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Episode 10: Kingdom Hearts RE:Chain of Memories


Failinhearts

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GAME 66: KINGDOM HEARTS RE:CHAIN OF MEMORIES (PS4) 100% COMPLETE

This is a continuation of my Kingdom Hearts retrospective. For more context on my current feelings towards the series, start with my review of the first game.

Yet another step down the road of my Kingdom Hearts journey. Previously, my experiences with the first game was... less than positive. Lackluster story, badly designed worlds, and slow and unsatisfying combat made what is ultimately a slog of a first installment.

So go figure I wasn't exactly going into the followup, the 3D remake of the GBA's Chain of Memories with the highest of hopes. Especially since this game is considered one of the black sheep of the franchise with its drastically different gameplay style.

But here's the real twist. What if I told you that something about this...

It's a bit special.

That's right, I actually LIKED this one. Warts and all, this was a unique and fun little experience.

A lot of the issues I had with Kingdom Hearts 1 were addressed and promptly dealt with. So let's start with the first part, the exploration.

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Almost all the worlds from Kingdom Hearts 1 are back, but with a completely different approach to how you navigate through them. You are going through a jumbled pile of Sora's memories and its up to you to literally piece his recollection of this world together via Map Cards. Each world consists of rooms you fill in yourself with dozens of Map Cards. Some Map Cards boxes you in with a lot of Heartless, others you can create a store, save point, less Heartlesses, or many modifiers to make fights easier.

You can't really get lost in these maps easier, they're boxed in, you get a compass and mini map (THANK GOD), and again, you're basically creating your own world however you please, with as many or as little combat encounters as you'd like. It makes every playthrough highly customizable and personal. This allow things like KH's wonky platforming much less of an issue as it sacrifices being cryptic and elaborate for short and sweet. I dig it.

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As for the combat, this is considered the most controversial aspect of this game. Instead of real time hack and slashing, your actions are solely at the whim of Battle Cards. You build a deck of cards consisting of spells, magic, assists and items, and shuffle through them to decide what your next attack will be. But be careful, enemies have cards too. And if they play a card higher than yours, they can interrupt your combo and fight back.

So it becomes a strategic and for many, stressful time to glance at a screen, find the right numbered cards, fight off enemy cards, while also moving around the area and getting a good game cause it's still in real time. I'm sure on normal difficulties, this is a very difficult task.

But I play on Beginner, and that allows for a lot more leeway in the damage my cards do. And in a way, it starts to ironically feel like a more satisfying hack and slasher than the original game. I build a deck of attacks I want to do in sequence, and then mash away as Sora basically automatically juggles between attacks, spells and summons to look all flashy, and it actually FEELS like I'm doing good damage for once.

So in my eyes, just like the worlds, COM's combat just consists of me basically storyboarding my own action sequence and mashing X to execute it all. And that's pretty damn satisfying for me.

You can stack cards as well to create Sleight Attacks, utterly broken super moves that make most of the game a non-issue when the real challenge fights come along. I feel a lot more powerful here than I was even fighting Ansem back on Destiny Islands one game ago.

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But it's time to address the most important part of this game and why everyone had no choice but to play it: The story. This narrative is crucial to understanding Kingdom Hearts 2, and this is an interesting act to follow. I did NOT like Kingdom Hearts 1's story at all. The crossovers have very little significance to the plot, the characters are incredibly hollow and lack any depth, good dialogue, or interesting development, and the conflict between Light and Dark is ridiculous and completely unrelatable. It all just made for a story that rang empty.

But I am pleased to say Chain of Memories also fixed many of these issues. This is a legitimately great story.

Instead of Light and Darkness, the thematic duality of most of COM's story is memories and feelings. They are infinitely more relatable and concrete concepts that anyone can relate to and understand Sora's plight. What is this plight?

He's going up a castle, and the more he goes up, the more his real memories are erased, or is replaced with fake ones. And because its memories, he wouldn't  even notice them fading. That's SCARY. Imagine everything you know, all the experiences that shaped you... gone in a moment. And you couldn't tell?

That's got the makings for a psychological horror story, honestly. And its eerie. But even so, its not like everything you ARE changes. Even if you forget something, the feelings you felt still exist within your heart. You are still molded by the faded memories whether you know it or not. So is it really gone? Can parts of you change based on what you forget?

These are questions not only asked by Sora, Donald and Goofy, but the many Disney characters we meet along the way.

Kingdom Hearts 1 had no concrete theme to ground every Disney World and solidify their role in the plot. And while the Disney Worlds here are mere figments of Sora's memories, and thus still can't interact outside of their bubbles, it doesn't mean they don't serve a purpose this time. Every world has something to do with a different aspect of the relationship between memories, feelings and identity. Whether it's Dr. Finklestein teaching us how memories warp over time into either becoming rose-tinted and fonder, or more traumatizing and unpleasant in hindsight, or hanging onto one memory making all the difference in your drive to save someone you love like Aladdin, everyone has a role to play in helping Sora keep going in his pursuit of Kairi and Riku.

And my god, Sora. He's actually a CHARACTER this time. Being put in this compromising scenario where his very mind is being altered, he is aware of this and still goes up that castle. He can very much leave, and abandon all this mental manipulation, but his drive to save his friends mean more. 

And it's not like he's perfect either. Sora's flaws are on full display as his memories get more and more distorted where he doesn't know what to believe. He gets angry, he can lash out, he's irrational, he sometimes says the wrong things.

But despite all that, you understand WHY he'd act the way he does. This is super stressful and scary. Yet he keeps going.

THIS IS HOW YOU DEVELOP YOUR PROTAGONIST. THIS IS HOW YOU MAKE HIM LIKABLE.

And furthermore, he has better chemistry with Donald and Goofy. We see how their journey molded them into tight knit friends, and we see them going through a lot more natural drama than the shit they tried to pull in Deep Jungle last game.

And the best thing is, THIS ISN'T EVEN THE ONLY STORY.

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After beating the game with Sora, you get to beat a truncated version of it again but with Riku. All with a unique atory that runs in tandem with Sora's. It is here the game gets to give Riku depth, redeem how badly he was written last game, and fleshes out the outside world of Kingdom Hearts.

We see Riku having to come to terms with many of his mistakes, he recognizes what he sacrifices in the pursuit of Darkness and what he should to in order to be better. Memories take a bit of a backseat, but its still thematically present. Bad memories will exist, and you will have to live with it, but you don't have to let it define who you presently are.

However, Riku's story is where things take a bit of a dive, both narratively and gameplay wise.

Narratively, Riku is where the conflict of Light and Dark return. And sadly, it isn't much better. They try to write what is supposed to be cathartic closure to Riku embracing both the Light and Dark within himself... but the thing is Light and Dark are still incredibly vague concepts that mean nothing to me. Star Wars at the very least make it clear that the Light Side of the Force is mindfulness, peace, all the good vibes. The Dark Side is anger, grief, greed and toxic attachment. They paint a clear picture what these sides embody emotionally, and thus I am able to relate my own internal feelings to Light or Dark.

Kingdom Hearts has not established this yet. As far as I know, Light and Dark are just power sources. We don't see anyone naturally consume themselves in Darkness, or how it takes root in someone's Heart. You just have a bad guy show up, say some cryptic, tempty shit and bam, new recruit to Team Darkness. I can't link that to any tangible real life experiences, so when Riku has some grand revelation that he can be both Light and Dark... It rang hollow.

Like hooray, you got two times the superpowers. I can't get superpowers. How am I supposed to relate to this compared to Sora's incredibly relatable struggle?

Going forward, they need to do a better job clarifying how Light and Darkness works. Cause it's not only dampening how much I can get attached to these kinds of narratives, but my god it makes the dialogue worse.

Stop saying Darkness in such stilted and stunted manners, and speak like actual humans, you Hot Topic ass idiots. That goes for you too, Mickey.

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As for the other problem with Riku's half of the game... while it starts fun and bring some new ideas to the table at first, it completely blows its load after introducing Darkness mode very early on. Nothing new is added to the combat, and the worlds afterwards. This makes the journey tedious, and boring where after playing so much as Sora, you just want the game to be over already.

Narrative aside, Riku exists to just pad the game out. And it really shows. By the time I make it to the final boss, I was exhausted.

Not to mention Riku has nowhere near the exploitable kit as Sora, making his bosses much harder and much, much worse as now I'm subjected to think more strategically about my cards... Which I can't even do cause I can't build a bloody deck.

So it becomes long, frustrating and only worth it for the story.

But overall, RE:Chain of Memories was a delightful surprise and proof that maybe this series CAN do something for me after all. Let's see if it can keep the momentum, or if Riku's story is a sign of things to come.

GAMES FINISHED: 66

GAMES COMPLETED: 59

 

 

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