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Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories
Graphics: 6.6
Gameplay: 6.1
Sound: 7.4
Control: 6.9
Replay Value: 6.5
Rating: 6.7
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix
Number Of Players: 1 Player

Since the original Kingdom Hearts released for the PS2, we’ve seen multiple new installments in the instantly popular franchise. This includes the sequel plus several handheld entries, like Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the GameBoy Advance, which many fans of the PS2 titles may have missed. Knowing this, Square-Enix decided to produce a port of the game – the only major difference centering on the new 3D graphics – and it recently arrived in the month of December. Now, while most of you know what KH is all about, you may be surprised to learn that hacking and slashing takes on a very new dimension in Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, and in our opinion, it doesn’t work too well. Much of this production features the professional polish we expect from the series; the sound is great as always, the visuals are a little blurry and unrefined but still colorful and appealing, and the story provides fans with plenty of missing information. However, the battle mechanic remains central to the game, and the combination of playing cards and real-time combat uncomfortably clashes. We will clarify in a bit.

First, the visuals. As you might expect, this isn’t the best-looking Kingdom Hearts title out there, but then again, we’re talking about a game that began its life in the 2D realm. This isn’t a bad transition, per se, but even with component cables and a good TV, you’ll quickly pick up on the out-of-focus presentation. It’s just a little disconcerting, especially when Kingdom Hearts II sported a sharper, clearer palette. Even so, all that fun color is there – especially in the later areas – and the character design remains solid. Although it starts a little slow in Oblivion Castle and the limited Traverse Town, the presentation gets better with time, and we’re glad we played long enough to appreciate the increasing graphical variety. At its core, though, this is not an especially accomplished title in terms of the scenery and environment; the technicals fall a little shy of the high standard fans have come to expect from the franchise. There’s nothing particularly off-putting about the graphics, but let’s just say it’s not a high point of the production. And if you’re wondering, the cut-scenes don’t really help; they basically look identical to the gameplay…which is both a plus and a minus.

The sound is significantly better, as the voice acting, soundtrack, and effects are reminiscent of the previous console iterations. Again, they’re not on par with the aforementioned Kingdom Hearts II, but they’re quite good from top to bottom. The effects suffer a little due to a balance issue between the music and effects, but most everything you hear is still sharp and, in a way, comforting. For the fans, it’s great to hear ol’ familiar tunes from ol’ familiar places they visited in other KH games, and the voices for Sora, Donald and Goofy are typically excellent. Other voiceover talent ranges from mediocre to fantastic – it’s a strangely wide spectrum – but we can always count on the well orchestrated tracks to add an appreciated dose of charm to a franchise that basically worships at the altar of “charming.” The battle effects aren’t quite as crystal clear as we remember and we’re still hoping for a revamping of certain soundtracks during dire situations (how’s about in Kingdom Hearts III?), but we’ll take the bad with the good. We’re willing to do that because, for the most part, the good certainly overrides the bad, so we find little reason to complain too much.

As we hinted at in the intro, if you’re expecting yet another fun-filled hack ‘n slash romp through a mystical, fantastical universe loaded with your favorite characters from the video game and Disney realms, you might be disappointed. Yes, the characters are there and “fun” is an extremely subjective term, but with the addition of Cards, the entire gameplay mechanic changes. If you don't recall, card playing really caught on later in the PS2 era, primarily due to the skyrocketing popularity of fads like Pokemon. It first started with titles dedicated entirely to the concept, and then it began popping up in action/adventure games that decided to utilize trading cards as a fighting foundation. For our part, we’ve never been a fan of this, but at least it worked well in games that were turn-based in nature. One of the biggest reasons people enjoyed card battles was because there was no time limit; players could ponder their next move. Therefore, it’s a little annoying to place such a mechanic in a game that uses a real-time foundation: it’s this striking contrast that causes all the problems and eventually becomes more awkward and irritating than anything.

But let’s start with the basics. Sora, Donald and Goofy are fresh off their latest successful adventure, and a dark figure shows up to tell Sora he needs to strive for something important…but he’ll lose something dear to him if he finds it. They enter Oblivion Castle, where everyone conveniently forgets everything they had previously learned, and Sora quickly learns the rules of the Cards. Basically, you get a stack of cards that you can cycle through with the R1 and L1 buttons, and you simply use a card by pressing X. The cards can range from a simple Keyblade attack to healing, items, and even summoning allies. See, Donald and Goofy are not with you at the start of a battle; you have to use their Card to bring them into combat, and at some point, that’s the first thing the player does to better the odds. You can run out of Cards and when you do, you can quickly refill your stack, but it takes longer every time you’re forced to refill during the same battle. All of this sounds intriguing, but when you toss it into the midst of a real-time fighting mechanic, everything quickly begins to fall apart.

For example, when you’re cycling through cards, Sora is simply standing there, taking plenty of abuse from the enemies. This is the most problematic aspect of this unique combination of real-time and turn-based styles, and it can be a deadly flaw very, very often. Furthermore, because each attack card only corresponds to a single strike, you can’t very well string together combinations unless you’re certain you have enough attack cards in a row. So if you launch an assault on one of the Heartless and the third Card is a Heal, Sora will strike twice and immediately move to heal himself if you leave the Cards the way they are. But on the flip side (get it?), you really can’t spend a lot of time arranging the cards during combat, lest you get torn apart by the quick-moving foes that continue to operate in real-time. This Card approach just takes all of the flow away from a fighting system that was once fast and fluid; Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories feels stunted and turgid due this bizarre development choice. Sure, it may have worked better in the 2D environment on the GBA but it really doesn’t work here, and we quickly grew tired of the inherent awkwardness.

We also weren’t big fans of the limited exploring; rather than wander about an entirely open Traverse Town, for instance, you will continually run into invisible walls. Your goal is to continue forward and find what you seek, but they take a lot of exploration out of the equation, and that’s another element of old KH games that we sorely missed. Then you’ve got the idea of switching to another screen when running into an enemy, but once again, it’s a turn-based element that only serves to infringe on the real-time foundation. Despite our attempts at being good writers, and although we have access to a Thesaurus, we really can’t think of a better word for the gameplay than “wonky.” It just feels wonky, in every sense of that vague and obscure slang word. However, the fans may be able to struggle through and gain a firm grasp of the battle, and if you can do that, you will most certainly have fun with this title. Just because we couldn’t get past it doesn’t mean other players with more patience won’t; we’re not about to discount this possibility. Furthermore, the storyline, characters, and presentation are all endlessly appealing, as it almost always is in Kingdom Hearts. Nothing wrong with that at all.

This is one example of a game that on the surface appears solid and engaging. Just about everything you might expect from this series is here – albeit slightly toned down and not quite as polished – and fans should be satisfied with that. But in our opinion, a combat system that simply doesn’t work bogs down the entire game, which translates to the fact that, for the very first time, we didn’t look forward to fighting in a KH title. In fact, we found ourselves avoiding encounters just to push forward and see more of the story and the amusing environments. But even then, we couldn’t entirely avoid the Cards. You also use them for opening doors in this particular world, and in all honesty, they should’ve left it at that. Keep the battle the same and use the cards as keys; that would’ve been fine, and the game would’ve turned out much better. It would’ve actually felt like KH. But in the end, it only feels like a bad idea superimposed over an ongoing good idea. So unless you’re a hardcore fan, we say pass on Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, and lie in wait for Kingdom Hearts III. Yeah, we still hope it’s coming…

12/29/2008   Ben Dutka