Monday, July 22, 2013

Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories - A Necessary Link

By the time I post this review, typed mostly in the back of a car, I will have come back from San Diego Comic-Con International (2013 being my seventh visit within eight years), an annual convention which evolved from Comics and other niche media into a Hollywood-inspired pop culture and advertising battleground. With apologies to Penny Arcade, I’d like to describe it as a Pandemonium Box, since the experience, though worth the effort in the end, is very terrifying in both the preparation required for the experience and the subsequent survival of the mind, body and spirit.

"Yo dawg, I heard you like lines, so we put a line in your line
so you can stand in line while you stand in line!"

Of course, what you’re here for isn’t the war stories I might have to share about SDCC, but the promised review of an RPG which successfully blends Disney with Final Fantasy, so let’s get right on that.

After the runaway success of the original Kingdom Hearts, series director Tetsuya Nomura was allowed to create more. The result was Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, a sequel of sorts created for the Gameboy Advance handheld. While I do own a Gameboy, I don’t own that game, so that is not the version I will be covering. Instead, I will be looking at Re:Chain of Memories, the PlayStation 2 remake of the game which was first released in Japan in 2007 as part of a “Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix +” package before coming stateside in 2008. So, in case the review title and opening image weren’t enough of a tip-off, keep in mind that this review is based entirely on the remake and that it is my only experience with this important and necessary stop in the Kingdom Hearts series.

Immediately following the events of Kingdom Hearts, Sora, Donald and Goofy follow Pluto in the hopes of finding King Mickey after disappearing through the door of Kingdom Hearts. However, they run into a mysterious hooded man who basically tells them to enter a place known as Castle Oblivion if they want to find the King. After entering, the same man appears and informs them that now that they are all inside the castle, they have begun to lose their memory of how to fight, so they will have to navigate the castle and perform combat using cards forged from their memory. Before disappearing again, he leaves a cryptic message that “To find is to lose and to lose is to find.” When the man leaves, Sora, Donald and Goofy decide to press on for the sake of finding King Mickey, Riku and Kairi. Unfortunately, the party is completely unaware of what exactly they’ve just gotten themselves into.

Box art of the original Gameboy release.

While the first game was pretty straightforward and dealt with the balance of light and darkness within our hearts, Chain of Memories decided it wasn’t going to do that. Instead, this game introduces the idea of memories within our hearts and how they affect us and our reasoning, with the result that it’s a little baffling at first to suddenly have this dropped on the player. I got used to this sort of dialogue after a while, especially after it’s revealed exactly what is going on, but I’m still unsure about how they’ve now established the heart as a sort of vessel for our mind and spirit, even if it’s excused by hearts being the central focus of the franchise. Aside from this, the story, or Sora’s side of it at least, takes many twists and turns as it establishes a secret organization operating in the shadows with its own agenda. The scope of their dark work isn’t revealed entirely, which is probably done to set up the next game, and while we are given some sort of grasp of the fact that they aren’t exactly human, there isn’t enough presented to let us know exactly who they are or what their goals are, but we do know it somehow requires Sora.

Apart from that, the game manages to create some good character moments, even if it gets considerably darker this go-round. As Sora advances up the floors of Castle Oblivion for instance, he starts to lose a sense of who he really is, which causes him to be an increasingly bigger jerk to his friends. It gets quite interesting to follow along with the dialogue and notice just what is happening through the ascension, since the changes are noticeable and eventually lead to a good payoff with some poignancy at the very end of the campaign. The villains are also set up in a way that we know their personalities, such as Larxene’s bitchiness and Vexen’s arrogance, but when any of them is killed in some way, you actually feel sorry for their loss, even if they aren’t completely sympathetic. That’s something that I actually like to see in a villain, not because it’s supposed to introduce a moral quandary, but for the reason that it makes them seem more like complete characters with hopes and aspirations in their own right. The new character NaminĂ© is also one I grew to like, thanks to how she’s handled, though I don’t wish to spoil her role in the game so I’ll stop right there. In the end, I think that even though the story feels a bit incomplete, it’s written in a way that would get anyone excited to play the next game just to find out where it will all lead; I know I’m tempted.

You may love to hate Larxene.

While the story described above is something you can really get into, I have an issue with the story in each of the worlds you visit. The selection of worlds you can visit is almost exactly the same as the original Kingdom Hearts, minus The End of the World and Deep Jungle (the latter was made inaccessible after extensive programming due to copyright infringement on the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs). Because of this, the stories play out in ways that are wholly familiar, though it plays out slightly differently to work in dialogue about memories and make that theme the central focus. Perhaps this was done to allow Gameboy users the chance to play these worlds if they didn’t play Kingdom Hearts for some reason, but after playing Kingdom Hearts, having to play through all of these worlds again became an exercise in tedium. While there are some things which carry over into the main plot, my favorite part of these levels soon became getting to the end as quickly as possible.

Though the story is overall pretty good, the real problems that this game may have lie in the central mechanic: cards. Cards are used in Chain of Memories for pretty much everything you do minus scrolling through menus, which is basically combat and constructing the worlds that you go through. Please allow me to explain both individually.

I’ll start with the world construction. At certain points in the game, you get World Cards, which determine the worlds that you may visit. You pick one World Card at a time and play that to completion; you may revisit worlds later, but any nonessential progress is erased when you leave one world for another. Once you’ve selected which world you want to go to, it is split off into a series of interconnected rooms. However, in order to access these rooms, you have to pick Map Cards, which are obtained by beating encounters with the Heartless enemies. The requirements can include specific card colors or numbers (or even specific totals). As a further bit of variety, whichever card you pick to form the room ahead will determine how your encounters will go, with effects ranging from stunned enemies to more effective weapons or items. This system makes sense to me for the Gameboy version because of the limited memory of the handheld, but I didn’t quite understand why they couldn’t have tried to use a different system for the PS2 version. If there’s one good thing about it, it may be that it gets you to keep fighting Heartless to get more cards. This, however, is negated by my frustration later in the game, when the restrictions eventually left me with a rather limited card pool that would take a long time to refill, especially since I got to this point at the final floor of the game. Then I had to reform the rooms for before the final boss because I left in order to get specific cards from an earlier world to improve my deck, leading to more frustration and card rationing because I was getting a little tired of playing.

The mysterious man from the beginning holding a World Card.

The other thing cards are used for is combat, in which there are a couple of mechanics in play. One is how cards are used for general attacks. To attack you select a card from a deck you can freely scroll through. After you select the card, you attack using its value, which can compete against a value of a card from the opponent; whichever number is higher wins. If one side manages to use a card with a higher value than the other, then the other card is broken and both the attack and accompanying animation are cancelled out. This seems simple, but the rules change when it come to using cards with a value of zero; they can break all cards and prevent them from being reloaded into the opponent’s deck (provided they actually use one), but they can also be broken by every other card.

If that still seems simple, then consider that you and certain opponents can also save back three cards to initiate what is known as a Sleight. The value of the Sleight is the total value of all three cards, which means that a high enough value will be hard to break by the opponent, though a zero card or higher valued sleight will also break the entire sleight. Oh and if you use a sleight, the first card in it will never reload into your deck unless you use an item card to place them back in. This system is something the game discourages, but is actually the quickest way to complete an encounter and makes the battles a lot more fun. Leveling up and completing certain requirements will unlock more Sleights Sora can access. Because of how the remake sets up the boss battles against the residents of Castle Oblivion, building a deck around these Sleights makes them more of a cakewalk, especially if you combine them with cards obtained from bosses, the most effective decks being focused around Sonic Blade, Ars Arcanum or Lethal Flame (a mistranslation of Lethal Frame). Sleight-based decks are very powerful, even against the final boss, and against the tough bosses can still have a degree of challenge that makes you want to keep going; unfortunately, it is only against the bosses that combat isn’t somewhat of a slog to go through.

Sonic Blade in action.

There’s one little caveat though that makes deck-building a little difficult before leveling up enough: every card requires points, including the enemy cards. This does make you reconsider how your build is done, especially if you don’t end up getting all the right cards to build your dream deck without grinding, but it also forces you to think a little economically with deck size and maximizing the potential of your deck. I was able to do this pretty well, but it wasn’t until near the end of the game that I could create something really effective, which was probably because my play style involved balanced distribution of rewards upon level-up.

Before I finish talking about the combat, I have a couple of criticisms, both of which involve a lack of explanation. The game tells you that you can switch between your regular deck and enemy cards at any time, but it doesn’t really tell you how, leaving me to fumble with things until I was forced to look it up out of frustration. The other is a lack of explanation on how Premium cards work. Premium cards have gold numbering and will reduce the number of Card Points that they require to be in the deck, but I had to learn the hard way that you don’t want them in your deck, since they don’t really reload when you use them. This severely affected how I tried to build my deck in the final hours of play due to some of the Nines and Zeroes I needed being Premium versions.

At this point I’d like to talk about the technical side of things, which would be the sound and graphics. In terms of how the game looks, this version of Chain of Memories appears to use the Kingdom Hearts II engine, which would make sense considering that it came out after that game hit shelves, but uses assets from both of the main games. The worlds feel similar to the original game if only because the textures are very much the same (there may be a graphical upgrade, but that’s beside the point), but the experience is altered based on the world-building mechanic to try and help keep these familiar worlds fresh (as a side note, I have no idea if the rooms you can create are any different from those in the Gameboy version). The final world is the only one that’s any different, but throughout Castle Oblivion I did recognize certain assets re-used from Kingdom Hearts II to create an aesthetic similar to one of the worlds from that game as well as to create the characters who reside within (the way I figured this out was noticing that the character Axel looked exactly the same).

Stock photo of Axel.

As for the music and voice acting, this is when the game hit similar territory. Almost all of the game’s music is recycled from the original Kingdom Hearts, which made listening to some of the looping tracks a little grating from repetition. I still like the music from these worlds, especially Neverland, and I understand retaining the feel of the first game, but I think I’d have wanted more variety than just some new stuff for Castle Oblivion, even though that too is recycled (it’s from Kingdom Hearts II). When it comes to voice acting, there’s something a little strange. Everyone sounds exactly as they should, particularly the Disney characters in battle, and the Castle Oblivion residents have voices which match both their appearances and personalities. The actual weird part however is with Sora’s voice, provided by Haley Joel Osment. I think Haley Joel Osment has proven himself as a voice actor, but based on how old Sora is supposed to be, it feels very odd hearing an older version of Osment voice the character. I got used to it, but I never thought it really felt quite right.

While this would be the point where normally I’d end the review, I still have one more thing to talk about: Reverse/Rebirth mode (the name is a bit of a pun in the original Japanese since both words sound like “Ribasu”). When you complete Sora’s campaign, you get to play a brand new campaign as Riku, which is an exciting prospect, but ends up being a bit disappointing until the final couple of worlds. The selection of worlds is exactly the same, but much like the Vergil mode in Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition, there’s no plot for him in each of them, which makes it a bit boring to go through them all again, especially when you consider that there’s usually only one Key Card to speak of. There is still a story centered around him, Ansem and King Mickey as he ascends the basement levels and the villains take an interest in him, though that was my only real motivation to keep playing at this point, even if it was written well.

Combat as Riku is almost identical to Sora, with a few changes. He uses a fixed deck in each world, which means that results may vary, although this means that he has can use every enemy card instead of select ones, and he can still use Sleights, but all of the good ones are only accessible through his new Dark Mode, accessed in turn by breaking cards with a high enough value difference until it totals the number at the end of a gauge. On top of that, he also gets a Rapid Break mechanic to fuel the gauge and a Duel system. The Duel system is very broken, since it can be easy to intentionally start one during a boss fight and when you win, a sleight is triggered that cannot be broken or blocked and always takes off a good chunk of health. When you put all of these together, Riku is simultaneously better and worse than Sora to use, though he was still very fun to use in the important fights because of his mechanics.

Riku in Dark Mode against Zexion (he can be fought now!)

As a final note, the game length is a bit different between the two modes. While it took me over 24 hours to complete Sora’s campaign, the time it took to beat Riku’s was only a little over eight hours, roughly a third of the time. I know through research that completing both modes allows access to previously unobtainable cards in Sora’s game via a New Game +, but I considered myself done after the base completions.

Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories may be a bit rough around the edges, but as a necessary stop in the franchise it’s actually not that bad. The story is well written and gets me wanting to play the next game when I can, but the card-based systems can be a little uneven because of how much can go in your favor when you just focus on using Sleight-based decks. The amount of recycling done to create the in-game world makes me wonder how much outside of voice acting wasn’t recycled in some way from three different games (I know they had to program everything, but that’s beside the point). Kingdom Hearts fans, at least the ones who are in it for the story and gameplay, will have to play this to understand what’s coming up next, but newcomers are advised not to play this just yet, since the franchise cannot be understood fully unless it is played in the proper order. I’d hope that it gets better from here, but thankfully, I already know that its future gets brighter.

Now I know what some of you might be wondering: Since I’ve never played the original Gameboy version, will I ever try to play and review that? The short answer is that yes, I’d love the opportunity to see how different it really is from this version, but the long answer is that at the moment I don’t really have the luxury since it’ll take a little time to hunt down a copy and then find the time to invest into playing it against some of my other plans. Until that point comes, consider this my definitive review of the Chain of Memories portion of the franchise.

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