H-hey, I was thinking! Maybe, y-you know, before we go, we should… bone up on a few advanced combat techniques! NO PARTICULAR REASON OF COURSE. Nothing to be concerned about. Just… good solid advice to have on hand, f-for a rainy day!
I’ve repeated a few points of advice through this retrospective, and they still stand true here. 1) Build a deck that leads itself automatically into a certain strategy, so that you don’t have to think about things. Or at least, not as much. 2) Attack bosses relentlessly so that they will have less health and so less time and opportunity to hurt you. 3) Keep a stash of convenient, always-on-hand 0 cards. 4) If you have an Elixir or Megalixir on hand (preferably with a few cards you can use alongside it to make it more resistant to being broken), you can essentially reset your deck, letting you restart your strategy from point 1 from the beginning. An ideal deck can kill a boss within its three reloads, but an ideal deck with an Megalixir can barely fail. These are all critical pieces of information and I hope by now you’re comfortable with using them. You may also have a designated boss deck. Even better!
I do have one strategy that goes beyond these four base points. Taken with the other four, this strategy has seen me through the hardest of the bosses. It’s also the most tedious step, but you only have to do it once: double-layer your boss deck.
Presumably, the big plan you set up for Point 1, above, involved a number of Sleights. Unfortunately, the first card of every Sleight is lost after you use it, so once you reload, your carefully prepared deck is no longer primed with deadly Sleights. You can get those Sleights back with the help of a Hi-Potion, Mega-Potion, Mega-Ether or any kind of Elixir, but for the time being, they’re gone and you can’t rely on items to do all your heavy lifting. What I recommend you do to fix this problem is complicated: set up your deck so that once you’ve used your Sleights and reloaded, the remaining cards will have collapsed into more Sleights.
For example. You set up your deck to do two Sonic Blades (or five – like I said, be ruthless). To use Sonic Blade, you need three Keyblade cards of total value 20-23. Let’s pretend that you set up a 4-8-8 Sonic Blade, followed immediately by a 6-6-8. Once you use the sleights and reload, you’ll have lost the 4 and the first 6. Those six cards will have become these four cards: 8-8-6-8. Do you see it? That’s right: the first three cards also add up to a number between 20-23. That means, after reloading, you can have a new Sonic Blade just waiting for you!
My favourite strategy is to use Lethal Frame Sleights (Stop-Keyblade-Keyblade) that collapse into Sonic Blades after reloading, with a few extra Lethal Frames on the side (extra Stop cards) for an extra mess.
That’s a lot of information to take in, so I’ll repeat advice that’s worked for me in the past and that I’ve given to others: if you can just make sure your deck collapses into some Sleights, even if they aren’t ideal Sleights, you’re still on top. Build a deck with your favourite Sleights, see what they collapse into after a single run, and see if you can spice up that second “layer” by re-arranging things a little. With some finesse you might even add a few cards to complicate things, but that’s up to you. Once you have that sort of “panic layer,” you’ll be able to work out the few kinks after a few test battles.
It takes some doing, but if you get it right, you can see the benefit. Here’s how it works. The fight starts. You load three cards and use their Sleight. You do it again, and again, and again, until it’s time to reload. The enemy has not been able to attack, or perhaps only stops you with a few lucky 0s, but you press on. You finish dumping your cards and start to reload, using the 0s you keep next to the Reload card to keep the enemy off you in an emergency. Your deck reloads and you start the relentless Sleight attack a second time. Maybe you mess around for a while on a third reload while relying on the fundamentals (if you’re a CoM genius you set up a third layer of Sleights, but I’ve never done that except by accident). Then, you down a Megalixir backed up with two 9 cards and start the whole thing from the top. The boss was probably almost dead before you even considered your Elixir.
On top of that advice, throw in a few good Enemy Cards to back your strategy, and consider upgrading your Red cards to better Keyblades if you can do so without breaking your Sleights and CP limit. Always better to have an Oathkeeper than a Kingdom Key, after all.
Once Sora gets back to Castle Oblivion, the cutscene that follows is pretty fast! Probably because we had such a long closing cutscene on the Islands, and have so much left to do. Naminé is here in reality, waiting for Sora. In the remake, she’s facing away from Sora, like the way you’d film a shot in a horror movie where you reveal she’s secretly Jason Vorhees. Don’t look at me like that! The staging in this game is awful. Sora runs up to her, maybe a little too eager, and tries to continue their previous conversation from Destiny Islands, telling her that he didn’t see Naminé in his heart, but another girl… whom he still does not recognize. He sounds like a lost little puppy without this memory. To my surprise, Naminé seems about ready to reveal not just who Kairi is, but why Sora doesn’t remember her, when Riku storms in.
This is about the most direct opening for a battle imaginable. “Let me explain this. Plain and simple. Your memory is a train wreck.” This line is hilarious to me, because it’s the most blunt and accurate summary of CoM so far. Riku’s doing my job for me! Riku says that he’s the one who’s supposed to protect Naminé, and fight starts instantaneously. Shit. After the long cutscene before that super-hard Riku-Ansem fight in KH1, they weren’t going to mess around with this game’s extra-hard Riku battle!
I’ve been teasing about the difficulty of this fight, but if you know how to handle things, Riku 4 isn’t actually that backbreaking. He even has less HP than Vexen (though Vexen’s high HP was probably meant as a concession to Vexen for being weak against Fire). I’ve even felt comfortable fighting Riku 4 without cheesy Sleights like Sonic Blade and Lethal Frame. When I get comfortable in CoM, the whole game becomes satisfying in a way I can’t explain, and overcoming Riku without breaking a sweat is a good sign that you’re “where you want to be” with the game. If you can overcome Riku without breaking a sweat, you’re probably good through to the end of the game! No joke! This boss and the next boss are perhaps the hardest in the game. If you can handle them, I feel you can handle anything left in CoM.
Of course, as I’ve been saying up and down, CoM’s biggest problem is a lack of education. If you’re like the average player, and you’re not not prepared for this boss with the help of of a walkthrough or a Retrospective full of handy advice…
Riku 4 has a few improvements over Riku 3. He appears in Re:CoM with an orb of darkness on his free hand like in the climactic fight at Hollow Bastion, a warning for all players of KH1. He’s also got a new set of attack cards. In CoM, these cards let him use Helm Split as a default attack, so you’ll have to deal with that new surprise, while in Re:CoM they exist to fuel the new Sleight he gets in both versions: Dark Aura. Dark Aura is maybe even worse than in KH1 since it seems a bit faster, just like Hades’ fire bar attack. If you miss your 0 to block this Sleight, you’re screwed. Riku also has his own Enemy Card, which prevents him from losing cards when he uses Sleights. Shit! I wish we had that card for this fight. But the Darkside card that copies these things is just too much fuss to worry about in a pinch.
If you beat Riku 4, you finally get his Enemy Card, suggesting that this long recurring boss thread is finally over. Except… wait. No. Re:CoM, did you just do what I think you did? This is the biggest screw-up I could have possibly imagined coming from a remake. The developers should have known far better. Re:CoM dumps a massive spoiler on you here, and while I’ve tried to account for every one of Re:CoM’s major changes no matter which version I feel is superior, I refuse to dignify this one with acknowledgement. CoM does this right and Re:CoM does this wrong, with no middle ground. It would have taken the remake one line of scripting to correct. They have no excuses.
At this point, it’s best you turn back to the Conqueror’s Respite. This is easily missed in the GBA version for one reason or another (in fact, I actually reported that it wasn’t possible to turn back when I released this post!), but reader FudgemintGuardian gave it a check and found out that you can in fact go back – so take the opportunity!
Riku is in bad shape after the fight. In the GBA, he’s collapsed, while he’s slouching in Re:CoM – or at least, he’s slouching until you talk to him, when he seems to fall down to the ground as soon as the cut scene starts! I just like the visual detail, it’s as though you’re watching him gradually collapse. But as Sora approaches to help Riku up, Riku lobs a Dark Firaga right in Sora’s face and knocks him to the ground. Riku declares victory, and I’m just disappointed in the devs for this. I hate it when a game takes away a victory after it’s been earned. It’s one of the worst kind of railroading: modifying events after they happen. If Sora was supposed to lose this fight: rig the fight! After clearing one of the hardest battles in the game, I should feel at least a little proud of myself, or maybe guilty over attacking Sora’s best friend, but anything other than: “Whoops, doesn’t count!” Hey, same to you! KH1 did this too after the fight with Leon, but I’ll be honest: having Sora faint after the fight with Leon for very little reason was such an incompetent way for the developers to rig the outcome that it wrapped back around to hilarious for me. I’m not going to let CoM get away with this.
Riku is about to murder Sora over this childish spat, calling him a fake but otherwise acting in a similar way to KH1. Just then, Naminé shouts at him to stop. Once she shouts there is an immediate effect. In Re:CoM, we once again get a spark of light from Riku’s head, while in the GBA the flash is screen-wide, making it more of a mystery as to what just happened. Once again I prefer the GBA, but since we’re going to get an explanation in just a few seconds, I suppose it doesn’t matter as much. Riku crumples to the ground like a rag doll.
Sora gets up and asks what the hell just happened, when who should show up but Larxene. Whoops, busted. This is Shanelle Workman’s best scene, and it’s so good that I find it hard to remember all the awkwardly directed scenes that came before this after she blows out of the park here. Larxene is equal parts pissed, bullying and eagerly sadistic. She answers Sora’s question to Naminé, saying that Naminé broke Riku’s heart with some kind of magic. “I’d say more like she smashed it, really.”
The GBA version actually had the guts to imply that Sora thought Riku was dead at this point, while in Re:CoM he stammers for any explanation at all. Larxene says it’s fine, because Riku was never here. Larxene finally explains, but not before dropping a surprising line about how she dislikes “spoilers” (I cannot believe they were talking about “spoilers” in a major company’s production in 2004). “It’ll kill you to hear this — but I can live with that.” Larxene explains that the Riku lying on the ground isn’t Riku at all, but “a puppet” that Vexen made. “Fake in every way. It was only finished recently.” We later learn the proper term is “Replica.”
This, by the way, was Re:CoM’s early, what-the-fuck spoiler: Riku’s Enemy Card was openly labelled as “Riku Replica!” Good fucking garbage, I’m still not over that. Couldn’t you have hidden the card’s real name temporarily? FudgemintGuardian tells me that the Japanese version of Re:CoM didn’t do this, so someone on the localization must have thought it was a good idea for… some reason, I’m at a loss to what!
Larxene then draws out a few other conclusions from this new information – and it says a lot about the way CoM is written and how it respects the player’s intelligence in how she shows you the roads instead of just cutting to the end (this also allows you one last chance to catch up before she reaches the conclusions). She points out that if the Riku Replica is brand new, its memories of Naminé can’t be real. The memories had to be planted, and in saying that, she turns to Naminé. In Re:CoM she even cups Naminé face in a hand and says straight to Naminé’s face: “Oh, so cute…but behind this little face, you do awful things.” It is malicious and gross and perfect, but it’s also multi-functional: Larxene is simultaneously trying get a guilt reaction from Naminé, a betrayal reaction from Sora, and a surprise reaction from the player.
In the GBA, Sora even says “No… not Naminé,” which is maybe a little on the nose. This sparks an outburst from GBA Larxene. “You are so STUPID.” Many players have probably caught on by now, but I’ll allow Larxene to explain in full. “[Naminé] steps into people’s hearts and rearranges their memory. If she wants, she can even draw new memories of things that never happened. The girl you’ve been dying to protect… is a manipulative witch who shackles people’s hearts with phony memories!” And you better believe Larxene continues to use “witch” as Disney-code for “bitch” through the rest of the scene.
When Sora falters, Larxene does our second title drop. Everything Sora remembers is “All lies! An illusion Naminé made. Binding you in the chains of your own memory was central to our trap.” The aim was for them to wrap a leash around Sora using the one thing he’ll never be free of: his love for his friends. The repeat use of the title drop to emphasize the point is stupendous: it wasn’t just false memories like Vexen was saying. They used Sora’s love of his friends – the thing that makes him strong – to control him.
Larxene is putting on quite a show of cool-headed dominance, but don’t let that fool you: she’s actually furious, especially at Axel for setting Naminé free and ruining their plans. Larxene slaps Naimine aside in her rage, and Sora jumps to his feet. Larxene points out that he has no reason to react in Naminé’s defence, outside of basic human decency. “You don’t even know her!” Sora stands firm with a friendship speech: “Maybe not. But I still made a promise. I promised Naminé I’d keep her safe. Maybe my memories are fake. But they’re still mine, and I’m gonna be true to them.” Larxene points out just how stupid this is, and the best part is she is entirely right. “Must you insist on playing the hero?” Sora might have a basis to protect Naminé as the weaker party here, but it’s clear the truth just isn’t getting through to him, and that’s going to be important in a moment.
Larxene attacks Sora, who is still too weak from Riku’s attack to defend himself, but she is cut off when Donald and Goofy heroically return to the scene. Donald heals Sora, and they all get up to fight Larxene properly. And here we go with stage 2.
Like Vexen, Larxene has an HP boost over Riku 4. Thankfully, Larxene is weak against “techniques” when she’s using her Enemy Card. When I originally released this post, I theorized that “techniques” meant “Sleights,” but hyperion09 wrote in a comment to clarify her weaknesses. You can check out her clarification in the comments below.
One solid strategy here is to use Captain Hook to gain temporary Thunder resistance, but that will only go so far. Like her element, Larxene is fast, and you’re not always going to be able to block all her attacks. Thankfully her Sleights are numerically weak, and not able to stand up to most of your own Sleights. As a result, a Sonic Blade and Lethal Frame deck will make a real mess of her. In the GBA version, Larxene has fewer Sleights, though this ironically makes her stronger because it allows her to focus on her one remaining Sleight, Teleport Rush, which is murder.
The biggest surprise comes after the battle. The game doesn’t make a big deal of it, but after all the fuss made over Vexen, I’m not going to let this pass: Larxene dies. Sora was able to hold back against Riku, and even Vexen twice. He didn’t personally kill Clayton, Maleficent was arguably consumed by her own darkness, and he didn’t even kill Ansem Seeker of Darkness. But when Larxene threatened his “friend,” Sora killed her without a second thought. These aren’t the actions of a hero, and that’s what sells this scene for me. Marluxia and his conspiracy didn’t know what they were messing with when they tried to control Sora’s love for his friends: it was something he was willing to kill for, even after his complaints about Axel killing Vexen.
But the question is: were we ready for this? How did we get from “teenager missing a friend who mysteriously vanished” to “teenager who just killed someone indistinguishable from a human being.” A horrible human being, granted, but this is still a step beyond anything that happened in Kingdom Hearts 1.
Even better: Sora killing someone as a result of his unshakable love for his friends is a direct challenge to the conclusions of KH1. KH1 said that love for your friends made you unambiguously stronger, and is now presenting a dark counter-reality. One of Sora’s biggest strengths has just been exploited, though not in the way Marluxia intended, and the idea of absolute friendship as an unshakable ur-good is being put to the test. Kingdom Hearts loves to take its old conclusions and put them through the wringer, and this is only the beginning.
To return to the main twist for a moment (that Naminé has been modifying Sora’s memory throughout the game), I imagine the levels of reaction to this scene vary throughout the fandom. When I first played CoM, I was still shocked at the idea that all of Sora’s memories about Naminé were lies. It had seemed obvious for much of the game that the Organization wanted him to recover the memories about Naminé , presumably to control him, that I never considered that the memories themselves were completely untrue. In fact I’d say I felt they were all true and just being exploited by Marluxia! So many of the memories seemed viable, my “Naminé is dead” theory seemed just the right level of drama for Kingdom Hearts, that it seems impossible that they could all be wrong, and yet, sure enough, they all were, even down to Riku’s very existence. Hell: the Castle never had any impact on your memory at all. It was always Naminé, and I would have never have assumed the very first thing we were told about the game world (that the Castle breaks down your memories) was a lie.
To understand just how the game made use of these tricks, we have to look back. Do you remember when I made a running joke out of Sora and the gang following gaming tropes through the Castle? And later, with Larxene’s speech about good guys and bad guys? This was actually deliberate on the part of the design team, using “cliché” as a duckblind. Note also the way the Organization members keep addressing Sora as “the Hero” to keep genre tropes fresh in your mind, carefully cloaked in sarcasm? We know, as players, that if Sora and the others behave like game protagonists, then they will advance through the game because we know that we’re playing a game. However, we know not to shut off our brains, and so continue thinking about the plot on a more advanced level than the doofus in clown shoes following our lead. Most games would be satisfied with that, and would fool the character but not the player. But Chain of Memories is playing on a higher level. Chain of Memories, as I’ve said in the past, treats the plot at one level for Sora, and one level for you. It’s aware that you’re one step ahead.
If you like a good magic trick, maybe skip this next section, but I’m going to take CoM’s methods apart piece by piece. Here’s how Chain of Memories did what it was doing. By allowing you to feel like you’re one step ahead of the characters, Chain of Memories tricks you into first accepting parts of the basic premise that are actually unproven. You probably didn’t even notice it pass you by. If assume that, like the characters say, Sora going through the video game motions will progress the plot, we unconsciously have to assume that if Sora progressing the plot is, itself, a positive action. We’re so busy trying to figure out where the plot is going that we’re not watching the way our feet hit the ground. We don’t check the rote motions for betrayal and plot twists. By playing the game – by simply participating – Sora was already failing. By trying to keep one step ahead of the protagonists and understanding the nature of Castle Oblivion to anticipate a trap, we fail to notice we are already there. By assuming that Larxene is trying to mislead you by saying that Sora should charge up the castle and rescue the damsel, we assume there is a damsel to be rescued, and we assume that since the trap is so clearly set to snap as you try to rescue her, we do not notice that it already snapped when we believed Naminé was real. If you never believed that Naminé was really Sora’s friend in the first place, I imagine the assumption was either still that that Naminé is there to be rescued (overlooking that she’s the one that set the trap), or perhaps you believe her to be a villain, but might still assume the castle was breaking down Sora’s memories!
It’s a big game of “I know that she knows that I know.” Sora knows things to some degree. The player knows more things than Sora. The game reassures the player that they’re correct. “Yes,” it says! “You do know more things than Sora!” Since the game knows exactly where the player is settled, they can then operate in the opposite direction without interference. It’s a trick played by Terranigma before them and Bioshock after them, making it one of the classic mindscrews of interactive narrative. To catch the player not in where they think about the plot, but how.
Check out the Disney worlds, the segment of this game’s plot that is often ignored as pointless and redundant, thus showing that most players weren’t giving them the cautious eye they would have needed to catch this plot in action. If you take a look at them, the Disney stories seem to be in conflict, as though the game is building up to two separate but related conclusions. I explored one angle they could all be considered true when talking about Vexen, but from another angle you could ignore my conclusion and see the disagreement as the game’s aim. By implying that friends should be reunited and memories restored, the game implies a false conclusion: that Naminé is your friend, and that rescuing her will somehow restore your memories and fix everything. The default video game plot is reinforced on every floor. Hell, the game once again forced you to accept a false first step by providing information about the second. Sora knows his true memory will make him hurt, but that he’ll be better off for knowing it. You brace yourself for the hurt, while never considering that the “true memory” was never true!
(By the way, did you realize that when Aerith warned you off of your true memories and no one could see her, that that was actually Naminé in disguise?)
It’s like what Alice said about the Queen of Hearts: “She tried so hard to remember, she remembered something that didn’t happen!” There are truths buried in the redundancy. It’s brilliant, and like I said above: the old evidence stops fitting one answer and starts to fit others. To make matters even better, later games will follow on to these false leads to make sure that they don’t just languish as red herrings. I love this series.
This falsity angle is why the game spends half its run time without Sora and the Organization interacting at all. It’s there to acclimatize you to the new normal of going through memory worlds, yes, but also to acclimatize you to the idea that this new normal is “correct.” You swallow the base assumptions Sora and his friends are making because, even though you might believe the surface details are wrong, there is no villain there to suggest that anything is atomically incorrect. Unfortunately, due to the gameplay’s repetition problems, this first half of the game goes on way too long without some kind of central plot, drive or incident, forcing the second half of the game to be crowded with interruptions. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Peter Griffin put it best when he said “For cryin’ out loud, somebody throw a pie!”
And the biggest tragedy of all is how all of this came together to make Sora outright kill someone. That’s what really rubs this home for me. By chasing the wrong lead, Sora ended up doing exactly what they wanted. The only reason Larxene died was because the traitors didn’t expect their system to be turned against them, but make no mistake, the system is still working fine. As a player, thought I was coming up roses by staying one step ahead of the cast in terms of predicting the ending, but in reality I fell into the same trap as Sora, and if I had been in the Castle with them, we’d be no better off!
(One of Larxene’s final lines, “I refuse to lose… to such a bunch of losers!” is in both versions and so bad it feels like it wraps around back to good. It makes her bullying persona seem like an artificial mask that she struggles to hold on to – no one would really say something that corny. And as it happens, KH2 will suggest that was probably the case.)
After all of those pages of commentary and praise, however, CoM shoots itself in the foot: Sora and the others react to Larxene’s with utter nonchalance. Without so much as a dramatic pause, we turn away from Larxene’s pleading, begging death to happy casual conversation. She was a monster, but you don’t get to do that, Square Enix.
Goofy just walks up to Naminé and cheerfully greets her. A few seconds of astonishment later, I remember that he and Donald have been out of the loop for so long they don’t know the truth and are still operating under the assumption that Naminé is Sora’s real-life friend from the past. The best part of this scene is how Donald and Goofy carry on out-of-the-loop, but Jiminy Cricket shows up to continue to speak for the player and completely ignores them.
Jiminy asks Naminé a few questions, and Naminé confirms most of what Larxene said as the truth (I can see why the party might not want to trust Larxene’s word on thing like this, so I’m glad they double-checked with Naminé). Naminé explains that Marluxia threatened her into doing it, but also implies that she did it because she had been “lonely for so long,” a sort of Kain Highwind situation. I feel CoM does better than FFIV in this regard, since the CoM lets Naminé keep her motivations, while Kain’s brainwashing essentially eradicates his personal motivations, because that’s what brainwashing does as a plot element. Better still, Naminé’s loneliness was properly established ahead of time, where Kain’s feelings were just sort of dropped on you. Naminé says she can correct the memory, but she needs to get to the thirteenth floor to do it. Obviously Marluxia will try to stop you.
Sadly, Naminé’s face defaults to its fish-face position a few times during this sequence in the remake, which mean she’s smiling when everyone in the scene should be upset.
Naminé apparently is upset, and Sora asks her not to cry. Naminé assumes he was saying she doesn’t have the right to cry, but he clarifies that he still feels she’s his friend and really does want her to feel good. In fact, he uses a lot of words that imply that the truth still hasn’t gotten through to him, and he may very well still believe they’ve been friends for years. It might look like a friendship speech, but on close observation, it’s a frightening manifestation of Vexen and Larxene’s warning: that Sora is becoming a slave to the chain of memories. At one point he even says “That’s the Naminé I remember,” only to try to correct himself after the fact. It’s terrifying how much damage is in play here thanks to a few choice lies.
At this point, Goofy says Sora always gets this way around girls. Are we sure about that, Goof? I know Goofy’s just giving him sass, but after two extended swims with a teenaged mermaid in a bikini with no trouble, I think he’s doing fine.
And then – drop my jaw to the floor and scrape it up with a spatula – the trio leaves Naminé alone in the hostile castle, just there like they did Wendy in Neverland. Goofy says it’s dangerous so she should stay here. I suppose they don’t remember the events of memory-Neverland but holy shit is this disappointing from the perspective of the audience. Sora says she should look after the Riku Replica (Sora is still addressing him as “Riku” – either out of politeness or because his memory really is a train wreck), and they leave!
They’ll get exactly what they deserve.
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).