"A departure from the hit-the-x-button gameplay of the rest of the series, this system is lauded as either brilliantly strategic or pathetically broken. I myself call it strategically pathetic, but I like it nonetheless."
I have trouble admitting that I like the Kingdom Hearts series. Any time I do, the other person inevitably asks “Isn’t that the one with the Disney characters?”
This is followed by an awkward silence, broken by me saying something about getting another drink before I slink off to some back room to shed tears of shame.
Chain of Memories, to its credit, has less of a Disney influence than the other games. At the same time, I can’t recommend it to newcomers because it relies on an emotional attachment to the main characters, which you have to play through Kingdom Hearts 1 to achieve... and THAT game is filled with Disney to the brink of bursting from all the happy faces.
Chain Memories begins where the first game left off. We find Sora and his stalwart companions Donald and Goofy in the aptly named Castle Oblivion, where the memories “in their heart” (you’ll see this phrase a lot) take physical form. What this boils down to is a play-through of the stages from the first game. The twist that keeps this interesting is that the whole time Sora is slowly losing his memories, and the process is driving him insane. Watching Sora be mentally and emotionally tortured as he forgets the people he loves is a surprisingly fulfilling experience.
Through all of this, Sora’s taunted by a bunch of guys (and one girl) in fashionable black cloaks, known by the collective moniker of The Organization. You aren’t given a lot of information about them, just enough to keep them mysterious, which combined with their taste in clothing lends them an impressive air. When they show up, you’re simultaneously struck with a desire to fight them, because they’re so cool, and a desire to save your game, because you never know what kind of wild card they have up their sleeves.
Speaking of cards, Chain of Memories is best known for its controversial battle system, the “card system.” A departure from the hit-the-x-button gameplay of the rest of the series, this system is lauded as either brilliantly strategic or pathetically broken. I myself call it strategically pathetic, but I like it nonetheless.
First of all, when I say card system, I’m not talking Yu-Gi-Oh. This isn’t two guys staring dramatically at each other while playing a game of poker. Chain of Memories remains an action game. It’s just that your actions are decided by playing cards in a glorified version of War. Some are attack cards, some are magic cards, some are items. Each card is numbered, and the basic idea is that, if used at the same time, a higher card beats a lower card. A zero card beats anything if played after it, and nothing if played before. When you run out of cards, you have to spend time reloading your deck, during which you are extremely vulnerable.
Where things get interesting is in the combos. Basic combos can be done by stringing any three cards together and performing them as a single action. The benefit to this is that the combined cards all have the value of their sum, making combos hard to break (though watch out for those zero cards). Also, if you combine the right series of cards, you pull off a “sleight.” These are special moves that range from a flurry of physical attacks to classic power-moves like Flare and Holy. The downside to combos is that you lose the first card in the combo until the next battle, making it in your best interest to end battles quickly if you’re going to rely on them or risk having a deck of three cards.
This may sound complex, but a lot of the strategy of the game takes place outside of combat, where you build your decks. In fact, actual fights can feel a bit like running a program. They can also get repetitive, especially when you find you need to level, as you see the same moves performed constantly (and usually in the same order). On the other hand, there’s something insanely gratifying about seeing a deck you built operate like clockwork, albeit clockwork that beats the shit of things. It might not have the on-the-spot strategy of a collectible card game, but it does have the satisfaction of successful pre-planning... in this case, visualizing pounding your opponent into the dirt and then doing so. The graphics help a lot with this, as Sora’s moves are pretty cool to watch.
Still, this is important: If you’re not willing to put the time into making a good deck and adjusting it as the game progresses, you’ll find battles start to become less startling displays of sleights and more agonizing clashes of ineffective low level cards. Basically, if you like programming or tactical games, the card system should appeal. If you’re more a fan of on-the-spot action or button mashers, stay far away.
The stages also progress via the cards. Essentially, every world is made up of a series of undefined rooms. You play map cards to dictate the attributes of each room. This may sound interesting, but trust me, it’s not. Since each room looks roughly the same, a world consists of a lot of running through the same environment, getting into fights as you choose (since enemies are pretty easy to dodge), and suppressing yawns. There’s absolutely no exploration value to this game. It’s simply pounding your way through the stages to get to the next boss and cut-scene. But hey, at least they’re cool bosses and cut-scenes.
Chain of Memories has a lot going for it in the uniqueness department. Unfortunately, like most unique games, it’s hard to give it an accurate score. So I’ve developed a rate-it-yourself system for this one. We’ll start with my base of 8. Take away 4 if you think the card system won’t appeal to you. Take away another 2 if you’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game. And if you absolutely hate Disney characters, take away 8.
Freelance review by Jonathan Stark (December 24, 2008)
Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.
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