Some of my fondest memories as a child revolve around me sitting in my room, by myself, with the television cabinet shut. I remember reaching into my giant bag of action figures, only to discover that my left hand pulled out a Ninja Turtle, my right hand snagged a Street Shark, and crammed between the two of them was Captain America, who had tragically lost his arm from prior play sessions. Only in my imagination could these all-time greats come together in an epic struggle against an entire army of Lego spacemen. Their battlefield: none other than one of my many war-torn Mighty Max playsets. It was beautiful—a perfect blend of worlds from across the entertainment spectrum—and it was all right there in front of me.
It’s memories such as these that remind me of why I love games like Kingdom Hearts, games that combine the universes of completely different franchises in an attempt to create something new. The concept of universe crossovers is timeless, and yet we aren’t particularly exposed to that many of them (not officially, anyway). So when titles like Kingdom Hearts come rolling around, it’s hard not to get excited. Final Fantasy and Disney? I don’t care how iced-over your heart is; if Bambi can’t melt it and Cloud can’t shatter it, then I don’t know who will.
Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories is an amped-up PS2 port of the game originally released on the Game Boy Advance back in 2004 (same name, minus the “Re:”). Having missed out on the original, I was more than excited to give this version a spin, and as I had hoped, it did not disappoint. Upon completion, I was left with nothing more than a maddening itch to play through Kingdom Hearts 2 for the second time.
The story of CoM fits snuggly within the Kingdom Hearts universe, directly in between the first and second installments. Sora, our good friend with the spiky-hair and obnoxiously enormous sneakers, manages to stumble upon (again, huge sneakers) the dark and looming towers of Castle Oblivion, a place of great mystery and even greater nostalgia. As Sora ascends through the castle’s minimalistic hallways alongside his trusty cohorts, Donald and Goofy, he is reunited with memories of the past. But with every memory he revisits, another becomes lost, and before long, Sora is trapped by the unknown trickery of the castle. Driven by his curiosity for answers, Sora continues to scale Castle Oblivion’s thirteen floors in an attempt to decipher the castle’s truths and discover the whereabouts of the friends closest to his heart.
Memories, above all else, play the largest role in CoM’s storyline. From the moment Sora sets his gargantuan foot into Castle Oblivion’s entrance hall, players are immediately clued in on their importance from both a plot and gameplay standpoint. While the truths behind Sora’s sudden memory mishaps don’t reveal themselves until much later in the game, it’s nonetheless enjoyable to watch the clues unfold and guess your way to the plot twist. CoM plays around greatly with the themes of identity and friendship, along with the obligatory light vs. dark shtick, and it all seems to work, make sense, and above all else, keep you interested from start to finish. Everything presented here is easy to follow, so if the jumbled complexities or overwhelming heaps of characters in the numbered installments left you baffled, you’ll have no trouble here.
Those heaps of characters you’ve come to expect have been shaved down to the tiniest of mounds, with the entire story having a little more than ten characters to keep track of. You’ll still be revisiting your old pals in the Disney Worlds, but their impact on the story is so minimal that you won’t feel bad about tossing them aside once their respective worlds are completed. Prominent characters include our trio of protagonists, Riku, King Mickey, and most notably, the members of Organization XIII, who are all wonderfully presented and fully voiced. This is a great cast, and some of the new additions are definitely memorable. The blustery and obnoxious Larxene remains one of the game’s highlights for me. And yes, they all have hairstyles that could pop balloons… on the other side of the room.
When Organization XIII isn’t harassing Sora within their stomping grounds of Castle Oblivion, players will be guiding him through the marketplaces of Agrabah, swimming under the sea (under the sea!), beating baddies with Beast, and teaching puppets life lessons, among many other scenarios. About 90% of the game takes place within recreations of the Disney Worlds we saw in the original Kingdom Hearts, with everything else in Castle Oblivion. To get to these worlds, players will need world cards which can be acquired every so often throughout the story. Each world card contains memories from Sora’s past, and by activating them within the castle’s hallways, the floor he is on transforms into the world shown on the used card. Players are usually given these cards in bulk, so they’re free to tackle areas in any order they wish.
Since Sora is still technically in Castle Oblivion, everywhere he travels is a room (these rooms come in two varieties: square and square). Activating a world card more or less coats the current floor’s rooms in interactive, Disney-themed wallpaper. In order to advance to the next floor, players must wander around, room to room, battling their way to the staircase. The catch is that each doorway to upcoming rooms is locked, with map cards being the only means of unlocking them. Map cards contain various effects like increased card power, larger enemy swarms, and even save point generators, allowing players to create rooms with whatever conditions they want or need (assuming they have the correct card).
But the card antics don’t stop there. As if gradually losing memories of important events from his past wasn’t crippling enough, Sora seems to have forgotten how to smack things with his Keyblade, too, so memories of attack moves, magic, items, even Donald and Goofy, have been etched into paper. Because of this, cards have slinked their way into the battle system. Players must create decks comprised of everything listed above and modify them with more effective cards as they become available.
Shove any slivers of skepticism aside, though, because it’s safe to say that CoM’s battle system succeeds far more than one might expect. Every card in your deck, whether a physical attack, Jafar, or whatever, comes with a 0-9 rating attached to it. As expected, the higher the number, the more powerful the card. The rating also refers to the card’s priority, so if an enemy throws down a 4, players will be able to cancel it out by tossing something higher than that. Combos with up to three cards are also possible by hitting the triangle button on the cards you want to link up. Doing this will pool together all three number ratings, which can lead to some insane totals capable of smashing apart opposing digits and pounding major dents into HP bars. The downside to this process is that one of the selected cards will become useless for the rest of the battle, meaning they can’t be reshuffled into the current deck. For additional power, linking together specific cards with specific totals can result in the activation of power moves called Sleights, learned periodically through leveling up or found in treasure chests.
Early on in the game, the enemy’s numbers are rather low, so outplaying them doesn’t require much effort, but later on down the line, battles can become ridiculously hectic, with players and enemies canceling each other left and right while simultaneously shuffling through their respective decks in search of those illustrious 0s and 9s. It’s fresh, it’s fast-paced, and it’s definitely a bold addition to an otherwise disgustingly button-mashy system. While it all might seem daunting at first (and trust me, it will), everything gets ironed out with practice. The card management itself isn’t as difficult or time consuming as one might think, either. Players will occasionally be forced into completely revamping their decks, but most of the micromanaging is painless. It’s usually nothing more than an occasional card swap here and there, and up to three decks can be created. My own personal decks were titled Training, Boss Battles, and Ars Arcanum (the latter being a deck completely centered around an amazing Sleight), so there’s room to experiment.
As fun as the battle system is, it can be broken. Once players get their hands on a deck crammed full of high level cards and organize them for back-to-back-to-back Sleight activation, CoM will melt back down into a button masher. For me, triangle became the new X around Floor 12, and after that, there was no turning back. The core battle system doesn’t exactly favor mindless button barraging, but players will probably do it anyway. Thumbs will undoubtedly be going buck wild later in the game; it just takes time to get the tools needed in order to make it happen.
Controlling Sora and making him do what he does isn’t solid nor is it atrocious. Movements and actions are mapped to the buttons they should be, so I rarely hit a button expecting one thing and getting another, such as my on-screen counterpart tearing through a random card or abruptly flying off into a pack of heart-hungry enemies. Sora plays nice and does what he is told, so kudos to him. I did, however, want to shove him to the ground and throw those cement-filled shoes of his off of a cliff, since they made his out-of-battle controls awkward on more than one occasion. This is more nitpicky than genuinely problematic, but Sora’s movements constantly felt clunky to me. Jumping onto ladders, for example, proved to be an unexpected chore, as did hitting Heartless with the Keyblade in order to head into battle with a small, preemptive bonus. Menu controls, especially when it came to deck crafting, caused some head-scratcher moments, as well, and is the only area of the game where I couldn’t quite manage to memorize what each button was supposed to do.
Nintendo’s handheld and Sony’s console are about as technologically similar as Final Fantasy and Winnie the Pooh are conceptually, so it was a given that CoM needed a complete graphical overhaul and artistic buffing if it wanted to make the jump onto a more powerful gaming system. It’s a bummer, then, that this remake’s most underwhelming feature is ironically the area most improved upon from its GBA sibling, as well as the signature reason CoM veterans would want to give this lollipop another licking.
Technically, the game “looks” a bit more polished than the original Kingdom Hearts. And while that alone might sound disappointing, it’s the repetitive, uninspired artistic value that fails to impress the most. The design (singular, not plural) for the interior of Castle Oblivion, while interesting at first, is…well, nothing. There’s nothing there. Every single hallway is a blank, featureless, snow white (cheesy pun intended) void with very little to look at aside from a few details speckled about that let you know you’re actually standing in a confined space. The Disney worlds, while significantly more colorful, are fairly drab, as well. Their designs are appropriate, they’ve got the cutesy, oversaturated colors, and they’re all representative of the original films, but the rooms all look the same. Some might be bigger, some might be smaller, some might have extra doohickeys to play around with or platforms to jump on, but when it comes down to it, these strings of rooms are all cookie cutter. Palette Swapping Syndrome and enemy recycling also broke past the game’s immune system, so tack that on to the list of disappointments.
I will say, however, that the CG scenes which happen in nearly every hallway (and a few Disney worlds) look gorgeous. This is a Square Enix product, after all. Believable actors provide voices to complement the eye candy, and everyone spits out a great performance. On top of that, the developers have given us a nice mix of tunes that fit harmoniously with the locales. Recognizable Disney themes, Kingdom Hearts staples, Utada Hikaru’s “Simple and Clean”; it’s all here, and is but another area which will bust open the flood gates to your memories.
I guess that’s just one of the things that makes this game enjoyable: it’s so chock-full of recognizable content that you can’t help but look back at the history this series has and flash a big ol’ toothy-Sora-grin. Fans of the franchise will surely be enamored by the distinctness of the universe and its cartoony level of immersion, and on the off chance that aforementioned history doesn’t mean much to you, it won’t really matter; CoM is an entertaining romp even if it doesn’t take you down memory lane. Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories is a relatively brief trek (though you get to experience it through both Sora and Riku’s eyes in two separate storylines) that, if nothing else, adds insight to the series’ already expansive storyline. The three dimensional perks might not be reason enough for diehard fans to give this remake another spin, but franchise followers should surely check it out if the original happened to slip through the cracks.