Square Enix began the next phase of the Kingdom Hearts series in 2007, by announcing three games simultaneously: 358/2 Days, Birth by Sleep, and Coded. Each of these games would take place at a different point in the Kingdom Hearts timeline, and each would be released on a different handheld platform. One can kind of see the logic behind this, bringing a popular franchise to as wide an audience as possible (and hey, it must have worked for Chain of Memories), but it also marks the beginning of the platform fragmentation that made keeping up with the Kingdom Hearts titles much more difficult until the release of the HD compilations. After all, these new games weren't mere spin-offs to tide audiences over until a proper Kingdom Hearts III came out: each one offered a canonical story that filled in essential gaps in the plot, and set up future events in such a way that you couldn't miss any of them (except maybe Coded... but I digress. Its turn will come). With that being said, 358/2 Days came out on the Nintendo DS in 2009. It was another interquel, set between the first and second mainline games. And you know what? For a handheld spin-off title, it's pretty alright.
358/2 Days is focused on Roxas and the year he spent as a member of Organization XIII, exploring what drove him to leave the Organization in the first place and leading directly to his fateful summer vacation from Kingdom Hearts II's prologue. In terms of story, Days is honestly one of my favorite games in the series: it's a tragic, character-focused tale that lends a great deal of insight into the characters of Kingdom Hearts II. It develops Roxas' friendship with Axel (a recurring character from Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II), and with newcomer Xion, the secret 14th member of Organization XIII who has a really interesting character arc of her own. Xion is a beloved character by many fans and her story alone kind of makes Days worth experiencing. And while I wouldn't go so far as to say it's necessary to enjoying the story of II, having the knowledge of Days' story really does arm the player with a clearer perspective of who Roxas is and what his character has been through. There's also a nice bit of foreshadowing for the then-in-development Birth by Sleep, which lends the two games a sense of continuity.
Perhaps to accommodate portable play, Days employs a unique mission structure. From the Organization's base in The World That Never Was, which serves as a central hub, the player can head to a number of different worlds from past Kingdom Hearts games. Rather than exploring them freely, however, the player selects a mission with a set objective. These brief missions can be anything from defeating a certain Heartless enemy, gathering information on the world's inhabitants (often leading to humorous encounters with the Disney denizens), defeating a certain number of Heartless in order to collect hearts, collecting "Organization Emblems," and more. Each mission consumes an in-game day, although there's usually enough time to complete every mission before a story mission happens that skips the day count forward.
Unlike the card-based shenanigans of Chain of Memories, Days plays more like its console counterparts: it's an action-RPG where players will battle enemies in real time. Unfortunately, the DS doesn't have an analog stick, meaning that you're stuck with the D-Pad to control characters, and the touch screen for camera control, which is... less than ideal. This makes for a combat system that is functional, but rather clunky, and while it may have been acceptable around the time of release, the far superior handheld Kingdom Hearts games that followed it makes going back to Days difficult. The level-up system is unique, however. Basically, every Keyblade, ability, spell, and item is represented by a "Panel" that can be slotted into a grid, kind of like Resident Evil 4's inventory system. I actually find this system to be kind of fun, if a little gimmicky: building different Panel loadouts and slotting them together like Tetris pieces lets you prepare custom loadouts for different missions, such as one that is more magic-focused. Still, it's also kind of unnecessary when the Ability system in previous games worked just fine. Days also has Limit Breaks a la Final Fantasy: powerful attacks that can be unleashed when in critical condition.
Lastly, Days features a Mission Mode where 2-4 players can team up and take on any of the game's missions in multiplayer. In this mode, players can choose from any of the 13 Organization members (and six unlockable characters), each with their own playstyle, strengths, and weaknesses. This mode is one of the principle draws of Days, although again, it's hard to go back nowadays, since... well, you would need to find a party of people who all have Nintendo DS systems and copies of the game, for one thing. Still, for the time, this was a pretty neat feature.
Overall, Days is a pretty interesting game, but a lot of its unique elements haven't aged particularly well: the DS's ugly, N64-level 3D graphics, clunky combat, and anachronistic mechanics set it a degree lower than other handheld Kingdom Hearts games. The HD collections do include all of the game's cutscenes so players can catch up on the story, which is nice considering that the story of Days is actually one of the best in the series. But while the story is more-or-less critical viewing for fans, I can't really recommend going back and playing the game itself anymore: at the very least, if you're curious about the tragic tale of Roxas and Xion, you should check out the scenes included with the ReMIXes.
But it's all onwards and upwards from here, because Square was working on another handheld Kingdom Hearts game, this time for the PSP. It's time for...