Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days - Review  

It's All About the Ice Cream
by Cidolfas

Nintendo DS
20-40 Hours
+ Great visuals for a DS game
+ Surprisingly heartfelt story
+ Fun, classic Kingdom Hearts gameplay
- Lots of repetition, especially in the middle
- Not enough variety of locations
- Music is all recycled
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Square Enix has been churning out the sequels and side stories lately. The surprising thing is that while none of these games have really been amazing, none of them have been bad. I include Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, Dissidia: Final Fantasy, and now Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days in this category.

This game is designed to take place between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2. Yes, this is partly the same time that Chain of Memories took place, but this covers the entire time between those two games, including the parts where Sora was unconscious. This time you play as Roxas, as he deals with life in Organization XIII.

Let's start with the gameplay. Although the basic system is similar to the major KH games (no card battles here), it doesn't follow the classic "action RPG" setup. Instead, exploration and battles are mission-based. Saix will give you a set of missions at the start of each day and you go off to a particular world to accomplish them. Some of the missions are required, some are optional, but you can always go back and redo them later if you want. (Worry not, by the way, you won't have to actually sit through all 358 days. There are a total of about 90 missions.)

Each mission has particular goals: beat X amount of Heartless, collect emblems, do investigation (by examining certain areas), etc. You will often be accompanied by one of the Organization members on your trip. Some missions have optional objectives as well, like destroying a few more Heartless or examining extra areas. You can also find special badges, which unlock challenges for that mission or allow you to play it in Mission Mode, a multiplayer mode which lets you play as various Organization or KH characters.

Classic Kingdom Hearts gameplay - fun-sized! Classic Kingdom Hearts gameplay - fun-sized!

(Note: These challenges and missions give you special sigils that unlock prizes, but do not bother doing them if you value your sanity. They are tedious, annoying, and you don't need any of those prizes to finish the game under normal mode.)

One thing I noticed is that you can no longer just slash away at bad guys and heal when necessary. You need to do a lot more blocking, dodging and rolling to get anywhere. This draws some fights out, but overall it's a more satisfying way of fighting.

Also, I was expecting all the enemies to be rehashes of existing ones, but there's a surprising variety of new ones. Many of them are palette and size swaps, but there are a lot of new bosses, some of which are pretty interesting (like the Heartless tank!).

Let's start talking about the visuals. KH: 358/2 Days is possibly the best-looking 3D DS game out there. I was pretty amazed at how they managed to shrink PlayStation 2-sized worlds into a DS. The character models are large and look quite good for the DS (some jaggies, but c'mon). There's more than 40 minutes of full video in there too, which is amazing.

The controls take a bit of getting used to, but they did a really great job with them. They had to make do with two fewer buttons and one fewer analog stick than the PS2, and they had some great ideas to do so. For example, tapping the R button will snap the camera back to behind Roxas, while double-tapping R will lock on to enemies. L plus an action button gives you a magic or item shortcut, while the Select button gives you free-range camera movement. It works surprisingly well.

One more thing I have to crow about is the panel system. Instead of just leveling up, equipping items or learning skills or magic, everything goes on the panel grid. (There is no MP; magic works on the original Final Fantasy system of number of casts.) Levels, items, equipment, spells, and skills all need to be dropped onto the grid in order to function. In addition, some skills take up multiple panels; so you can use a "doublecast" skill along with three spells to give two casts of each of them, or get a three-panel Block skill that lets you equip two modifiers (like Block LV+ or Fire Block).

I found this to be insanely challenging and really fun to use. You need to figure out whether you want to use your precious panel spots for abilities, spells, levels, or whatnot, and once the more unusually-shaped panel blocks become available, moving everything around to accommodate them becomes one giant puzzle. You gain panel slots with each mission you accomplish, and eventually you will have more than two full screens of panels. When faced with a new four-panel skill and five single slots scattered around the various screens, I easily spent twenty minutes rearranging everything so it worked perfectly. An inspired idea.

There are some downsides. Like some of the previously mentioned spinoffs, KH: 358/2 Days gets bogged down with repetition. There are only seven worlds in total, and three of them (Agrabah, Halloween Town and Olympus) we've already seen twice. The music is almost entirely ripped directly from Kingdom Hearts 2 (although with surprisingly good quality).

Get used to seeing this. Get used to seeing this.

Before talking about the story, I should say that if you haven't played both major Kingdom Hearts games, you will be incessantly confused here. Don't even bother. The story itself was actually, I'm amazed to say, really good, probably better than either game that came before it. I say this with qualification, though. It's a shame that several of the more interesting Organization members are gone by the first fifth of the game (unfortunately, they had to do this due to already-established storyline) and I would have liked to see more interaction amongst the existing ones.

The first 20% and last 30% of the game are really interesting, and the last few missions are superbly emotional. However, most of the middle of the game is just mission after mission, with a repetitive scene involving Roxas, Axel and Xion (the new fourteenth member) eating ice cream in Twilight Town. It's easy to get fed up with this, but I definitely recommend keeping your patience for the end, because it's easily one of the best stories to be told on the DS.

Here's the bottom line. KH: 358/2 Days has quite a few flaws, mainly involving tedium and repetition for chunks of the game, and lack of originality in terms of settings and music. But it's fun to play, and if you give it a chance, you'll be deeply rewarded with a great story. If you enjoyed the earlier games, I highly recommend it.

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