|Developer:||Square Enix, h.a.n.d.|
Nobody would have guessed that the product of Square Enix and Disney's unholy tryst would have even taken off, not to mention make a big a splash as it did, but here we are, seven years after the original game launched, and it's become another one of Square Enix's multitude of cash cows. Regardless of how one feels of Square Enix (or Disney) as a company, however, the Kingdom Hearts series always provided a decent gameplay experience at the very least and provided enough material for a respectable, if not reasonably well written, story.
The original game surprised players by offering a relatively serious storyline despite being peppered with colorful Disney worlds. However, Square Enix overreached and tried to fit too much story with little to no development for important characters in Kingdom Hearts 2, leading to a story with poor pacing, disjointed story arcs, pointless characters, and a reveal that basically invalidated the entirety of the first game. Not the least of these problems was the character of Roxas, who was the first character that the players controlled upon the beginning of the game, but received precious little character development.
Square Enix aims to remedy this with Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. The game follows the story of Roxas and elaborates on his growing friendship with fellow Organization XIII members Axel and recent newcomer Xion. The story does a good job of setting up the development of the relationships between each of the central characters, but near the end of the game the story get derailed and segues into a bizarre twist that left me scratching my head; it was somewhat nonsensical and makes the whole Heartless-Nobody relationship even more complicated that it should be. Regardless, the game does a good job of developing Roxas' character as it leads into Kingdom Hearts 2's opening. Unfortunately, outside of Roxas and possibly Axel, none of the characters from Organization XIII are particularly likable or even memorable. Most of them are just one-dimensional archetypes to serve as filler material for your party members and to further the whole evil organization plotline. They're not as likable as any of the characters from the main series like Riku or Kairi, and it's impossible for them to be as memorable as the Disney characters, so having the story hinge on Roxas' connections with his friends is a tall order, and the enjoyment players get out of the story will largely depend on if they find the entire dynamic believable or not. Personally, I found it to be just bearable enough that it didn't hinder my enjoyment of the game otherwise.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days' graphics are excellent. Each of the different stages of the game are recreated in almost shocking detail from the PlayStation 2 versions, though this means that pretty much nothing has changed since their appearances in the original series. Still, the fact that they were able to put in enough detail to make the environments even comparable to the PlayStation 2 versions is a feat in of itself. Thankfully, Square Enix has mercifully decided not to use the superdeformed 3D models that seem to be all the rage among 3D DS games nowadays, and the characters look much the same as they did on the PlayStation 2. The visual quality of the game is definitely head and shoulders above anything else offered on the DS so far.
Aurally, the game is decent. Now don't get me wrong, the soundtrack is pretty outstanding, and the voicework is topnotch, but the problem is that Square Enix repurposed 99% of the music from the PlayStation 2 games and put it onto the DS, and there's not enough voicework to make the aural carbon copy any less noticeable. In fact, I'm struggling to think if there was any original music at all, or if I was just so used to the reused music tracks that I just didn't realize that there were any. Regardless, while the soundtrack is good, the overall lack of any original tracks makes it a disappointing affair for the ears.
The game takes a Monster Hunter-like approach to game progression, where the player tackles various missions, some of which are optional, while the rest are story driven. There are obvious rewards for taking the optional missions before the major storyline ones, not the least of which is the ability to multiply the rewards you get at the end of a mission if you've done enough missions beforehand. These missions aren't varied though, most of them being exploration (run around a stage examining as many things as you can), battle (defeat x number of heartless or defeat a certain heartless), and collection (collect emblems around the stages). This lack of any sort of variety hurts the game somewhat and can make it into somewhat of a grind if you don't find the story interesting in the least. The missions can also range from laughably easy to DS-smashingly difficult, and the difficulty spike can be rather daunting if players aren't expecting it. All in all, however, the game achieves a comfortable middle ground in terms of difficulty between the original Kingdom Hearts (which was incredibly difficult) and its sequel (which was pathetic). Thanks to its structure, the game allows players to go through missions (which are generally short) and save whenever he or she is in the central hub area, making the game optimal for bus rides and similar trips.
Battles in 358/2 Days play out in much the same way as the games from main series, but the transition to the DS has made it a little rough around the edges. For one thing, the lack of an analog stick means that moving characters is much less precise, and with the amount of platforming the game throws at the player, it can make some sections of the game endlessly frustrating. Similarly the lack of an analog stick also causes camera control to suffer, though Square Enix realized this and offers the player multiple control options to optimize the controls according to his or her personal preference. Regardless, controlling the camera while moving or attacking is completely impossible and as a result the camera becomes focused on a wall or some object blocking the view at inopportune moments, leading to the return of the dreaded camera problems that plagued the first game of the series. Overall, it's a good enough transition that it doesn't break the game entirely, but the problems are no less noticeable, which is expected when you lose two analog sticks and two buttons when trying to translate a game to the DS without making too many compromises.
The core gameplay hasn't changed at all, however, and fighting the heartless is as fun as before. The difference comes in the customization system. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days employs a panel system, where everything, from spells to items to even levels, are managed. All of Roxas' stats and abilities are gained from a grid that has a certain amount of open slots, and panels can be put onto these grids to confer benefits (such as levels), abilities (such as spells and special skills), and items. Each panel takes up a different number of slots on the grid, though any panel that takes up multiple slots also has empty panels with which to allocate upgrades. For example, dodge roll takes up two slots, one for the case ability, and a second as an upgrade slot, which can be used to equip an upgrade to the base ability. Similarly, other panels are just upgrades that boost the effects of the panels allocated into its empty slots, such as Level x2, which doubles the effect of any Level panels placed within its area of effect. Because each panel takes up a different size and has a different shape, players need to rearrange the panels constantly to achieve as much as possible in as small a space as possible. The extent to which players will appreciate this constant need to micromanage Roxas' stats and abilities largely depends on how neurotic they are at optimizing their characters, and while Roxas starts out with a small 3 x 5 grid, each successful mission opens up one new slot, encouraging players to complete as many missions as they can.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days offers some replay value thanks to Mission Mode, which allows players to use all the Organization XIII members (and later on, the main cast of Kingdom Hearts) to play through certain missions. These missions are multiplayer-capable, which means that up to four people can play mission mode either cooperatively or competitively. The addition of such a feature is mostly superfluous, however, because this particular mode has no real staying value past two or three hours. Still, the main storyline offers 20-25 hours of entertaining action, even while not beating all the missions, so the game is long enough that it doesn't seem like a ripoff, but short enough that it doesn't overstay its welcome.
If you've never liked Kingdom Hearts before, 358/2 Days will not sway your opinion, as it's basically the same action RPG seen on the Playstation 2 with a different (and one may argue, more interesting) customization system. However, if you like Kingdom Hearts or even action RPGs in general, 358/2 Days is a worthy game for you to spend time on. Despite obvious problems that pop up from attempting to fit a control scheme optimized for the PlayStation 2 onto the less precise DS controls, 358/2 Days is a very enjoyable, technically impressive game, and if this is the quality that Square Enix will take with its Kingdom Hearts series, I await Birth by Sleep for my PSP with much anticipation.