Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories

Re:Cycled and Re:Hashed

Given the success of the first installment of the Disney and Squaresoft crossover franchise Kingdom Hearts, it was unsurprising that they decided to turn it into a series, although they did so in a rather offbeat fashion. Although they announced a numbered sequel that would become Kingdom Hearts II, they opted to develop a title for the Game Boy Advance subtitled Chain of Memories, which, rather than being an actual spinoff, was an actual continuation of the first game’s storyline to lead into the “second” entry. Towards the end of the system’s lifespan a 3-D remake released on the PlayStation 2, Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories. Does it improve over the original version?

The remake, like the original version, picks up where the first Kingdom Hearts left off, with Sora, Goofy, and Donald Duck on a road in the middle of nowhere, eventually stumbling upon the enigmatic Castle Oblivion (whose backstory Birth by Sleep relays). Upon entering, the three find all memories of the previous game’s events forgotten, and must traverse the castle to regain them, dealing with the equally-mysterious Organization as they do so. The concept of a fortress that inflicts amnesia unto those who enter is, quite frankly, one of the most asinine excuses for a sequel in RPG history.

That’s not the worst of the plot; most of the narrative consists of Sora and company retracing their steps across most Disney worlds from the first game, minus Deep Jungle due to legal issues with the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Replacing hackneyed dialogue about hearts and darkness is speech emphasizing memories, with the translators not bothering with the use of thesauri so that the text would sound far less redundant that it does in the game. There’s also an absolute absence of comic relief, with characters such as Donald, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse and serious storytelling being like oil and water.

As with before, moreover, the writing isn’t bad in an enjoyable way; it’s bad in a completely excruciating fashion that can make the game unbearable for older audiences to play. The translation also doesn’t help matters (aside from general polish), given the repeated emphasis on remembrance of past events (and a reiteration on hearts and darkness during Reverse Rebirth), and as with most Japanese RPGs, the writing is worst in combat, and is, in the words of Vexen’s annoying, unnatural taunt, “No good!” There seems absolutely no fathomable reason, except alcohol, why anyone would think it natural for a character to shout “Courage!” or “Power!” when using an ability.

Fortunately, the game mechanics somewhat redeem Sora and Riku’s separate storylines, having a methodical structure as they traverse the various revisited worlds. Each consists of a number of chambers whose connections the player can open through the use of room cards obtained from defeating Heartless, colored red, green, and blue. Red cards specialize in customizing rooms full of Heartless with varying degrees of number and activity. Green cards specialize in granting Sora or Riku an advantage when he slashes Heartless. Blue cards can create rooms with save points or treasure.

However, the encounter system has issues, one being that while the game shows targets for Sora as he explores each world’s rooms, the player can’t lock onto them at all, which can create undesirable effects such as mistakenly slashing an environmental object instead of a Heartless. Moreover, slashing said elements may occasionally unleash green health-restoring balls, red spheres indicating Moogle Points, or even cards central to the game’s combat, although if a player contacts an enemy without collecting them, then they forfeit said rewards, which disappear completely after the subsequent battle.

Contacting enemies takes Sora or Riku to a separate screen for combat, with a fixed arena mercifully devoid of platforming that would otherwise necessitate retracing steps the player had taken within the prior entry. As with before, however, the camera can prove a nuisance, which is inexcusable considering the Game Boy Advance version didn’t suffer from issues in this regard. The targeting system also has issues like it does outside combat; while the player can lock onto foes to keep the camera on them, they unfortunately can’t instantly change targets like in the first game, and defeating a targeted foe doesn’t automatically lock Sora or Riku onto another.

Battles themselves utilize different kinds of combat cards, for Sora coming in three varieties: Keyblade cards, which symbolize different types of the signature Kingdom Hearts weapon; magic cards, which indicate magic and summon spells; item cards, which can replenish Sora’s deck; and enemy cards, which provide innate effects such as preventing foes from breaking cards he uses. The rules of the real-time combat system for both Sora and Riku largely follow the same rules, with the player able to use one card at a time with a value from zero to nine.

Enemies can “play” cards as well, with whatever active card has the higher value “breaking” the other, in which case the command symbolized cancels. One major advantage the player has over the enemy is that they only use one card at a time, which can make the use of sleights, executed from combinations of three cards, help battles go by quickly. There is the catch that the execution of a sleight removes the first card used from the player’s deck until the next battle or use of certain item cards, but the fact that green “friend” cards randomly appear and aren’t affected by this rule makes sleights more appealing.

Cards can also come in “premium” varieties, which take up fewer capacity points in Sora’s deck, although this comes at the price of one-time use (unless second or third in a sleight), with specific item cards only able to restore their use within the same battle. Capacity points dictate how many cards the player can have in Sora’s deck (although since Riku’s is fixed and varies within the various worlds he visits, this doesn’t apply to him), the player able to increase the limit when leveling, although for Sora, players can increase his maximum health or learn a new sleight when available.

In Reverse Reverse, players also have the option to increase Riku’s maximum hit points, boost his attack power if available, or increase his dark points, which dictate how long he can be in his powerful darkness mode. Riku’s story better imitates the fast-paced Keyblade contact of the previous game, and Sora’s can as well as long as the player demonstrates skill in deck construction. Certain combinations of cards can really come in handy; for instance, Simba’s Proud Roar ability was central to me plowing through regular encounters, as did Cloud’s Omnislash, useful in repeatedly striking individual bosses too.

Killing enemies makes them drop gems symbolizing experience that disappear after being on the battlefield for some time, a system that works for and against the player. In the middle of standard encounters, the player can approach the edge of the arena and escape after a few seconds, retaining all acquired experience. Completing a battle causes Sora or Riku to obtain all dropped gems that haven’t vanished, with bosses dropping significant amounts as well once the player has beaten them. Most bosses, unlike standard enemies, use sleights, in which case zero-value cards can cancel them.

Cancelling boss sleights is pretty much the only positive of zero cards, since any other card can cancel them. Regardless, it’s best to keep around three in a deck before facing bosses that use sleight, lest they slaughter the player with their abilities. Both Sora and Riku’s quests feature nasty difficulty spikes, with certain bosses essentially being walls preventing the player from advancing the narrative, even on so-called “Beginner” mode, though they tend to end quickly either in the enemy or player’s favor. Regardless, the experience on higher settings would undoubtedly be nightmarish.

Control doesn’t fare any better. While the general straightforward nature of the gameplay prevents players from ever getting loss, and the interface is easy to handle, some of the same issues that plagued its predecessor plague Re:Chain of Memories, namely the inability to skip text during voiced cutscenes (although the scenes are fully skippable), sure to alienate hearing-impaired players. There’s also the rare tendency of the game to crash, and thus, autosaving after events such as cutscenes that boss fights don’t follow would have been welcome, too. All in all, the remake could have definitely interacted with players a lot better.

Being a narrative continuation that reuses most worlds from its predecessor, it’s natural that the music used in the prior game would return, but Yoko Shimomura could have done better, considering that many of the Disney worlds this remake and its precursor derive have dozens of musical numbers, Alice in Wonderland in particular coming to mind. The original music, such as the Twilight Town theme, is decent, and the voices fit the characters, if clashing with the game’s serious disposition, but the appeal of the aurals present in its precursor lose their allure in Re:Chain of Memories.

The visuals too lose their allure, particularly regarding the recycled worlds, character models, enemy designs, and whatnot, and the chambers formed through different types of room cards are cookie-cutter in nature. There’s also a noticeable amount of jaggies, in addition to a framerate that noticeably drops during any kind of story sequence. There’s also no FMVs at all throughout the game, and the imperfections visible in the prior game’s visuals such as blurry, pixilated texturing show themselves in this entry. Overall, the graphics could have definitely used more polish.

Finally, completing Sora’s quest takes a little less than a day’s total of playtime, while finishing Riku’s side of the story takes a little over six hours. The Trophies do add some lasting appeal, and the ability to skip cutscenes totally eases the tension of acquiring them in subsequent playthroughs, though the games aren’t enjoyable enough to warrant additional playthroughs.

In the end, one could consider Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories a minor improvement over the Game Boy Advance version, given the addition of a Beginner mode, though given that it’s hard even on that particular setting, recommending the narrative follow-up is difficult, especially given the degree of recycled content and especially the excruciating narrative. Younger audiences would ideally be the game’s target audience, but the tedium of the gameplay makes it hard to recommend even to them, thus making its targets ambiguous at best, and those interested solely in the storyline would probably be better off reading online synopses.

The Good:
+Combat has plenty good ideas.
+No getting lost.
+Aurals get the job done.

The Bad:
-Hard, even on so-called “Beginner” mode.
-Excruciating narrative with weak localization.
-Loads of recycling.

The Bottom Line:
One the weaker installments of the Kingdom Hearts series, with little original content.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 6.0/10
Controls: 5.0/10
Story: 1.0/10
Localization: 2.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0/10
Graphics: 4.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 5.0/10
Difficulty: Hard
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 4.0/10

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