Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories Updated Hands-On

We check out the English version of Square-Enix's portable Kingom Hearts adventure and uncover new details about its gameplay.

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Square Enix recently dropped by our offices with a work-in-progress version of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, the upcoming Game Boy Advance game that continues the Kingdom Hearts franchise. The game is a bridge between 2002's Kingdom Hearts and its upcoming (and aptly named) sequel, Kingdom Hearts 2. Whereas Kingdom Hearts 2 will tell a story set well after the first Kingdom Hearts, Chain of Memories will pick up right after the ending of the original game.

Chain of Memories again casts you as Sora, who's looking for his lost memories right after the original Kingdom Hearts.
Chain of Memories again casts you as Sora, who's looking for his lost memories right after the original Kingdom Hearts.

While specific details on the game's story are being kept vague, at least a little information is being revealed. You'll play as Sora, the hero from the original Kingdom Hearts, and you'll be joined by Donald Duck and Goofy once again. The game will take place immediately after the original adventure and begins with the trio encountering a mysterious hooded character as they search for King Mickey. However, unlike Sora's first adventure with his friends, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories features a new twist that should keep things interesting: The game is essentially being created out of Sora's memories. It seems that, following his triumph at the end of the first Kingdom Hearts, the young hero has lost his memories and must gather them back. The mysterious hooded figure he meets at the beginning of the game sends him on his quest and explains that his memories have been packaged in handy card form, which naturally sets up the game's card gameplay mechanics.

Chain of Memories' structure mixes the standard linear objectives you'd expect with a free-form approach that lets you directly affect your experience. As mentioned, the main goal in the game is to find Sora's memories and discover what the heck is going on. To make that happen, you'll have to explore the rooms of the invitingly named Castle Oblivion. However, as we mentioned, your experience will be shaped by Sora's memories. Your mysterious guide creates a deck of cards from Sora's mind--what's left of it, anyway--and sends you off on your way. These cards will serve a variety of uses in your adventure. First and foremost, they will let you perform a variety of actions in combat. They will also let you actually create the different rooms you'll explore. Before you think this sounds far too dry, hold that thought. Since Sora's memories are part of what's forming your experience in the game, you can plan on seeing all the locales and characters from the original Kingdom Hearts appear in one form or another.

The game's combat is action-based at heart, but there are elements of card-battling gameplay mixed in too.
The game's combat is action-based at heart, but there are elements of card-battling gameplay mixed in too.

The actual gameplay mechanics in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories break down into a few different types. You'll have your standard exploration style that will let you move Sora from an isometric perspective to interact with different characters and the environment. When you engage in combat, which is initiated when you encounter an enemy or at key story moments, the game will switch to a fighting game-style one-on-one screen with your foes that you can move around on. Your attacks will be triggered by the A button, and these attacks make use of whatever card you have selected. In addition to physical attacks, you'll be able to perform magic, summons, and even call on Donald and Goofy for a hand. When you run out of cards in your deck, you'll simply highlight a numbered card and hold down the A button to reshuffle your deck. The numbered card will have a meter that charges as you hold down the button, and this number corresponds to the amount of times you'll have to charge the meter. Although initially you only have to charge it once, the number will increase as you reshuffle frequently.

In addition to the standard individual attacks offered by your cards, it's also possible to create chain combos by quickly hitting the shoulder buttons. If the numeric value on the cards adds up to a specific amount, then you'll be rewarded with a powerful combo attack. Yes, this sounds a lot like math, but fear not, arithmetic-phobic gamers: The system is surprisingly easy to get a handle on if you spend a little time with it. The other major element to Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories' gameplay is a role-playing game-style leveling system that will let you increase Sora's health, card points, or stack ability (we're not 100 percent clear on this mechanic yet, but it relates to how you handle your cards). The last piece of the puzzle we've seen so far is your ability to mix cards together and create the rooms you'll be exploring. You'll create a wide variety of rooms by combining various card types, and the rooms include everything from save rooms (in which you can save your progress, natch) to rooms in which your foes' attack powers are handicapped.

Technically, Chain of Memories is looking very sharp, coaxing some crazy performances out of the Game Boy Advance. The graphics are detailed and nicely animated, offering rich 2D interpretations of the faces and places gamers should be familiar with from the original game. But actually, the biggest surprise in the game is its use of full-motion video story sequences. The cinematic introduction is nearly identical to the movie shown when the game was unveiled at last year's Tokyo Game Show, and it shows Sora, Donald, and Goofy following Pluto on a grassy hill. The prerendered movie runs smoothly on the GBA and uses assets that stay true to the art style of the PlayStation 2 game. The movie's performance is on par with the recent GBA video packs released by Majesco. You'll also be treated to a quick video sequence of the Kingdom Hearts emblem when entering fights. The audio is equally impressive, with digital sound samples being used liberally throughout the game and some decent approximations of the familiar tunes heard in the PlayStation 2 game underscoring the action.

Expect to see plenty of familiar places and faces when Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories hits shelves this fall.
Expect to see plenty of familiar places and faces when Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories hits shelves this fall.

Based on what we've seen so far, Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories looks very promising. The story seems interesting and holds many mysteries to solve; for instance, why is Jiminy Cricket traveling in Sora's pants? The gameplay is shaping up well and the visuals are looking very good, so fans of the series and anyone looking for a solid GBA game would do well to be on the lookout for Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories when it ships this fall. Look for more on the game in the coming months.

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