Reviewed: January 21, 2005
Released: December 7, 2004
As a sort of prequel to the release of Kingdom Hearts II Square Enix put together Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the GBA. In this sequel-spanning installment you pick up just after the end of Kingdom Hearts and Donald, Goofy, and Sora are off looking for the lost King Mickey and Riku. Shortly thereafter our intrepid trio meets a mysterious cloaked figure who lures them into Castle Oblivion in the hopes of finding their lost companions.
Castle Oblivion is not as simple as it seems however, and the deeper you journey into it the more you remember, and the more you remember the more you forget.
Is that cryptic enough for you yet? Suffice it to say the creative team on this title has done a fantastic job of staying true to the original’s storytelling and characters, while at the same time leading you through a whole different adventure, with some fancy changes to boot.
Anytime a series departs from the tried and true successes of it’s predecessors you run the risk of not only alienating those who were fans of the original, but also of not replacing the well liked method with something decidedly lacking. This game is an exception to that oft lamented rule.
There is some familiar footing for those of you who have played the original KH, you still have action RPG elements of running through environments and avoiding or engaging in combat, and combat takes place through your own skill as well as a function of your various statistics. After that though, you’re in for a little bit of a shake up.
Combat takes place almost entirely through a deck of cards, but before you throw your hands up thinking that Square has given into the Yu-Gi-Oh craze, or whatever else is currently the flavor of the month in card games, hear me out. The cards aren’t summons or anything like that (well for the most part), instead each represents a keyblade swing, heal, or spell cast. Numbers on the card determine effectiveness of the attack for purposes of the “break”, a higher card played means that no card of lower value can interrupt that attack.
Then you also have combination attacks that can have special abilities or just execute three attacks in a row, and are harder to interrupt. There are a few more rules, but the game will explain them more effectively than I could. We’ll just say that the combat system is complicated, and a little awkward, but once you get used to it very, very cool.
The “dungeons” also operate on a card system, with a set pattern of rooms to explore, but each room must be created when you open the door to it, which needs cards. You can create rooms that are shops, or treasure troves, or ones that are teeming with enemies or where your spells are more effective just to name a few. Additionally there are “plot” rooms which require specific keys to open and that then advance the plot of that particular area, all of which of course are Disney themed or tied to the last game.
All this boils down to an effective strategy/action combat environment where plotting your moves can pay off beautifully, and while it is definitely a departure from the original KH system; it is one that is worth the diversion.
I originally played this in a friend of mine’s DS and thought nothing of the graphics. Then I remembered that this is a GBA title, and it looked right at home on the next generation system. They rendered 3D in about a 20 sec opening sequence on a GBA cartridge, and it looks like PS1 graphics. This title pushes the GBA to it’s limits in the graphics department.
Even after that cinematic they don’t stop and let that be the carrying force of the game’s graphics. The actual game graphics are just as top notch, with good character redesigns and simple but well developed sprites. The style is very much in keeping with the original so you get that Disney slant, but different. You’re even interested in leading Pooh through the Hundred Acre Wood, in an RPG. Also, somehow they managed to get a creepy plot and tone into an otherwise very sugar coated set of universes (well barring Halloween Town, but then everybody loves Halloween).
Speaking of the environments you run through, there are thirteen very distinct stages running from Agrabah and Traverse Town, to the belly of Monstro, the Hundred Acre Wood, and the Coliseum; each world sprouting all of the expected favorites, and a cadre or creepies for you to clobber.
So you think graphics and good game play? That’s an awfully small cartridge, they had to skimp on the sound, especially with the cheesy little speakers that come in the GBA, but not so. Every stage boasts a theme built around the core of the some recognizable music from each work it reflects, so you groove to a version of “Under the Sea” when you’re searching for Ariel, or hum along to “This is Halloween” bumming around Town.
All this and good sound effects too. Combat has clanking, grunting, and dodging as you would expect, some of which includes a little voice acting for noises Donald, Goofy, or any of your other helpers make. Dialogue is not spoken, but then something’s got to give, and they don’t make an attempt to do it half way, which was a good idea.
This game will run you through about 15 hrs of very enjoyable playtime before you beat the main story. Then you have a whole other bonus mode with a story all it’s own before you’ve gotten everything out of it. And you can't overlook the two-player battle mode if you have a link cable and a willing opponent. Considering it’s GBA and runs $39 new, I’d say that’s a pretty good investment.
While Square Enix has had a few stumbles in the merger, you can still tell when they get behind something and really want a quality stamp on it. For story, gameplay and graphical tasty goodness this is one of the best titles for the GBA this year.