A year after Kingdom Hearts came out, in 2003, we got the unexpected follow-up. No not Kingdom Hearts II, that's still a few years out. Rather, a weird Game Boy Advance card game known as Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. Despite being released to keep fans busy while the next entry to the series was worked on, Chain of Memories is actually vital to the plot and a fun game to boot. Realizing this, Square Enix remade the game for PlayStation 2 in 2008 under the name Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories, bringing it to 3D and adding in new elements. Does this oft-forgotten dark horse of the series still provide entertainment?
Re:Chain of Memories picks up directly where the first game leaves off, with Sora, Donald, and Goofy searching for their lost friends. The trio comes across Castle Oblivion during their adventure. It's here where they must relive most of their memories from the first game to reach the top of the castle, all while dealing with the new threat in the form of Organization XIII. Worse, Castle Oblivion has the unfortunate side effect that it causes its inhabitants to lose their memories. Many important plot elements from future games find their first appearances here, and the overarching plot is actually pretty interesting.
Unfortunately, it's constantly interrupted by what amounts to little more than a clip show. Sora's gang revisits almost every single world from the first game (with the noticeable and weird exception of the Tarzan based Deep Jungle) and relives the events they went through. Sometimes this is nearly line-for-line. It feels lazy, and more importantly, it interrupts the actually interesting stuff. Every time it feels like Re:Chain of Memories' plot is going to pick up you'll have to sit through another one of Sora's old adventures. This pacing absolutely kills the game, and it's a shame that there are interesting and important elements buried in here.
Equally as weak as the story is Re:Chain of Memories' presentation. It's pretty clear most of the assets are just recycled from the first game, and many of the cutscenes are done without voices. This may be for the best as what little voice acting there is was rather low quality, with many of the actors sounding like they were uninterested in coming back for more. About 3/4ths of the soundtrack is just taken from the original game, with a few tunes from Kingdom Hearts II thrown in as well. The few original tracks, mostly boss themes, are all totally forgettable and not of the caliber of the works of the other games.
Unlike the first game, Re:Chain of Memories is a weird combination of card games and action RPG elements. Sora has to assemble a deck of cards that represent abilities he can use. In addition, each enemy he fights has a deck of their own. Each card has a number from 0-9. When Sora and enemies play cards at the same time the card with the higher number will cancel out the other. You can interrupt attacks by playing cards with higher numbers, or a 0 which interrupts everything but loses to everything. As you advance, you also gain the ability to combine three cards to play at once. This allows Sora to use special abilities he otherwise wouldn't have, such as throwing his Keyblade for a long ranged attack.
At first, this is actually pretty cool. It's a solid system that changes the series up in a major way. I had quite a bit of fun in each battle, combining cards and trying to beat enemy cards. Winning fights saw me earning more cards that I could then use to further customize my deck. I also got room cards, which let me advance through each floor. Re:Chain of Memories has an interesting "build your own dungeon" thing going on. When you reach doors between rooms you'll be asked to play a card that determines the shape and difficulty of the next room. With the right combination of cards, you could make each floor full of Heartless that have weak decks, or rooms that consist of nothing other than treasure.
The ideas are all in the right place, but there's not enough to actually survive the entire game. The custom dungeons quickly grow boring when you realize there are only a few variations and they'll all look the exact same for every world. Grinding out better cards isn't really that much fun, and soon every level becomes repetitive and dull. Many of the original bosses and enemies lose something as unique abilities fall to the wayside for more cards. If you're playing Re:Chain of Memories directly after Kingdom Hearts then this is all made worse.
Re:Chain of Memories does attempt to work in some mechanics from later series, but even these don't really pan out how they should. The most notable is the inclusion of Kingdom Hearts II's reaction commands. However, they don't happen often enough to be noteworthy. Most of the time, they either extend attacks or counterattack. There's none of the interesting mid-fight minigames or cool moments here.
Later game segments only make things even more annoying by including some extremely noticeable difficulty spikes. By the end of the game, many enemies had decks full of high powered cards. Fights became slogs full of constant interrupts. Unless you grind out map cards that feature half power enemies, you'll see the same mess over and over. Boss fights don't get any better. Many seem to have abilities that kill Sora in short order if you don't have the right counter combos.
Ultimately, it becomes a frustrating cycle. Becoming trapped in boring filler story segments because you need to grind out cards to defeat difficult bosses, but grinding out cards is equally not fun and full of difficult enemies. Grind is the name of the game here, and it's a boring grind. It's not like Re:Chain of Memories is even a long RPG, taking me about 25 hours to finish. However, its one that doesn't even try to utilize its time well. Once you hit that quality plummet, it simply never recovers.
Well, almost never recovers. After you finish Re:Chain of Memories' story you unlock something that almost manages to redeem the game. Titled Reverse/Rebirth, this second story mode sees you playing the game from Riku's point of view. Waking up in the basement of Castle Oblivion with no knowledge of how he got there, Riku needs to work his way up to the ground floor to escape. Along the way, he has to deal with an internal struggle with his dark past and members of Organization XIII interested in using and exploiting him.
When it comes to gameplay, Reverse/Rebirth actually flows a lot better. Riku can't edit his deck, instead using a pre-made deck for every floor of the castle. He has fewer abilities and only a single partner, but everything is much more powerful. He also doesn't need to relive many of Sora's story beats, which lets him advance through floors much quicker. The result is that Reverse/Rebirth plays like a simpler, faster paced, version of the game. It's a massive improvement, cutting out a lot of the slow grinding and deck building from Sora's story. There are still some frustrations, like the aforementioned difficulty spikes, but they never quite feel as bad. It only took me about 12 hours to finish, but I enjoyed it far more than the first.
Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories Review | Final Thoughts
I have genuinely fond memories of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories. However, this PlayStation 2 remake does a really good job making me hate them. The card system is clever for a little while, but becomes grindey and boring before long. There are some interesting story notes in here, but they're trapped behind tons of filler. Reverse/Rebirth does a solid job redeeming the experience, but it can't redeem the lazy soundtrack, asset reuse, or bad voice acting. Instead of replaying this one, it may be better to just go rewatch the cutscenes on YouTube.
TechRaptor reviewed Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories on PlayStation 4 using a copy purchased by the reviewer. It saw release on PlayStation 2 on December 2nd, 2008
- Few Interesting Plot Points
- Some Initial Fun Ideas
- Riku's Campaign is Much Better
- Most Story is Rehash
- Bad Voice Acting
- Difficulty Spikes
- Many Reused Assets and Soundtrack