There seems to always be something obtuse about a new Kingdom Hearts game. I needed several hours before I could really get into the first PS2 Kingdom Hearts, and that was after a good deal of teeth gnashing. I don't know if these guys are ahead of their time, if I'm behind the times, or if they just need some lessons in streamlining and manual writing.
My issue with the GBA Kingdom Hearts - poignantly subtitled Chain of Memories - was with the whole card-based gameplay. It's just not explained very well either in-game or in the manual. With a lot of trial and error, and some "Oh, duh" moments, I'm finally getting the hang of it. Until you yourself have that epiphany, it's going to go badly for you.
The card thing holds two major mechanics, neither of which I understood at the outset: level creation and combat. It's actually two different sets of cards, even though they all look the same. To grasp level creation, you have to keep in mind the weird setting of Chain of Memories (which I'll get into in a bit, because it's a smidge dopey), where Sora is more or less re-building the worlds from the PS2 game as he goes. When you come to a door, you must use one of your room cards to create the room behind it. Since the cards all have different effects, you're allowed the freedom to forge the qualities of the next room... at least in regard to treasures, shops, and enemy count. Using the card "Teeming Darkness" will create a room that has a ton of wandering baddies in it. You may want that if you're at a point where you need experience points or new cards (awarded after successful battles), or you may want to avoid that if you're in a hurry and can't be bothered by a horde of Heartless.
After a couple hours, you'll have plenty of room cards to choose from, so you can make a room with sleepy Heartless, weak Heartless, few Heartless, treasure chests, increased magic effectiveness, a Moogle Shop, etc. Now that I understand what I'm doing, it's quite interesting. Compared to my first stab at level creation, when I used cards without thinking about them and just felt annoyed at how random the levels felt. Another thing to note is that some rooms are just plot point rooms, so any cards you use to create them are wasted.
Combat was the real sticky bit. It's awful when you first start; you need quite a few battles under your belt before it makes sense. This same thing happened in the first Kingdom Hearts, except that the problem there was a crazy real-time action fight scheme that also asked you to simultaneously manipulate your inventory. Whoa. Chain of Memories combines the fight style of, say, a Street Fighter, with a deck of cards. It's offputting at first, but that's only because your starter deck is total crap.
The deal is that your deck dictates your attacks, both style and strength. Whatever card is on top is what will happen when you hit the A button. If it's a regular attack card, Sora will swipe with his Keyblade. If it's a Blizzard magic card, he'll cast Blizzard. The enemies are also limited to cards, although you don't see them until they use them. If you come at a baddie with a card strength lower than the card they have played, your attack will be blocked. CARD BREAK. So your first order of business should be to remove all the low level attack cards and replace them with better ones. 2s out, 9s in.
You can also "stock" cards for use later in the battle. You can stock three cards at a time, to be later activated for a super attack. This is the only way to activate the big moves, similar to the Summon attacks from PS2 KH. Playing one Simba card will cause a roar move that does some damage, but stocking two Simbas will do damage and stun whoever is still standing. Stocking/Releasing comes on an awkward button combo though... that old favorite of developers working around the weak button count of the GBA: smacking L and R at the same time. It's not too bad, just that the required symmetry of using both hands to perform the same action simultaneously is fundamentally at odds with how video game controls usually work, where every finger is its own independant input device.
Stocking normal attack cards can initiate a "sleight", a special kind of attack for Sora. Can't say I've cared much about earning new sleights. They're just one more thing to worry about in a frenetic battle that doesn't need anything else crammed into it. It's all I can do to remember to stock the Simba cards, much less stocking three generic-looking attack cards of a specific value. So I'm coming out against the sleights.
I haven't mentioned what makes all this so daunting (at first, anyway)... it's all in real time. You don't select a card, wait for the enemy to select a card, then match them up War style. In appearance, you're hitting the A button as fast as you would in Soul Calibur, running around the field, burning through your deck as you go. You can go through 20 cards in a few seconds. Enemies attack much slower than you, but that is offset by the fact that you're facing 6+ of them at a time. It's all very arcade in look and feel, which can cause frustration when you're trying to expertly manipulate your deck and properly time your attacks. And of course, when your initial deck contains nothing more than one of each attack card from 7 to 0, you're going to pay a heavy price when you get to those crappy cards. When every low strength move gets blocked, you'll be wishing the game would dump the deck and just let you beat on baddies, old school.
That's why you need to tune your deck as soon as you get extra cards. Pump up the power levels, toss in some Summons, and get back in the fight. Since you're clicking through your cards so fast, it helps to put the cards in a particular order so you know what to expect. (Decks are not shuffled randomly, and must be "reloaded" when they run out.) My current deck starts off with about 18 attack cards, all between 6 to 9 in value. Then three Simba cards, a Heal, and a free Reload card.
You also can throw in Heartless cards, but I'm not sure how they work. They all have some kind of overreaching battle effect - like blocking Card Breaks for 20 cards - but they never show up in your deck during battle. Maybe they just work by themselves for the specified duration without having to be activated?
This amused me: there are foil cards. I don't know if they have a different effect from the non-foil cards... but I have found some random cards that have a shiny, glowing sheen on them. They're probably just there to be collected. Moogle Shops, where you go to buy boosters of random cards, pay more credit for the foils, but I can't bring myself to sell them. Just like real life!
As for the Memories plotline, it gets off to a pretty inauspicious start that makes it feel like when The Simpsons pulls out a clip show. The game picks up where the PS2 game ends, with a wonderful FMV that recalls KH's final moments. (There better be a Movie Gallery option hidden somewhere, because these clips are too great to be run once and never seen again.) Then Sora, Goofy and Donald enter Castle Oblivion, which appears to contain all the friends and locations they thought they left behind in the first game. The twist is that nobody remembers anything, so Sora must embark on a journey to restore everyone's lost memories. Hence going back to the same worlds (and re-creating them from memory), hence fighting all the same bosses.
Bit of a drag, that. It punctuates the notion that Chain of Memories isn't a genuine part of the series and more of an add-on. Now, I'm only a couple of worlds in, so things could change considerably before the end. In fact, I just watched a scene where Sora suddenly recalls a fourth friend from their home island, a girl never mentioned before. If the amnesia is widespread, it presumably could be written to effect the first game as well... Chain of Memories' greatest purpose may be to introduce this new character, tailor made for a role in Kingdom Hearts 2. The jury is still out.