Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (CoM) surprised me in the best of ways. I was a tad worried about how well a game that was based around three dimensional, free-form battle action and incredible, graphic heavy cut-scenes would translate onto a system lacking the power to push the same level of graphical prowess. Thankfully, not only did CoM meet my expectations for what could be done on the small screen, it far exceeded them. Seamlessly blending an intuitive, customizable card-based battle engine with some of the finest two dimensional graphics on the Game Boy Advance (GBA), CoM is a true masterpiece.
CoM eschews the three dimensional battle engine of its predecessor in favor of a card-based, yet still action-oriented system. Cards come in four different categories that are sub-categorized accordingly. There are attack cards which represent the different “Key Blades” (Kingdom Hearts’ version of the sword) that Sora and Riku (yes, you can play as two main characters, but more on that later) can use, which play out as the basic hack and slash motif of the game. Then there are magic cards which do what you would expect them to. You will harness the powers of cure, fire, ice and the rest of the staples you have come to rely on from Square Enix. Next are item cards that are used to upgrade and customize your deck of cards and the ways they are played. And finally there are enemy cards which are obtained from your foes and basically alter the playing field in many different (and rather ingenious) ways.
In order to battle in CoM, you customize one (or more) decks of cards which will be shuffled into your hand at the beginning of every battle. As the battle rages on you will play card after card in order to smite your enemies, ranging from attacking with key blades to summoning Simba (from The Lion King) to do your dirty work for you.
Your deck is not completely unlimited. While you can re-shuffle your deck should it run out of cards, each time you do so it takes longer and longer to reload. While you are standing still waiting for the cards to return to you, your opponent will be pummeling you for all he/she/it is worth. There is also the possibility to lose cards for the entire length of the battle, making card management (especially against bosses) particularly important.
There are several intricacies bound to the cards. First off, each card is assigned a certain number. If you play a card that has a “4” for example, and an opponent plays a card containing a “6” (or anything higher), your card will be broken (in other words, rendered useless). Using this to your knowledge, you can actually completely prevent your adversaries from acting at all simply by breaking their cards with yours. Combine in the concept of “0” cards, which basically act as wild cards that can break anything (but get broken by anything else,) and you begin to get a taste for the level of strategy involved in CoM’s battles.
To make things even more strategic, CoM brings in the concept of “stacking” cards which allows you to pull cards to the side in order to unleash them in some pretty spectacular combos. Stacking cards does not become absolutely necessary until some of the later bosses, but you quickly begin to realize their necessity and appreciate the level of depth battling can truly contain in CoM.
The overworld of CoM plays out as somewhat of a random dungeon generator with a lot of control. Basically, you choose which main world you wish to go to (Atlantica, Halloween Town, etc) after which you are shown a map grid. On each section of a map grid, you may play a “Map” card which dictates what sort of environment that part of the grid will contain. Ranging from areas that ooze darkness, allowing for massive loads of enemies playing very high level cards, to environments completely composed of treasure chests, the map card system allows for plenty of flexibility while exploring the world of CoM.
Strategy comes into play as well as you make your way through the worlds of CoM. You can only obtain map cards through defeating groupings of enemies (visible on screen, not random) so it is not at all beneficial to simply play nothing but treasure cards. Combine the fact that most of the “Story” rooms must be opened by very specific map card combinations, and you quickly learn that variety is the spice of CoM’s life.
Those who enjoyed the combination of the wonderful storytelling of both Square Enix and Disney will once again be enthralled here. All of your favorite Disney and Final Fantasy characters return in all their sprite-filled glory. The plot continues right where the previous entry in the series ended, and while you can think of this game as more of a side-quest than a true leap forward in the overall plot architecture, many holes are filled in and your fondness for the characters will increase substantially.
The plot is largely played out by visiting certain plot specific rooms on the map grids. Cut scenes abound and are well told through animated, sprite filled environments.
One of the most interesting aspects of CoM is that you will be playing the game twice. You play through first as Sora, at which point the game mutates into a dual layered experience. Playing through as Riku afterwards may seem like a cheap way of extending the playtime, but in fact the game switches over so substantially in concept that it almost passes as a second game. With Riku’s plot containing a more coherent storyline, it is absolutely recommended to play through it and I wouldn’t even consider the game finished until you have done so.
Graphically, games do not look any better on the GBA than this. Sporting lovingly drawn sprites, you can truly tell that this game is as polished as it could possibly have been. Everything animates fluidly and while there is some occasional slowdown in battle (when MANY objects and enemies appear on screen at once); it is certainly not enough to detract from the overall experience. Containing even animated and fully rendered(!) cut scenes, CoM pushes the GBA to its absolute limits.
Not to be outdone by the technical marvels contained within the graphic engine, CoM sports some of the most well realized music available on a handheld. I have been criticized before for not accepting the usual tinny, boring music found within many GBA games, basing my dislike on the fact that the GBA can in fact pump out some nice tunes if massaged by the developers just right. CoM proves it, sporting remixes of all the great tunes you know and love plus some original, brilliant pieces for some icing on the cake. CoM even blesses us with a full lyrical version of one of my favorite songs from the original. I won’t spoil which song it is, but needless to say I recommend having the volume up when you are watching the ending credits.
CoM is a true marvel on the GBA. Rarely does a game come along that makes me want to continue after I have beaten it (twice!), and rarely does a portable game contain as much depth and polish as CoM does. Its addictive gameplay complements the well established plot and technical achievements, providing for a must-play experience on the GBA. Square Enix once again shows us what can be done with a portable machine, providing us with a welcome addition to the Kingdom Hearts mythos and tiding us over quite nicely until the PS2 sequel comes along.