As our team makes their way to the Key of Guidance Room, Cloud makes his move. Determined to “interfere on the course” and murder Hercules for Hades, Cloud has stopped running just out of Phil’s line of sight, and so Sora and the others catch up to him. Apparently Hercules is in last place? Herc later ends up tied for first, so it’s hard to understand how he starts off so far behind that you complete the whole Key of Guidance sequence without sight or sound of him and yet he somehow gets ahead of you. Cloud offers to let Sora go ahead, since he doesn’t actually care about the race, but Sora’s so goody-goody on one hand and so suspicious on the other hand that he keeps offering to let Cloud go on without him. Finally Cloud just screws up and hints that he’s here to kill Hercules, so Sora decides it’s his turn to “interfere on the course,” and starts a fight.
Cloud is the first midboss we’ve encountered in CoM (at least in this world order). This is trouble, because the game has shown no signs prior to this that it has midbosses, which means he might take you entirely by surprise. Worse, Cloud is a human-sized opponent, so he is going to rip off your face and use it as a novelty mask. Human-sized opponents play by similar rules to you: they’re more likely to block your attacks, and they have special attacks. I haven’t explained how special attacks work, but blocking enemy special attacks is easy: use 0 cards.
Long story short, whenever Cloud throws down three cards at the same time, you want nothing to do with it. Get away from him and, if you can help it, counter with a 0. Not a 9 – trust me, it won’t help. A 0. Thankfully, 3D Cloud’s attacks strongly resemble his KH1 attacks, so are dodged much the same way. If you came to Re:CoM straight out of KH1, you probably already know how to get past each of them. But don’t get cocky. The game certainly won’t be that generous with a human-sized opponent again.
In the end, Cloud isn’t so much defeated by you as “cuts his luck and runs” so that Hercules doesn’t win the race and ruin Cloud’s chances of murdering him. Smart guy. Beating Cloud unlocks the Hi-Potion, an upgraded form of the normal Potion. I don’t think I ever described the normal Potions: they let you restore your Keyblade cards, just like a reload, but without costing you a full reload (you don’t have to charge the reload card, and it won’t add an extra charge to your next reload), or wasting your time “shuffling” the cards back into position. Be mindful your use of the Item card isn’t broken by the enemy, or you’ll still lose the item for the rest of the fight! They’re only… sort of useful? I don’t bother with the original Potions at all. Hi-Potions fill a more valuable niche, since they also restore Keyblade cards that have otherwise been lost “for the rest of the fight,” like the Premium Cards I mentioned earlier. There are other ways to lose cards “for the rest of the fight,” but I’m taking this one step at a time.
I do want to talk about all these advanced concepts, but too many of them are built on top of basic concepts. It’s one thing to talk about these advanced concepts and another to talk about doing them right, and might I say, that’s something the game does entirely wrong. Let me try to explain why I’m being so wary. The game itself attempts to explain all of its mechanics in a big splurge, then pats itself on the back and walks away. It essentially assumes it’s done teaching you after Traverse Town. Sure, it’s done mentioning the basics but 1) there are a lot of basics, 2) it fails to explain how those basics interconnect, and 3) it barely provides any examples of efficient play beyond the starter deck, and that’s just one system among many. Unfortunately, CoM is too complex for that kind of shallow tutorial, and this game will turn you into a smear if you haven’t worked out all the advanced concepts on your own by the 3/4s mark! The usual breaking point for new players is Floor 12, just before the end, when the game turns on the end-game difficulty and first-time player after first-time player realize they’ve never known how to play the game to begin with. The number of forum threads about that fight on Floor 12 alone is staggering.
The funny thing is, if you actually do understand the mechanics? This game is kind of easy! All the malign and hate that gets directed at it because of its complexities could have been avoided by a better tutorial, preferably one where you keep learning through the entire game. Yeah, in an age where everyone hates tutorials, I’m going to put it all on the table and say that Chain of Memories’ biggest flaw outside of the repetition is that its tutorials suck!
Since I’ve been proselytizing for the past few paragraphs, I should keep any further mechanical discussion to something easy: levelling up, and also some deck construction advice. Deck construction’s a breeze, especially in the 3D versions thanks to the extra buttons on the PS2 controller. You get three decks, though I wish you had more as it would have allowed for a lot more freedom of customization. I recommend you use one deck slot for a Heartless-fighting deck, one for a human-sized boss deck, and a third deck for screwing around with. For an example of the third, I’m particularly fond of the “Hello Again Axel I Have Twelve Blizzard Cards” deck. The biggest problem is trying to guess what deck to use before entering a gold room.
When designing your deck, there are a few things to keep in mind. Decks have an upper card limit, but it’s so high that you probably won’t reach it during a normal play. You’re more likely to be cut off by Sora’s “Card Points,” which is a statistic you raise as you level up. Cards have different values that are measured against Sora’s CP stat. When Sora levels up, he can gain one of three bonus, player’s choice: an HP upgrade, a CP upgrade, or a special attack unlocked every five or so levels. This is the only upgrade you get from the level up, by the way, so choose wisely! CP is gained very, very slowly: 25 points per upgrade, when even the shittiest Kingdom Key costs 11 points a card (and you don’t want to use the shittiest Kingdom Key unless you have something special in mind). Experience with other RPGs suggests you keep these stats balanced, but I’m going to make a radical suggestion and say that CP upgrades are probably more important for your survival and should be double or triple the number of upgrades you take for HP. You just aren’t given a choice, in practice! You want 0-cards? They cost more CP than any other card. You want a powerful Enemy Card, or precious Cure cards, the only way to heal outside of save points and HP orbs? Hahaha, pay up. You want to stay alive? Against the hardest bosses, it’s not your hit points that will keep you on two feet, it’s your ability to damage them and block their attacks.
I’ve already talked about how you want to build your Heartless deck in a lazy fashion, so that you don’t have to think about it, and I stand by that. And your boss decks are similar, but there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind. Cloud just showed us the most important: 0-cards can mean your life. Because a boss could launch a special attack at any time, you don’t want your 0-cards to be more than two clicks away at any time. Some players recommend you stick the 0s at the end of the deck. This puts your 0s next to your reload card, and in Re:CoM, this is best, because Re:CoM gives you a hotkey to jump back to your reload card in a single button press. In the GBA version, putting cards at the end of your deck is still pretty solid advice, but remember that you don’t have a hotkey to your reload card, so the further you get from your reload card, the longer it will take to spin back to your 0s. As a result, I recommend you put them at the front instead, and then spin past them at the start of every draw. This is because because Friend cards get in the way otherwise. Sure, it takes a second to get started after every reload, but that’s better than being caught flat-footed because you’ve picked up four Donalds and have no reason whatsoever to play Donald. Yes, I’m recommending a constant chore, something you have to do for every reload, in exchange for only a minor improvement in defence, but trust me, I wouldn’t recommend something so excessive if I didn’t strongly believe in it!
You can actually set up a second hotkey in Re:CoM, but it’s capricious and I hate the way the feature is implemented. The game attaches the hotkey to the card itself, not its slot, so if you lose the card for any reason, you’ll lose your hotkey. You can even lose it temporarily if you use the card between reloads! It’s worthless.
That’s enough about mechanics for today. Since Sora has been exhausted by all this invigorating discussion of game strategy, Cloud and Hercules have both beaten you to the finish line and are fighting their tiebreaker duel. For anyone holding bets: Hercules wins. That’s a gracious concession from Square Enix, considering Cloud is their biggest cash cow.
It seems Cloud refuses to give up. Hercules is starting to get angry at Cloud for not standing down, as Cloud is so desperate to get his memories back that he’s fighting well past the point of caution. Hercules seems to have worked out that Cloud is trying to kill him but doesn’t want to admit it out loud, and he says that he’s bound to kill Cloud if this keeps going, even if he doesn’t want to. But it’s not all one-sided. Cloud has exhausted Hercules as well, and Hades decides to show up to kill Hercules himself. Hades also tells Cloud off, saying nothing can ever restore his lost memories. Of course, Sora shows up to fight Hades himself, and here we go again.
Once again it’s you versus a human-sized opponent with special attacks, though thankfully this one is weak against Blizzard. And since the game hasn’t unlocked that many types of Magic cards, any random Magic cards you’ve found will have had good odds of being Blizzard cards (this has a cascade effect: by the end of the game, you’ll still have more Blizzard, Fire and Cure cards than any other spell). Careful, though. Hades’ attacks in 3D are faster than they were in KH1, to punish you for being able to block them outright with high-value and 0 cards. And they’re just plain harder to dodge in 2D, underlining my advice that you not come here early, but they’re not insurmountable… at least compared to some upcoming bosses.
After you win, you get Hades’ enemy card, which gives you the Berserk skill, which appeared as a minor skill in KH1 as well. My friend Kyle from the Marathon addresses Berserk as an “SOS Ability.” I’m not sure where he picked up the term (CNash suggests in the comments that it’s from FFX!), but it’s a handy one. SOS abilities are special powers that only trigger when you’re near death. You can make that sort of thing work for you in other games, but frankly it’s useless in CoM, where you have to fuss around with your cards to trigger it. “Oh, I’m dying, better pull out my Hades card instead of healing!” or maybe “Oh, I should use my Hades card and then deliberately lose health for an extremely minor benefit!” Sure, game. More interesting than Berserk is the card’s side-effect: it conveys Hades’ elemental resistance to Fire but also his weakness to Ice. Tempting to use against upcoming Fire bosses.
After the match, the plot comes to a rapid close (the original Olympus Coliseum didn’t have much of an ending either, since it was an optional world). Cloud seems fine, and comes about as close as we could hope to an apology. Sora even invites him to join the party, but Cloud refuses. Sora nevertheless tells Cloud that his memories will surely come back in time if the memory is important enough. Interesting qualifier. Though Sora admits that’s just a hope.
Cloud seems cheered by this, as much as Cloud is cheered by anything, and gives Sora his Summon card. Cloud’s Summon is the only Summon in CoM not taken from KH1, and it’s maybe the best summon in the game in the 2D version, where its basic attack can hit nearly half the screen. It’s a bit harder to use in the 3D games and generally less effective, and so considerably less broken, but not bad.
Back in Castle Oblivion, Donald is worried that he might forget the King, and he, Goofy and Sora recap their motives from the first game. I suppose these sorts of things have to happen in sequels, but believe it or not, the voice actors in the remake make it work as a character moment, sounding like they really are worried they’ll forget what really matters to them if they don’t perform this rudimentary memory exercise.
Meanwhile, in another part of the castle, Axel is looking into a sort of crystal ball with a woman in a black coat. This new character, Larxene, is voiced by soap opera actress Shanelle Workman. Rieko Nakayama did the GBA grunts. Unusually for CoM’s Japanese cast members, Nakayama would not keep the role in Re:CoM. I know I don’t normally go this deep for the Japanese cast, but I thought someone might like to know that in Re:CoM, Larxene was voiced by Yūko Miyamura, the voice of Asuka from NGE. Back to the English cast, I’d want to say that Workman does a good job as the English Larxene, but it’s hard to say it while looking at this scene. This scene has some of the worst voice direction in the game, for both Larxene and Axel. So does the next scene with these two, which is essentially a continuation and was probably recorded back-to-back. To make it all worse, these scenes are serious exposition dumps, being given by the two most flippant characters in the cast. Square hole, round peg, sledgehammer.
Larxene asks Axel why he’s so interested in Sora in spite of his “I don’t give a shit” attitude, and Quenton Flynn clunks and clanks his way across his explanation, saying he’s fascinated how Sora kept his feelings as a Heartless. Axel says: “Only one other man ever managed to do that.” Hey, remember how in KH1 we saw Ansem’s reports say he gave up his body and I said maybe he’s a Heartless, and it was all fairly obvious? Apparently that’s still a plot twist and we weren’t supposed to work that out during KH1, because Axel’s still being secretive about it. Whoops? Well… too bad! Here’s another hint that Ansem was a Heartless!
There is one thing that makes this conversation interesting. When Larxene asks why Axel cares about something like that, Axel pretends he’s got an interest in the Heart, and even says that studying the Heart is why “we, the Organization, exist.” First: thanks for finally naming your group as “The Organization,” that was getting a little tiring on my end. Second: it’s interesting to look at this scene in hindsight, one or two games down the line. While they probably wrote Axel as being honest when they were initially writing the game, it’s pretty clear that Axel is lying about his interest in Sora when you take later games into account. Bare-faced, straight-up lying.
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).