I like beginning a review with a history lesson. And in the case of Re:Chain of Memories, a history lesson is definitely warranted. So let’s start with the background.
In 2004, a Game Boy Advance RPG entitled “Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories” was released. In terms of plot, it served as a segue from the first title to the then-unreleased sequel. The plot involved Sora and crew walking through a field and stumbling across a big castle that stuck out like a sore thumb. With no other leads as to where King Mickey or Riku could be, they decided to check it out. A whole bunch of weird stuff happened, a ton of new characters (including the villains for Kingdom Hearts II) are introduced, and after you beat the game with Sora, you can complete the game a second time playing as Riku.
A year later, Japan got Kingdom Hearts II. In 2006, North America and Europe got the English version. Then, following their standard “milk it for all its got” formula, Square Enix reissued Kingdom Hearts II in Japan with a ton of extras. Now, Japanese gamers could play the game with the English voice acting, and there was also a significant amount of bonus content. To top it all off, the Japanese received a PlayStation 2 remake of Chain of Memories. “Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories” took the plot and gameplay of the Game Boy Advance title, and stuck it in the graphically superior shell of the PlayStation 2 Kingdom Hearts games. New voice acting was recorded for the events that took place in the Castle itself, though no new voice acting was done for the characters in the individual worlds (such as Agrabah or Neverland).
This was the biggest reissue bonus yet seen from Square Enix. I was jealous of the Japanese for the International versions of FFX, FFX-2, and FFXII. But apparently, Square Enix either saw something legitimate in my complaints, or else they saw a way to make a quick cash grab and keep the Kingdom Hearts franchise alive while we wait for the next installments (358/2 Days for DS, Birth By Sleep for PSP). Whatever the case, Square Enix decided that instead of getting the full KH2 International package, North Americans would just get the Re:Chain of Memories disc for a budget price. And that’s what we have now.
If you’ve had no prior experience the game, this is how it works. Everything is based on a 0-9 card system. Randomly generated rooms within each floor, as well as all actions in combat, are controlled by these cards. As Sora, you get weapon, magic, and item cards for combat. Higher cards break lower cards, which means you can interrupt an enemy’s attack; in turn, the enemy can also interrupt you. The “0” card is special, because it has the power to interrupt anything, but it too is quickly interrupted in turn by any other card. You can also “stock” cards to be used three in a row. There are a variety of special attacks that can be performed using these “stock” moves, though Sora learns about 10 times the amount Riku can get.
The battles, particularly the boss battles, are very challenging, and tons of fun. Exploration, on the other hand, is pretty stale. Each of the worlds you go through (which are the protagonist’s memories of different Disney zones fleshed out and put into the castle), are just a series of rooms that you open using map cards. Compared to the fairly enjoyable environments and exploration of Kingdom Hearts I and II, this is just plain underwhelming.
Don’t expect anything exciting from the Disney-related portions of the game. They’re basically rehashes of the Kingdom Hearts I scenarios, with a few twists because of the whole “memory” thing. For example, in Castle Oblivion, Sora and friends slowly lose their memories as they travel up the castle. It’s basically the same plot as Neverending Story 2. But the members of Organization XIII, as well as the mysterious Naminé, make up for that tenfold. Riku’s story, in and of itself, is worth the retail price of the game. Trust me. If you like Riku, and you want to know more about him, it’s worth trudging through Sora’s 10-to-15-hour quest to do the Riku half.
Other than the most obvious change (the full 3D graphics and additional voice acting), the biggest change to the game’s structure is the addition of difficulty levels. This is great for a number of reasons. First of all, some people really struggled with the difficulty of the GBA Chain of Memories. Thus, “Easy” mode is a great option for clearing the game without too much trouble. If you can’t, or don’t enjoy, thinking quickly and sorting cards to execute attacks properly in battle, then Easy mode allows you to glide through the game without having to think too much about the cards and their 0-9 values. On the other side of the spectrum, “Proud Mode” turns this game into a game that I can say, with certainty, is the hardest thing in the Kingdom Hearts series to date. I’m also “proud” to say that I cleared Proud Mode for Sora and Riku. It was a true challenge.
The cut scenes are what really bring the game to life. Unfortunately, over half of all the cut scenes take place in the same room. If you played the GBA version, you know what I’m talking about. On your 13-floor trek, the transition rooms between each floor are beautiful, but they’re all white. This same room is repeated for each transition, so it’s the backdrop for far too many cut scenes. And, again, the Disney-inspired worlds don’t have voice acting, and as a result feel far less cinematic. The real value of the cinematics is the fleshing out of the members of Organization XIII. For Sora’s quest, you get to know Axel, Larxene, Vexen, and Marluxia. For Riku’s quest, you meet Lexaeus and Zexion. In my opinion, the voice actors for Vexen, Larxene, and Zexion did a great job in Re:Chain of Memories.
Since the battles are now in a fully 3D environment, some of the battle mechanics had to change a bit. For example, Riku’s “Dark Aura” is slightly less cheap in its ability to kill everything in sight, mostly because he tends to miss more in this version. In contrast, Sora’s “Ars Arcanum” is even more destructive.
Perhaps more than any previous year in gaming history, Square Enix cashed in on ports and remakes like it’s nobody’s business in 2008. I can’t blame them for doing it, what with classics like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV, and Dragon Quest IV being worthy reintroductions to the market. But Chain of Memories just came out 4 years ago. It hasn’t been that long…so what’s the point of having this? Yes, the graphical upscaling is certainly worth it, but unless you really dig the original plot of Sora and friends, or if you’re interested in a new type of challenge involving real-time action-based battles and numeric-value cards, it’s not worth playing. Fortunately for me, I was interested in both the plot and the challenge of the gameplay, so it was definitely a worthwhile addition to the collection. Plus, now I have all my Kingdom Hearts games for one console, and I don’t have to bother with the GBA game anymore.