The black sheep of the Kingdom Hearts family. More than any other game, Chain of Memories has gotten huge amounts of hate and vitriol from the fan community. The story in Kingdom Hearts 2 was confusing because no one played this game and as a result everyone complained. But if they tried to play this game, the confusing card based system was such a put-off from the original Kingdom Hearts action based game-play that they stopped before it got good. The problem with all of the spin-offs in the Kingdom Hearts series is that none of them are actually spin-offs. Think Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, even though it's not a numbered title like AC2 or AC3, it was just as important to the overall progression of the series. Chain of Memories began it's conception as a GBA game, before being rebuilt from the ground up to play as a 3D game on the PS2. I finally pushed my way through for the first time, and it was 2000x better than I expected. Let me tell you why....
A lot of people jumped into Kingdom Hearts 2 without playing Chain of Memories first. I hardly blame them, it was an obscure GBA game when it came out and it had a weird combat mechanic. But everything in this game is majorly important to understanding Kingdom Hearts 2. Teasing the concept of nobodies, showing a few of the members of Organization XIII, introducing key players like Namine, DiZ, and Axel. You can't even understand the first 5 hours or so of Kingdom Hearts 2 without the background from this game (though admittedly, you're supposed to be in the dark as to what's going on, but that's for another review).
This entire game, as you can tell by the title, revolves around memories. Duh. Technically, every single world that you visit is merely a reconstruction of Sora's memories. As soon as he walks into Castle Oblivion he forgets everything he's learned in terms of combat. Each card, is a manifestation of his memories. The plot revolves around the manipulation of memories. It gets a little confusing, but only a little bit since they usually do a pretty good job of explaining. The whole thing is really cool once you realize what they're trying to do. If I talk anymore, then I go into major spoilers, but the game brings up some interesting thoughts on what memories mean to each of us and how much of our personalities are just constructions of our memories. The game goes a long way towards making these themes relatable to us and how we deal with our own friends and memories. I'm a Criminal Justice major and the surprising thing is that witness testimony often tends to be inaccurate, even when the witness isn't being purposely misleading or lying. Our memories are not nearly as reliable as we think they are, and the way this game deals with these ideas is pretty cool. It's no fantastic, subtle, emotional journey like something from Last of Us or anything, but the whole concept is incredibly meta and well-thought out. Kingdom Hearts is one of the few game series that is willing to address such topics so blatantly even if it is a little cheesy.
This section is long but tries to give a pretty clear picture of how combat works and why I like it despite it's confusing nature. If you want to play the game for reals, I published my comprehensive guide to combat here, that will actually help you understand how to play it best. This is more for a general understanding.
Unlike KH1, Sora fights alone. Donald and Goofy appear during cutscenes, but only fight with Sora when he summons them via card. As mentioned, Sora can only use manifestations of his memories as cards, and then he uses those cards in combat. Throughout the game, instead of increasing your stats like strength and magic power and getting new equipment, you receive and manipulate a deck of cards that you use in battle. Every time you run into an enemy on the map, you enter a small battle arena where you fight between 1-25 heartless. These rooms are basically just flat squares, except for boss rooms which are a little different and resemble their arenas from the first Kingdom Hearts.
During battle, only one card can be played at any one time. You play cards from your deck using the X button, and enemies attack using cards in their deck. Cards are valued with a number between 0-9, this does not reflect the actual strength of the card, but merely affects which cards can be played when. During battle, The card value with the highest value is the one that is executed. If I attack a heartless with a "5" card, but during my attack another heartless interrupts with a "6" then my attack is cancelled. In the same way, if you are fighting a boss and he throws out a "4" card, you can cancel his attack by playing the "7" you have next in your deck. "0" cards are the exception to this rule, they both break and are broken by everything. If you play a "0" card, then any card can break it during it's execution, but if someone else plays a "9" card then you can use your "0" card and break it out right.
Once you've played all of your cards, you have to wait a second and "charge" a meter to reload your deck. You can't move while charging, so you leave yourself vulnerable during this time. Each time you reload your deck, the length of the charge meter increases (although only to a certain point), so you should try to build a deck with lots of cards and avoid wasting your cards on missed attacks.
Sounds confusing so far right? there's more. You can play three cards together which are then added together as a composite value and all three attacks are executed consecutively. Additionally, certain combinations of these cards turn into special attacks called sleights. These sleights have special status effects, execute special actions or are just more powerful versions of the original attack. Using the combining cards thing sounds like a fantastic idea since it prevents your cards from being broken and also allows you to attack all at once. The problem is that every time you use a sleight or a combination of cards, you temporarily lose that card for the rest of the battle. So you can either choose to do massive damage and end the battle early, or fight more strategically and conserve your cards. Either way works, the game doesn't really force you one way or another.
All of this limited by your deck capacity. You can always have up to 99 cards in your deck. But the quality and quantity of your deck is limited by your CP. The cheapest cards cost around 13CP and the most expensive in the game can be as much as 99 CP. In general, the more valuable the card, the higher the value. Stronger cards and higher value cards cost more CP.
You wanna know the best part? Nearly every single one of these rules can be broken. There are cards that reload your deck without increasing your counter. Cards that summon friends like Cloud. Cards that reload cards you lost in sleights. Cards that cost less but are used up instantly, just like a sleight. Literally almost every single rule gets broken by some unique card, and that's what I loved most of all in this whole system. Finding out how to exploit all these weaknesses and find and fix your own weaknesses in your deck. It's definitely worth it to find every single unique sleight and card. Even if you don't use them, it's just fun to unlock them all. And you might just find that all powerful sleight that fills the hole in your deck. I'm doing a full separate write-up on a break down here for a complete rundown of the whole system, just because there's such a huge barrier to entry in terms of understanding the concept, but this serves to address the major strengths of the system.
When I started this game, I was intimidated by the super confusing battle system and with good reason. It took me about 4-6 hours to figure out all the nuances, and that was on top of all the internet hunting I did to help me understand. But once you figure it all out, the bosses are a treat to destroy. Most of the Disney bosses aren't that entertaining. They usually don't have any sleights, and you just whale on them until they die. Humanoid bosses like Hook, and the Organization XIII members however, all have super cool attacks, sleights, and enemy cards just like you. I don't think there was a single member that I didn't have to totally retool my deck to deal with. But figuring out how and why they attack, finding out which attacks to use your "0's" on, when to use your sleights, etc. It all works really well. Find what works for you, but don't be afraid to change your strategy when you change to a new world with new heartless or have to face a new boss. This game is built upon flexibility. Sell the cards you'll never ever use and keep the ones you might use later. Who knows? Maybe you'll find an awesome new sleight late game that needs a magic card you found.
Every time you enter combat and defeat a group of enemies, you get a map card with a number, a color and an attribute. You then use those cards to build the level. Each level has a per-constructed layout, but you give each room form using your map cards. It's actually a pretty cool system overall. If you need a save point, just spawn one. Want to fight lot's of heartless? Just spawn a room with lots of heartless. Want to open some chests? Just spawn a map room. Certain doors also have number and or color requirements to open. Just be sparing in how you use your cards and you won't have any problems. In some cases, this maze-like feeling actually helps make spaces feel bigger and more real than they did in the original Kingdom Hearts. Neverland feels like a massive pirate ship, Abragah feels like a full-on city, spaces that were limited by disc space don't have those limitations anymore because you can just generate the space as you go. You could think about this whole thing as a generic, randomly generated JRPG, but I like thinking about it more meta in how I imagine the spaces. It makes the game more fun, and besides we could all do with a little more imagination in our lives.
I liked pretty much every new character in this game. Larxene, Marluxia, Axel, Namine, and even Vexen were all pretty cool and had pretty unique personalities. Larxene is a sadist, Axel is inscrutable, Marluxia hungers for power but feels like a completely different villain than Ansem. More importantly, going into KH2 and understanding it is nearly impossible without understanding this game's story and knowing certain other character's ahead of time like Axel and Namine. Even the less important ones are still interesting and fun though.
So I can't really go into their evil scheme too heavily without revealing massive spoilers, but trust me, it's good. They are manipulating Sora and the player the entire game, and he doesn't even realize it. By being who he is, (I've gotta save everyone and I care really deeply about my friends) he plays directly into their hands which is brilliant. And not only does this scheme work, it would've succeeded perfectly if not for the interference of an outside source (we all knew it wouldn't actually succeed because there are more games in the series). In a game series with a huge reputation for not making any sense, this game and the previous one are easily the ones that make the most sense.
Okay, you want the spoiler's after all? So at the beginning of the game, Marluxia, the head villian, shows up and tells Sora that he's going to forget everything that was unimportant to him if he entered the castle, but that if he continued through the castle he would find the friend he lost at the end of KH1 (Riku) and unlock his true memories. As Sora progresses through the tower, he forgets all of his travels and experiences except for his most dear friends, Riku and Kairi, but at the same time he begins to remember his lost friend Namine. And as he continues even further, Namine replaces his memories of Kairi. As it turns out, Namine is actually a abnormality (labeled witch) who has the ability to rewrite Sora's memories. She was being manipulated by Marluxia, so that he could turn into Sora into his puppet. By using Sora's overwhelming determination and fabricated loyalty to Namine, Sora plays directly into his hands. The only reason he fails is because Axel and Vexen betray Marluxia, ultimately revealing the plan to Sora and allowing him to stop Marluxia. Sora's sucess has absolutely nothing to do with what he did over the course of the game. Marluxia's entire plan would have succeeded, and it failed because of traitorous intent. It's genius and makes Marluxia a competent villain without making Sora feel weak! I can't tell you how many bad guys in video games fail because despite supposedly being geniuses, they underestimate the heroes or discount them entirely. This time, the villain's plan is good, it's just someone else who wants it to fail.
All right, remember everything I just told you about manipulating the combat system to get an awesome deck and stuff? Yeah, throw all of that out. Riku's story is about half the time of the normal game (8-10 hours long) and has completely different mechanics in combat. First of all, Riku's story (in terms of plot) is really cool. It gives you some major insight on why and how Riku appears in the main story (SPOILERS: The Riku in the main game was a replica, you play as the real Riku), you meet some other members of Organization XIII, and you watch Riku's struggle with his inner darkness. The problem is, the gameplay is just decent. The basic nuances of the card system are still the same. High cards break low cards, 0's break everything, sleights are super awesome, etc. However, there are four major differences.
– One, Riku can't customize his deck at all. At the beginning of each world, he receives a presorted deck of cards that he has to play. He keeps his boss cards from across worlds, but otherwise he has to make due with whatever he's been given. This means you have to familiarize yourself with a new deck order every time you change worlds. All the worlds are shorter, so you have to do this more often, and you can't adapt your deck for a tricky boss. Admittedly, these decks occasionally have much more complexity built into them when first meets the eye. But, most of the time, it's so hidden that it's near impossible to use to the best of your ability. Occasionally, you'll get a really good deck, and that section of the game will be straightforwards. Otherwise, you just kinda gotta put up with it. Thankfully, the deck for the final boss is pretty solid, so you shouldn't run into too many problems during that portion.
– Two, Riku has something called dark mode. Every time he does a card break, he gains Dark points for however much the difference was between the two cards. If an enemy played a 3 and Riku played a 9, then he gets 6 DP. If a boss throws out a 21-value sleight and Riku plays a 0, he gets 9 DP. You can also get "bonus DP" by performing a rapid break which adds +5 to your card break total if you break immediately after the card is played. Once Riku fills up his DP gauge, he switches to dark mode which has more attack power and a couple sleights that he can use. You exit Dark mode by losing all your dark points if you take too much damage or you cards break too many cards.
– Three, Riku can't use any sleights (bar one or two) except for when he's in Dark mode or Duel mode. So, unlike Sora, you can't just spam complicated sleights accompanied by hi potions and mega-ethers. You have to find other ways to beat bosses. While this can be cool, it's mostly just frustrating. Thankfully, once you do enter Dark mode, you have a couple of really good sleights you can use to smash the bosses defenses.
– Four, duel mode. If you play the same value card as someone else, you enter duel mode. In duel mode, you basically have to do either 3, 5, or 6 card breaks within the time limit. A card appears on screen and you have to beat it. Pretty straightforward, but what's frustrating is if you try to scroll through your deck to do perfect card breaks (breaking a 7 with a 7), instead just mash the x button and 95% of the time you'll get your sleight. It's a cool idea, but it just feels kinda off sometimes.
Overall, I like the idea of Riku's story, but it just feels like a wasted opportunity. After playing it all, the cut scenes are majorly worth it, but the game play is somewhat lacking. It could have been really cool to watch and relive Riku's memories from the original Kingdom Hearts, but instead we just have to travel through short versions of worlds we just spent 20 hours in, fight bosses that we've already fought, and use a variant of the battle system vastly inferior to the vanilla system. This could have been a chance to build new decks based on new sleights. Dark mode could've been easier to enter, but more punishing if you fail as a reflection of Riku's ongoing battle with the darkness. Of the 8 hours of additional content in Riku's campaign, there's about 45 minutes of cutscene's, the changes to the battle system and 5 or 6 new bosses. In a game already burdened by repetition, tacking on this whole extra mode is nigh unforgivable. That said, what little story we do have is actually really important to Riku's character narrative. It's all about him moving past his betrayal of Sora and overcoming the darkness inside of him. This is majorly important for the events of both Kingdom Hearts 2 and Dream Drop Distance. Personally, I'd just watch the cutscene's on YouTube or something. That way you don't have to slog through the boring parts of the game, but you can still get informed on the interesting particulars of Riku's journey.
Finally, we get some more insight into the villain's motivations and actions in back end of Sora's story. Knowing what we know having beat Sora's side already, it adds an extra layer of depth to the main portion of the game, which is the better part of the game (Marluxia's machinations).
The voice acting in this is actually pretty good. The actors usually get behind their roles pretty convincingly with a lot of emotion. Sora will still have his weird, un-dramatic pauses and his voice is a bit deeper than it should be since the voice actor hit puberty despite this game taking place immediately after the first one, but he still has a good intonation overall and he gets more intense later in the game which is cool. Donald and Goofy sound like classic Disney and interact well with Sora. Larxene, Axel and Marluxia however, are partiuclarly well-acted with a lot of nuance coming through their performance. It really helps that you don't have any expectations for how their characters should sound. There are weird awkward pauses, just like in any other Kingdom Hearts game. The biggest problem is, these cutscene's were rendered in Japanese first. So...
The lip syncing is so goshdarn awful. If you've ever watched a bad anime dub, you're not even close to the level of awful this game is when it comes to matching the words spoken and the movements of the mouth. Part of the problem is that all these characters are rendered in 3d, which makes mouth movement far more complex when compared to something like an anime. They got around this partially by making the english voice actors have these real awkward pauses, but that doesn't solve everything. The other problem is that unlike the main entries in the series, none of these cutscene's were re-rendered for English dialog. Nearly every 3D cutscene in the game has massive differences between what the characters look like they're saying, and what they're actually saying. In Kingdom Hearts Final Mix, only the new cutscenes were left unrendered for the english dub, so they have the same problem. But those were so few that they were either silent, or you didn't notice them due to their infrequency. In this game, it's literally everytime someone talks. It's incredibly off-putting and distracting from the main game, and it makes me super angry in terms of the quality of the game. I get that it's a huge expenditure, but it still sucks. They could have included the Japanese voices as a consolation, but we don't even get that.
This game fails miserably in terms of failing to avoid repetition. Each floor increases the number of rooms on each floor and fighting enemies is usually the exact same no matter who you fight. Since worlds are pre-constructed via map cards, you might end up seeing the same platform layouts as you go from world to world. In fact, the world selection itself is literally the same as the first Kingdom Hearts aside from one or two exceptions. Near the end of the game you just want to move on and get to the final boss. You get tired of fighting instead of being excited by the prospect. The game usually allows you to do this as long as you have enough map cards stocked up, but it still takes a while. The music gets repetitive fast too. I'd probably turn it off and listen to something else if I were you, I've been listening to Jesus Culture on Spotify while I grind through the last bit of Riku's story, so I suggest you find something to listen too. The Destiny Islands remix is pretty interesting, but that's pretty much it. The only consolation to the whole endeavor is that once you get those flashy combos for the end of the game and it speeds up combat tremendously.
The original Chain of Memories was a GBA game. This shows, painfully so, in this port of a PS2 game. About half of the cutscene's exist as textboxes instead of the maybe 10% from KH1. The battle system itself, while entertaining and fun, was developed due to the limitations of the GBA. The map system too is just a bunch of mix and match puzzle pieces which is, again, due to the limitations of the GBA. It's funny that a game system that came out in 2004 is affecting our games in 2015, almost 11 years later. Aside from the cutscene's, I don't think that any of these things are necessarily bad, but they do show the seams where the game was stitched together. It's just so blatantly obvious that it pulls you out of the game experience because the rest of the time it looks and feels just like a console experience and then you remember, "Oops, that's right, this is a remaster of a remake of a port of a handheld game."
So...I really liked the game. Like, once I got the hang of it, I really, really liked the game. Sora's story was super great, the combat worked and the new characters were pretty cool. Riku's story was kind of a drag, but at the same time it had major character developement that was not only needed but necessary and fun in light of the end of Kingdom Hearts. As much as I love the game though, I can see all of it's flaws. I really recommend that you give it a chance because I loved it so much. But you definitely can't just jump in right after playing Kingdom Hearts 1. Read my full write-up on the combat if you do want to play the game, beating Chain of Memories majorly adds to your understanding of the Kingdom Hearts universe. Any hardcore fan of the Kingdom Hearts series should play this game, it's worth it if you're willing to put in the work. Play through on normal mode and try work through the story, if not just bail and watch the cutscene's on YouTube. The story itself is worth a watch because it's a) good, and b) important to playing Kingdom Hearts 2.