The first sequel to smash-success Kingdom Hearts wasn’t Kingdom Hearts 2, as many gamers were expecting. In fact that game was some time away from release when the Game Boy Advance received an ambitious bridging chapter in Sora’s story called Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories.
Released in the west in 2005, reportedly Tetsuya Nomura had heard that younger children wanted to play a mobile version of Kingdom Hearts and, fearing that the 3D gameplay of that title wouldn’t transition to the GBA, developed a 2D title based around new mechanics to better fit the change in system and allow for smaller gameplay sessions. This title was remade for the International Release edition of the original Kingdom Hearts and included as a bonus in full 3D, but it is the original 2D edition with the game as originally devised and intended that we will focus our review upon today.
Graphically, Sora and his world have exactly the right design aesthetic to transfer seamlessly into 2D and make excellent, chunky sprites that are brimming with detail. Whilst the GBA wasn’t a graphical powerhouse, they have managed to squeeze in an opening animation made using the in-game 3D assets from Kingdom Hearts on the PlayStation 2 for graphical fidelity. This really helps the player transition between the two styles and showcases how surprising the GBA can be in terms of versatility. New characters and elements of the lore introduced in Chain of Memories as beautifully designed, with small touches such as the crown shape cut into cards that you collect, and the white walls of Castle Oblivion becoming semi-iconic alongside the black hooded coats of Organisation XIII.
Sound design takes audio samples from the actors when they recorded for KH1 alongside many of the more notable spell and menu effects, this makes sure that Sora, Donald and Goofy are authentic across the different platforms they are depicted on. There is a notable mark down in musical quality that comes with the drop from PS2 to GBA, and many of the chiptune arrangements are simplified versions of prior tracks, which leads to a less impressive showcase of talent overall.
Taking place directly after the events of Kingdom Hearts, Sora and his travelling companions Donald and Goofy have set out to try and find the missing Riku and King Mickey when they stumble across the mysterious Castle Oblivion. Upon entering, Sora finds that a repressed memory from his distant past has been stirred, revealing that a friend from his homeworld is in fact trapped within the castle, held hostage by the mysterious Organisation XIII. Warned that the further into the castle he delves the more memories will be taken from him, he and his friends dive into the rescue of the girl named Namine. It’s an interesting concept that forces Sora to revisit worlds he has been to before from a different context as the castle itself takes form from the memories it pulls from Sora, and the light RogueLike elements of the game also lend themselves well to this effect of being lost within something greater. A second act store post end-game allows for the player to experience the story through the eyes of Riku and Mickey as they engage the castle basement while Sora climbs its heights, and this second chapter features some excellent character development for Riku.
Gameplay sees the player tackle floors of the castle that are themed on different Disney worlds. Each floor is make up of a set amount of rooms, but the content of these rooms is decided by which cards you decide to play from a collected stash that dictates what is inside. Play an encounter room and there will be a dangerous battle, however choose one with a prize and there will be a chest in addition to the usual Heartless that frequent the place. This lends itself to replayability and allows for short sessions without the formula feeling dull. Inside rooms Sora runs and jumps around with similar physics to the regular games inside the 2D space, and can smack objects to release hidden items, explore points of interest or engage in battles with roaming Heartless. It is these battles that are the biggest series departure, as instead of a pure action driven combat system the game uses a card-based style where each card in a shuffled deck lends itself to a different attack. Cards are ranked from 0 to 9 and are used to create combos or break the opposing cards, with 0 beating 9. Breaking the opposing card cancels the opposing monster’s attack and stuns them, which is extremely handy but works both ways at times, leading to well built decks potentially stun locking one or the other character mid-battle. Combining cards in sets of three will create combo attacks that are usually more difficult to break because the rank of the combo will be the sum of the ranks of the three cards in the combo. Certain card combinations will create a ‘sleight’, a special combination that will create a powerful physical attack, magical spell, or summon attack. There are tons of cards to collect and ways to build decks, though Riku’s chapter sees him battle with a fixed deck that cannot be customised and changes from world to world, presenting more of a challenge. It’s very much a love or hate it combat system that suffers a little more when playing the remake as the 3D space increases the capacity for attacks to miss altogether, which at times makes the game feel far more playable on the GBA.
Overall, this is a fun little title that is best played in small snatches of gameplay rather than extended sessions. Many feel that the title becomes somewhat of a chore in its later levels, where enemies will routinely break your cards and stun you if you are not actively strategizing against them, and the title does start a trend of re-treading the same worlds ‘but not really’ between mainline KH titles that many players find deeply frustrating. Chain or Memories has some great plot beats however and sets up several big plot elements for the series. It’s less of a slog on the GBA but something of a painful experience for completions in the console bound extended editions. If you intend to play it, be sure it comes free with the collector’s edition set OR that you have grabbed the original version of the game.