forced to pause and speed up their delivery to match the lip flaps. This causes a lot of the dialogue to sound stiff and unnatural.
But, let's be real, there's also plenty to appreciate here. The entire soundtrack has been remastered, and it sounds great. The original songs used are wonderful, and the new final boss theme for Sora is among the best compositions in the entire series. Speaking of which, RE: COM also features two new boss fights: a new final battle against Marluxia, and a boss battle against Zexion for Riku. Both of these are very welcome additions, ESPECIALLY the Zexion battle, which was completely absent in the GBA version.
I'm generally far more kind to CoM than most KH fans, but looking at it objectively, it's hard to deny its flaws. For everything it does right, it does something wrong. The story has promise and intrigue, yet is held back by poorly explained motivations and a feeling of unimportance. The villains are cool, but poorly developed. The combat is unique and strategic, but easy to break. The game is graphically great, but it looks bland and lifeless. The cast is talented, but forced to stiffen their delivery to match the characters' lips. It's definitely not a great game like KH1, but I can't say I DISLIKED it, either. It falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. That's why I'm giving Kingdom Hearts RE: Chain of Memories a:
6 / 10
I give this game points for being willing to take risks, but unfortunately, many of those risks just didn't pay off. Ultimately, what kept me from going a 5 or lower was the new content, and just how well done Riku's story was. It also introduced many of my favourite characters in the series, so hey, credit where credit's due.
What's interesting is that while this is very much a direct sequel to Kingdom Hearts, there was a very clear decision made to not title it Kingdom Hearts II. That's because Kingdom Hearts II, the REAL Kingdom Hearts II, would be in its way within about a year (which actually kinda fits in with how CoM ends). Will the TRUE sequel to Kingdom Hearts be worth the wait? Well, stay tuned.
Edited by baylaust, 15 August 2017 - 06:07 PM.