It's hard to believe in this age of shameless annual sequels to everything, but there have only been three games in the mega-successful Kingdom Hearts franchise since it began in 2002 (we're not counting the weird V-cast game). Kingdom Hearts captivated PlayStation 2 gamers clear back in 2002, juxtaposing beloved Disney icons like Mickey Mouse and Peter Pan with a dark, epic role-playing story filled with equally revered characters from publsher Square Enix's games. Kingdom Hearts II followed in 2006, and we're still waiting for the next chapter.
But there was something in between the two - a Game Boy Advance dungeon crawler with the subtitle Chain of Memories, released in 2004 ('05 in Europe). It explained what happened after the first game ended, but before the second game began. However, being on the Game Boy Advance instead of PlayStation 2, many players never got the chance to experience it. Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories is the long overdue PlayStation 2 remake of that game, and it is simultaneously very similar to and completely unlike the previous games in the one-of-a-kind series.
Visually, although the production values aren't quite the same, this looks quite similar to Kingdom Hearts II. And although the "levels" are quite a bit smaller, the locations themselves are based upon places you've seen in the first Kingdom Hearts. The musical themes will be familiar, as will most of the characters and a big chunk of story, considering we've already seen the before and after chapters. As returning heroes Sora, Donald and Goofy – as well as Sora’s corrupted former best friend, Riku – you're exploring a magical tower whose various floors resemble Agrabah, Pooh's woods, and so on. And you'll reunite with characters from KH and also meet new folks who stuck around through KH II. It's like reading The Fellowship of the Ring and Return of the King, then going back to the book in the middle, The Two Towers. Kingdom Hearts II's early story sure makes a lot more sense after playing this though, which is nice.
So, what's unfamiliar exactly? The gameplay, which is as different from combat in the other KH games as boxing is from poker. See, the old Kingdom Hearts games featured real-time battles which you won by repeatedly clobbering the bad guys over the head with your fancy keyblade or shoving magic spells up their wazoos. That's still the case, but with a twist; it's not just nimble button fingers and a deft thumb on the analog stick that'll win the day. You also need to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, because everything you do is enabled by a deck of magical cards.
Wanna slam that shadowy-looking dude with your keyblade? Cycle through your deck with the shoulder buttons, and if there's a keyblade card in there, press X and Sora (or Riku, depending upon where you are in the game) will thump him. Want Donald to cast a Fire spell or Goofy to charge some baddies? They're not with you, but they can be summoned to pop in for a special attack if you have a card for it. Out of cards entirely? Hold X to reshuffle your deck.
You’ll need to pay attention to the numbers on the cards as well - if an enemy plays a card against you with a higher number, your attack will be deflected. Luckily, if your cards are too sissy - say, an enemy has all 9s and you've got all 5s - you can "stock" up to three cards and play them all at once, even mixing up attacks and magical spells.
Even the dungeon's population is dictated by your cards. According to the game, the tower is constructing each level based upon your memories - which is a clever way of letting you choose what you're going to see on the other side of most every door. Is it a save point? A room filled with a specific strain of enemy? Or perhaps typical enemies, but twice as many as usual? That all depends upon which card you play at the door. Sure, some doors require a certain card (end-of-level door that lead to boss battles, for instance), so there is some structure in place. But there's a nice bit of leeway for you too, and having some input helps stave off the feeling of tedium you'll eventually get after slaying your millionth darkness minion. More than the other KH games, this is a pure dungeon crawler, so things get stale more quickly than they did before.
Things also get tough. Getting the most out of this card system requires a ton of controller speed, awareness, and constant tactical judgement. This is especially true as things get complicated and you start to unlock fancier cards, swap cards in and out of your deck, and learn "sleights" - special attacks you can trigger by stocking and playing the right combination of cards in the right order.
Because of this - and perhaps also because you don't have Donald and Goofy to help soak up the damage - Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories is far and away the hardest game in the series. In fact, it gets downright brutal in a "did it really need to be this sophisticated and inelegant?" kind of way. The battles unfold at the same speed as in other KH games, and the added complexity of having to clumsily shuffle through cards in the midst of battle isn't always welcome.
And yes, we should mention that Japanese players got this game ages ago as a free bonus for buying the fanciest, schmanciest version of Kingdom Hearts II. So, if you're the type to feel indignant about that, go ahead. But then remind yourself that this is the long lost middle Epi/Prologue chapter of your beloved Kingdom Hearts saga, the one you've waited years to play on a system with a screen bigger than two inches across, and bask in the fact that this is still magical and there's still nothing else like it.
Dec 9, 2008