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As we approach the release of Kingdom Hearts III we're taking a look back at the franchise.
Following the success of the original Kingdom Hearts, a sequel was sure to be on the way, but console games take time. What were all the fans to do while they waited for Kingdom Hearts II? Somewhat surprisingly, the answer became, pick up a handheld system, because more games were originally designed for handhelds then have ever seen the light of day for consoles. Two of those were the direct sequel to the original title. Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and the oddly named Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.
While these two games came out five years apart, on either side of Kingdom Hearts II, I'm covering them both together as the storylines of the two are very much related.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories originally came out for the Game Boy Advance in 2004 and it turned the real-time action RPG into a strange combination of hack and slash and card battle game.
Chain of Memories opens right where the first Kingdom Hearts leaves off. Sora, Donald, and Goofy are looking for the "Door to the Light" to rescue Mickey Mouse and Sora's friend Riku, from the world of Darkness. They chase Pluto, who appears to have a message from Mickey, but they lose him and instead come upon a castle standing alone in the middle of nowhere. They enter the castle, called Castle Oblivion, where they discover they have lost all their abilities, a neat trick to allow the game to "start over." A man in black informs them that Castle Oblivion will cause one to lose their memories, but in doing so can reveal new ones. Sora is given a set of cards made from his memories that he can use to open doors. These doors open on the same Disney worlds that were visited in the original Kingdom Hearts.
Each world includes all the same characters as the original game, since all of this is supposed to come from Sora's memories. The major difference is that all of the combat is based on cards. Everything from magic spells to each individual swing of the keyblade is governed by cards. In addition to being within range to hit the enemy, you have to be sure the number on your attack card is higher than the one you're being attacked with.
This certainly adds an extra strategy element to the game, though I can't say overall that I was a fan. By trying to be both a card battle game and a hack-and-slash combat game, it ends somewhere in between and doesn't really do either one particularly well.
From a story standpoint, Chain of Memories is actually a pretty important game, which is funny, since by the end of it, all the events of the game are wiped from Sora's memories. This is the introduction of Organization XIII, and other important characters like Namine and DiZ, who would appear in Kingdom Hearts II with little to no explanation as to who they are. Once the main game is completed, you then get to play as Riku, thus the game gives you more insight to his story as well.
In the end, the biggest sin of Chain of Memories is that it's just really repetitive. If you love the game, that's fine, but if you're not into it, it gets dull quickly. You enter a room, defeat the heartless in a fairly simple battle, then earn cards you can use to open more doors. Rinse, reapeat. Only the boss battles require much of anything in the way of strategy.
The game would be re-released as Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories for the PlayStation 2. Having played that version (or technically the PS4 remaster) for the first time recently, I think I preferred it on the GBA. The card battle aspect becomes even more of a hindrance to what feels like it should be a simple hack-and-slash RPG.
In 2009, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days would be released for Nintendo's next handheld, the Nintendo DS. What links this game with Chain of Memories is that they largely take place during the same period of time. While Sora is busy climbing Castle Oblivion Organization XIII was busy doing other things as well as messing with him.
As Kingdom Hearts II would explain, when Sora gave up his heart to rescue Kairi in the original Kingdom Hearts a Nobody was created. Nobodies are shells of people with strong hearts, that usually contain the memories of the original person, but are missing a heart of their own. Roxas was the Nobody of Sora, though he existed without Sora's memories. The black-hooded people of Organization XIII would make Roxas one of their members, as they are all Nobodies who seek Kingdom Hearts in order to one day give themselves the hearts they lack. Because Roxas was the Nobody of Sora, he could wield the keyblade, and thus Organization XIII could harvest hearts for themselves.
358/2 Days would be a much more traditional Kingdom Hearts style game, though with the noted lower resolution graphics of the DS, though it should be said that for the DS, the graphics were pretty good. It would also only go to some of the same Disney worlds as the original game in the series, and because Roxas works for Organization XIII, you have fewer interactions with Disney characters, and none with anybody from the world of Final Fantasy.
However, the most telling thing about 358/2 Days may be the fact that the game never saw an update for modern consoles. If you pick up either the PS3 or PS4 version of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 ReMix all you'll get is the game's cutscenes in HD, which work fairly well to tell the story the game needs to tell from a story perspective, which only shows how inconsequential the gameplay is to the larger Kingdom Hearts experience.
Still, because Kingdom Hearts II doesn't really explain many of these details, these games are necessary if you want to really understand the franchise. Sora and Riku take down members of Organization XIII you'll never really meet in Chain of Memories. Understanding the group's motives makes much more sense in 358/2 Days .