Games

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories – The Best (and Only) Card-Based Action RPG on the GBA

Card-based RPGs aren’t for everyone, especially not for those expecting an action RPG. Such was the case for many fans of Kingdom Hearts when Chain of Memories was released for the Game Boy Advance in 2003. Announced and developed alongside Kingdom Hearts II, Chain of Memories was designed to fill a one-year gap that series director Tetsuya Nomura had envisioned between the first installment and its numbered sequel. That alone was enough to sour fans of the original who didn’t own a GBA, but the sudden shift in both core combat and game design philosophy resulted in a title that, while aesthetically similar to Kingdom Hearts, was its own beast entirely. One could say “for better or worse,” but the fact of the matter is that Chain of Memories is undeniably all the better for it. 

Chain of Memories

Kingdom Hearts’ 3D combat was never going to translate to a 2D plane, at least not without some heavy compromises. Rather than attempting to replicate the original game’s gameplay outright, cards would serve as a justification to shake up what series protagonist Sora could pull off during gameplay. Early concept art for Chain of Memories even seems to indicate cards were to be used in a turn-based capacity, a rather traditional approach to the card-based RPG. While such a tried & true approach certainly would have worked, and likely well, a turn-based Chain of Memories would likely feel too out of place in the context of Kingdom Hearts. The series has always had Final Fantasy flarings, but the first game established a very clear mechanical identity independent of Square’s flagship franchise. 

Kingdom Hearts is fast. It’s a game about moving in combat, flowing from target to target. Some enemies are spongier than others, but Sora’s mobility and skill set allow him to chain in and out of combos, dodge, and access a rather generous roster of magic. Better yet, the game’s “Command Menu” allows players to access all of Sora’s unlocked abilities at any given time through the use of the D-pad. It’s a rather ingenious approach to the action RPG genre, and while the original Kingdom Hearts doesn’t exactly excel when it comes to combat, its unique approach to action ensures that it’s an engaging playthrough even today. It goes without saying, but Chain of Memories lost quite a bit of what defined the first game’s combat. At the same time, this results in an opportunity for Chain of Memories to define its own identity.

Chain of Memories
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories beta screenshot.

“To find is to lose, and to lose is to find.” 

To Chain of Memories’ credit, there is a clear link between itself and its predecessor as far as the very basics of combat go. Battles no longer take place on the overworld, but running into enemies trigger fields that Sora can move about freely. While attacking requires cards, Sora’s swings can be chained together into combos not too dissimilar to what he could pull off in KH. On top of that, while the Command Menu is gone, a player’s deck essentially fills the same role, albeit with more customization and far less freedom. Beyond all this, however, Chain of Memories wastes no time in asserting its unique gameplay identity. 

Chain of Memories

Cards dictate everything in Chain of Memories, from what Sora can accomplish in battle, to where he can go in each world. On the subject of worlds, World Cards are the first of the three major card types that players will interact with. While the first world will always be Traverse Town, Chain of Memories allows players to pick their next five worlds in any order via the World Cards. After exhausting those five worlds, Sora is then given four more World Cards which can again be tackled in any order. Traverse Town, Twilight Town, Destiny Islands, and Castle Oblivion will always fall on the 1st, 11th, 12th, and 13th floors respectively, but the rest of the game has no intended order, making for some nice replay value. 

Map Cards play a similar function within the worlds themselves. Worlds are no longer traditionally designed and are instead wholly randomized. At the end of each battle, enemies will typically draw a Map Card, a card that allows players to choose the next room they enter into. While the layouts of stages are random, the actual structure of each World is at the mercy of the player. Map Cards themselves are divided into three types: Enemy, Status, and Bounty – represented by the colors red, green, and blue respectively. Enemy Cards summon rooms ripe with battle, Status Cards either buff Sora or nerf enemies, and Bounty Cards allow players to summon chests, shops, or save points. 

While players will have plenty of freedom with how they approach each world, the majority of the gameplay is dominated by combat – and Battle Cards are significantly more hands-on than either World or Map Cards. Although Sora can fit a maximum of 52 cards in his Deck, players need to deal with CP (Card Points). Each Battle Card has its own CP value, and the total CP in Sora’s Deck cannot exceed his maximum CP at the time. CP can be increased via leveling up, but leaving it at that would only be scratching the surface of CoM’s leveling system.  

Chain of Memories

Battle Cards aside for right now, players can choose one of three options whenever Sora levels up: raise HP, raise CP, or gain a new Sleight (more on those much later.) It seems straightforward, but having to choose only one stat per level ends up having serious consequences for the early game. Players who go all-in on health will soon find themselves lacking the CP to make competent decks. Conversely, players who dump everything into CP will have next to no health, demanding near mechanical mastery just to stay alive. The key to having a good experience with Chain of Memories lies in understanding that while CP is Sora’s best friend, he’s going to want at least one full health bar before the final boss. 

Leveling up can be very frustrating in this regard, especially for players who skew towards HP and find themselves lacking the CP necessary to comfortably keep up with late-game bosses and their aggressive decks. Even with low CP, however, it’s entirely possible to beat the game by playing strategically. Players are offered so much variety with how they customize their deck, that there’s always some solution to the hardest bosses. Before getting into the nuances of deck building, however, it’s important to understand how Battle Cards actually work in battle.

Battle Cards are divided into six distinct types: red Attack Cards, blue Magic & Summon Cards, green Item & Friend Cards, and black Enemy Cards. Enemy Cards will be the most expensive fixtures in a player’s deck, along with the least prominent. Every single enemy has its own droppable Enemy Card, but whereas bosses will always drop their cards, enemies are more likely to drop Map Cards. Anyone who actively fights enemies will have at least half a dozen non-boss Enemy Cards by the end of the game, but no two players will have had the same drops. Perhaps this can be frustrating for completionists, but it’s an element of randomization that keeps the game perpetually fresh. 

There’s an inherent entitlement that comes with playing video games where we want to be able to consume all the content without factors like luck or randomness preventing us. That’s a fair and reasonable want, but it’s important to recognize that RNG does have its place. Random drops in Chain of Memories mean players can’t just coast on other people’s deck ideas. You need to work with what you’ve got. That leads to a far more compelling playthrough, one where your fingerprints are left all over the game. Naturally, all this to say: don’t be too bummed out when CoM inevitably does you dirty with Battle Card drops. 

Chain of Memories

There are only three consistent ways of getting Battle Cards in the game: by summoning a Moogle shop & purchasing them, by summoning a room with a treasure chest, or by interacting with the overworld. It goes without saying, but there’s no way to guarantee what Sora gets from any of the shops, a chest, or the overworld. It’s all random. If nothing else, Moogle shops will always give Sora five free red Battle Cards whenever they’re summoned, ensuring that– if nothing else– a diligent player will have a healthy amount of Attack Cards to work with. 

Magic, Summon, and Item Cards are more scarce in comparison with the Moogle shop the only reliable place to buy them. Moogle Points aren’t easy to come by either – only found via interacting with the overworld – so it’s not unusual for players to find themselves hurting in that regard. Magic Cards are the only consistent means of healing in battle, which speaks for itself. Even if players do have a surplus of Magic and Item Cards, there’s no way to control value. Ranked from 0 to 9, each card has its own value which affects CP cost and Breaks. The lower value a card is, the less it costs, but low valued cards can also be broken by higher value cards in-battle. 

To finally dive into combat, Breaks make or break any given battle. Both players and enemies can activate their cards at any given time during combat. Naturally, this is going to result in a lot of clashing. Should two cards of the same value be played at the same time, they’ll cancel each other out. Otherwise, the higher value card gets priority. Unless, of course, the card being played is a 0, in which case it can break any card. At the same time, a 0 can be broken by any card. By double-tapping right or left, Sora can dodge some attacks, but if an enemy’s card is locked in, it’ll usually hit the player head-on. 

Should players use a card in battle, said card will remain exhausted until Sora either plays an Item Card to refill his deck or manually reloads by holding A and standing in place. Each reload makes the subsequent one longer until reloading caps out at taking three times as long as default. Not just that, reloading shuffles the deck in real-time meaning that larger decks will take even longer to reload – something important to take into consideration with deck building, especially since Item Cards can reload instantly. Combat isn’t as simple as just fishing for Card Breaks and reloading, however. 

Any card that’s broken by a 0 is removed from either the player or the enemy’s deck for the rest of the battle. It becomes important not to just blindly throw out Attack Cards. There’s an impulse to play aggressively because that’s the style of gameplay the original prioritized, but Chain of Memories requires a strategic and thoughtful approach to combat. Players can still fight aggressively, but they need to arrange their deck properly to do so while also keeping an eye on what cards enemies are tossing out. 

As a result, it’s easy to dismiss Chain of Memories’ as a numbers game where RNG determines how well a player can progress. It’s not hard to see why someone might feel that way, but there is never a scenario where just “having the right cards” will just get one through the game. It’s entirely possible to brute force some bosses, but CoM constantly throws roadblocks at players to remind them to actually engage with the core mechanics. If bosses like Hades, Captain Hook, and Vexen are frustrating, it’s not because you don’t have the right cards, it’s because you’re not using your cards in the right way. Chain of Memories is just as much an action game as it is a card game. 

Chain of Memories

“What, you still want to fight?” 

Beyond card breaks, values, and CP, there is an incredible amount of depth within the combat. Sora can actually still chain in and out of traditional combos in Chain of Memories, but it requires an understanding of the nuances at play. Just frontloading a deck with high-value cards gets a player absolutely nowhere. Each Attack Card Sora plays is actually just one part of a longer combo chain and the key to doing consistent damage is realizing when to pursue a chain and when to go for a Break. This isn’t an easy task, however, as Attack Cards have unique stats that affect how useful they ultimately are in battle. 

By checking the Journal, players can cross-reference when it’s best to use a certain card in a combo. Attack Cards are broken down into seven key stats: Strike, Thrust, Combo Finish, Swing Speed, Element, Break Recovery, and Required CP. Of these seven stats, the first three are the most immediately important to make note of while also the most difficult to make sense of. 

If Sora is in short range of an enemy, or not locked on to anyone at all, he’ll Strike at the start of a combo chain before following into a Thrust. If Sora is locked onto an enemy but further away, he’ll start his combos with a Thrust before going into a Strike. All combos end in a Combo Finish only after Sora Strikes and Thrusts. This is important to take into consideration since certain cards are better suited for Striking, Thrusting, or ending combos. Swing Speed also speaks for itself and a faster swing means there’s less time for an opponent to trigger a Break in their favor. 

Chain of Memories

Although Chain of Memories has 17 different Attack Cards that Sora can choose from, for the sake of simplicity we’ll only focus on the following three: Kingdom Key, the weakest but most reliable Attack Card in the game; Olympia, one of the most inconsistent Attack Cards for better or worse; and Divine Rose, a powerful late-game Attack Card with otherwise glaring weaknesses.

Kingdom Key has a D+ in Strike, Thrust, and Combo Finish, meaning that it can fall anywhere in a combo chain and do consistently reliable damage. Olympia, however, has a C+ in Strike, a D+ in Thrust, and a B in Combo Finish, whereas Divine Rose has an A in Strike, a D+ in Thrust, and a C in Combo Finish. Logic would dictate to strike with Divine Rose before thrusting with Kingdom Key and finishing with Olympia, but there are other important factors to consider. Notably, Break Recovery. As Divine Rose is tied for the worst Break Recovery in the game (a C), leading with it only to suffer a Break leaves Sora vulnerable for an uncomfortable amount of time. A smart strategy around this would be to start a combo by triggering a Break with a 0 value Divine Rose from close range. 

Of course, this is easier said than done. Certain enemies attack faster than others, and fighting some bosses close range is just asking for trouble. At the same time, it’s just necessary to face danger head-on. Chain of Memories is a game that wants aggression. It wants to test one’s reflexes just as much as it wants to test one’s mind. Coupling these two ideas together mid-battle makes for some of the most memorable boss fights in the franchise– where it’s just as important to think fast as it is to react fast. In many respects, it’s like solving a puzzle that’s trying to kill you. There are three bosses in particular that shine a spotlight on how well designed CoM’s core combat is, and, interestingly enough, they’re all fought back to back to back on the 12th floor.

The first fight in this Holy Trinity is against Darkside. His boss battle is slower-paced and more strategic than the usual boss. Players can’t go in expecting to wail on him, even with a high valued deck. For the most part, attacking him requires pulling off an aerial combo, and more often than not he’ll pull away before Sora can inflict a Combo Finish. In turn, this is a boss fight where players should bide their time and try to react to Darkside’s attacks instead of instigating themselves. More importantly, this is also an endurance match– a test of how long players can keep their cards active. 

Darkside takes a long time to kill, and anyone trying to throw too many Sleights at him will soon find themselves lacking the cards to continue. On that note, now’s probably a good time to finally discuss Sleights. Sleights are going to be a player’s best friend and their worst enemy. By pressing L & R together, players can stock cards away in the upper right-hand corner. A maximum of three cards can be stocked at any given time. Certain combinations of cards end up triggering Sleights. The first Sleight Sora can learn at level 2, Sliding Dash, can be triggered by stocking away three of the same Attack Cards valued at a total of 10 – 15. When triggered, Sliding Dash lunges Sora across the field, doing some decent damage in the process. 

Chain of Memories

Not only do Sleights hit harder than chaining combos, but they’re also just more fun to play around with. Blitz, which is learned at level 15 and triggered with three differing Attack Cards valuing 10 – 15, lets players just go hog wild on enemies, bashing them with the A button until the Sleight is either broken or the players miss a button press. Sonic Blade, Blitz’s successor now valuing 20 – 23), lets Sora zoom across the screen with A presses, doing great damage whenever he connects with an enemy. Ars Arcanum is a dangerous Sleight to play, valuing at a measly 6, but players can potentially hit enemies thirteen times if they can pull off the full Sleight. It’s incredibly fun experimenting with different Sleights in different boss fights. Whether they’re just to cover distance or gain a brief advantage. 

Logically, the name of the game should be Sleights then, right? It can be, but keep in mind that the first card in any Sleight is removed from Sora’s deck once played. Too many Sleights played back to back and suddenly there aren’t enough cards to play Sleights, let alone Break or chain combos. It’s certainly doable (and even safer) to front-load certain bosses with Sleight after Sleight, but a boss like Darkside can be hard to deal with if you exhaust everything right away. He’s easy enough to break and counter, but he takes punishment. Thoughtlessly throwing Sleights at a boss can leave Sora defenseless. Worse if players decide to lead with cards like Cure in their stocks.

Darkside is a boss about patience. It tests whether or not a player is actually paying attention to the cards the game throws at them. You can always tell what a boss will play next. Their stock is always on screen, as is their next card. It’s here more than ever where Chain of Memories tasks players with understanding the game they’re playing. This is a nice lesson because the next boss is the single hardest in the game. 

The fourth fight against Riku comes immediately Darkside, and his boss battle is a playthrough killer unlike any other. Riku is viciously fast, hits unreasonably hard, and uses the most dangerous Sleights in the game against Sora. He might very well be the best boss in the game. This is a fight that’s going to be over quick whether you like or not. Riku is basically Darkside’s antithesis as far as boss design goes. Both require you to fight strategically, but where the former has plenty of breathing room, the latter offers no respite. Riku also has five cards valued at 0 in his deck, meaning that he can realistically remove some of your most important cards at any given moment. Playing conservatively isn’t going to fly, and players are going to need their Sleights to keep Riku in check. 

At the same time, it’s important not to go too gung ho. Riku’s a fast fight, but sooner or later you’re going to have to reload, and if you use too many Sleights too early, Sora won’t be able to chain basic combos during those brief windows where Riku can take uninterrupted damage. A smart player will have Sleights ready while prepared to Break Riku with any 0s they have lying around. A smarter player will have their deck set up so they can Break, chain into a combo, Break again, and then Sleight. Riku’s not an unpredictable boss even if he can be an overwhelmingly hard one. 

It’s good that Chain of Memories indulges in this level of difficulty. It has such a unique battle system that it would be a shame to not have at least one brutally hard fight that demands some semblance of mastery. Players can dodge some of Riku’s most dangerous attacks, and it’s not unusual to go back & forth Breaking one another for a bit. It’s important to close the gap between Sora and Riku, and chaining combos at the right time can keep Riku relatively in place. Beyond that, Sleights and 0s are a necessity, and any Sleights that take too long to fire up are at risk of being broken by Riku’s 0s. 

Magic Sleights can go a long way in making the fight against Riku feel less hopeless. Beyond just healing with Curaga (Cure + Cure + Cure), Fire Raid (Fire + two Attack Cards) has Sora toss a flaming Keyblade from afar for solid damage and Omnislash (three Cloud cards) summons Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud to tear into everyone on screen. Even with the hardest bosses, Chain of Memories offers some kind of workaround. Building a magic deck won’t make Riku easy, but it might make him easier. Maybe a physical deck wasn’t your forte all along and magic is. There’s no way to know without engaging with the cards. 

After defeating Riku for the final time, players face off in a rematch against Larxene. She’s not as difficult as Riku, but she can be quite punishing. Where her first fight was frantic but otherwise short, her rematch is chaotic and reflex heavy. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to think of Larxene as a faster, more hands-on version of the Darkside boss fight. It’s important to react to her strategically, but react a hair too late and she’ll launch into a devastating combo of her own. Larxene also has nine 0s in her deck, which she loves to Break Sora with. Let her, and Larxene can even kill Sora with a single Sleight. She’s manageable, but she leaves very little room for error. 

Larxene’s make it very dangerous to even attempt using a Sleight, so a good chunk of the fight will be spent weaving in and out of regular combos, with the hopes of Breaking Larxene in the process. Since Larxene is fast, however, players run the risk of just spamming their Attack Cards, recklessly whiffing their best attacks. Navigating the deck in real-time with L and R becomes an important skill in fights like these, where players need to jump between different valued cards in their deck so they’re not wasting anything. It can lead to a lot happening at once on the GBA’s relatively small body, but, for what it’s worth, the Game Boy Advance SP is practically tailor-built for Chain of Memories’ control scheme and makes for very comfortable playing.

These three fights also shine a light on an important aspect of the combat: deck variety. No one deck is going to get you through the entire game. In fact, it’s encouraged that players rebuild their decks every few floors, perhaps every other. Chain of Memories is a game that punishes complacency. No two bosses are alike, even the few that repeat over the course of the game. Anyone who tries running the same deck the whole game will very quickly find themselves beaten into the ground. It’s honestly kind of surprising how much depth lies under the surface with a game that many right off as a spin-off that’s not really worth playing. Chain of Memories is one of the most engaging games on the Game Boy Advance– and one of the most high quality from as presentation is concerned. So why isn’t its reputation better? 

Well, because it’s still a sequel to Kingdom Hearts. And an important one.  

“Forgotten, but not lost.”

Chain of Memories is such an essential entry in the series’ canon that skipping it outright simply isn’t reasonable. Naturally, this makes it quite a frustrating entry for fans who don’t want to play with cards. Chain of Memories is an incredibly well-designed game in its own right, but it’s still the direct narrative sequel to a pretty straightforward action RPG. Not helping matters is the fact that that Chain of Memories is the only means of understanding certain details in Kingdom Hearts II that otherwise get left to the wayside. 

Chain of Memories inherently loses much of what made the original game compelling. It’s not in 3D, there’s no real sense of exploration, all the Disney Worlds are repeats from the first game, and the story is far more limited in scope, taking place in a single setting. But to lose is to find as far as Castle Oblivion is concerned, and everything Chain of Memories loses from its predecessor simply led to the developers finding new ways to make the Kingdom Hearts experience engaging. A 3D space isn’t necessary when the card system keeps combat fast & hands-on. Randomized level layouts keep Worlds unfamiliar, keeping with the theme of memory loss, and the reuse of Worlds from the first game reminds us of what’s being lost in the process. Above all else, this approach just lends itself to a stronger story. 

This is not a sequel that shies away from embracing how much it resembles its predecessor on a surface level. The level design wears its reused Worlds with pride, with a considerable amount of effort put into ensuring the first game’s aesthetic translates near flawlessly over to a much weaker, 2D oriented handheld. Chain of Memories wants players to expect the original Kingdom Hearts, but not out of spite or as a trick. Rather, it’s as a means to explore the complicated theme of memory in a very digestible and immediately understandable way. Revisiting the first game’s Worlds immediately telegraph to the audience that they’re diving into Sora’s memories. At the same time, anyone who’s played the first game will recognize that each World’s story is completely different. 

Instead of Worlds following traditional three-act plots, Sora and company mainly just find themselves stumbling from beat to beat with no real regard for character or plot development. This doesn’t mean nothing happens inside the Worlds, though. Familiar characters and plot points are twisted to highlight not only how Sora’s memory is failing him, but how even in losing his memory he can still reconnect with the emotions behind what he’s lost. Worlds taking a narrative backseat also suit the sensibilities of playing on a Game Boy Advance better. This ensures that players can pick up and play Chain of Memories at any time without much in the way of distraction. 

Not that the story is distracting. For many, it’ll be the highlight of the game and it’s not hard to see why. Chain of Memories’ script is both thematically rich and genuinely mature. Sora is an angrier protagonist than he was before. Losing his memories leads him down a path of insecurity, one that results in him lashing out and clutching onto fake truths just to cling onto his “reality.” It’s an arc that forces Sora to lose the bonds that define him, and he only realizes what’s happened when it’s too late. Sora even abandons Donald and Goofy on the 12th floor, paralleling how they abandoned him in Hollow Bastion in the first game. Chain of Memories plays with these similarities, but twists them, often resulting in more interesting storytelling. 

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a game intentionally at odds with its own predecessor.” 

The story’s greatest strength ultimately ends up being its role in the series’ chronology. As a bridge between Kingdom Hearts I and II, Chain of Memories can afford to end with the heroes at an absolute low. Sora, Donald, and Goofy have forgotten just about everything important to them. While Sora’s managed to take out a few villains along the way, he’s fundamentally lost a massive chunk of his identity. All he “remembers” is a false attachment to Naminé, the witch who manipulated his memories over the course of the game. Naminé herself is a profoundly sad character, and her role in the story only adds to the somberness that comes with the ending. 

Even knowing that Naminé’s manipulated Sora’s memories and forced herself into his heart against his will, he still chooses to protect her. Sora has every reason to hate her by the end of the game, but he chooses to embrace what he feels, even if they aren’t genuine. It’s enough to give you the impression that Sora will embrace amnesia so he can maintain his connection to Naminé, but to lose is to find, and that goes both ways.

After giving up everything for Naminé, Sora has to give up Naminé for everything. It’s not that big a loss for Sora himself, but all Naminé has ever had is a brief, disingenuous tie to Sora. Their friendship was never real, and whatever bond they developed after the fact is thrown away as the credits roll. Naminé is left alone and friendless as Sora forgets the entirety of Chain of Memories– a poignant ending to what is otherwise a card game. 

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a game intentionally at odds with its own predecessor. It hopes audiences will be open-minded enough to embrace this fact, but it commits to its core principles the point of potential (and inevitable) alienation. CoM is Kingdom Hearts making a bold statement few franchises can lay claim to: things change. Sure, Kingdom Hearts II serves as a direct mechanical sequel to the first game, but Chain of Memories set an important precedent that would keep Kingdom Hearts experimenting with handheld titles for years to come. A story-driven card-based action RPG that’s a direct sequel to one of the PS2’s most critically acclaimed games, Chain of Memories shouldn’t work. Yet it’s somehow one of the most thought-provoking and mechanically gripping games on the Game Boy Advance. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is one of a kind.

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2 comments

OB January 15, 2020 at 11:56 am

Nothing quite like an ignorant journalist going off on a tangent.

Mega Man Battle Network is an action-RPG-card-battle series. And it’s got like….what, six entries plus a plethora of a spinoffs?

So, no. Chain of Memories is NOT the only and best card action RPG.

Reply
Renan Fontes January 15, 2020 at 1:44 pm

I definitely wouldn’t call Battle Network an RPG, let alone an action RPG. It’s just as turn based as it is action centric, and its RPG elements amount to little more than flavor.

It’s a good series, but it’s not in the same category as Chain of Memories or really any other RPGs on the Game Boy Advance.

Reply

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