Frequent readers of this site may remember that I covered the original Kingdom Hearts on PlayStation 2 and gave it one of the lowest scores on the Internet at a time when it was undeservedly racking up accolades and capturing a legion of fans.
That first game left an unexpectedly bitter taste in my mouth, and I probably wouldn't have ever tried Chain of Memories if I hadn't been stranded at an airport with 14 hours to kill and a GameBoy Advance in my pack. After putting the cart through its paces, I mostly agree with Tera's breakdown of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, although to be honest… I think she was a little too hard on it. Surprised? Me too.
The area where Tera and I diverge the most is the combat engine. Although she explains it in detail, I don't think she gave it nearly enough credit. Being very familiar with both action and card-based games, I was highly impressed by the hybridization on display. It's hard to understand the mechanics at first—initially, it seems like nothing more than mashing. But, with a little experimentation (and reading the manual) the interplay between individual card values, the power of combinations, and the necessity of positioning and dodging in real time is revealed to be an intelligent, elegant creation.
Although the combat itself is ingenious, I do admit that the frequency of encounters can be a little over-the-top at times (much like the PS2 iteration), but it was only an issue when I played in extended sessions. In short bursts, it provided intensity in just the right amount. However, be warned that Square-Enix got a little crazy at the end and threw in a long slew of end-game boss fights. Most of these battles aren't difficult, but they can be very long and drawn out. (My advice to make things a little easier? Collect as many zero-value cards as possible.)
So, not only is the action satisfying, Tera is right on the money when she says that Chain of Memories delivers a subtle, fascinating story. I can count on one hand the number of Game Boy Advance carts that engaged me mentally as well as tactilely, but Kingdom Hearts easily makes the grade. The plot contained in this adventure is must-see stuff for fans of this franchise, and the "second quest" unlocked after completing main character Sora's game is absolutely worth the time and effort to complete. Between both chapters, I logged over 20 hours of gameplay without ever being bored—for the Game Boy, that's pretty amazing for something without "Pokemon" in the title.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories is a tight, solidly constructed outing that puts the original Kingdom Hearts to shame in terms of playability and design. I enjoyed it from start to finish and found it to simply be a better game overall. Going further, it actually made me want to see the rest of the tale and play Kingdom Hearts II—something that I never thought I'd say. Can there be any higher praise for a title than its ability to bring a self-imposed exile back into the fold?