Without question, I am a huge fan of the Kingdom Hearts franchise. I love the two main installments so much in fact, that both of them made it into my top five of our recent “Best 6th Generation RPGs” feature. Apparently, I am not alone. Disney and Square Enix have created a series with such a passionate fanbase that they have now released games for three different systems (PS2, GBA, DS), with one more already confirmed (Birth by Sleep, PSP). Their newest addition to the series, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, invokes memories of nostalgia and love for the previous installments, but the game ultimately falls just short of “must own” status, leaving those ardent KH supporters aching for another game.
When Sora turned the keyblade on himself in the original Kingdom Hearts, all hell broke lose. Even though it was a necessary tragedy to help bring down Maleficent and company, the result was a creation of Sora’s nobody, Roxas. The blonde haired, blue-eyed Roxas’ origins were fully explored in Kingdom Hearts II, including his hometown, his friends, and the reason for his existence. Or so we thought.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 days looks at the year Roxas spent as a member of the mysterious Organization XIII, including his emotional friendship with Axel, easily the most memorable face among the black hooded gang. For those who still can’t keep track of the franchise’s chronology, this game falls after the first Kingdom Hearts and Chain of Memories, but before Kingdom Hearts II. If you think this is confusing, get ready for further head scratching as the game progresses.
The problem with the story of the Kingdom Hearts series is that it began as one of fantasy and its intersection into Sora’s simple youth, but it has been transformed into one that now involves war, obsession, revenge, duplicity, and existentialism. While some of these themes are appropriate for the SMT series or even a title like Final Fantasy Tactics, I have found that the plot is gaining momentum in the wrong direction. Sometimes, it is just nice to enjoy the worlds of Kingdom Hearts (like Agrabah, Olympus, and Wonderland, which all make appearances in this title), without considering the age old questions of: what is the meaning of life and what defines individuality?
These questions dominate the storyline of 358/2 Days. The game opens with Roxas having no knowledge of who he is and where he came from. He relies on the other members of Organization XIII to define his purpose, but mostly he trusts the advice of his close friend Axel. As the year progresses, Roxas is introduced to a mysterious member named Xion, who immediately becomes the key to unlocking the mysteries of the Organization and of who Roxas truly is. By the culminating 358th day, emotions run high in a final battle that spans multiple worlds and ends with Roxas wondering who his friends really were.
The story utilizes a very boilerplate method: take a mission, finish the mission, watch a one- or two-minute cut scene, start a new day. At first, this system is enjoyable because it works well with the DS handheld. Because of its pick-up-and-play nature, this type of snippet story system allows for quick bursts on a train ride, and is easy to pick up again hours or even days later. However, doing this a hundred times (or more) during the game’s “year” becomes extremely repetitive. If I see Roxas have one more Sea-Salt Ice Cream bar in my entire life, it will be too soon. Overall, even though moments of the story are emotional and enjoyable, the overarching narrative is fair at best, and is hurt by its interrupted and overly complicated approach.
If you’re not impressed by the story of 358/2 days, the gameplay may not save the title for you either. Kingdom Hearts veterans will be very used to the fighting system in this game. Button mashing easily dispatches simple enemies, while bosses take a little bit of guile. Before travelling to each of the worlds, you can equip Roxas with abilities and magic through a fairly unusual grid system. The player is provided with a blank slate of finite spaces, and better abilities take up more spaces on the grid. This allows players to focus on their strengths: magic lovers can focus on having as many spells as possible, while fighters can equip every block and dodge roll imaginable. I found the grid system generally enjoyable, with the exception of having to put “level ups” and any keyblade on the grid. To me, it devalues the acquisition of levels and new weapons by having them as interchangeable as any other square.
In addition to the grid system, the other biggest gameplay innovation comes in the mission system. 358/2 Days allows players to revisit any previous task as reward challenges. Numerous items are up for grabs, including materials for item synthesis, new spells, and even new keyblades. Revisiting these missions can be fun, because you can zip through the worlds as any member of the organization and even as Donald, Goofy, Mickey or Sora (depending on how well you play the game). With the DS wi-fi connection, you can even team up with a friend to take on the heartless into the wee hours of the morning. Unquestionably, this co-op fighting is the best gameplay element and a nice step for the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
Did you enjoy the music from the previous Kingdom Hearts games? Well, I sure hope you did, because like Yogi Berra said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” In the same way that 358/2 Days rehashes some of the maps from the previous installments, the game also uses more than 80% of the same scores. Even though I love the music from the other games, I found this to be lazy. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have different arrangements of the same songs? Perhaps use different synthesizers or imagine the world themes from Roxas’ (instead of Sora’s) point of view? Any of these changes would have been welcomed.
Square Enix and Disney did their best in trying to address the age-old camera dilemma, but some of the fast paced action still creates problems. In addition, the fact that the DS only has 6 buttons and no analog stick meant that I found some of the smooth gameplay elements from the PS2 games to have been lost in this one. Casting a spell was a chore at times, and I defaulted to hacking and slashing more often than I would have liked. The stylus and touch screen were virtual non-factors but I thought the dual screens were used beautifully, especially during certain flash-back sequences.
The highlight to this entry in the Kingdom Hearts series is the graphics. For a DS title, I was very impressed by the sprites, color palettes, and cut scenes. In fact, there were moments when I forgot I was playing the DS instead of the PS2 – that’s how good the graphics look. In addition, the bosses are all extremely well done, and represent some of the best the DS has to offer. Overall, the graphics are a testament to the years of dedication the staff put in on this project.
As a passionate supporter, I wanted this game to be better than it was. With stunning graphics and enticing gameplay, the latest entry from Disney and Square Enix had the opportunity to make a dynamic splash and make their fans thrilled for years to come. Instead, after a monotonous 35 hours of gameplay, I’m just happy I’m done playing. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is one of the most disappointing gaming experiences I have had in recent memory. It will gather dust in my cabinet for a lot longer than 358 days.