I fondly recall my initial reaction to Kingdom Hearts 2; "who the hell is this Roxas guy and what happened to Sora?". If you missed out on its GBA ,card flavored prequel, Chain of Memories, opening the newest Kingdom Hearts only to take control of Roxas came as quite a surprise. What the original Kingdom Hearts' secret "Deep Dive" ending, Chain of Memories, and this Roxas character implied what fairly clear; a lot happened in between Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, the first DS entry in the series, exists to further fill that gap. However, unlike the GBA game, 358/2 Days appeared to offer gameplay more along the lines of its Playstation 2 peers. That couldn't be a bad thing, right?
A World without You
In Kingdom Hearts 2, we caught Roxas on the tail end of his brief existence. For 358 days, he was the Nobody of Sora. In the Kingdom Hearts universe, the vanquished turn into Heartless. Strong willed Heartless become Nobodies, and some particularly talented Nobodies aligned their efforts into a group called Organization XIII. Thus, Roxas’, 358/2 Days’ main character and the newest member of Organization XIII, entire existence was predicated on Sora's brief sacrifice. The narrative generally surrounds the actions of Organization XIII, along with friendships Roxas forges (or at least tries to) along the way.
Carving out the deeper implications of 358/2 Days plot points and matching them to the series surprisingly rich lore can be incredibly rewarding for Kingdom Hearts veterans, but those who aren't too familiar with the previous games shouldn't be scared away. While the mythos may be go over your head, the heart and soul of the story is easily absorbed. The cut scenes are a bit primitive and move the plot along at a snail's pace, but the more introspective sections, like Roxas' diary, really provide a relatable and entirely human element to the narrative. You may not know anything about Roxas, Axel, or newcomer Xion when you meet them (or anything about Organization XIII for that matter), but they function quite well as standalone characters. Not to mention you'll have one hell of a unique perspective should you ever decide to give Kingdom Hearts 2 a go.
That’s the Power of the Keyblade
Of course, the gameplay to reading-text ratio thankfully favors the former; there's a ton of stuff to do through 358/2 Days. Broken up into a less traditional select-a-mission structure, 358/2 Days maintains Kingdom Hearts action/RPG mash fest whilst streamlining the methods of engagement. Every day (well, not every day, some days are skipped as you don't actually blaze through each of the 358 days) you walk into a room in the Castle that Never Was, and Saix provides a new mission for you, and occasionally another member, to undertake for the Organization. "Collecting hearts," that is, slaughtering every heartless you come across, composes the bulk of your handful of mission tasks, but 358/2 Days makes an effort to vary the formula a little bit. Investigation missions, where you scour new worlds for clues, and a handful of following/stealth missions are also peppered in, but the bulk of your time, even through missions where full out annihilation isn't your goal, still contains a hefty amount of combat.
Thankfully, 358/2 Days combat engine manages to hold its own. While the controls are a bit cumbersome, they're easily adaptable and serve the gameplay quite well. Lock on to an enemy, and proceed to bash the snot out of it. Making the camera work in your favor requires some tricky thumb smudging of the bottom screen, and it's far from precise, but there didn't appear to be any better way to translate the camera down the DS.
Everything from your move set to your magic attacks are governed by the game's most alluring and intrinsic feature, your panel grid. Using panels you've won, forged in synthesis, or bought at the moogle store, you can fill up an ever expanding grid in your menu. For example, putting four Fire panels in your grid nets you four casts of a Fire spell, snapping in Lift Gear changes your key blade into an aerial-attack specialist, and a level up panel allows you to, well, automatically gain a level. Most of the more prominent and essential panels take up more than one space, but those extra spaces can usually be filled with other modifier panels, which do things like double your magic or unlock an extra ability for your keyblade. Eventually, when your panel grid starts getting bigger, fitting everything you want in turns into a little game of strategic arrangement, not unlike trying to manage your backpack in earlier Resident Evil games. The only catch is you're only allowed to switch around your panels before you embark on a mission, so choosing wisely quickly becomes a rather important measure.
More often than not, Saix will throw out a couple of extra missions. They're typically either A) quite a bit harder than you're used to or B) laborious grinds through more of the same in the name of cool loot and some extra experience. Should you not want to undertake any of the optional stuff, or simply replay any mission from earlier, you can play through everything again right from the hub (you can also pull out of missions at any time). And, a little down the line, extra challenges (usually time centric) open up for most of the missions. It's quite a bit content any way you spin in.
Much of the series prerequisite fan service, namely the Final Fantasy characters spliced through classic Disney worlds, isn't as strong as it's been in past games. Final Fantasy characters are absent entirely, and most everything you do with the Disney characters who do manage to show up treads through familiar ground. You get to go to Agrabah, again. And Never Land. Again. The six Disney worlds are rehashed and their inherent characters are somewhere in the middle of their namesake's plot points, which generally make for rather unimpressive territory. Still, there are a few bright spots; Xaldin's observation of the Beast's attachment to Belle as a weakness was surprising, and definitely a bit darker than I was expecting from the otherwise by-the-numbers motivation of eliminating the menacing heartless hoards.
Quality doesn't always go hand in hand with quality, and it's here where the breadth of 358/2 Days' content starts to grate. While the panel system is brilliant, the actual gameplay leaves much to be desired. Series veterans will find it more apparent than newcomers, but the simple fact remains clear; 358/2 Days feels like an old game. Collecting stuff and the stealth elements are nice distractions, but whacking the crap out of bad guys with a variety of mash-friendly combos is straight from the last generation of game design. And the non-combat stuff? Spending time looking for arbitrary points in the environment or moving crates around isn't quite my idea of appealing game design either. No, there aren't many games like this on DS, and certainly fewer that do it with such competence, but, with 358/2 Days, you're not really blazing new territory as much as you're taking a familiar, friendly route.
But, in a way, that's sort of a nonissue. Pulling 358/2 Days off on DS hardware is a remarkable accomplishment in itself, but the big take away lies with the narrative. Some parts feel a bit retconned and some of the dialogue is mundane and throwaway, but the vast majority does well to fill in some long standing blanks. The bounds of friendship are tested, the limits of bizarre secret organization are explored, and, somehow it all hinges on ice cream; Nearly every mission concludes with Roxas sitting on the clock tower and eating ice cream with another member. What starts out as a bizarre way to predicate a mission eventually turns into the endearing soul of the entire narrative. It's the game's backbone, and unraveling its importance is almost worth whatever faults the gameplay might have.
And the presentation isn't a bad cherry on top either. While nearly all of the worlds and the music have been recycled from previous games, the series classic charm somehow manages to endure. Twilight Town's appeal never fades, and even the slightest touches, like the single car train that pops in and out of the backgrounds, lend a tremendous amount of character to an otherwise static setting. And the rest of the game looks fantastic as well. Roxas animates with a surprising amount of finesse, and 358/2 Days works polygons in real time in ways that could flat out embarrass most other titles. Such fluidity occasionally arrives with a chug in the frame rate, but it rarely gets in the way of the gameplay. Purists might bemoan the game's downgrade over its PS2 cousins, but the game looks damn good for its platform.
It's also worth mentioning that the game is playable with three of your friends. I wasn't able to test this as we only received one review copy, but the concept behind it appears solid. Finding a token in a single player mission unlocks it in multiplayer mode, where you and friends can select members of Organization XIII and try to communally overcome the mission's obstacles. Sounds great in concept, but you'll each need a copy of the game if you want to try this out.