Stop me if you've heard this one: adventurous young lad travels through a series of Disney movie-based worlds - accompanied by Donald Duck and Goofy - in the hopes of reuniting with his missing friends.
What worked for the seminal PS2 Kingdom Hearts works for the GBA sequel. Picking up exactly where KH left off, Chain of Memories takes series lead Sora into a bizarre sidestory of promises and lies. If you did not play the original KH, this game will feel very fresh, dramatic and imaginative. If you did, Chain is a little stale, because the game rehashes almost every environment and character from its precursor. There are some critical differences in combat and exploration, but the visuals are all very very familiar. Some of which is comforting from a franchise standpoint (for example, Sora's heels-over-head leap to reach a higher platform... a cute example of good characterization through movement from the first game that is re-created here in 2D sprites), but at times you'd rather the restrictive storyline would allow for more new concepts.
We pick up their story as they enter the imposing Castle Oblivion. Maybe you wouldn't have entered a place called "Castle Oblivion," but Sora does... mainly because he has little else to do, and Pluto has headed off in that general direction. (There's a really nice CG movie at the start of the game, near-PS2 quality crammed into the GBA's initimate screen size.) Castle Oblivion erases the memories of his previous adventure, requiring Sora to rebuild his memory level by level. In each level, he must confront more Heartless, classic Disney villains like Ursula and Captain Hook, and a new group of enemies only hinted at before... the Organization.
This is the gimmick that explains why we're seeing the same bosses, the same enemies, the same levels as in the PS2 version. (Except, interestingly, the Tarzan-themed Deep Jungle world. No doubt keeping Tarzan out of the game save Disney some licensing fees.) But I can't talk further about the nature of the game's levels without first explaining the foundation of exploration and combat: cards.
This is a card-based game, although not in the sense of any other card game I've ever played. Cards here are a metaphor for your customization ability. Through the use of the cards you've collected, you create the game worlds and refine your attack prowess. Ergo, you're physically rebuilding Sora's stolen memories.
It makes for a nice interactive experience... although I feel the whole thing could have been explained more thoroughly. The manual glosses over how your cards work, and much of it makes no sense until you've actually played for a bit. Also, there's very little in-game tutorial... which seems like it would have been a golden opportunity to have Jiminy Cricket expound for screens about how to play effectively. In this respect, the game's first hour is daunting. You have crappy cards and little knowledge of what to do with them.
Let me help. First we'll look at Room Synthesis, which is a Final Fantastical way to say level creation. Levels in Chain of Memories are comprised of rooms and connected by doors. When you try to go through a door, you have to spend a card - one of your Map cards, which are kept separate from your combat cards. Each Map card has a numerical value and an ability that will define the room you're about to "create." See, you're building the levels by re-forging them from Sora's memories... using cards.
You don't get to pick the size or shape or anything overly Simsy like that; you're mainly selecting the baddie composition of the room, as determined by the card's ability. The card "Teeming Darkness" means your room will spawn lots of enemies. "Lasting Daze" means enemies can be stunned longer. So you get to choose how you'll be fighting, basically. You could conceivably only create rooms with weakened Heartless, but then you would gain less experience, level up slowly, and not be prepared for the boss fights.
The reason why Map cards are numbered is because the doorways require certain numbers to open (another key reference, just as in the first game). Map cards are also identified by color, so a door may require a blue card with a value higher than 4, or a green card exactly equal to 8. Potentially you could run up against a door that you don't have a proper card to open, so you would have to instigate more fights since cards are awarded randomly after battles. I actually rarely found myself in that situation; I almost always had a card to match. If it helps, you can re-re-create rooms using different cards. So if you do build an easy non-combat level, you can always travel back and redo some rooms.
Still, it gives you something to think about... I could use some experience points, so I'll play a Teeming Darkness card here... This world is getting long and I want to rush to the boss, so I'll play Feeble Darkness. There are also cards to create rooms with save points, treasure chests, and Moogle Shops. The Moogles of Castle Oblivion buy and sell cards, but only combat cards. The Moogles are clearly students of contemporary collectible card games, because they only sell packs of random cards. If you pay more, you can buy packs with a greater chance of rares... rares being high value attack cards and the better summon spells. It pays to be Mr. Suitcase, kupo!
Combat is tougher, and it maintains the nimble-finger tradition of KH. You have attack cards, magic/summon cards, and item cards. All cards have a strength value of 0 to 9. 9s are obviously the best and your deck ought to have many of them. Zero cards are like wraparound Aces... they'll always lose if played first, but always win if played after an enemy attack.
I've already made it sound boring... "if played first." It's hard to explain without it sounding like War or some other traditional card game. But the battles take place entirely in real time, and it is fast arcade action. Jumping, slashing, combo-driven combat. It's amazing how the designers managed to combine the two concepts: the customization of a deck of cards and the intensity of a Street Fighter. Follow along while I attempt to spell it out plainer than the instruction manual does (or most other reviews, who simply say "the card based mechanic is awesome.")
When you trigger a battle (by stepping on a roving enemy inside one of those rooms you created), the isometric view switches to fullscreen combat. You'll have your usual health meter and EXP count, plus the health meter of whichever baddie you're targeting (which is merely the nearest enemy; there's no purposeful targeting here.) But in the lower left corner is the card reel, where you see the top card of your deck. What makes this combat different is that the top card indicates what will happen when you hit A. If an attack card is up, you attack. If it's a Blizzard magic card, you cast Blizzard. Now, what's your inclination when you're in a room surrounded by little nasties all taking swipes at you? You start hammering the A button to fight, of course. The problem with Chain of Memories' mechanic is that rampant A-smacking will burn through your deck faster than most teens through Epcot's World Showcase.
It's not very intuitive. The visuals are all very Double Dragon, but your attacks are being controlled by some crazy deck of cards. It takes a leap to embrace the system and understand what you have to do to make it work. Because it would all be easier to just attack the Heartless with A button sword slashes, map some spells to the shoulder buttons, and be done with it.
Why did they do it this way? There's no storyline rationale for Castle Oblivion requiring complicated card battles. That's just the way it is. You'll do it because you're here and that the way things are done. My suspicion is they did it because it's different. And it is interesting, once you dive into deckbuilding.
You see, your initial deck is crap. Lots of low power attack cards, meaning your attack will be blocked more often than not. The enemies are using cards too, although you don't see their decks as you see yours. If you come at an enemy with a 3 attack card, and he uses a 7, your attack is blocked. "Card Break" is the term the game uses. This is where zeros are utilized... they themselves are beat by any number when you play them first, but if you wait until an enemy comes at you, then the 0 beats everything. Zeros are especially useful against the killer card combos wielded by bosses.
So you have got to get your deck stacked with high level cards. I quickly worked mine up with attack cards no lower than 6 - I didn't even use 0s for most of the game - and within not too long a time I was able to keep it to almost all 8s and 9s.
Deckbuilding uses a point structure to limit how may cards can be in your deck. A 9 is worth more points than a 3, so when you switch in the bigger numbers, you sacrifice the number of cards in your deck. The only downside to having a smaller deck is that you'll be reloading it often. It's sort of like a shuffle except that the cards never change order. A reload just resets your deck. Reloading takes time, and Sora has to stand still when doing it. Plus, reloads take longer as the fight goes on. Still, once I moved on to high-level attack cards, I never looked back, lengthy reloads or not.
Magic cards and summon cards just make Sora cast a spell instead of swinging his keyblade. Fire, Blizzard, all the usual Final Fantasy suspects are here. Longtime FF and KH fans know that you can always amp up your spells for greater damaging effect - upgrading Fire to Fira and then Firaga, for example. That is accomplished in Chain of Memories through "sleights"... saving cards in groups of three to be cast simultaneously. Hitting L and R at the same time stocks the current top card. Once three cards are stashed, L+R again casts a combo spell or attack. Guess what, three Fire cards turns into Firaga! You can stock attack cards and summon cards in the same way.
The trick is that certain combinations of stashed cards will become a known sleight. Fire + Mushu + any attack card triggers an impressive fireball attack. If you stock them in the wrong order, they will not combine and instead the cards will play out as if you had used them normally. So you have to make sure your stocking cards in the proper order, and this is where smart deckbuilding will help you out. Always decide on a couple sleights you like, place them in your deck in the correct order, then build the rest of your deck around them. See the sidebar for the three decks I used during my game.
Item cards are the third type, and they usually let you reload your deck for free or heal up. Typically, I would include one or two of them at the end of my deck. That way, they were at the end of the deck where they would be the most useful. Plus, I could rotate backwards to find them if I needed one ahead of time. Whatever you can do to make your deck structured and efficient, do it. You don't want to waste time clicking through cards to find the one you need to cause a Card Break or complete a sleight.
One other factor. After beating a boss, you usually get an Enemy card. Enemy cards have powerful effects on them, like Oogie Boogie's ability to slowly refill your HP. These cards go into your deck and count against your deck points, but they do not appear as part of the attack cards in the reel. Hitting Select switches you to a second reel of just Enemy cards, where you can rotate through and activate the one you want. You can only activate one Enemy card at a time. The card's effect duration is different for each card... usually "one reload" or "30 attacks" or similar. Skillful manipulation of your Enemy cards is a must in the tougher boss fights.
Again, I have to stress that this is all happening rather fast. It is easy to accidentally stock the wrong cards, waste attack cards against protected enemies, or mis-time your reloads so that you take cheap hits while you're out of action. This is the game's challenge. It's sort of a long way to go, but at least it's something new. There are enough types of map cards for you to have some fun in designing the levels, and there are plenty of combat cards to create your own style of attack.
Two other combat card flukes I should mention. The first card stocked in a sleight always disappeared for the duration of the battle. This is so you don't just sleight everything into some crazy powerful combo, because eventually you'll delete your entire deck. Secondly, there are "premium" cards - normal cards with a shiny sheen to them. Collectible hologram cards, really. They use up less deck points than regular cards, but they always disappear after being used. So you can't make an entire deck of those either. All of the removed cards come back once the battle is over.
Also, there's a minor RPG element. When Sora levels up, you choose whether to add to his HP, his CP (the Card Power of his deck, a higher number means a deck with more cards), or learn a new sleight. I mainly avoided the sleights. You learn most sleights without having to waste a level up on them, like how two Simbas are better than one Simba, etc. Most of the level up sleights involve tracking card number values, and I just didn't care to worry about that in the heat of battle. For example, there's specific combos formed when stocking three attack cards with a total value between 15 and 20, or whatever. I just played with 8s and 9s, plus some summon or magic based sleights that worked well for me.
Graphically, Chain of Memories is a standout. The sprites are massive and detailed, whether in the 3/4 overhead view or in battle. Characters have multiple frames of animation, so they can react during the cutscenes. All characters with speaking roles also get big closeup headshots, and these too have multiple expressions and emotions (although the closeups are all still frames.)
Battles can become distractingly impressive, especially when you start flinging spells. There are simulated lighting effects, something you don't often see in a GBA title. It is possible to cause slowdown during a really packed fight with a ton of enemies, but it never lasts for very long.
Just about every Heartless from the PS2 game returns here, each maintaining the visual style and movement fans will remember. Shadow Heartless slink and scurry along the ground. Wonderland's Trickmaster bobs on his unsteady legs. Even the Fantasia-inspired Mushrooms are in, pulling the same please-cast-magic-on-me gag. Then there's Neoshadows... I don't recall the Neoshadows actually being in Kingdom Hearts, instead premiering in the famous Deep Dive teaser video... so I think their appearance in Castle Oblivion is the first time gamers gets to fight them.
The game's soundtrack uses many of the same tracks from the first game, including the full version of Hikaru Utada's lovely "Simple and Clean" playing over the end credits. A nice feat! As for speech, well, this is still a GBA game, so the only sound samples are brief shouts and cries played during battles. According to the credit roll, those grunts are the work of the voice actors from the original. I'm sure they could have easily used generic voices or soundalikes here, but they used the same audio as before for consistency's sake. It's a little thing, but it's appreciated. James Woods probably got another $60 check out of the deal.
So we've talked at length about how exploration and combat works, about graphics and audio. Beyond that, it's all plot points and cutscenes. As you storm through Castle Oblivion, reliving a sort of Kingdom Hearts Greatest Hits, you find that Sora is being manipulated by the Organization. They are after the power of the keyblade, and their connection to Ansem and the events of Kingdom Hearts is hazy.
"Chain of Memories" is a appropriate subtitle, and it carries a double meaning. Chain as in connected path, and chain as in bondage. The wordplay becomes apparent into the game's second act, as Sora and company confront the machinations behind the quest.
Things come into sharper focus after you beat the game, when you can start a second adventure as Riku. Titled "Reverse/Rebirth", Riku's story is much easier (shorter) than Sora's. Riku doesn't build decks; instead he is assigned a different deck in each level. He still has to build the worlds using cards, and use cards during battle... Riku just doesn't have as much sleight ability or customization options as Sora. In exchange, Riku can enter darkness mode, which powers up his attacks. While Sora's story is mainly about the search for a way home and the promises he made to protect his friends, Riku's is concerned with his ongoing battle against the darkness in his own heart.
The characterization in Chain of Memories is not as strong as in the original, but this is simply because not as much happens here. Sora is still eager and impressionable, loyal to a fault. Donald and Goofy continue to agonize over their mission, finding King Mickey. The biggest surprise is Riku, last seen entering a futile struggle against the Heartless with King Mickey. Since so much of Kingdom Hearts had to do with Riku's descent into darkness, it's nice to meet up with him again in a more heroic form. And in Riku's story, we get a taste of what Disney fans have been waiting for: seeing Mickey on the battlefield.
And the stage is set for the next game, Kingdom Hearts 2 - back on PlayStation2.
On racks filled with NES/SNES re-releases, the GBA needs games like this to maintain its legitimacy. I mean, a direct sequel to a PS2 hit lands on the Game Boy! That's status. Chain of Memories is complicated, dramatic, and offers an innovative twist on typical adventure games. I think the card junk could have been explained better, but once you dope out the game's workings it does make sense. For the Kingdom Hearts fan, this is a necessity... even if the emphasis on re-presenting locales from the first game creates too much deja vu.