sunnuntai 29. toukokuuta 2011

REVIEW - Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (2004)

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: November 2004
DEVELOPER(S): Square Enix, Jupiter
PUBLISHER(S): Square Enix, Nintendo

While writing Kingdom Hearts II, Tetsuya Nomura came up with an intermediate story that would go on to bridge the large gap between the events of the first game and the beginning of the second one. Although he was reluctant to design the game exclusively for the Game Boy Advance mostly due to the fact that he didn't believe in the functionality of a 2D, handheld Kingdom Hearts game, he complied due to popular demand. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is one of those handheld exclusives that are bound to piss off a lot of home console owners and fans of the franchise at hand just by existing, since it's such an important part of the series' timeline. On top of that, it's a very strange game, and not wholly entertaining.

A game of cards

The game picks up right where Kingdom Hearts left off. Sora, Donald Duck and Goofy think they have finally caught up to King Mickey Mouse and Riku, who disappeared after the door to Kingdom Hearts was closed. Instead of finding whom they've been searching for so long, they find themselves on the doorstep of Castle Oblivion, a dreamlike stronghold inhabited by a strange group of individuals calling themselves Organization XIII. As they make their way to the top floors of the castle, the three heroes gradually lose their memories of recent events, to unlock dormant memories from Sora's past.

Me too, Jim. Me too.
I must tell you right now that I would have never played this game if it didn't hold the potential to explain the plotline of Kingdom Hearts II to me a little better. Everything about it used to scream out "don't touch" when it comes to my personal preference, most of all the fact that it's card-based. Whenever a game is promoted as an "outstanding mixture of action and card-collecting", I'm immediately thinking of Pokémon and all the shit that was born from this most annoying fad of the last 15 years. I simply don't understand why any game would need this kind of "hook", especially games in which some collectible card system just does not belong - here's looking at Metal Gear Ac!d. Oh well, perhaps I didn't go into Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories with a very optimistic attitude, but I forced myself to have one because there was no way I was going to just ignore the game. Even if I had downright hated it from the start, I had to build up for a patient playthrough and an unbiased review. One of the subtle agendas I have when I'm writing this blog is to learn to like quality games and comprehend why people like them, even if they're not games within my comfort zone. Plus, it is a solid part of the Kingdom Hearts series, there's no escaping that truth.

Well, I've told you before that I don't like the original half of the storyline of the Kingdom Hearts franchise a whole lot. However, at the very least parts of it are intriguing, and as crappy as any story is, I want to understand it. When I first played Kingdom Hearts II, I thought it was one of the best games I had ever played on the PlayStation 2, but I could not understand an inch of the plot, and there were all these references to Sora's quest in Castle Oblivion and new characters and such I had never heard of. Back then, I didn't even know about the existence of this game, since I had no interest in the handheld market at all. When I heard that they made a handheld exclusive in between the major parts of the series, I was in rage. So, if I was truly interested in the plot, I would have to buy myself a Game Boy Advance, is that right? Well, no, I could also go out on a limb and buy the Japanese "Final Mix" version of Kingdom Hearts II, which includes a PS2 remake of Chain of Memories. It's none the easier way to make this game happen for me, so maybe I'll just wait a few years to play it on the Advance like it was meant to be played. Here I am, and my verdict is very conflicted.

You thought these guys were annoying in
Kingdom Hearts? Get a load of this.
Those coming into this game mainly to tie some loose ends in the storyline, I have bad news for you. Chain of Memories explains two things: jack and shit. Those who've only played the first game thus far and barely survived its confusing plot are in for some much heavier damage to their grey matter. On the other hand, those who've already played Kingdom Hearts II will find that there are no explanations in this game, that the PlayStation game actually somewhat subtly recapped this one's events. If there's anything, there's a whole truckload of more questions instead of answers. I don't know about other people and their views on the first game's themes of "hearts" and "darkness"; whenever there was the slightest chance for anyone to mention "hearts" or "darkness" in a totally corny fashion, they did it, to the point of severe annoyance as far as I'm concerned. Here, the theme is "memory". Everything in this game is related to memories, and yes, the constant babble about memories is also very corny and annoying.

Sora has become a whining little bitch - which is why I'm kind of glad this game doesn't have full voiceover work. Riku's even worse. It really doesn't serve these guys well to be so God damn annoying when they weren't really great characters in the first game. Donald and Goofy have suddenly become voices of reason. The game's dialogue isn't nearly as humorous as that of Kingdom Hearts, or perhaps it's meant to be but it just isn't funny by a long shot. The best jabs are recycled stuff from the first game. There are no new Disney or Final Fantasy characters in this game, just whole new original ones. We are introduced to Organization XIII, who in my mind are a very intriguing bunch of villains - again, even if the plot is a little lackluster, they make the most out of their presence. There is only one new world in this game in addition to Castle Oblivion itself, Twilight Town, which of course serves as the enigmatic starting point in Kingdom Hearts II. For the rest of the game's duration, we revisit all the places from the first game, with the exception of Deep Jungle (whew). Sora does not remember the inhabitants of these worlds, nor do they remember him and his friends, so this calls for rehashing the stories from the first game, with the memory theme replacing the hearts 'n' darkness schtick. God, how boring... lucky for you, you still have no idea how boring the gameplay can be. You will, though.

'Tis a shame to see one of the greatest of all
time so humble. Speaking of some of the
greatest, where the hell is Sephiroth?
The game is visually one of the most outstanding games on the Game Boy Advance. It is known as one of the first and only games on the handheld that feature FMV cutscenes, from the recreation of the first game's final scene to a few exclusives. There are slight errors throughout, mostly in judgement, for example they could've left the shadows of the characters completely out if they couldn't do them properly, but for the most part, the game looks simply astounding; it's not even from the latest end of the Game Boy Advance library. There are very few new tunes on the soundtrack; mostly, it's reproduced stuff from the first game, but it's high-quality work nonetheless. Some choice voice samples from all characters are also included for battle scenes, they're pretty annoying in practice, but technically, they sound perfect.

Everything in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is based on cards, as one of the characters so politely tells you in the beginning of the game - even the shape of the worlds. Even if you do visit familiar locations in this game, the only things familiar about them are the general texture of the place and the background music. Every world is just a collective of rooms, what's in those rooms you can pretty much decide for yourself as you go. Your actual goal is to make it to doors that have a plaque shaped like a crown over them, and find the necessary cards to open them to make progress in the storyline. The best way to explain how Chain of Memories works is to let you go and try the game yourself, there's really no way to use words to do that since the gameplay divides opinions by such a lot. All I can provide you is a theoretical (and admittedly a bit cynical) lesson, so let's take a gander at these much-spoken cards.

First and foremost, your battle deck is your most valuable weapon. You can make three different ones if you want, but in reality, one's all you need since you can equip only one at a time. This battle deck is divided into five different categories: attack, magic, summon, item and support cards. With the exception of summon and support cards which you'll only gain by defeating enemies and bosses, you can get these cards anywhere. Attack cards are the most basic out of all cards and you should accommodate a deck with at least ten of them at all times. This basically means that you have ten chances for a normal attack in battle before you must reload the deck. You can manually choose the card to use in battle, or just arrange them in such a balanced way that you can simply mash your way through a battle - most of the time, that works, since the game isn't really that difficult until the end of Sora's story when the difficulty level suddenly jumps through the roof.

Yeah, yeah. Off with her head.
In battle, you can combine three cards of any type to pull off an uninterrupted combo, or a Sleight if you've learned one. Sleight is a special combo that is triggered by a certain series of cards, for example three attack cards that have a particular accumulative value. Upon leveling up, you have the option to either boost Sora's HP, his CP (Card Points, which determine the amount of cards you can deck up), and sometimes, you have the option to teach him a new Sleight instead of increasing his attributes. Sora is indeed alone in these fights. Donald, Goofy, and the local companions come in as cards as well. These friend cards are gained at random intervals during battle; they're officially categorized as temporary summon cards. Donald shows up to cast two random spells and Goofy unleashes a devastating physical attack. A Mickey card is only available during boss fights, and always grants you some sort of a temporary advantage over the boss. It's the only card in the game that is always unbreakable by the enemy. Yeah, that's what those numerical values are for. I probably need not explain them. I hope not.

The world cards explain themselves; they're your tickets to worlds. You always have a number of worlds to choose from, so the game is quite non-linear on paper, but there's always a recommended order to take them on. Some bosses are really, really difficult, and if you had as much trouble in Hollow Bastion in the first game as I did, you'll know to steer clear of the place until it's the last one left. The levels themselves are really not that bad at all, since they're basically copies of each other. The Heartless are of course tougher to beat in the later levels, but you can pretty much control the amount of enemies you're going to face with the map cards.
The map and key cards are the most difficult cards to explain. You gain map cards from battles, and key cards from making progress in each world. To open any door in this game, you need a particular card, a card of particular numeric value, or a combo of them. For example, you might need a blue card with a value equal to or more than 5, and any card that's valued under 3, to open a door. If you're not much into fighting, you would do well to have many blue cards in your stock, 'cause these are always to your advantage. For example, you can create a room with a save point or a treasure chest, without any enemies, if you happen to have a blue card corresponding to the door's value. To open those doors with a plaque over them, you need a key card with a corresponding face on it.

Do not touch his pom-pom.
The last thing I'll mention is the Moogle Room, which you can create (or to be faithful to the game's terms, synthesize) by using a blue card that is surprisingly called Moogle Room. Every time you visit a freshly synthesized Moogle Room, the moogle in charge of trade gives you a free pack of totally random attack cards. You can then buy more card packs with the Moogle Points you gain throughout the game, or trade off your old, needless cards for the very same points.

These are the basics of the game, so let's dive into why I dislike it. It's boring, and that's all I've got to say. The boss fights are all unique and nice, although they're all recycled from the first major game in the franchise. They look amazing, and until the end when they only take place to get on your nerves due to the bosses' incredible HP and card-breaking capabilities, I'm willing to bet you'll enjoy them, even if it's just because they're a break from the game's repetitive nature. Every world is exactly the same. You fight and talk, fight and talk, fight and talk, and shift from one identical room to another until you can find the correct order of rooms to make actual progress in the game. It's most annoying when a door to a "story room" requires a card of specific value, and you don't happen to have one; once again, you have to fight to gain those map cards, and I'm not kidding when I say that on at least one occasion, all enemies in the whole level magically disappeared once I found out I couldn't open the door. I had to circle around the whole God damn boring place to find just one batch of enemies. Of course, I got the wrong card out of that battle. Actually, I had to keep fighting for about 30 minutes to get a card of the indicated value. I even died once in the middle of this dig of the haystack, 'cause I fell asleep.

The fighting is frustrating, and very difficult to learn. The foremost reason to that is the game's explanation to the basics. I guarantee you: you will learn the game a lot better by playing it than carefully reading what you are told. The tutorials are just as confusing and far out as the game's plot. You will most definitely do just fine if you take one, good, concentrated look at the menus, and the battle interface, instead of reading one single word anyone says in the game. This really happened to me; I didn't understand one stinking shard of crap of the tutorials. I just learned to play the game by playing it. I tested the tutorials by reading them again after beating the game, and I STILL couldn't understand a word of them!

Holy hell, the bosses look great.
The difficulty level of the game is extremely inconsistent. Let's put it this way: "beating" the game as Sora takes about 12 hours. The first eight hours are easy as hell, assuming you've learned how to build up even a semi-efficient deck, and check it every once in a while (I usually do that just before saving the game). Then, the game hits you with a Satanic boss fight against Captain Hook, which wouldn't be difficult if that guy wasn't such a serious, unfair prick, and if the battleground was not an unstable pirate ship. It's one of the most frustrating boss fights I've had in a while, and it almost made me want to quit and bash this game to the deepest planes of hell. I guess Nomura thought the boss fight against Hook in Kingdom Hearts was way too easy for a guy of his villainous stature. Anyway, after that, the game eases up again. Hollow Bastion introduces some annoying enemies to the fray, such as those fat guys with shields, but all in all, it's not so bad. Maleficent is not nearly as hard to beat as she was on my first playthrough of Kingdom Hearts. After that, we're just two worlds short of the "end" of the game. The boss fights in these two remaining worlds are not nearly as hard as they are annoying and stretched to eternity mostly by the bosses' uncanny capabilities to counter your cards. Well, then comes the breaker. With the next three boss fights, the game's difficulty level just simply soars. If you've pretty much just zapped through the game, your ass is served to you on a plate. You're toast. You need a high EXP level, and a well-stacked deck of cards to beat the game. It would've been nice of the game to inform you of it at some capacity a bit earlier. I hate games that bring on such sudden death in such a late part of the game. Anyway, if you somehow manage to beat the game with a proper level, good skill OR a good dose of luck, a new mode is unlocked, in which you can replay the game in "reverse", with a wholly different story told from another character's perspective. Seems pretty cool, I know, but what's somewhat awry is that this mode is extremely easy. I, for one, am not crazy about bearing too many more hours of this room synthesizing madness without any sort of challenge to it. The mode completely removes your ability to modify your deck to your liking, so all that's remotely cool about the game is gone once you start to play it. It's only there for the story, which is exactly why I'm not the least bit interested in it. It's perfectly clear at this point that the game is not going to provide me with any answers to the questions I might've once had, anyway.

I'm sure there are a lot of people who like this game and perceive its gameplay and ideas as somewhat genius. I'm also sure there are a lot of people who enjoy the story of Kingdom Hearts - I don't know why, but I don't question them either, it's all a matter of taste. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories has some bright spots, but the whole experience is boring and meaningless to me on a personal level. It's fun to fool around with the cards for a while, but eventually, the game breaks down due to its dragging pace and incredible repetition. I would've definitely preferred a diverse, standard action RPG; we've seen so many quality games of the kind on the Game Boy Advance that I must truly wonder why they didn't just make one.

SOUND : 8.9


a.k.a. Kingdom Hearts: Lost Memories

GameRankings: 77.54%

The game was remade for the PlayStation 2 in 2007 as Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories. The game was released exclusively in Japan, as the second disc of Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix +.

2 kommenttia:

  1. Re: Chain of Memories was also released in North America as a stand-alone title, without Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix +, a few years ago.

  2. It was? Damn. Thanks for the enlightenment :)