Every game has to end eventually, and the best ones all know when to call it quits. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories demonstrates this. There’s nothing quite as irritating as a story that just doesn’t know when to end. It’s an issue that’s not uncommon with RPGs in particular. A late ending can sour what could have otherwise been a great finale. Timing matters. At the same time, people want their money’s worth, and a game that ends too early is heartbreak waiting to happen. Thankfully, there’s a simple solution the RPG genre knows how to take healthy advantage of: post-game.
Post-game can be functionally seen as an epilogue of sorts. Where a literary epilogue might comment on the arcs and themes of the overarching narrative, a post-game is an opportunity for a title to, if not comment on, further explore its main mechanics and design philosophies. In the case of Kingdom Hearts, the original game didn’t have much in the way of endgame or post-game content. Now, it’s important to remember that Kingdom Hearts as it was released internationally actually had more content than its Japanese release, most of it tucked away near the end of the game.
To remedy this fact, Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix was released in Japan and set a precedent for how the franchise would approach both its endgame and its post-game. With bonus bosses and plenty of lore to ponder –to say nothing of the expanded secret ending ‘Another Side, Another Story [deep dive]’– future Kingdom Hearts games would have to live up to the bonus content present in Final Mix. Rather than keeping things simple with a few bonus bosses, however, the series’ first sequel decided to offer a post-game that was just as much “game” as it was “post.” From the shadows of Chain of Memories, Reverse/Rebirth was born.
Set before, during, and after the main events of Chain of Memories, Reverse/Rebirth follows Riku, series protagonist Sora’s rival and best friend, as he makes his way through Castle Oblivion’s basement– Sora completely unaware that he and Riku were ever in the same place at the same time. In general, Riku is far more privy to information than Sora, and Reverse/Rebirth fleshes out a considerable amount of information presented in Sora’s story. Between Riku and King Mickey actually gaining depth as characters, this is a post-game that goes beyond marking off boxes on the epilogue checklist.
While Riku’s campaign reuses just about every single asset present in Sora’s, Reverse/Rebirth does almost everything in its power to contrast Chain of Memories. From the story to the gameplay, Riku is the dark to Sora’s light. Narratively, Riku’s arc is in direct contrast to Sora’s. At no point does Riku lose his memories. Rather, he has to confront the fact that he’s made no memories worth remembering. Where Sora’s Worlds had him reconnecting with familiar faces, stressing the importance of remembrance, Riku’s are hollow save for the Heartless in his path.
With less cutscenes and dialogue on a whole, Reverse/Rebirth moves at a much faster pace than Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, but its story doesn’t suffer. Riku’s character development is at the forefront of plot, as he struggles with the darkness within him. It’s an arc that heavily plays off the events of the first game, but the way it’s contextualized in Reverse/Rebirth almost allows Riku’s story to stand alone. It’s lore heavy, but at the heart of the conflict is a young man trying to come to terms with his identity– reconciling with where he’s been and where we’ll go next. Riku’s memoryless stages almost serve as shorthand for the character’s silent introspection. The one World where Riku actually does remember anything results in his friends all leaving him. Even with Mickey Mouse himself for company, Riku’s is a lonely, quiet journey.
Which is exactly the right approach to post-game. The story’s there, and it’s just as good as the main plot, but the focus is never taken off the actual gameplay. We spend so much time engaging with a game’s mechanics, that a post-game should naturally make the effort toward commenting or expanding on the core gameplay loop. Chain of Memories already did a good job balancing its combat and story, but Reverse/Rebirth wastes no time with anything that could be construed as fluff. Riku will sometimes even advance to the next floor without so much as a cutscene, making progression a relatively swift endeavor. Rather than just copying Sora’s combat wholesale, however, Riku’s gameplay is much more action oriented, even eliminating deck building entirely.
Cards are at the heart of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories’ combat, and deck building is arguably what defines Sora’s campaign on a foundational level. There’s a solid deck to be built for every boss in the game. Whatever challenge awaits players, there’s some set of cards or Sleight that’ll help even the playing field. Riku has no such luxury, with his deck predetermined for every single World and the halls of Castle Oblivion. On top of that, Riku has access to no magic whatsoever, with Attack Cards his only reliable means of dealing damage. Removing card building altogether might seem antithetical to Chain of Memories’ design, but Riku’s approach to gameplay arguably does a better job at shining a spotlight on the game’s strengths than Sora’s.
The fun of playing as Sora came from the sheer amount of variety the card system gave players. Sora could fundamentally fill any role in combat. Want him to be a Keyblade killing machine? Pump him with high value Attack Cards. Want an even deadlier mage? Arrange the right Magic Cards to stock the right Sleights. Sleights themselves added plenty of depth to combat, with certain card combinations triggering special attacks. Kingdom Hearts may have lost the depth of 3D, but Chain of Memories more than made up for it by playing the right cards. At the same time, deck building has its own issues.
It’s fun crafting a deck that’s just right, but making a new one for every single boss? Most people aren’t going to do that nor will they feel the need to. Competent players certainly won’t as just having a basic understanding of Card Values and Card Breaks is enough to get through a good chunk of the game just fine. This isn’t even taking into consideration the fact that the game has to design around the possibility of players somehow winding up with bad cards. Chain of Memories can be hard if you don’t understand the mechanics, but it’s surprisingly easy to trivialize. Even the worst cards will get the job done with enough patience. Reverse/Rebirth tells a different story.
Along with Riku having a new fixed deck every World, enemies attack in more immediately recognizable patterns than in Sora’s campaign. Riku’s cards and their values are specifically designed around what the enemies and boss of each World will throw at him. The name of the game becomes familiarizing oneself with each of Riku’s decks as fast as possible. Typically it only takes about one room of gameplay to get a feel for how Riku’s cards & values are scattered, but there are a number of small nuances at play that make finding success as Riku fairly different than as Sora. For starters, Riku only has one weapon.
Unlike Sora who could find over a dozen unique Keyblades all with their own Attack Card stats and properties, Riku is stuck using his Soul Eater for the entire game. Sora’s different Keyblades all had different properties which affected their damage based on whether the player were striking, thrusting, or finishing the enemy off. It’s a gameplay dynamic most will miss, but it’s one that adds greater depth to pulling off combos. Riku’s Soul Eater isn’t weak, but there’s no real strategy in picking where to use a card in a combo anymore. Not that Reverse/Rebirth doesn’t encourage its own form of strategic play.
As previously mentioned, enemy patterns are a bit more predictable. Specific Heartless in certain Worlds will always use the same handful of cards, rewarding those who take the time to analyze what the opposition is playing. Just as importantly, Riku can potentially string longer combo chains than Sora. With a good eye, a quick finger ready to shuffle through the Deck, and a sense for where each Value is stored in Riku’s Deck, players can unleash far more punishment as Riku than Sora. It certainly helps that enemies are less aggressive on a whole, allowing players to really indulge in Riku’s combat. He’s fast and frantic when uninterrupted, making for some fun fights in the hands of skilled duelists.
Although Riku won’t be using Magic or Item Cards (outside of Castle Oblivion), he still does have access to Friend and Enemy Cards. King Mickey is Riku’s only Friend Card, and he’s not around as often as you’d like, but he’s also the single best Friend Card in the game. A single Mickey card will heal Riku, recharge his entire deck, damage enemies, and stun them. Mickey’s basically a weaponized version of the time stopping Gimmick Cards that randomly drop during Sora’s boss fights. But again, he isn’t always present and he’s actually absent for some of Riku’s hardest boss fights. This is where Enemy Cards come in.
Enemy Cards will be the one permanent fixture of Riku’s deck, with every boss dropping a card that’ll never leave Riku. They all have varying effects that can turn the tide in Riku’s favor one way or another, but it’s the randomized regular enemy cards that really round out Riku’s deck. Around his sixth World, Riku’s deck will start to be front loaded with low value Attack Cards. This is a make or break point for a lot of players as anyone who’s been Attack Card spamming is now forced to engage with the game on a much deeper level. Shuffling through the deck mid-battle becomes an expected part of the gameplay loop, but Riku’s World specific Enemy Cards are often designed around overcoming his deck’s weaknesses. Whether that be by increasing the values of Riku’s cards or randomizing values in an otherwise sloopy deck, Enemy Cards add an extra, expected layer to Reverse/Rebirth’s gameplay.
Even with his own advantages, it can seem that the deck is stacked against Riku. Making the most out of each World’s deck requires an understanding of all the moving parts at play. World and deck design go hand in hand as far as Reverse/Rebirth is concerned. Every challenge is designed around the specific cards players are allowed to use, downplaying Chain of Memories’ emphasis on customization. There is a trade-off, though: Reverse/Rebirth embraces the RPG of it all.
Sora really only had one combat pertinent gameplay stat: HP. CP was used for Deck Building, Sleights unlocked new techniques, and Attack Cards had their own set stats. Riku has three: HP, AP, and DP. Every level up, Riku will have to choose between his three stats. HP can be increased at every level and naturally boosts Riku’s Health. AP serves as Riku’s attack stat. While the Soul Eater is naturally weak, Riku isn’t. AP can be increased whenever Riku reaches a level divisible by 5. DP is the most interesting and involved of Riku’s stats, determining how long he can stay in Dark Mode.
Upon reaching the second World, Ansem will allow Riku to trigger Dark Mode, a super mode that buffs Riku’s stats, changes how he controls, and grants him the use of Sleights. Dark Mode is far and away the highlight of playing as Riku. In normal play, Riku more or less controls like Riku. He’s around as fast, hits around as hard, and moves similarly. The key immediate difference is that Sora dodge rolls and Riku jumps. Triggering Dark Mode is like suddenly playing as a new character. Dark Riku almost glides as he moves, and every swing of the Soul Eater has a weight to it. Combat even briefly slows down to show the impact of Riku’s attacks. Pulling off a full combo as Dark Riku is a visual frenzy that can outright stun opponents.
Of course, being so overpowered, Dark Riku has his weaknesses. For one, players need to fill their Darkness meter before transforming. Each battle starts Riku out at 0, with Darkness built by pulling off Card Breaks. After hitting 30, Riku will transform and his DP will determine how long he can stay transformed. Suffer a Card Break, and lose DP. Transforming takes its sweet time as well, so it’s entirely possible to get hit with a Break as soon as becoming Dark Riku. Approaching each battle with the intent of transforming and making the most of Dark Mode makes Reverse/Rebirth’s gameplay so much more rewarding.
The speed and weight of Dark Mode capitalizes on an aspect of the core gameplay that Sora’s deckbuilding couldn’t. Through its post-game, Chain of Memories recaptures a semblance of the original Kingdom Hearts’ combat. Sure, there are still card values, but there’s no deck building and anyone can turn Reverse/Rebirth into a proper action games by just asserting a little patience. Everything that defined Chain of Memories’ identity is still present in Reverse/Rebirth, just twisted slightly. Managing DP, trying to trigger Dark Mode, and fighting to stay in it is Riku’s version of deck building. It’s the most dynamic system players will interact with, and they’re complete foils to one another– perfectly capturing the dichotomy between Sora and Riku.
But Reverse/Rebirth goes beyond just using a post-game as a means of commenting on narrative or thematic parallels. After two games, characters and concepts need to be more than just foils. The main villains posit the idea that Darkness is an evil force, but Riku proves through gameplay that Darkness is a tool that can be used for good. Kingdom Hearts is often very hokey when it comes to discussing topics like Darkness, but Riku’s arc is something anyone can relate to. We all have nasty parts of ourselves we want to keep down, but Reverse/Rebirth is about recognizing those faults and refusing to let them negatively define us. That this is conveyed through gameplay at all– let alone comprehensively– is a testament to how thoughtfully designed Chain of Memories really is.
Reverse/Rebirth makes the case that post-game matters. Chain of Memories didn’t need Reverse/Rebirth –Sora’s campaign is plenty great in and of itself– but Riku offers a chance to look at the game’s combat in a new light. It’s an opportunity to engage with action that can be just as exciting as the first game’s. Playing as Riku isn’t just more of the same, it’s a complete reinterpretation of the game’s core mechanics. A good post-game only makes a game better, and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories wouldn’t be half as good without Reverse/Rebirth at the end of the journey.