KINGDOM HEARTS : CHAIN OF MEMORIES / Squaresoft / GBA
I haven't played any of the other Kingdom Hearts games prior to this one, mostly due to the fact that I really do not dig on either Disney or post-1996 Square, which the games are basically a giant tribute to. However, I want you to know that for this review I have strictly set my distaste for giant soulless corporate entertainment aside and am judging the game on gameplay and fun value alone. And by those counts, it still comes up short. I really tried to appreciate this one, but it has two major problems - it's extremely repetitive and tedious, and the combat system is bogged down with a bunch of overly confusing nonsense it really would have been better off without.
The game is a sort of bridge between Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. Sora, Donald and Goofy enter this place called the Castle of Oblivion, where they lose most of their memories and have to traverse to the top (at the behest of some behoodied figure with tits) to regain them and figure out how to get out of the place. Sora solos this one, with other characters only appearing as basically a one-off summon spell attack in combat.
Each floor of the castle is a Disney world of some sort, and you get to choose what order you want to take them in. Despite the variety in backdrops, however, each level is pretty much identical to one another. It's a 3x4 grid, you pass through all the rooms looking for one or two events that eventually open the way to a boss fight. Along the way, plenty of Heartless pop up that you fight it out against. Wash, rinse, repeat - the settings and characters change, but the basic gameplay formula is identical for each level.
The whole game revolves around the collecting and use of cards. To move from room to room, Sora has to find a card that has a numerical rating high enough to open the door to the next area. If it's a room that contains a plot-developing cutscene or a boss fight, you'll likely also have to find a special card elsewhere. Cards can be found sometimes by randomly smacking lampposts and such, but mostly they are dropped in battle with Heartless - but since there's really nothing else to do in the game but fight them over and over, you're pretty much assured of always having enough cards. To complicate things a bit further, when you "create" a room the type of card that you use determines what strength and quantity of enemies will be inside it, and some cards make rooms with treasure or with random Moogles that you trade these red balls that you pick up for more cards.
The game is thus essentially a dungeon crawl - there are no real town sequences, no overworld, none of the other trappings of the standard RPG. You go into a room, you fight a bunch of Heartless in order to level up and get cards, once you have the right cards you move on to the next room, repeat over and over and over until the end of the game. This monotonous pattern is broken up only by the occasional non-interactive cutscene and one major boss fight at the end of each level.
This still could have been salvaged had the battle system been fun and the enemies varied, but it fails on both those counts. The battle system is really disappointing to me, because it has tremendous potential, but the goofy "card" system they insist on overlaying it with jumbles it up. It's almost as hard to explain as it is to use - basically the fights are sort of like an arcade beat-em-up, and if they had developed them in a more traditional direction (maybe something akin to what was seen in the Dungeons and Dragons arcade games) it could have been really awesome. Instead, every swing of your keyblade requires the use of a "card", which has a numerical value. You've got a deck of these cards which you scroll through using the L and R buttons, and this is how you cast spells and summon allies as well. Basically, each attack consists of both you and the enemies playing a card, and if their card has a higher value than yours you get a Card Break, which means that your attack gets canceled and they get free shots at you. This system is frustrating as you can't usually see what values the enemies have, so you just have to hack away and hope for the best. Compounding the problem is that every time you get a Card Break the screen does some Mode 7 style blinking effect that is irritating, and it happens so often you might start to develop a headache. It really breaks up the flow of battle and is just annoying. You can link three cards together to create a combo attack, but I haven't seen this actually be any more useful than random hackery yet and when you do this you lose the first card in the chain for the rest of the battle. You learn techniques called Sleights which are somehow used in conjunction with these combos, but the game never really adequately explains how to pull these off. It doesn't really matter though, because mushing on the A button will get you through 90% of the battles anyway, and oftentimes that's really all you can do.
The other major problem is that you keep fighting the same enemies over, and over, and over again. Each level usually has one particular group of enemies, so you essentially repeat the same battle dozens of times. Certain foes such as the basic Heartless also carry over to nearly all the floors, so the game really starts to feel like Chain of Monotony as you keep fighting the same guys again and again and again and again and again.
I certainly can't fault the presentation of the game. The graphics are among the best on the GBA, the game even opens with a surprisingly long 3D movie clip, and everything is very polished and smooth. Yoko Shimomura turns in a rather boring soundtrack along the lines of her Super Mario RPG work, but it too is very polished and functions just fine as background music. The game is just hellaciously tedious and repetitive, and unless you're really into the Kingdom Hearts story I see absolutely no reason to put up with it.