Let’s pick up with that initial foundation of gameplay I said we’d need to continue. Sora’s adventure through Castle Oblivion is going to encompass thirteen distinct floors of the castle. The white halls we’ve been seeing represent the real castle, but in between the white halls are whole floors that you can only navigate by filling them with Sora’s memories. Your objective is to enter the memory-world and find the three special rooms that advance the plot. If you bring up your map, the special rooms are the rooms marked in gold.
The structure is simple: you enter the world, the plot begins, and the game gives you a “Key of Beginnings” card that will open the first gold room. In the first gold room, the plot will be advanced and you’ll receive the Key of Guidance for door #2. Door 2 gives you the Key to Truth for Door 3. Beyond Door 3, the plot wraps up and you get an exit to the next floor. In Re:CoM, you’ll also see a fourth gold room on each floor’s map (the room is still there in CoM, it’s just not marked on the map), but you can’t access that room yet
It bears saying: Castle Oblivion is a real building in the game world. The layout of each floor is pre-set, but you control the contents with the help of special Map Cards, which are dropped by most Heartless troops, the same way an enemy group in an RPG might drop money or prizes. You must use a Map Card at every door you encounter, so they’re a pretty big part of gameplay. They give you so much control you might not believe it’s real at first. Do you want the next room to be filled with Heartless for EXP? You’ve got it. Want a save point? No problem. Want a shitty treasure chest? Buddy, we are loaded down with shitty treasure chests. The implication is that these cards represent parcels of Sora’s memory. He remembers getting a treasure chest in Traverse Town, so when you play the card, the Castle creates a portal to shitty chest depot. He remembers fighting Heartless, so here come the Heartless.
(If you’re distracted by the metaphysics: the chests only ever return more cards or abstract skills, so it does make sense that the memory could generate them. The only question is whether or not the Heartless are real or memories (I personally prefer the former). The game never says for certain and they could just as easily be one or the other without changing very much.)
Keep in mind that you can’t quite choose any card for any door – the cards are numbered 0-9, and the doors demand higher and higher numbers as you go through the floor before looping back to 1 on particularly large floors. 0 cards are wild and can be used on any normal door. If you want, you can even go back to an open door to change the room on the other side if you’re in the mood for something else – if you need an emergency save point, for example. The cards you choose don’t just determine the contents of the room, but also the shape. Some cards produce small and compact rooms, others create great vertical cliffs, others wide, bumpy rooms filled with monsters, each designed to look like the world you’re currently in. So in Traverse Town, a “cliff” would look more like a bunch of houses on a hillside.
Should you leave a floor entirely, the entire floor will be emptied and you’ll have to place the cards again, though it’s safe to go back to the white hall outside the world entrance if you need to save. It’s kind of surreal to step out of the exterior of Traverse Town and into the interior halls of Castle Oblivion, but that’s intentional.
The game introduces Map Cards gradually, and I’m sad to say that I’ve never seen a definitive list as to which floors introduces what cards, and failed to make one myself during my last playthrough (whoops). Like your Attack Cards, these Map Cards are divided into three colours. Red cards, like “Tranquil Darkness,” represent normal rooms filled with Heartless. Green Cards, like “Martial Waking,” switch up the gameplay in some way or another, typically by giving you a boost. Blue Rooms, like “Moment’s Reprieve” and “Calm Bounty,” provide a certain utility, like the aforementioned save points or chests. It’s up to you to strike the proper balance between security and reward, between prizes and experience points.
One immediate problem with the system is with the shape of the rooms. The PS2 version hides it better, but only somewhat: the game only has a handful of room layouts. A little over a dozen, I’d say, reused over and over throughout the course of the game. The game just takes that base layout and pastes the worlds’ colours and objects on top of it. A Tranquil Darkness in Traverse Town is the same as a Tranquil Darkness in any other world except, for example, that the springboards on one world are springy mushrooms on the next. The gameplay variety between the worlds is thus very low. Hell, if you’re playing the same card over and over again from room to room, you’re not going to get much variety within the one world!
On top of the normal rooms, you also have to expel a few Map Cards to get to the Gold Rooms, though these cards don’t impact the contents of the Gold Room. These service something like a combination lock: alongside the gold Key card you got from the plot, the game might ask for “A card with a value under 3,” or “Any number of cards totalling 30.” 0s don’t count as Wild in every combination lock situation, so the Gold Doors can be a real card-sink (by design). The meanest doors ask you for a card with an exact numerical value, so it pays to keep a copy of each number on hand for each colour. Of course, that will load you down with 30 “dead” cards, taking a huge bite out of your max of 99… how cautious are you willing to be?
There’s so much more to say but I’m not even part-way done. Still, I think that’s enough mechanics to choke down for one day. Sora and the others get to the Room of Beginnings and – for the last time – we see Donald and Goofy pop out of nowhere. In the PS2 version, they observe Pluto sniffing around, and the group wonders what he’s doing there. This scene is meant to introduce the fact that Pluto became a Friend Card in the PS2 edition, but it’s also a great scene in its own right. It’s a complicated scene that I feel works well, and I have to laud them for that, but it’s going make it a little hard to explain. Let me give it a shot.
As Donald and Goofy talk about Pluto, it becomes clear they’ve lost a little more than their abilities when they stepped into this castle: Goofy and Donald are having trouble remembering how their trip(s) to Traverse Town went in KH1, and can’t decide whether Pluto should be here or not. Sora doesn’t say much at first, but from later evidence, it’s clear he feels Pluto shouldn’t be here, because they last saw him outside the Castle. You may be able to see what makes this so complicated: Sora is approaching the situation as though this is really Pluto walking around inside Castle Oblivion, while Donald and Goofy are treating this as a memory of Pluto inside the memory-world. It’s great to see this confusion from multiple angles. Both are valid possibilities!
As the scene goes on, we learn that Donald and Goofy’s memory is getting a little fuzzy as a result of walking around in this Castle. There’s a reason they’re talking about the beginning of KH1. The two of them haven’t forgotten Castle Oblivion, but here they are in Traverse Town, and their brains are saying: “Aren’t we in Traverse Town at the start of our journey?”
Jiminy Cricket makes this even better when he points out that if Pluto is a memory, he shouldn’t be here anyway. Remember: Pluto (inexplicably) disappeared after Donald and Goofy met up with Sora. Oh hey, did you remember Pluto completely disappearing into a plot hole in KH1? Jiminy Cricket does! Jiminy Cricket is my hero. This makes me suspect that Sora was right and this is the real Pluto, especially considering he shows up on Friend Cards on (nearly) every floor. Unfortunately, there’s no proof either way since he was a new addition to the PS2 version and is never mentioned again.
At this point, if you’re reading this and haven’t played CoM, or if you’re playing the game for the first time, you’re probably confused. Well don’t worry! Sora is confused too, and shouts that he doesn’t understand, but figures if he keeps defeating Heartless and pushing forward, everything will be fine. But I can be more helpful than Sora, so let’s take a step back to repeat the facts. The cast is inside a Castle full of memories. Sora and Jiminy Cricket realize that, but Donald and Goofy are getting confused about what’s real and what isn’t. Jiminy is being smart about things, but Sora is just hoping the plot resolves itself. This scene is not just a good portrayal of how memory really can work, but it also introduces a concept key to the entire series, not that you’d notice it. I really hadn’t remembered that it was a new addition to Re:CoM until I was writing this, it’s such a perfect fit.
At this point, we rejoin the GBA version of the plot as Leon walks out of nowhere. Leon warns the trio not to mess with the Heartless if they’re just going to stand around squabbling. Sora asks what Leon’s doing in Castle Oblivion, and Leon has no idea what he’s talking about, and in fact, claims not to recognize Sora at all. The player probably works this out far before the quartet, who assume Leon is kidding. Guys. Guys. He’s from the memory. Guys you were just discussing this in the PS2 version, you look ridiculous. Then everyone gets confused when Leon accidentally mentions Sora and Goofy’s names. Nevertheless, Leon insists that he doesn’t know them, he just… knows their names, for some reason. Yuffie then appears and confirms: “Nope! Total stranger.” But she also knows their names. Yuffie says Aerith’s been suspecting something strange was going down, and this seems vague enough to be what she was talking about!
By the way, virtually all the characters the worlds are unvoiced in this game if they don’t appear in combat, and generally combat voice clips use archived KH1 voices. Haley Joel Osmet, who was well into his 20s when this was localized in 2008, is one of the few characters where this is strange, as his archived quotes are often mixed in with new voice recordings for cutscenes and a few spells. I feel he sounds fine until the clashes start to happen. Are we supposed to pretend his voice is breaking? Reader Kaweebo suggested (in the comments for the last post) that some of the lines may have been rescripted just to account for an older Sora rather than a younger, so I ask: why not go all-out? I suppose it was too much to ask for a budget title to re-voice the entire set.
Leon says they should go to Aerith, but has some more tutorial work to do with Sora before we can really get going. But since I haven’t yet talked about basic combat, we’re going to skip his intermediate lecture. Just take your Key to Guidance card and get out of here.
Speaking about skipping basic combat, it’s time to talk about extremely basic combat.
Like I said before, combat takes place inside a separate arena, like turn based games, whenever you come into contact with an enemy group. These groups often have multiple waves that spawn in the middle of the fight. Similar to games like the later Super Mario RPGs, it’s possible to head off a fight by attacking the Heartless on the overworld. You get a fair bit of variety in this. You could attack them with the Keyblade, which will cause the first wave to be dizzy, or you could hurl a barrel at them for Confusion. In special circumstances in the 3D version, you can even inflict Stop (normally by attacking a clock in the environment. No foolin’). Some enemy groups have small-sized first waves just to counteract your initial attack, which was a dick move on the part of the developers, but it’s generally worth the effort to ambush them whenever possible.
While the variety in opening attacks is nice, smacking them with the Keyblade is all you’ll ever need, since Stop and Confusion don’t really stack up to the Keyblade’s dizzy effect. Since ambushes with the Keyblade builds slowly towards an achievement in 1.5, so you might as well. There’s also a weaksauce secret 1.5 Trophy for throwing a barrel at a Heartless, but after you’ve done that once, you’ll never do it again.
Once you’re in a fight, it’s a matter of defeating the Heartless as normal. Cloaky meant it when he said you had lost almost all your abilities. Sora can jump and dodge roll at will, but everything else, even basic attacks, is now in the hands of the cards. Everywhere you go, you carry around an attack deck of special cards which appear in the corner, arranged however you please in the main menu (thankfully there’s no shuffling). You play a card with the X / A button, causing Sora to perform whatever attack is on that card. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but to a degree, it does: you hit the button, the card is “played” at the bottom of the screen, and Sora swings the Keyblade in whatever direction he’s facing. If you play multiple Keyblade cards in a row, he’ll swing it in a combo. Play a magic card, he’ll cast it, and if that spell had a combo in KH1, it has a combo in Re:CoM!
How do you focus on the hectic action at the same time you’re messing around with a deck of cards? My key strategy is to set up your deck so you don’t have to. Or at least, set it up so you have to pay as little attention as possible. The starter deck works like this: the first set of cards in the deck are Red Keyblade cards. Ergo, you swing the Keyblade until you run out of cards. Next in the deck are Blue Magic cards. Cast them until you run out. Don’t think about it unless something is absorbing them. The last set of cards are green Item cards, and you can either use them or quickly spin past to start reloading your deck (more on that in a second). The repetitive fights teach you the importance of having a lazy deck very quickly.
Every once and a while, a bouncing green card will appear in the battle arena, and if you collect it, it jumps to the front of your deck. These are the Friend Cards, featuring Donald and Goofy or others, who you can call in to perform some action. After Donald dominated KH1 with his healing spells, this is Goofy’s game, since he can tear through Heartless en masse, while Donald casts random spells that almost never help, like healing you at full health or casting Thunder to heal a cadre of Wizards.
Should you run out of cards, it’s up to you to restore them. Green Item cards can help you there, but those disappear for the rest of the fight after you use them. Alternately, you could reload by using the reload “card” that sits at the front/end of the deck’s roulette. Reloading is risky. You have to hold down the button on the reload card until it “charges,” and Sora stands still when you do this. Once it’s done, you have to wait for the deck to actually fill up with cards, which takes even longer if you have a big deck, and worse of all, each time you reload, the longer it will take to reload again! For the second reload, you have to “charge up” the card twice, and for all subsequent reloads, three times. It’s a pain, so you can see why Item cards are so handy when you can get them to work.
Ultimately, the gameplay’s complicated but workable at a base level. Swing your Keyblade cards, cast your Magic spells, reload with Item cards and the reload card. The real complications come in the way no plan survives contact with the enemy. But that’s for another day.
Sora and the others reach the Room of Guidance, which turns out to be the “Secret Base” in the Third District. There, Aerith is waiting, and she greets you by saying: “I don’t know whether to say ‘nice to meet you’ or ‘good to see you again.'” Sora tries to provoke the Final Fantasy characters into remembering a few more things by reminding Leon of how he said in Hollow Basion: “We may never meet again…” and Leon finishes “…but we’ll never forget each other.” Aertih suggests that Sora’s heart is resonating with theirs so that they remember what he is remembering. Unfortunately, if you ask me, all this does is raise the question of whether or not they’re really remembering anything or if Sora’s memories are just overwriting theirs…
This retrospective’s 2D screenshots come from RickyC’s longplay of the GBA version of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories at World of Longplays (YouTube), while 3D screenshots come from BlueGator’s longplay of the 1.5 HD version of Kingdom Hearts: Re: Chain of Memories at Temple of the Azure Flame (segmented version).