I remember when the newly released Kingdom Hearts II arrived in my campus mailbox. Such was my college social life. Other people were learning how to be functional adults and probably getting laid on the side. I was holed up in my dorm with Disney Afternoon: The Game. Go figure.
Anyway, I found myself very confused after KHII‘s unboxing. Who was this kid Roxas? Or this little girl with a sketchpad? Why did her sketchpad drawing lock Sora in a stasis pod, and for what purpose? Why were all these anime-haired villains I’d never seen before showing up, and why did they want Sora dead? Why did the villain from KHI have the same name as this completely different old guy voiced by Christopher Lee?
Maybe Kingdom Hearts II stood strong enough on its own, but I was too distracted by the questions to pay attention. I haven’t gone through KHII in ten years as of now. All I know is I was supposed to play this first:
My first attempt at playing CoM ended quickly because the real-time combat was limited by cards! Cards, I say! There was no excuse for such a subversion, early 2000’s me decided. I knew for a fact that the Gameboy Advance was capable of emulating the first game’s hack and slash style. So why, then? The answer lay in a ragequit.
Perhaps my judgement was hasty, as it turns out the card system isn’t that bad. All maneuvers assigned to the action button—from attacks, magic, summons, cures and buffs—require picking a card from a customizable revolver wheel. If your card number is higher than the enemy’s it trumps their defense, and vice versa.
Cards can also be arranged into combos of three called ‘Sleights,’ which unleash critical attacks, greater healing and such. The drawback to Sleights is that those cards disappear until the next combat encounter, making it important to save them for emergencies. On the other hand, enemies are bound to the same rules. Bosses can blow their decks on constant Sleights and get beaten to pulp for their incompetence.
The card game is the deciding factor in all things at Castle Oblivion, where Keyblade wielder Sora, mage Donald Duck and knight Goofy find themselves. Immediately following Kingdom Hearts, our heroes are still searching for King Mickey Mouse while carrying out their mission to undo the greater plot that threatens the Disney/Square Enix multiverse.
Upon entering Castle Oblivion, Sora, Donald and Goofy encounter those grey-cloaked fellows with the wacky anime hair. They’re called the Organization, and they have lured Sora and friends to the castle for some nefarious purpose.
The Organization’s scheme involves manipulating Sora’s memories to achieve an end goal. The further the party gets, the less Sora, the duck and the dog remember, and it becomes clear that an unseen force is hollowing out their heads. Meanwhile the Organization is plagued by intrigue. Traitors among them are siding into factions, with different ideas about how Sora should be used.
Like the nature of ‘Hearts’ from KHI, memories make up CoM’s central theme, providing many opportunities to commentate on how they can shape our personalities and get distorted over time. If the Heart encompasses a person’s emotions, desires, and morale, then memory is equally as important, as it determines all of our experiences as well as who are friends and enemies are supposed to be. When they get screwed with, a lot can go wrong.
Hoping to find his best friend Riku, Sora is forced to play along with the Organization by revisiting labyrinthine maps of all the Disney Worlds from the first game. Disney protagonists and villains play out their stories again, though not quite the same as in KH1. CoM doesn’t offer many new Worlds, but sets itself far enough apart that it is not a total rehash.
Cards come into play again on the maps, as they are required to create subsequent rooms. Different Map Cards are labeled with different effects. Rooms can be full of Heartless, occupied by stunned enemies, or contain treasure chests or save spots at the player’s choosing, provided they have that Map Card in their collection.
There are also Story Doors that advance the plot with a cutscene or boss. This can be very frustrating, as the Story Doors require a preset Map Card number to open them. If you’re missing that card you may find yourself farming Heartless for hours in a futile attempt to get it. This is a potentially gamebreaking pratfall and is not fun at all if and when it happens.
Sora’s adventure took me almost 40 hours. Completing the game unlocks “Reverse/Rebirth” mode, a scenario about as equally long and with Riku at the helm. Riku’s story runs parallel with Sora’s and involves him dealing with the repercussions of his previous actions. Having lost himself to the darkness, Riku struggles to redeem himself while fighting against the shadows surrounding him.
This is a huge extra. Not only does it add up to two full-length RPGs in a tiny cartridge, it offers altogether different gameplay. In contrast to Sora, Riku cannot customize his own card deck and is given predetermined revolvers. He can also upgrade different stats at each level, allowing greater customization.
The biggest change is that Riku has Dark Mode at his disposal. After taking enough damage or breaking enough enemy cards, Riku can transform into a darkness-fueled super Riku who hits harder and moves faster. This is the only time Riku can combo up attack cards to make Sleights, and they hurt a lot.
If I’m remembering right, the overarching story gets crazy from here and Kingdom Hearts II has more rules, concepts and names to internalize than a Neon Genesis Evangelion episode. Chain of Memories serves as a good bridging primer. I feel like I’m ready to jump into the upcoming convoluted tangle. If CoM is essential for comprehension, it is fun enough for at least one playthrough.
FINAL GRADE: B-