Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the PS2 has been quite a long time coming. Originally announced as a pack-in extra for Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix in Japan, Chain of Memories was a complete remake of the GBA title released back in 2005. At the time the game had an interesting change of pace for the series, though the card management system was a little bit unwieldy, the game still did a good job of telling the story that took place between PS2 installments. Fast forward to today, the gameplay and story are for the most part intact. But something that was fresh three years ago, doesn't quite hold up as the PS2 reaches it's final days.
Chain of Memories takes place in between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2. The story follows Sora, Donald, and Goofy as they search for Sora's friend Riku and King Mickey. Their search brings them to Castle Oblivion which is a place where your memories can be lost and old ones can resurface. The story is presented in an incredibly straightforward manner, you play through a stage, and then there is some main story progress, then time for a new stage. There are the minor stories that take place in each of the worlds, featuring a myriad of Disney characters but a lot of them are retreads of the first Kingdom Hearts.
The most damnable aspect of all of this, the game is incredibly linear. Where as the original game you were pretty free on where you could explore, at any point in time, in Chain of Memories you are going through a very straightforward experience. You finish a level, and then you take a card that you received from a boss to create a new world, based on one of the previous worlds of Kingdom Hearts. These levels are for the most part identical to the original games and continues for about thirteen stages. Even down the character interactions the game is treading on familiar territory to the point of being obscene. The only difference now is that a lot of the characters are in Sora's memories, so they don't quite behave like they did in the first game.
The game looks as good as Kingdom Hearts can look, which is circa 2002 graphics, but incredible facial details. This is a game that really could have benefited from a progressive scan option, just to bring out some of the detail. Otherwise it's a blurry mess with a ton of jaggies. The character models still look good and the animation is fantastic. But overall the game looks a little plain, thanks in part to what appear to be low production values. There isn't a whole lot going on in the audio department either. The voice actors for the series return, but a lot of the game is spent reading dialog boxes as the acting is saved for only major plot points. And while Haley Joel Osment was great as Sora for Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2, having his aging voice appear in the middle between games is a little off-putting. The rest of the cast does a fine job, however something that I found mildly annoying was the actors were constrained to the animations of the characters they played, causing some of their lines to come off a little awkwardly.
Chain of Memories is at times an absolute chore to play. This is largely due to the amount of grinding you need to do, and it never changes. At the outset of the game you are given a deck of cards. These cards represent your abilities in battle, and they are physical attacks, magic, items, and summon cards. Card are ranked from one to nine, and the higher your card the better, but it is also more expensive to keep that card in your deck. Then there is also a zero card that acts like a wild card, that can cancel any card, but only if it is used to counter a card, using it on its own is practically useless as any card can beat it. Leveling up allows you to increase the maximum amount of cards you can carry, or increase your hit points, or learn new skills called sleights. Overall I found the sleights to be useless as it prevented me from having more powerful cards in my deck in exchange for a move that was not always useful. Battle is a different affair from previous titles, rather than fight out on the field, hitting an enemy will bring out an instanced battle, which will trigger a transition to a small square arena where you'll fight waves of enemies. These battles at times can be either quick, or excruciatingly long depending on the card used to create the room. Every room is created by cards that are dropped by enemies. Confused yet? Couple that with frequent battles and you've got a game that adds up to homework fast.
There is a lot of micromanagement and not a whole lot of payoff for your efforts and overall this is the biggest weakness of Chain of Memories. Since battle is a key component of gameplay you will need to constantly keep your deck updated and stocked with high end cards and in the end you will wind up making theme decks that are created solely for singular battles. I had one boss battle that I only used magic cards and then never used the deck again. Later fights are loaded with enemies who maintain a large deck, with plenty of high level cards and a lot of zero cards so they are always ready to counter whatever you think you're ready to throw at them. And of course, like the GBA game once you or your opponent run out of cards you need to 'reload.' Which means to stand in place while holding down the X button until all the cards are replenished. There are cards to alleviate this scenario that allow you to move while recharging your cards, or reduce the amount of time spent charging.
A majority of the time spent in the game is in battle, and moving about the map in each level. Overall it translates out to about a 20 hour experience, and a lot of it feels like it takes a lot more than that to get through the game. This is mostly because of the grind of battle. I wound up making it my goal to spend my level ups on increasing my card stock, and in the end that wound up being pretty moot since I had neglected hit points to the point that I couldn't survive more than a few attacks from the later bosses. This in turn lead to more grinding and eventually I was tired of the whole experience, especially the wonky transition to battle. If there was no need for an instanced battle I would have found the game more enjoyable, since the maps themselves are varied in height and size, where as the battle arenas are a flat square.
Another aspect of the game I took issue with is the card implementation and controls. The card system features a 'premium' card that grants the user a cheaper card, however it's not explained to the user in game that a 'premium' card can only be used one time unless specific cards are carried that allow the user to replenish them. These cards can be ludicrously expensive, offsetting the savings earned by using 'premium' cards in the first place. Now when it comes to using the cards, you can cycle the cards using the L1 or R1 buttons, and then bank them with the triangle button, or just use them with the circle button. Banking cards allows you to store three cards and then execute them all at once to unleash a powerful attack or use a sleight. This all sounds well and good in theory, but in practice it's tough to execute consistently while dodging attacks from the enemies. A roll/dodge is a given part of your move set but more often then not you'll be fighting enemies who have homing attacks, making your dodge relatively useless.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a tough game to like. The characters and the universe are awesome and deserve praise. But the gameplay and story feel shallow, and the experience is shorter than your average action RPG experience. Even at a lower price point it feels like this game should have been packed in to a limited edition of Kingdom Hearts 2 to be released in the US much like Japan. I would have felt better about that purchase rather than picking up Chain of Memories almost three years after the release of Kingdom Hearts 2. To recommend this game would almost be a disservice to fans of the series. If you played this game back when it was on the GBA you would not be missing out on much if you skipped the PS2 remake. Don't let SquareEnix think that a quick and dirty port that is nearly three years over due be an acceptable release this late in the PS2's life.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is really for the dedicated, the kind that enjoy fanfiction, and repetitive gameplay.