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Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories

This review contains only very minor story spoilers (i.e. I'll mention that someone unexpectedly becomes a playable character), but contains a lot of "strategy" spoilers, i.e. things I figured out to beat the game more easily. The game isn't that hard to figure out, so I wouldn't be bothered by these "strategy spoilers". In fact, I think this information should have been included in the first level tutorial! But anyway, you've been warned, so don't complain to me if you learn something you didn't want to by reading this review.

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the Gameboy Advance takes place after the first Kingdom Hearts, but apparently, it's not "Kingdom Hearts 2", as Square Enix is already developping a game with that title for the Playstation 2.

In case you didn't play Kingdom Hearts 1, what basically happens is Sora and his friends live on this tropical island apparently devoid of adults. They're all around 14 years old, and the main characters aside from Sora (14 years old male) are Riku (15 years old male) who is to Sora as Sephiroth is to Cloud (or Vegeta is to Goku, to a lesser degree), and Kairi (14 year old female) who's "just friends" with everyone else, but there's a love triangle style tension between Sora, Riku and Kairi. Anyway, without revealing too much about what happens in KH1, a mysterious storm hits the island, and Sora finds himself in a mysterious town called Traverse Town. He meets Donald and Goofy who explain to him that their world has been filled with these creatures of the dark called the heartless. Sora agrees to venture with Donald and Goofy who are searching for their king, as Sora searches for his two missing friends Riku and Kairi. After travelling between one world to another, each world representing a Disney movie (Little Mermaid, Nightmare before Christmas, Hercules, etc.) he eventually finds and beats the last boss, and with the help of the King, seals off a doorway. Unfortunately, for this to all work, the King and Riku had to stay on the dark side of the doorway, while Sora, Donald, Goofy stayed on the light side. This is where the gameplay ends, and in the ending sequence Donald, Goofy and Sora all vow to search a way to bring the King and Riku back onto the light side, leaving a opening for Kingdom Hearts 2.

It looks like Sora is going to be diverted by a sidequest though, as while walking down a grassy plain, a mysterious figure shows up, says something mysterious, and a castle appears. Sora and the gang enter this "Castle Oblivion" where apparently with each step, you uncover the dark memories lying dormant in your heart, and in exchange start to forget those memories that were fresh in your mind.

Every floor in the castle is formed from Sora's memories, which means you'll get to go through all the worlds again, including Agrabah, the Hollow Bastion, Wonderland, and so on. Unfortunately, because the game's on the GBA, it'll all be in isometric 2D (i.e. a SimCity 2000 version of 3D). Sora receives a bunch of "World Cards", each card having a picture of a different world. When you reach the stairs to the next floor, you choose a card, hold it up, and the doors at the top of the stairs will open, leading to that world. So you can visit the worlds more or less in any order you choose. Each world is a floor in the castle, and when you first enter the world, you'll find yourself in a "room" in the castle, though it may look like the great outdoors depending on what world you're visiting. For example, in Wonderland, you'll typically find an unclimbable cliff edge with a door embedded in it that'll lead you to the next room. To actually open this door, you need to hold a room card up to it, and the card will determine what kind of room you'll find on the other side. When you get into a battle, all your actions will be dictated by what cards you get, and when you beat the enemy, you get as a reward more cards. And a large portion of the game, you'll be running around collecting Moogle Points so that you can buy yet more cards.

Here's how the battle system works. You have a deck of cards, and you have access to every card in the deck at the same time (i.e. your entire deck is in your hand, so you don't draw cards or anything). You press the A button to put down a card, and the L and R buttons to move the cursor around to select which card you want to put down. B is just to jump, and the directional pad controls the movement of your character. The battles are real time, so if you wanted to, you could just mash the A button, throwing down cards as quickly as you can. In fact, when I'm signficantly more powerful than the enemies I'm attacking, and there's just a hord of them, throwing down cards as fast as I can is the strategy I'll typically use. This doesn't work so well in the later levels when the enemies are just as tough as you are, or against bosses though.

Every card has a number associated with it which I'll call the initiative value. This value ranges from 0 to 9. If the enemy puts down an attack card that has an initiative value of 4, and then you put down a card that has an initiative value of 6, since your value is higher, the enemy's attack animation is cancelled, and he is stunned for about a second, and your attack animation starts. If another enemy then puts down a card of value 9, then your animation gets cancelled, and his animation starts. Probably there is nothing you can do about this, because you're stunned, and so the enemy's attack will probably just hit you. If you put out a card of initiative value 4, and the enemy puts down another card of initiative 4, both your animations are cancelled, but neither one of you are stunned, so you're free to throw down another card. If the enemy has put down an initiative 8 card, and is in the middle of his attack animation, and you try to put down an initiative 4 card, you won't get stunned, but you just discard that card, the enemy's animation will continue, and you'll still be able to move around and try putting down more cards.

Once you've used up all your cards, you'll see a empty black meter. You have to hold down the A button, and as you do so, the black meter will slowly fill up with red. This is called restocking your deck. You can't move or do anything while you're filling the meter. Once the meter is filled, you get most of your cards back. What I mean by most is that you get all your attack cards back, but items that are "one use only" are gone for the battle (though you'll get them back at the end of the battle). Both you and bosses can "stock" cards. To do this, you press L and R at the same time. What happens is the currently selected card goes into the stocking area. You can stock up to 3 cards at a time. Then, the next time you press L and R at the same time, you'll perform a "sleight" maneuver. If you've stocked all attack cards, then the sleight you'll perform depends on the sum of the initivative values of the attack cards. For example, if the sum is between 24 and 26, you'll perform the "Strike Raid" in which you throw your weapon forward, stunning all the enemies in its path. To get that sum, you'd have to have stocked, for example, a 6, a 9 and a 9. Note that the initiative value of this attack is the whole sum, so with a 6-9-9 combo, you're doing an attack with an initiative 24. Even if the enemy throws down a 9, it won't be enough to break your 24. The enemy has two options at this point. He can try to stock cards to form a higher initiative (if he puts down a 9-9-9 combo, for example, that sums up to 27 which will cancel your animation and stun you), or he can put down a 0 card.

0 cards are special in that they can break anything, but they can also be broken by anything. So if the enemy puts down a 9-9-9 sleight, you can put down an initiative 0 card to break it and stun him, but then his ally can put down an initiatve 1 card to break your 0 card and stun you. Cards that are "broken" also disappear for the rest of the fight, and you'll get them back at the end of the battle. That means typically as the battle goes on, the weaker cards will get broken and disapear from the fight while the stronger cards will show up more and more often. Also, whenever you perform a sleight, you lose the first card of the sleight until the end of the battle. So if you put down a 6-9-9 sleight, you can't use that initiative 6 card again until the end of the battle (though you can still use the two nines). That's why typically you'll want to start a sleight with your weakest card.

Initiative value has no effect on damage done, just on whether or not the attack succeeds or not. Sora will get different attack cards, such as "CrabClaw" or "Divine Rose" all of which deal different amounts of damage (and have different attack speeds, and stun durations and so on). Every card that exists in the game will have the full spectrum of initiatives possible (i.e. from 0 to 9).

During most of the battle, it'll just be Sora duking it out with hordes of bad guys. The combat system limits the number of enemies on screen, so you'll battle at most maybe 8 to 12 bad guys at a time (though much more typically, it'll be 4 at a time), and as you kill one of them, another will appear. To complete a battle, you'll usually have to kill between 6 and 20 bad guys. Every now and then, a "partner card" will fall out of the sky and bounce around the ground. If you pick it up before it disappears, the partner card will be added to your hand. Partner cards can be either Donald, Goofy, or whoever the hero of the current world is (Peter Pan, Aladdin, Jack, etc.) When you activate the partner card, the partner jumps in and performs their attack animation. These cards are "one use", so restocking your deck won't make them reappear.

Finally, there are "enemy" cards. Randomly, when you beat an enemy, you'll get his enemy card. When you beat a boss, you'll always get his enemy card. Enemy cards are cards that have various effects for a period of time. For example, the "Jafar" enemy card will make your next 30 attacks unbreakable (so if you play an initiative 2 card, and the enemy plays a 9, the enemy's card will get discarded).

In between battles, you can "review your deck", which lets you assign the cards in your collections into decks. You can have up to 3 decks at a time, and the same card can appear in all 3 decks at the same time if you want, but you can only have 1 active deck at a time. For most of the game, I had a "horde" deck which just had a whole bunch of attack cards and a items which sped up restocking the deck, so I could just mash the A button as fast as I could to kill the enemies as quickly as I could. I also had a "Boss" deck which contained only high initiative attack cards (i.e. nines), a bunch of healing spells, enemy cards that are particularly anti-boss, and a few 0 cards to break any sleights the boss might throw at me.

You can't just load your deck with all nines though, because every card has a "card point" value associated with it. This is sort of like the cost to put the card into a deck, and Sora starts off with 275 card points, and every card will cost between 10 and 99 points depending on how powerful it is.

When you kill an enemy, they'll usually drop a room card. These control what gets generated in the next room you'll enter. For example, if you use a "Feeble Darkness" to generate the next room, all the monsters will have lower iniative cards. Use a "Moogle Shop" card, and the next room will contain a shop where you can buy more cards. These cards are numbered too from 0 to 9, and you always have to use a higher number than the room you're currently in. So for example, if you're standing in a room that was generated with a level 5 card, you'll have to use a level 6 card or higher. What happens if you're in a level 9 room? As you may have guessed, you may use a level 0 room card any time. From a level 0 room, you can use level 1 room cards or higher.

The bulk of the game is the battle system. You'll go from room to room, battling enemies, until you reach a door with a crown icon over it. That means the next room is a "story" room, and it'll usually have specific requirements about what kind of room cards you can use to open it. For example, it might say you need to use one room card with a value of 3 or lower, and a second room card with a value of 5 or higher to open it. Once you do so, you'll basically entre a cut scene where they'll be some dialog, and perhaps a boss fight.

Some of the blandest RPGs are nothing more than non-interactive dialogs to give you the story with incessant battling and levelling up in between. In this regards, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is one of the worst offenders, by making a specific "story" room versus a "battling" room. However, the KH:CoM battle system is actually somewhat interesting to play. That is, of course, assuming you're the type of person who likes buying booster packs of random cards from Moogles, customizing and fine tuning their decks, and then trying it out against various bosses only to earn more cards upon victories. If you liked Magic the Gathering or any other one of those collectible card games, this serves as a decent "simulation" of such an experience, though it's much more fast pace and arcadey being real time instead of turn based.

Unfortunately, after a while, Sora's battle system started getting really dull. This might be because the last boss is so God damn easy to beat, but has so much hit points that it just takes forever to kill him. Mashing away like a maniac isn't an option. Instead, you have to wait for him to attack, counter with you 0 cards, and then get 3 hits in, after which he becomes temporarily invulnerable, so you take the opportunity to restock your deck. Repeat ad nauseum. I finished the game in about 12 hours, but the last 4 hours were the dullest of the bunch. Here's the first semi-major story spoiler. When you beat the game as Sora, you get to play the game again, but from the perspective of Riku. Riku's battle system is different from Sora's. In Riku's system, you don't get to customize your deck at all. Rather your deck is determine by what world you're currently in. On the one hand, it's a relief, because organizing your deck was getting to be pretty tedious in Sora's system. On the other hand, it's a pain, because in the last few levels, they give you a crappy deck on purpose just to make the game harder. Another change with Riku's system is that he if you perform enough card breaks, you can turn into "dark Riku", whose attacks are more powerful and also you can only perform sleights when in Dark Riku mode. So there's a very large incentive not to mash your attack button like crazy, but rather to time all your attacks so that they act as card breaks. In fact, timing your attacks have such a huge impact, that for a lot of the game, I didn't even bother levelling up. One time, I beat a boss, and I went up 3 levels 'cause I was so underleveled when I went up against him. The problem with this strategy though is that when I fought the last boss, I kept dying, so I had to actually go up 12 levels before I could beat him. When you play as Riku, you uncover a lot more story, and meet some characters that you never saw in Sora's story, but who were actively manipulating Sora's progress. Riku's game was a lot easier though, even though you have to go through the same number of worlds, and I beat Riku's story in only 5 hours, including one hour of nonstop levelling to beat the last boss.

Once you beat the game, you also unlock Link mode, where if you can find someone else with a GBA and KH:CoM, you can challenge them to a card battle. I couldn't find anyone else with a GBA, so I didn't get to test this, but it looks like you load your Sora character from a save game to determine what your deck is.

The graphics are standard for GBA. It was nice to see a 2D version of Cloud. Something I've never seen before on the GBA though, was FMV, both as the intro movie and the ending movie. The music's also not too noticeable, but Hikaru's Simple and Clean makes its reappearance as the ending song, with full lyrics.

So in conclusion, this game is just a collectible card game simulator, with a a mediocre story wrapped around it. And while the card game is very interesting at first, by the end of the game, you'll probably get bored with it. Still, it's not the most unpleasant way to spend your time. I give it a 6.5 out of 10.

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