While the characters head off to the Room to Truth, I’m going to discuss a few more miscellaneous gameplay points, before they get lost through the cracks of other things. That’s just the kind of game this is. For starters: you can run from a battle by pressing up against the edges of the arena for a few seconds. But you’ll never, ever want to. There’s an achievement tied to never running away! We call it “free.”
That’s what I’m leading off with, that’s how you know this is going to be a great section!
As you mow through the Heartless, they’ll drop little jewels instead of the Health and MP orbs from the original game. For some reason, the devs felt it would be best to let Heartless drop experience points in this game. And I have no idea why? In the GBA version, the screen is much smaller and the sprites fairly large. This has a major impact on combat: it’s not hard to hit things but much harder to dodge, making skillful use of cards far more important, and the game much faster than the 3D alternative. The thing is: the GBA version also makes the EXP collection task pointless. You’re almost always already standing where the EXP drops! Generally, when a game wants you to go out of your way to pick up EXP, it’s because there’s a good gameplay reason for it, like a Bullet Hell shooter putting your life at risk for points. This game just wants you to stand around near where enemies died for half a second while you wait for the EXP gems to fall. I can’t figure out why they bothered. Did they remove the health and MP orbs only to discover that Heartless felt weird if they didn’t drop some kind of magic ball?
One last thing to mention is a prize you get right here in Traverse Town… while you’re still learning to play the game and didn’t need complications. Thanks, devs. Earlier on in the world, Leon gave Sora the Simba card, similar to how he gave Sora the Earthshine Gem in KH1. Simba is your first Summon card, which are the easiest ways in this game to cause area damage, though they take forever to get working. You’re invulnerable while using Summons, but simply put, this game doesn’t favour long attack animations and Simba just dawdles before acting at all. Don’t get me wrong, Summons are devastating in the GBA version where there’s less room in the arena in the first place, so an area attack tends to hit a good chunk of the screen. In the 3D version, though… eh. Simba’s handy enough, but you’ll probably swap him out for something that works faster before too long.
Moving back to the plot, the Room to Truth turns out to be the Second District, where the cast finds Cid, who recognizes Sora’s name just like the others, and tries to talk it off as nonsense, which is actually pretty funny. Cid cautions them that a massive Heartless is supposed to show up in this district when the bell rings, which is an odd combination of your first and second trip to Traverse Town, but still a pretty cool example of how memory works in this castle. Cid leaves, and Sora dawdles, saying he wants to see the Heartless while Donald points out that he’s a moron for doing so, but it’s too late, the Heartless appears.
…And it’s the Guard Armor.
I don’t know what I expected? Look, I’ve been holding off on this but it has to be said: this game is made up of Sora’s memories, which means a complete reuse of areas and characters. This means a few interesting points on the nature of memory, like how Sora keeps conjuring these rooms that don’t really exist based on key ideas from each world, like “Bricks,” “Night,” “Lamps,” and in later words, “Lotus Leaves,” “Mushrooms,” “Ionic Pillars.” That’s all very interesting in a way, but the end result is a lot of repetition. The bosses are the real killers: they don’t just look the same, they are the same, and in the 3D version, any sense of real variety is murdered by copying attack routines directly from KH1. At least the 2D versions were a little different. It’s one thing to revisit old places, that doesn’t bother me so much, but it’s another thing to do the same old things at those places. So far we’ve seen nothing but old Heartless, the only remarkable detail being how Shadows are crawling on all fours in this game for no reason but to keep down their profiles short on the tiny GBA screen. Now we’re fighting the same bosses as well? Some of the bosses add a certain variety, but I assure you, this isn’t one of them.
I really have to underline what a problem this is. For decades, cross-platform adaptations of video games followed a simple rule: “less of the same.” In the 80s there was a brief renaissance on the NES of ports that were completely different from the arcade originals, but then the Game Boy came along and shitty, “change-nothing” ports returned to the fore. Portables were the worst. You won’t read much about it these days, because time has a habit of erasing mediocrity. Most articles talk about games that are worth memorializing, but these kinds of shitty ports were everywhere: portable games trying to imitate the exact gameplay of the NES original, and falling short, with the exact same content of the NES original, also falling short. Check out Jeremy Parish’s look at Castlevania: The Adventure. It didn’t stop in the GB era, either. Check out the terrible cell phone adaptations of God of War (not smartphone, cell phone) or even PSP sequels to console games, desperately trying to be a PS3 with inadequate hardware. Or Kingdom Hearts V CAST! Some portable adaptations succeeded, usually because they concede to the failures of their platforms and make something new. Most don’t.
But it seems like an even bigger problem in Chain of Memories. Chain of Memories used entirely new sprites built-from-the-ground-up gameplay. It should have been an entirely new game, because they were creating entirely new assets! But some exec at Square Enix sat back and said “And make everything else exactly the same, too!” when it came time to make the content. This leads to a funny situation where CoM does have new things going on, but no one cared because they had been burned out on decades of shitty ports, and Square Enix seemed to be going out of their way to make this game look like a shitty port. Why? Why did they do this? Were they limited by their Disney licenses? This isn’t just bad for CoM, it has lingering consequences on the entire series.
Long story short, I don’t have much to say about the Guard Armor, which is good because I haven’t really begun to talk about the combat system. The only thing I’m going to note is the Gimmick Card, a Friend Card with a Mickey Mouse symbol that shows up during bosses. Once played, this card impacts the boss or changes the battlefield in some way, always to your advantage. In this case, it just causes the Guard Armour to drop to the ground like a sack of rocks. The Gimmick Card is usually used to even out an unequal fight, but this really seems like overkill.
Since I have so little else to say, I might as well talk about a certain signature of the series that started in KH2 and was backported to here: camera swoops at the start of a battle. The camera darts around showing dramatic shots of the combatants, before settling in at the usual distance behind Sora. I’m generally a fan of these swoops, as they’re catchy and serve like a countdown light at the start of a racing gaming to create an, “On your mark, get set, go,” setup that avoids situations like the start of the battle with Clayton where you had no warning that the battle has begun. That said, I know I wasn’t the only one getting tired of them in DDD. I don’t know why DDD got so many people’s hackles up about an old visual flourish, but it sure as hell did!
After winning the fight, you’ll receive a black card depicting the Guard Armor. This is an Enemy Card, a special card you can use to give Sora a special power in battle. Enemy Cards are really impractical but can change the game if you use them right, so we’ll talk more about them much later. The Guard Armor card isn’t as valuable as many of its cousins (it extends the reach of your attacks), so I don’t mind skimming the details.
Having wrapped up in town, Leon and friends return to console you on not finding Riku. Sora admits that he has to press on through the castle, apparently not feeling the need to discuss this weird situation any further. The groups exchange well-wishes and part, but strangely, Aerith returns.
Aerith calls to Sora and tells him what many players must have worked out on their own, just by actually paying attention to what people were saying. Aerith says it outright: this town is a memory, a figment of Sora’s imagination or a projection on the walls, so it’s very probable that the people are figments too. Was Sora really paying so little attention that he didn’t realize that these people, who didn’t remember him, were memories of when he didn’t remember them? It seems that was the case! And it goes without saying that this, too, is in contrast with the new Pluto scene from the remake, but oh well on that. It’s clear that Sora’s upset to learn this, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt: after Leon and the others said goodbye to him in Hollow Bastion in KH1, he was probably worried he’d never see them again after the fight with Ansem. He was probably so thrilled to be reunited with them that it didn’t occur to him that something was fishy. Aerith points out that if Sora’s memories created this illusion, those memories might make more complicated illusions in the future, and he should be careful to tell the real from the false.
In the distance, Donald calls out to Sora, and we see that Aerith has vanished, and Donald and Goofy explain that they never saw her come back at all. Well that’s one way to drive home a point. One has to wonder what Jiminy Cricket was doing in Sora’s hood the whole time Sora was chatting to himself.
That wraps up the first floor of the Castle. At the end of every world in the castle, Sora and Co. begin the climb to the next storey of Castle Oblivion, starting with the Conqueror’s Respite, the last room you’ll visit in each Disney world. This room features a long ladder climb and a save point before Sora returns to the Castle proper (implying he’s finally moving up between floors). On the other side of the door, it’s back to the usual white halls and the central plot. The white hall between worlds features a staircase, and plot usually happens in two halves divided by that staircase. If there’s going to be a plot-related fight in the white hall, it’s going to happen in the first half.
Speak of the devil.
The Unknown from the tutorial is waiting in the hall, and Sora asks him what the Unknown hopes to accomplish by having them face Sora’s memories. The Unknown says “That depends on what you want to give.” But just as it looks like a fight is about to break out, a second cloaked figure appears, this one with his hood down. A young man with a mane of red hair, it’s Reno from Final Fantasy VII! Except… not?
The comparison I’m making actually isn’t that facetious: this character is meant to be a similar-but-different character than Reno, an “experiment […] to place a familiar character in a new environment and role,” said Nomura. Reno and this new character are traditionally voiced by the same voice actor in most regions. In English, this means professional voice actor Quinton Flynn, who among other things has voiced Raiden from Metal Gear Solid, Johnny Storm the Human Torch in a number of 90s adaptations of the Fantastic Four, and Johnny Quest in the 1999 The Real Adventures of Johnny Quest. He was also in FFX and X-2 as a few minor but recurring characters. He’s also got an interesting Disney connection, but I’m going to save that as a surprise for later. Of course, the GBA version just used battle grunts from the Japanese voice actors, so even international speakers heard Keiji Fujiwara in the GBA release.
Now that we’ve got two characters on screen with human lips, it’s time to get into one of Re:CoM’s biggest problems; this game has the worst voice direction the series has ever seen. Perhaps it was a side-effect of this game being localized as a budget title, but talented people like Quinton Flynn are put through a cheese grater by being forced to adhere to the Japanese timing for all of their lines. That said, Flynn knocks his first few lines out of the park with enthusiasm. In the GBA version, this new character interrupts the tension by appearing casually, saying “Boo.” It’s very true-to-character, and seeing how the character’s was brand-new in 2004, a great introduction. But Flynn was voicing Re:CoM in 2008, after two more Kingdom Hearts games that feature this character, and knew exactly why his character would want to show up and introduce himself to Sora at this point in the game. As a result, he bursts in with a hearty and showboating “Hell~o!” His enthusiasm seems entirely warranted once you know where he’s coming from, and I think I prefer it as an introduction even if the lip sync shreds much of his later dialogue. C’mon, Square Enix, you could do so much better.
The new arrival taunts his companion about his “hogging the hero” and in the PS2 version, they fix a mistake from the GBA version by having Hoody toss a set of cards to our new redheaded friend. The trouble was: Hoody was obviously intending to give these cards to Sora after their conversation, but in the GBA version, Rusty has the cards even though he wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place, with no explanation as to where he got them. Hoody leaves, and our new friend then introduces himself as “Axel,” and drops what will become his catchphrase: “Got it memorized?” Well, that’s what he says in the 3D versions. In the GBA he says “Commit it to memory,” but trust me on this one, it’s “Got it memorized?” Axel then summons up two fire-rimmed chakrams the size of cart wheels, the “Eternal Flames.” He asks Sora not to go dying on him. A gentleman.
The fight with the Guard Armor was a blow-over, but the fight with Axel is like nothing you’ve seen so far in Chain of Memories. In a manner of speaking, there are three styles of combat in CoM: standard Heartless battles, large-scale bosses, and human-sized bosses. The human-sized bosses play by the same rules you do, and while I haven’t explained even half of the combat system, I promise that this is bad news for you. A lot of Axel’s attacks are easy to dodge, but veterans of Kingdom Hearts 1 and other video games shouldn’t be surprised if Axel puts them through the ringer while they’re still trying to get a hang on the basic card mechanics!
One nice thing about the fight is the arena in the remake, a circular arena that actually is floating in the void, surrounded by a few pillars. This arena has become representative of Castle Oblivion in flashbacks and the like, which is surprising, considering it was created in a remake!
Another stylistic flourish comes from the music, “The 13th Struggle,” a title that will make sense with time. This is the combat theme of almost all the Organization bosses in this game, it sounds a little… circus-y in the original, but was heavily improved for KH2, which to my ear is the version that plays in Re:CoM. Kingdom Heart’s music evolves with every new game, and this feels like the first preview of the good stuff to come (though DDD’s tunes seem purpose-built, I wonder if that sort of purpose-built composition will stick around into KH3?).
Axel’s attacks are Fire based, melee and missile. Axel also has a special attack he might use where he causes Fire to spill in a wave across the field. This attack looks fantastic in Re:CoM but isn’t hard to dodge in either version, especially the original. Unsurprisingly, Axel’s weak against Blizzard. You should have a copy of that by now, and it’s even in your starter deck on the GBA. Use Blizzard and Cure, avoid Simba and his time-wasting, and you should do okay with some practice, even if “practice” means getting incinerated a few times.
This probably isn’t the best time to tell you there’s an achievement for never continuing, just like in KH1. If it makes you feel any better, there was a save point in the previous room.
Beating Axel gives unlocks the Fire magic card for your deck. Axel also leaves behind another World Card when he’s defeated, just like the one Hoody gave you that allowed you to go to Traverse Town. Well, “one” World Card according to Goofy in the 3D versions, but “more” in the GBA. It’s a petty change to point out, but here’s the thing: neither is entirely true! I’d bet you the design team hadn’t decided how many cards to give you by the time this scene was written. There’s actually five, but due to sprite and budget title limitations and laziness, they only depicted one!
Sora collects the cards only for Axel to speak up near the stairs. Based on everyone’s reaction, they must have thought they had killed him for a split second. Wow, dead bodies really do disappear in this universe, because that’s the only way this scene makes sense! Also: our heroes are zealous murderers!
Axel says Sora can carry on through the castle if he pleases, and if he does, he’ll find what he forgot: “…and you will find someone very special.” Goofy asks if he means Riku and the King, but Axel just shrugs this off, saying “You’ll have to give some more thought to who’s most important to you,” and cryptically adds: “Our most precious memories lie deep in our hearts, out of reach,” implying and later outright stating that Sora has forgotten something or someone critical.
Axel offers to give Sora a hint, but Sora swears he’ll work it out himself without relying on skeezeballs like Axel. Axel likes that answer, but he warns Sora that once Sora remembers what he’s forgotten, he might not be the same person. With that, he disappears, leaving Sora to move on to the second floor, and leaving us at the end of our entry.
Anyone who’s played the game will tell you that that’s sort of an awkward place to leave off for the day. After all, shouldn’t I cover the cutscene at the other side of the stairs? It’s barely five seconds away, and there’s a save point out there! My angle on this is that the cutscene at the top of the stairs makes for a better opening for my next post. Story during the Disney portion of this game can be sparse, and it would be a letdown if I opened future post saying “Sora falls down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Well that was fun, on to mechanics!” I’m going to take this opportunity for easy story while it lasts.
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).