It's 1:00 on a brisk September morning in 2003, and something magical has just happened. I had just beaten Kingdom Hearts on the Playstation 2, one of the few games to ever make me shed a tear. There was just something so pure about the story of enduring friendship that made me absolutely need to play a sequel as soon as possible. But that would be a long time off, right? No point in thinking about it. So you can imagine my delight when, right after finishing the game, I check my favourite online game sites and find that not one, but TWO new entries in the franchise had just been announced. One was Kingdom Hearts II, the 'true' sequel that we wouldn't end up seeing for years. The other was Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, which would pick up right where the first game left off, and would be coming exclusively to the Game Boy Advance.
My hype meter went into overdrive. A handheld Kingdom Hearts game! When I finally got to play it, though, my enthusiasm was somewhat curbed. The story was meaningfully advanced, sure, and the graphics and sound were great by the system's standards. What didn't endear me so much was the decision to go with a card-battling system for fighting. Yes, it was still action-based, and it added a few more layers of strategy, but the frantic button-bashing gameplay I loved from the first game was deep-sixed. After a while, I found myself playing solely to see what happened next in the story, as I wasn't enjoying the combat system at all.
Thankfully, I have no such complaints about Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, the second handheld instalment in the series (pronounced 'Three-Five-Eight Days Over Two'), for the Nintendo DS. The game sports chaotic, action-packed real-time battles in large, detailed 3D worlds, fantastic production values, and an absolutely tear-jerking story. Unlike Chain of Memories, this is a Kingdom Hearts game in every sense of the word.
Oh, and there's multiplayer.
358/2 Days places players in the role of Roxas, and events take place during and after the aforementioned Chain of Memories. As the game begins, Roxas has no idea who he is, and is taken in by the Organization, a collection of Nobodies who wish to become whole. Series fans will know that Nobodies are empty shells of people that have no hearts, created when the original person is turned into one of the disgusting Heartless. The Organization aims to defeat enough of these creatures, and recover enough of their hearts, to build Kingdom Hearts, which they believe will give them hearts of their own. This is where Roxas comes in. As he is the Nobody of the series' main protagonist, Sora, he has the ability to command the Keyblade, a powerful weapon that releases the hearts of defeated Heartless. On a more personal level, the story focuses on Roxas' relationship with his best friends, Axel and Xion, who are also members. The evolving dynamic between these three is what really drives the story forward, as the rest of the Organization members seem like one-dimensional evil jerks. As a standalone game, the story works well. However, there are plenty of references to characters and events that happen in Chain of Memories and the original Kingdom Hearts that will be completely lost on anyone coming in for their first taste of the series, so it's recommended that anyone who plays this play the other games first. It's worth it, too, as the final scenes are quite touching and even tie up some loose ends that until now went unanswered.
Heartwarming FMV scenes abound in this new Kingdom Hearts.
The first thing you'll notice upon starting a new game is the absolutely stunning presentation. That's due in part to the fact that Square Enix was somehow able to cram over forty minutes of fully-voiced FMV into the game to highlight important moments, complete with the top-quality voice acting the series is known for. In-engine graphics look great, too, with the characters looking like decent approximations of their respective PS2 selves. The only thing that really takes a hit in the conversion to the DS is the number of onscreen enemies at any given time. Typically (though not always) there are only three or four enemies in the area in any given battle, with more spawning once the current wave is defeated.
Aurally speaking, the game is fantastic. As mentioned, there's plenty of high-quality voice acting in the FMV scenes, and the various battle cries are just what you would expect from the series. One thing I'd have liked to see is original music, as the game reuses most of its beats from previous console games. Not that that's a bad thing, considering the quality of those songs, especially Utada Hikaru's "Sanctuary", but there's not much new here for series veterans.
The only other disappointment is the relatively small number of worlds you'll visit compared to other entries in the series. There are only about eight worlds, including Disney-themed ones and KH originals, and you'll be running through each of them many times over the roughly 200 missions. Agrabah looks jaw-dropping for a DS title the first time you run through smashing up Heartless, but by the 20th it gets repetitive. The camera could use some work, too, as it turns very slowly by default and is not well-suited to the fast-paced combat.
Typical gameplay consists of picking one of the handfuls of missions Saix has assigned to Roxas. These can range from simply defeating a certain amount of enemies, to defeating giant Heartless (aka bosses), to collecting Organization emblems, to (wait for it) tailing someone. Yes, someone thought it would be a good idea to inject the KH formula with some ill-conceived stealth mechanics. At several points throughout the game, you'll have to follow or avoid the gaze of someone, making sure you're not seen by staying outside of a convenient red field representing their line of sight. These characters plod along at what you might call a 'relaxed' pace, and they turn around at very illogical moments, making these some of the most frustrating parts of the game.
That's just about the only annoying mission type in 358 Days, though. The rest of the time you're running around, slicing and dicing dozens of varieties of foes with your keyblade and eviscerating them with magic. The missions typically only take a maximum of fifteen minutes to complete--short, direct bursts of Kingdom Hearts goodness that is well-suited to the portable format. There is usually a set goal (kill 'x' many Heartless) that will allow you to end the mission, but you get a bonus of some type if you go the extra mile and fill the mission bar to the top. Aside from the fact the DS' D-Pad will never feel comfortable for controlling a character in three dimensions, the controls feel very similar to the Playstation 2 games. The B button jumps, the X button scrolls through possible commands (such as 'attack', 'magic', and 'items'), and the A button performs said action. Y performs various functions depending on what abilities are equipped, such as rolling, blocking, and even gliding. Items and magic can also be mapped to the face buttons, allowing them to be activated quickly by holding L and R. One notable omission is the absence of a magic bar. The amount of magic you can use depends on how many of each spell you equip to Roxas before embarking on a particular mission. Magic-restoring Ethers can still be used--they simply restore a certain amount of casts of each spell.
On the subject of equipping things, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days takes an unorthodox approach to character management that neither adds to nor detracts from the overall experience. Roxas' abilities in the game are governed by what Panels he has equipped. These can range from Fire magic panels, to self-explanatory 'Level Up' panels, to panels that change Roxas' weapon. Extra Panel slots are earned by completing missions and gaining experience points, while extra panels themselves are found in treasure chests, defeated enemies, and the shop. Certain panels take up multiple slots, and are designed to power up other panels. For instance, a Level Doubler panel takes up four spaces. Level Up panels can be placed in three of those slots, with the result being that each gives Roxas two levels instead of one. Up to three 'decks' like this can be saved in order to quickly switch play styles for different varieties of missions. Two things annoyed me about this system. First, you cannot set it so that items you place in a slot are automatically replenished after a mission. For instance, if you put potions in three slots and then use them in a mission, you'll have to remember to fill those slots again before the next mission unless you want to go in there without any healing items. The option to automatically replenish that item when the mission is over (assuming you had some left in your stock) would have decreased some of the aggravation. Also, I cannot for the life of me understand why, even though item management is done on the touch screen, items can't be manipulated via touch. In a game that depends so much on constantly moving items and abilities around, moving square by square with the D-Pad to select a panel and then place it gets tedious. This would have been greatly alleviated if you could simply touch a panel and then touch the desired slot.
The biggest addition 358/2 Days brings to the Kingdom Hearts table is cooperative multiplayer for up to four (each with their own copy of the game). Players can pick their favourite member of the Organization, or one of the hidden characters unlocked by story progression, and all of the abilities and items they've equipped to Roxas will go to them. The players then work together to beat more difficult versions of missions from the single-player game. Doing well earns each player crowns that transfer over to single-player mode, which can be used to synthesize helpful Panels. The problem with multiplayer is that Square has made it very inconvenient to unlock missions for play with others. One would assume that once they completed the mission in single-player, it would be unlocked in multiplayer, no? No. Hidden somewhere in each mission is an item called a Unity badge which must be collected to earn the right to play the challenge with friends. All participating players must have found a given mission's badge in order to play it together. This is too bad, as the camaraderie and frantic action that ensues when you finally get a game going is palpable. You're constantly working together--one guy freezing targets to set them up for someone else's combo for instance--while trying to steal each other's kills trying to avoid being punched in the arm in real life. This is one of the best multiplayer offerings on the DS, provided you can get over all the hurdles.
Value is definitely one of 358/2 Days' strong points. The story took me about 33 hours, playing on Standard difficulty and doing only a few of the optional quests. Also, any completed mission can be replayed via the 'Holo-Missions' option in the pause menu, and can even be played in Challenge Mode, which rewards you for meeting certain extra objectives. The multiplayer mode, once everyone has collected a fair amount of Unity Badges, is an absolute blast, and has the potential to considerably extend the game's life.
All in all, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is a very deserving entry in one of the most beautiful Japanese RPG series out there. It may seem as though I've pointed out more negatives than positives, but these are all really minor when you consider that the game effectively translates the Kingdom Hearts gameplay into a format suitable for a handheld. The multiplayer is great fun, and, unlike what usually happens when a company adds a new chapter to the mid-point of an already-complete series, the new characters don't feel shoehorned in and really add a lot to the franchise. My initial trepidations that this would be too similar to Chain of Memories are completely assuaged. So, should you buy this new handheld Kingdom Hearts game? If you are a fan of the franchise, then I will say you should pick it up as soon as you possibly can. Otherwise, while some plot elements will be lost on you, if you're looking for a good handheld Action-RPG and can deal with the aforementioned quirks, the game should definitely be on your list.