The latest Kingdom Hearts game relies on the concept of memories in more than just one way. Ostensibly, Chain of Memories links the events of the first two games of the series by exploring Sora and company's fading memories. But it also evokes your own fond recollections of the original by recycling a huge amount of content, from character models to boss fights. If you've been looking for a stopgap measure to tide you over until the next Kingdom Hearts game, this remake of the 2004 Game Boy Advance game will induce warm Disney-themed fuzzies. Nevertheless, its combat system and create-your-own-dungeon exploration are interesting but clunky, so even at its reasonable price, you're better off replaying the previous games in the series if you're looking for a trip down memory lane.
On one hand, using original Kingdom Hearts assets to breathe life into the GBA game is excellent fan service, letting you see Chain of Memories' events as you may have already imagined them. On the other, this dual recycling makes everything feel incredibly overfamiliar. As protagonist Sora, you'll explore Castle Oblivion, in which each floor takes on the properties of the places that you explored in Kingdom Hearts. No one seems to remember Sora, yet they know his name and other important snippets, and the game consistently reminds you that the most important memories are stored in your heart, not your head. As you traverse various Disney environments from Agrabah to Halloween Town, you'll be struck by a constant sense of deja vu. Although there is new dialogue, voice acting, and other additional content, much is exactly as it was in the first game. You'll fight the same bosses, hear a lot of the same music, see the same textures and animations, and deal with some of the same annoyances, such as awkward platforming.
Diversity comes by way of Chain of Memories' unique card-based exploration and combat. When you first enter a new area, you must spend room cards to advance through the various doors that you come across. These cards are earned by successfully defeating foes, and the rooms come in a variety of different flavors. Some may plunge you into darkness, forcing you to identify the Heartless (your standard Kingdom Hearts enemies) by their gleaming eyes. In other cases, you can spend a card to create a room with treasure in it or a much-needed save point. Battles in the room may end in a spin of the roulette wheel, which could earn you new cards or spruce up existing ones. You will use special cards to gain access to rooms in which the story unfolds, but though floors have limited layouts, you essentially create your own dungeon as you go.
This is a neat idea, but moving from one room to the next makes exploration feel disjointed, and it will make you miss the more freeform exploration afforded by the previous games. The rooms have the right theme, to be sure: You'll bounce on mushrooms in the brightly colored Wonderland areas, and Monstro's spotted interior looks exactly as you remember. But conceptually, it separates the story from the combat, and though it's nice to create your own areas to grind levels, it's still grinding--and slicing up dungeons in this manner reinforces the notion. There's simply no sense of flow from one event to the next, which may have made sense for the technologically limited GBA, but is less cohesive here.
Whereas room cards drive exploration, combat cards drive battles. Like in a card-battling game, you'll set up decks that govern your attacks during Heartless encounters. Each card represents a particular move, from standard swings and slashes to special assaults and friend summoning. Each card is numbered from zero to nine, and your success versus a particular enemy is predicated on who plays the higher card. Yet scuffles are not the turn-based affairs associated with card battling. Rather, the cards are folded into the combat of the original Kingdom Hearts, in which you mashed on the X button to land standard attacks. Now, each press of the button initiates the attack represented by the next card in the deck. You set card order prior to battle, but you can use the shoulder buttons to cycle through your equipped cards during battle, and if you want to do extra damage, you can string three cards together into a powerful attack.
This is a fascinating meld of two disparate types of gameplay, and a well-managed deck leads to some good fun, at least during standard encounters. This is because you won't often need to micromanage your deck as you fight weaker Heartless, so you can button-slam your way through flashy-looking fights, sending a freewheeling Goofy toward your foes or calling a roaring Simba to lay waste to multiple enemies at once. Boss fights are a different story, given that your enemy will play powerful cards that break your own, requiring you to cycle more often through your deck to look for the cards you need. This also leads to more frequent deck shuffles, which don't take too long but can disrupt the pace, especially because subsequent shuffles take more time to complete. At the same time, you may need to dodge attacks or jump from one platform to another, and the ensuing awkwardness keeps these two opposing ideas from ever meshing as well as they should. Considering that a decent deck will get you through most of the game without much trouble, the card collection isn't as addictive as it is in standard card-battling games. Furthermore, the cards chop up the pace of combat, which makes conflict not as rewarding as it was in the previous Kingdom Hearts games on the platform.
Although the exploration and combat come with some caveats, Chain of Memories has that charming Kingdom Hearts essence, stirring Square Enix characters with Disney personalities into a likable mixture. For fans of the series, it's a respectable way of revisiting familiar locations and characters, and it will cause you to regain your own fond memories faster than Sora recovers his. Nevertheless, this remake doesn't quite capture all of the magic, and though it's a pleasant addition to the franchise, it isn't a must-play.