Thursday, March 8, 2012

Kingdom Hearts 10th Anniversary Reviews: Re:Chain of Memories

-------My Rating System-------

A(-)(+) A top notch experience all the way through. It may not necessarily be perfect, but whatever flaws it does have won’t take you out of it or make it any less worth your time. (Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2)

B(-)(+) A very fun experience bogged down by some significant problems, whether they’re related to the story, gameplay, or both. However, it’s still a good or even great game and worth the price of admission. (Kingdom Hearts: Recoded)

C(-)(+) A mixed bag. Generally fun to some extent and may shine in some areas, but is either too flawed to fully recommend or far too short for its price. Conisder it for a reduced price, at least if you’re a fan of its genre. (Rayman 3D)

D(-)(+) Subpar. It may not be terrible, but it is severely flawed and whatever it does well ultimately fails to save it. Even if you’re a fan of the genre, this is barely a bargain bin purchase. (Sonic Heroes)

F Insipid, disgusting, despicable, and insufferable. It is a scar on the face of human accomplishments that time shall never heal. The best thing we can do is avoid playing it at all costs. It is the only way to prevent its parasitic disease of awfulness from spreading. (Shadow the Hedgehog)


And so our excursion through the Kingdom Hearts franchise continues. Today, we’ll be looking at the second installment in the series, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories – or rather, its remake for the PS2, titled Re:Chain of Memories. Chain of Memories was originally released in 2004 for the Game Boy Advance as the first side game in the series, its storyline bridging the gap between Kingdom Hearts and the then-upcoming Kingdom Hearts II. However, in 2007, Square released a deluxe version of Kingdom Hearts II known as Final Mix+, which was bundled with a 3-D remake of this game complete with fully-voiced cutscenes as well as new cutscenes and boss fights. This remake was released as a standalone title in America a year later. It’s the definitive version of the game and thus the only one anyone should play, so I figured I would review it instead of the original.

Anyway, (Re:)Chain of Memories is viewed as the black sheep of the franchise for a few reasons. Most notably, it changes the combat gameplay completely as well as how you progress through the Disney worlds. However, it is a very important title to the franchise. It is at this point where the series started becoming much more than a crossover and began fleshing its own universe out more and more, introducing a group of mysterious villains whose origins and ultimate goals we wouldn’t understand until the next game. Many events of this game will also end up being fairly important to the series continuity, particularly where Kingdom Hearts II is concerned. So, with all that said, let’s dive in.


(The below paragraph will contain spoilers for the original Kingdom Hearts.)

Re:Chain of Memories takes place directly where the original left off. Sora, Donald and Goofy are still on the search for Riku and King Mickey, who had to be left behind when the Door to Darkness was closed. One night, Sora wakes up to find a mysterious figure in a black cloak prowling around who tells him that something he needs lies ahead, but he’ll have to lose something he holds dear to claim it. He follows the figure to Castle Oblivion, where the gang is convinced that they’ll find their friends. In Castle Oblivion, everything is governed by cards, from battling to progressing through the place. The castle itself actually uses Sora’s memories to recreate the areas he’s visited and the people he’s met. However, as the group progresses through the castle, they realize that they’re also losing memories bit by bit. As he forgets other things, Sora also starts gaining more and more memories of a blonde-haired girl he believed he used to hang out with on his island alongside Riku and Kairi before she suddenly left. All the while, they tangle with a mysterious group of black-cloaked villains calling themselves the “Organization”, whose intentions are unclear. Riku actually gets his own playable storyline as well, which you unlock after completing Sora’s, though giving details to that may spoil some elements of Sora’s storyline.

The storyline is…the main reason why you should play this game. Not just because it will help you understand Kingdom Hearts II’s plot, but because it is simply fantastic. For one thing, the villains are awesome. They’re mysterious, they’re cool, they have awesome weapons and they find fresh new ways to make you love to hate them all the time. The main characters are strong, as usual, and the pacing is perfect; each cutscene serves to advance to the main plot in some way. The main plot, as a whole, is really interesting and engaging, and there are some really nice plot twists as well. Overall, it can’t be described any other way than brilliant.

Of course, that’s not to say that everything is quite perfect on the story front either. All of the cutscenes are pre-rendered, meaning that unlike in most other installments in the series, lip movements are synced to the Japanese voice track rather than the English one. The voice acting takes a bit of a hit because of it. While the cast is still strong, characters often randomly pause during dialogue and line delivery sometimes feels a little out of place in the context of the scene. I also couldn’t help but feel like Haley Joel Osment wasn’t putting as much effort into his performance as in previous games and Donald’s pronunciation was weirdly awkward – even moreso than usual. Re:Chain of Memories also suffers from what I like to call “Final Fantasy X syndrome” – that is, the storyline is great, but the script is quite the opposite. It’s really unfortunate, because the previous installment (chronologically, anyway) averted it pretty well. To be fair, as far as Sora’s storyline is concerned, it’s a fairly mild case. The writing is inoffensive most of the time, but dialogue at some points made the main cast come off as idiots and I couldn’t help but feel like a several lines, while not cringe worthy, were a little cheesy. Things do get quite a bit worse in Riku’s storyline. The Kingdom Hearts series is already kind of known for its love of the word “darkness”, but Riku’s storyline takes it way too far even by the series standards. “Darkness” suddenly becomes everyone’s favorite word, and they just don’t shut up about it. It gets…kind of annoying, to say the least. And apparently, Riku can literally smell darkness and actually comments on the scent of every character he meets. I…really couldn’t get over this. I mean, what? Well, anyway, let’s move on, shall we?

The gameplay of Re:Chain of Memories is completely different from that of any other installment in the franchise – well, except for the original GBA verison of the game, of course. This different gameplay style has, of course, led to mixed reactions from fans. Personally, I find the gameplay of Re:Chain of Memories pretty solid and unique, though it isn’t quite as fun as the normal Kingdom Hearts gameplay. Let’s start with world navigation. In Re:Chain of Memories, you’re going to be revisiting all of the same worlds from the first game. No, you won’t see any brand-new Disney worlds here, but reusing the old ones does work for the plot and there is a twist. Rather than progressing from room to room like you would in any other game in the series, you actually create the rooms yourself...well, sort of. Separating you from the other rooms are doors which require a Map Card – which you will get by winning battles – with a certain number on it to open. The type of a map card you use directly affects the layout. The size of a room, the number of Heartless you find in it and even the types of Heartless you find in it are all dictated by what map card you used, though what you will find in a given room will also be affected by what world you’re in. It’s also by using map cards that you will find save points and Moogle shops. Some map cards even affect other things. In a Stagnant Space room, for instance, all Heartless will move slowly, which allows you to avoid battles more easily. It’s very unique and does add a new element of strategy to the game; however, there is a flaw here: none of the rooms are terribly interesting. There are just some Heartless to battle and some things to hit or jump on for money, health and the occasional card. There really isn’t much substantial exploration to be found in this game, which, when compared to the first Kingdom Hearts, does prove a bit disappointing.

Then there’s the card-based battle system, which is probably the most polarizing aspect of the game. It’s a real-time battle system where every action you and your enemies take requires a card to use. You have attack cards, magic cards, and item cards. There are also enemy cards, which give you attributes such as a wider attack range or making certain cards unbreakable. There are also friend cards that allow you to summon Donald, Goofy, or another Disney character, which will randomly appear during battle. Each card has a number on it, which affects what will happen if you use a card at the same time an enemy does. If the value of your card is higher than that of the enemy’s, the enemy’s card will be broken and it will be stunned, and vice versa if the value of your card is lower. If the value of both cards is the same, nothing will happen – unless you’re playing Riku’s storyline, that is, but I’ll get to that later. Cards numbered “0” work differently. They can break any card, but can be broken just as quickly by any card of a higher value. You can also stock up to three cards by pressing the triangle button, and the value of your attack at that point is the combined values of the three cards you used, making it very hard to break. Stocking cards of certain values or types is also how you will use special moves such as the Blitz or Strike Raid. Cards can be reloaded, but if you stocked cards, the first one you stocked will always be gone for good. You can customize your deck of cards through the menu using whatever cards you’ve found or bought at Moogle shops. However, putting a card in your deck will cost Card Points, of which you have a certain number, and the cost of putting a card in your deck varies. You can raise your Card Points when you level up.

Well, let’s weigh the pros and cons here, starting with the pros. Aside from just being really unique and creative, it’s very strategic. You have to think about what cards to use and when, as well as when to stock cards and even what order cards should be stocked in. You also have to think when building a deck about exactly what cards will be useful for your situation. Building a deck also adds a very substantial element of character customization to the mix. However, while all this is great, it comes at the expense of being a lot more limiting than the usual battle system. Your combo can only have up to three hits and you can’t upgrade it, and the limitations on building your deck essentially means you can only have a limited number of moves before you have to reload, which will take longer each time you do it. Using special moves isn’t simply a matter of having enough magic power; you have to have the right cards on hand and, as said before, the first card you stocked to use that move is gone for good, and you can’t use it for anything else unless you happen to have a Hi-Potion or Mega-Potion card on hand – and those cost a lot of CP. And generally, the battle system is much slower-paced than that of Kingdom Hearts I and II and battles tend to take a little longer to finish. So, while it is fun enough, it’s not quite as much fun as the original battle system. I’d say that the times I most enjoyed it were during the battles with the Organization members. I always felt like I was facing off with my equal (on Proud Mode, anyway), which made it that much more satisfying to win. That is some dang good AI.

When playing as Riku, things are a bit different. By breaking cards, you gain points. If you gain enough of points, Riku can go into Dark Mode, during whichhis attacks become much faster and more powerful. Each world also gives you a preset deck of cards of varying values that you can’t change. However, you can use this to your advantage. If you use a card of the same value as an enemy, you will get into a card battle, at which point you have to break several of an enemy’s cards within a certain time limit. If you successfully do so, then you can use a devastating special move. Reloading Riku’s cards is also much faster than reloading Sora’s; just press “X” when you run out and you will get all of your cards back. Essentially, Riku’s story is a mode you can just breeze through after playing through the game normally as Sora, and you feel totally awesome doing it. However, don’t think that Riku’s storyline removes any semblance of challenge. Having cards of random values puts you in as much danger of having your cards broken as your enemies, and getting your cards broken will actually cause you to lose points. In addition, during card battles, you will be required to use your strongest cards to break the enemy’s and reloading can still waste a lot of time. If you aren’t able to break all of an enemy’s cards before time runs out, you will be stunned for quite a while. Whatever the case, I did enjoy playing as Riku more than I did playing as Sora.

In terms of aesthetics, Re:Chain of Memories fares reasonably well. During normal gameplay, it looks…alright. The worlds are pretty bland, I have to say. Most of the character models are also reused from the original Kingdom Hearts, perhaps touched up a bit, but they still look pretty nice. The cutscenes fare a lot better. The facial animations on display here are some of the best you will see in the series and the cutscenes overall look more cinematic than ever before. It is worth noting, though, that Re:CoM’s cutscenes are pre-rendered rather than in-engine like those of Kingdom Hearts I and II. The music is…mostly exactly the same as that of the first Kingdom Hearts with only a few original tracks. The original tracks are pretty great, though. While the new boss theme is pretty unremarkable, the themes for the final three areas are all very nice, and the Organization battle theme? Heck, when I played the GBA version as a kid, I actually got excited to fight the Organization members just because of that theme.

The Good:

+ Fantastic storyline
+ Two playable story modes
+ Map synthesis is unique
+ New music tracks are great
+ Cutscenes look very nice
+ Card-based battle system is unique and strategic…

The Bad:

- …Though at the same time more limiting and slower-paced
- Writing can get pretty mediocre
- Voice acting, while decent, doesn't live up to the series standard
- Areas aren't very interesting


In the end, while it’s not up there with the series’ best, Re:Chain of Memories is a very good game. You should play it because of the storyline, if nothing else, and the gameplay is still fun. You probably won’t be rushing back to play this one, but it’s still worth a shot. Next time we play Kingdom Hearts, we’ll be looking at Kingdom Hearts II. See ya then.

Grade: B

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