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In between the two Sony Playstation 2 Kingdom Hearts games, there was a lesser known, less successful Game Boy Advance title that was a fairly radical departure from the other titles in the series. Instead of being a fairly straight-up action RPG, Chain of Memories featured a card-based combat system. The game obviously didn't look as good as the PS2 titles, given the GBA's limitations, not did it have the same kind of depth. Thus, it isn't a huge surprise that it sold fewer copies than either Kingdom Hearts or Kingdom Hearts II, nor did it receive nearly the same level of critical acclaim as the more elaborate Square-Enix/Disney collaborations. Still, the creative teams were not about to give up on the game, reworking it for the PS2 and packaging it with a special edition of Kingdom Hearts II that came out in March 2007 in Japan. Now, that game, entitled Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories, has finally found its way to North America as a stand-alone, $29.99 release. Is it worth it?
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Chain of Memories picks up immediately following the end of the first game, as Sora, Donald and Goofy find Pluto walking around with a letter, bearing King Mickey's seal, in his mouth. Assuming that the King and by proxy Sora's old friend Riku have found their way out of the realm of darkness, they give chase. The search leads Sora to an encounter with a black-robed man who greets him with an ominous message: "Along the road ahead is something you need. However, to claim it, you must lose something very dear to you." The intrepid trio carries on and eventually comes to a place named Castle Oblivion. Here, Sora learns he must travel through his memories, all while encountering for the first time the sinister Organization XIII and the mysterious girl Namine, names that are no doubt familiar to anyone who has ever played through Kingdom Hearts II. The PS2 version of the Chain of Memories tale seems to feature better writing, and does a better job tying the two flagship titles together -- that, or it just makes more sense now that I have already experienced KH II. Of course, there's more than just the Sora version of the story here. Once you beat the game using him, you unlock an alternate mode that places you in control of Riku, describing the events that led up to his role in Kingdom Hearts II.
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As mentioned above, this is a pretty radical departure from the other games in the series, and to put it bluntly, it just isn't nearly as good. In fact, you will probably not like it at all at first. I know I had trouble getting into it at first, despite having already played through the GBA version of the game and despite the excellent in-game tutorials present here. It did grow on me as I pressed on, though, and I think it will grow on you as well. Everything here is about the cards. There's no equipment, no items, no AI characters, no Gummi Ship, nothing of the sort. The cards are your Keyblades, your magic attacks, your healing items, and even the way you open up new worlds to explore. Of course, I use the term "new worlds" loosely, because nearly all of the Disney worlds featured in the game are recycled from the original Kingdom Hearts game. Even the boss battles are essentially the same, save for the duels against Organization members. It isn't terrible, but I do miss roaming freely through the worlds, changing equipment, and having Donald and Goofy there to help out in battle. This just isn’t as enjoyable or as addictive as other Kingdom Hearts games, although the fact that fights now take place on a 3D battlefield instead of the 2D plain of the GBA version is an improvement.
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Graphics and Sound
Speaking of improvements over the GBA version, the one place where this version of the game has really upgraded over its predecessor is in the presentation. While the handheld title featured 2D character sprites and side-scrolling battles, this one's visuals have been completely redone to look almost identical to the first PS2 Kingdom Hearts. Also, the game features better audio quality as well as some voice acting, which is mostly well done on the whole. It is a shame that this game took so long in coming over to the U.S. because Haley Joel Osment sounds too old to play this younger version of Sora, and there are some other similar issues with the voice work as well, including the absence of it for several characters. Also, the soundtrack is almost completely lifted from the first game in the series, including "Simple and Clean" as the theme song. Don't get me wrong, I loved the soundtrack and the audio quality is quite good, but some new compositions would have been appreciated.
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Let's face it: if you're a Kingdom Hearts fan, this is a must-play game, especially for those who didn't play the GBA version, because it fills in some essential plot points and acts as a bridge between the two main titles in the series. Is it as enjoyable, epic or memorable as those games? No, not by a long shot, but it still is a rather enjoyable RPG in its own right. Even if you don’t find yourself having much fun at first, stick with it and it'll definitely grow on you. That said, considering this was a free pack-in title over in Japan and it lacks the depth of the two previous Kingdom Hearts titles, it is rather hard to justify the $29.99 MSRP that Square Enix has slapped on the English-language version of Re: Chain of Memories. Even with the two distinct story lines, I'd say that's about $10 too much. You're most likely better off either renting or waiting for a price reduction.