Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Chain of Memories: If only I could forget...

If you were expecting me to give this piece of crap the same level of praise the rest of the series has gotten, prepared to be surprised. I do not like this game. As a game, I'd compare it to eating tinned dog food: It does the job, but it doesn't taste very nice. Even when you're finished it leaves a bitter after-taste.

For the purposes of the review, I will be looking exclusively at the Gameboy Advance version. Chain of Memories was remade for the PS2, complete with proper 3D gameplay and some voice work, mostly in the Castle Oblivion scenes. Unfortunately, this remake wasn't released in Europe for some reason, so the only experience I have with it are on Youtube. To it's credit, it doesn't look as terrible...

The story picks up from the end of Kingdom Hearts. Sora stumbles on this really weird castle and, upon entering, loses all of his abilities. How unfortunate. He is confronted by a man in an ominous black coat, who gives Sora some cards which lead him through recreations of worlds he visited in  the first game, starting with Traverse Town. As he explores the castle, Sora's memories are gradually screwed over by a group only referred to as The Organisation to include some girl called Namine, among other things. There's also a replica of Riku created by a member of the Organisation running around the castle.

I quite like the way this game stays clear of the whole "save the universe" plot. All of the storyline is kept within Castle Oblivion, and it's a fairly small story involving a pile-up of gambits and betrayal which sets up Kingdom Hearts 2 than anything else. However, pretty much everything that takes place in the worlds from the first game are an outright rehash. In Wonderland for example, Alice is on trial, she escapes, you go find her, you fight the Trickmaster. Sound familiar? This is the case for every other world not new to this game, meaning you'll have to work your way through a heavily butchered version of the Kingdom Hearts plot before reaching anything remotely new. Did I mention it ends on a cliffhanger?

Know that I can't get over you, 'cause everything I see is you
And I don't want no substitute, baby, I swear it's deja vu...
 I would not recommend playing this game for the plot. There's very little that isn't an outright lift from the first game, and what's left isn't worth suffering through the horrific gameplay.

The gameplay in Chain of Memories differs significantly from the first game - and from every game since, for that matter. instead of just bashing away at enemies to your hearts content, you have to follow this ridiculous card based battle system. Everything in Castle Oblivion is ruled by the cards. To open doors, you need cards. To access new worlds, you need cards. To progress the plot, you need cards. To swing the fucking keyblade... You get the idea.

The field... 'gameplay' basically consists of Sora wandering through a series of suspiciously similar boxes coloured to look like the worlds from the original Kingdom Hearts. There are a few enemies on the field who you can attempt to attack to stun them at the start of the battle, which takes place in a seperate screen. The key word being attempt; navigating the field is an experience I can only describe as painful. Attacking enemies is made a chore thanks to atrocious hit detection and a sluggish keyblade swing. Any attempt at basic platforming is hampered by clumsy jump controls (and directional controls themselves, for that matter). The environments are colourful, but uninteresting; only going out to satisfy the theme of each world rather than actively seeking to resemble them. You have to repeatedly fight with the enemies on the field to acquire cards to open doors to other boxes on the floor until you reach a boss fight. There's something really uncomfortable about the field gameplay, but luckily there isn't a whole lot you can ruin with it. The game designers saved the truly game-breaking stuff for the battles.

For what I'm guessing are hardware limitations (such as the GBA not having nearly enough buttons to support a proper Kingdom Hearts game), all of your attacks are performed by selecting them from a deck of cards instead of a menu. This includes basic swings of the keyblade, casting magic, using items and even getting Donald and Goofy to help out. Each card cost a certain amount of CP, which determines how many cards you'll be able to fit into your deck. You reload your deck and all of your attack cards with a 'charge' function, which takes longer each time you use it. Using the cards ultimately feels like using a gun to blow out a lightbulb; it's just an unnecessary and wasteful way of doing something that should be quite simple, and that's forgetting about the amount of time you'll waste replacing the bulb.

There are some interesting aspects to this system. Every card is assigned a value from 0-9, and you can 'break' your opponents card by attacking with a card bearing a greater value or a 0. They can similarly do the same to prevent your attacks. You can also use sleights: special abilities such as Sonic Blade and Ars Arcanum, by stacking 3 specific cards and using up the first card for the rest of the battle. The problem with these nuances in the system is that you either have to meticulously plan out your deck to use the sleights you want to abuse (accounting for the fact that you'll use up the first card), or scramble frantically through your deck to find an appropriate card to add to the sleight or break the opponent while they get in cheap shot after cheap shot. Neither option is particularly fun. Breaking your opponents powerful sleights can be fun... assuming you can find a 0 card fast enough.

A 0 card is pretty much your only option here. Got it memorized?
It doesn't take very long for battles to get repetitive in this game. Your entire strategy will rely on your deck, which is a nightmare to organise. More often than not you'll find yourself doing the exact same thing for a long string of battles. All essence of variety is drowned out by only a few of the sleights (the only interesting aspect of the combat) being simple to organise, and even fewer being consistently useful. The collision detection isn't stellar either; I can't begin to tell you the number of times I've wasted cards, or even an entire sleight, because I was a few pixels further up the battlefield than I should have been, something which is hardly clear given the awful sense of depth perception the battlefields give. The combat system sound brilliant on paper, but in practice it's a frustrating and tedious experience riddled with poor hit detection, clunky controls and a ludicrously fiddly central mechanic.

This was meant to be a demonstration of the graphics, but I
snuck past another example of the awful hit detection...
For the Gameboy Advance, the graphics are actually pretty good. The sprites are large, colourful and recognisable, which is about as much as you can expect. Because the layout of the rooms are generated semi-randomly, there's only a vague effort to make each world feel like the films they're based on, or even the worlds original incarnation. There is no careful design to the worlds of the game, just a load of interconnected boxes with layouts which wouldn't look out of place in Congo Bongo or Ikea, painted to give the vague impression that you are, in fact, playing Kingdom Hearts instead of moving action figures around a cardboard box.

The music is... adequate, but like almost every other thing in this game, it's just a rehash of the first game on a system of far inferior quality. Most of the music isn't too bad, but it can be really depressing to see great tracks like Hand in Hand get butchered by the Gameboys awful speakers. It's like meeting up with an old friend you used to love, only to find they've turned into an alcoholic asshole... except with music, and crappy quality being an alcoholic asshole. There are a few new songs, such as "The 13th Struggle", but do yourself a favour and listen to the version from Kingdom Hearts 2...

To put a long and tedious story short, playing this game was incredibly painful. I forced myself to play through the entire thing when it first came out to reach the end of a disappointing plot. I genuinely tried to enjoy the game when I started a second run in preparation for this review, but I didn't get past Olympus Coliseum. As much as I love the series, I couldn't suggest this game to anyone without it weighing so heavily on my conscience, I'd have to stone myself to death as atonement.

Find a plot summary, play a real Kingdom Hearts game. Save yourself.

As a game: 2/10 Cool idea, abysmal execution.
As part of the series: I do not consider this part of the series.

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