Welcome to part three of Kingdom Hearts in Review! Every Wednesday for the next several weeks, I’ll be publishing a series of comprehensive articles looking back on each individual Kingdom Hearts game, examining a variety of topics ranging from the historical contexts surrounding each game’s release to their gameplay mechanics, and (most often) their narrative arcs. Last week, I covered the series’ 2002 debut title. This week, it’s time for a deep dive into one of the more vexing games in the franchise - Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is one of the only games in the entirety of the Kingdom Hearts franchise that I actively dislike.
To be clear – this isn’t because of the game’s story; Chain of Memories’ bifurcated narrative (the series’ first experiment with telling a story from multiple perspectives) is solid, introducing several of the elements that would come to take up prominent space in later series entries: Axel, Organization XIII, Namine, etc. It is (for better or worse) an essential component of Kingdom Hearts lore, one that tees up a number of storylines that are still playing out within the franchise to this day.
Rather, Chain of Memories’ failings largely come down to Chain of Memories’ gameplay – a card-based combat system developed so that the game would be able to deliver a Kingdom Hearts-esque experience on the Game Boy Advance without needing the graphical fidelity of a PS2 game or the nuanced controls of a DualShock 2. I’ve played both versions of Chain of Memories – the GBA original, released in 2004, and the PS2 remake, Re:Chain of Memories, released in 2007 – and both of them are solid additions to the Kingdom Hearts canon that suffer immensely from an incongruity between gameplay mechanics.
(It should be noted that, for the purposes of this piece, the majority of my thoughts are going to be based off of my most recent playthrough of Re:Chain of Memories. If anything I say misrepresents the original version of the game released on the GBA, please feel free to let me know!)
This incongruity stems largely from the fact that Chain of Memories is trying to be two different games at the same time. The card battle system is the game’s defining feature – players will likely end up spending a great deal of time organizing their deck, shuffling cards around in an attempt to optimize their strategy for maximum devastation. However, it’s applied within the battle structure of the original Kingdom Hearts – players move around a two-dimensional plane (three-dimensional in Re:Chain of Memories), getting up close to their enemies in an attempt to unleash a thousand Keyblade swipes upon their foes. This combat takes place in real time.
Chain of Memories suffers from the combination of these two concepts. If Chain of Memories was willing to commit to being a card game, embracing its tactical roots at the cost of a slightly slower pace – becoming something more closely resembling a turn-based card battle RPG – it might have achieved a higher standing in the echelons of Kingdom Hearts games from the perspective of satisfying gameplay. However, applying the same freedom of movement available to the player in their opponents that was present in the original Kingdom Hearts creates a gameplay style that often seeks to contradict itself; after all, how is a player supposed to think tactically about their card usage when they’re under siege from countless enemies on a battlefield?
What proves to be eminently frustrating about the game’s combat mechanics is its “card break” system, which appears to function simply enough: if you and your opponent unleash two cards at the same time, the one with a higher power level will destroy the other, stunning the loser and leaving them open to successive attacks. Part of the key to conquering Chain of Memories is developing card breaking as a skill – but the early game constantly seems to be rigged against the player. Enemies – and bosses in particular – will constantly whip out cards whose power levels eclipse your own, forcing you to resort to strategic timing or sleights (combinations of two or more different cards) to land hits on your opponents.
There’s also an ocean of contradictions when it comes to deck structure – sleights are the game’s “super moves”, functioning as a replacement for the original Kingdom Hearts’ ability system. However, the player can never solely rely on sleights, given that the first card in a sleight vanishes from your deck for the duration of whatever battle you’re fighting – if you rely on sleights, your number of attacks will steadily decrease over time. Therefore, while Sleights practically guarantee a series of hits on your opponent, they come at a cost. In theory, all of these systems make sense – the caveat with sleights allows for a fair and balanced system. (Later in the game, bosses will depend upon 0 cards in order to break your sleights, but those can easily be negated with proper timing.)
However, it takes a great deal of work and investment just to build a deck in which sleights aren’t the only weapon in one’s arsenal – most cards are locked within the bounds of the Moogle Shop, a vendor only accessible when one has the proper room card with which to unlock it. In order to buy cards at the Moogle Shop, one needs Moogle Points, which one can only really find by destroying breakable objects in various rooms. However, these objects rarely ever drop a substantial amount of Moogle Points, and the cost of cards gets higher as one ascends higher into Castle Oblivion. Therefore, it becomes harder and harder to build one’s deck as time goes on, which can be frustrating when your enemies are progressively becoming stronger without any such trade-off.
Not all of Chain of Memories’ development decisions are awful - one of the more intriguing aspects of the game is the way in which it places character construction entirely in the player’s hands. This applies not just to deck construction, but the game’s leveling system as well, which is the only one in the franchise’s history that allows you to choose what stats level up. With each increase in level, players are given the choice of increasing their HP, CP (card power, which allows you to increase the size of your deck), or gain a new sleight to use. (In Riku’s playthrough, CP and Sleights are replaced with Attack Points and Darkness Points, which increase the strength of his attacks and make his transformation into his Dark form more powerful, respectively.)
Speaking of Riku, it should be noted that his campaign is slightly easier than Sora’s, and does away with most of the card battle element’s nuance by integrating pre-selected decks that are unique to each world. This results in Riku’s campaign (known as Reverse/Rebirth) taking on the feel of Kingdom Hearts – it’s far more of a button-masher, allowing it to proceed at a much brisker pace than Sora’s story. (My playthrough of Sora’s campaign lasted close to thirty hours – Riku’s was only twelve.)
In general, Riku’s half of Chain of Memories is far stronger than Sora’s half – which is a shame, given that Sora’s story is clearly the main attraction. Sora’s story, which is the only story available to the player at the start of the game, features what is practically the entirety of Chain of Memories’ incorporation of Disney characters, the more robust version of the combat system, and the major plot points that bridge Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II.
Which makes it a shame that most of it falls flat. This is due largely to the fundamental flaws with the game’s very premise – Sora is thrust into worlds created from the memories of his adventures in the original Kingdom Hearts as he ascends Castle Oblivion floor-by-floor in the hopes that said ascent will lead him to Riku and Kairi. However, this premise immediately robs the game of some of its emotional urgency, for a few reasons.
The first reason is that it’s acknowledged from the very beginning that none of these worlds that Sora is visiting are real, meaning that none of his allies from the original game will truly be affected by his actions – the plot structure is just an excuse to incorporate the Disney characters, but their worlds are robbed of any true emotional impact due to the fact that none of Sora’s actions within them matter. Also, the fact that they’ve been created from his memories means that, for the most part, the player is simply traversing beat-for-beat recreations of levels from the original Kingdom Hearts, except now the rooms are procedurally generated and devoid of personality, save for the occasional cutscene.
The real meat of Chain of Memories’ plot occurs in between each world, when Sora will often come face-to-face with a member of The Organization, or discover that he’s lost a crucial memory of his from the first game, or oftentimes both. These transitional hallways are where the majority of the game’s consequential boss battles and cutscenes take place, meaning that players are often traveling through what can become hour-and-a-half long worlds for ten-minute chunks of plot at a time. The gameplay often isn’t satisfying enough to justify the minimal narrative return on investment, and the game’s sense of flow suffers for it.
This is even more depressing given that so much of Sora’s arc in Chain of Memories is consequential to future installments – Namine, the game’s personified macguffin, is a prominent part of Kingdom Hearts II and 358/2 Days, and her actions in Chain of Memories end up resulting in a series of consequences that play out over the course of those two games. Axel’s emotional journey in Chain of Memories marks the start of a long character arc that is still reaping dividends in the franchise’s most recent installments. The very existence of the Riku Replica introduces a concept that ends up playing a large role in the events of 358/2 Days. The complete destruction of Jiminy’s Journal in Chain of Memories serves as the sole justification for the existence of Re:Coded as a game. The narrative impact is far-reaching – and the final moments of Sora’s story feature one of the series’ most genuinely moving and nigh-tragic pyrrhic victories – yet it can all be such a slog to get through.
Riku’s story is better by a wide margin, due largely to the improved pacing. Riku’s worlds are devoid of Disney-based cutscenes, meaning that they’re just battle chambers designed to move him from one plot beat to the next. Due to the minimized need for deck maintenance and reduced presence of tactical gameplay, these worlds often pass in the blink of an eye, meaning that one never has to wait long for the next significant plot development. While the Organization antagonists introduced in Riku’s story are nowhere near as memorable as Sora’s enemies, they serve a narrative function and fill in the blanks as to what was going on behind the scenes as Sora waged war through Castle Oblivion. (The two stories take place simultaneously.)
Riku’s character arc is also far superior to Sora’s in Chain of Memories. While Sora’s story is a continuation of his mission from Kingdom Hearts – find Riku and bring him home – Riku’s is more nuanced and complex, as he embarks on what will become a series-long quest for redemption for his actions in Kingdom Hearts. Struggling with his inner darkness, he finds himself in Castle Oblivion’s basement, where he is subjected to a series of trials by Organization XIII’s scientific mastermind, Vexen, and his team of subordinates.
However, Riku’s true foe in Chain of Memories is Ansem, as remnants of his darkness persist within Riku following his defeat at the end of Kingdom Hearts. Riku spends the majority of Reverse/Rebirth aware that Ansem could attain control over his body at any given moment, and is constantly in search of the inner strength he needs in order to conquer his own fears and defeat the darkness. Riku’s journey (featuring cameo appearances by King Mickey, his only true companion throughout the game) to find his way back to the light ends in satisfying fashion, as a series of events unfold that end up forging his own heroic philosophy, one that will steer him head-on into the events of 358/2 Days and Kingdom Hearts II.
Riku’s arc, which concludes with his decision to walk the “Twilight Road to Dawn” between darkness and light, is one of Kingdom Hearts’ strongest stories – which makes it disappointing that it feels like there’s so much padding to get there. In general, Chain of Memories feels like an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Kingdom Hearts with a grindy, tedious handheld game that serves as both a rehash of the original title as well as a bridge to the sequel. The amount of worthwhile plot beats that exist in Chain of Memories could easily be compiled into a standalone film, and nothing of true value would be lost.
It’s perhaps most intriguing to view Chain of Memories as both an anomaly in the larger scheme of the Kingdom Hearts franchise as well as a precursor to what would eventually come. It’s the first of the many spinoffs that would grace the series at large, and the most unique of said spinoffs in terms of gameplay mechanics. The card battle system was never attempted again, as future handheld titles such Birth By Sleep and 358/2 Days would adapt a more simplified version of the mainline series’ mechanics.
Yet, Chain of Memories, despite its status as an unusual experiment, would also set an uncomfortable precedent, as it marked the series’ first attempt to incorporate a significant amount of relevant plot into the body of a spinoff. This wouldn’t prove to be much of a problem when Kingdom Hearts II released – much of that game’s storyline depended on Sora not remembering the events of Chain of Memories – but would become far more relevant in the series’ later years, as Birth by Sleep, Re:Coded, and Dream Drop Distance, much to the chagrin of those with only one console, would serve to lay significant narrative groundwork for Kingdom Hearts III.
Let’s remember Chain of Memories as an intermediate step – one that introduced some of Kingdom Hearts’ greatest characters, laid the groundwork for what remains, to this day, the best game in the series, and began Riku’s phenomenal redemption arc. So much of the series’ history can be credited to this game that it’s disappointing how remarkably flawed it is.
It’s almost funny: it’s fitting that the game in which Sora would lose his fundamental sense of self would, in its own way, suffer from an identity crisis.