Set between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days tells the story of Roxas and Organization XIII. Roxas is the Nobody of Kingdom Hearts protagonist Sora; a Nobody is basically a heartless clone of the character, capable of mimicking emotions but not actually feeling them. Organization XIII is a group of high-ranking Nobodies who are seeking to create an object called Kingdom Hearts in order to get hearts of their very own. Roxas is the 13th member, and the only one who can wield the legendary Keyblade necessary to get the hearts required to make Kingdom Hearts. 358/2 Days follows the entire story of Roxas, from his birth at the end of Kingdom Hearts until the very beginning of Kingdom Hearts 2. Along the way, his paths will intersect with popular Kingdom Hearts and Disney characters, as well as Xion, a mysterious girl who is said to be the 14th member of Organization XIII, and the only other one who can use a Keyblade.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days has the frustrating problem of nothing particularly interesting happening in the game. It is focused around Organization XIII, a group whose entire purpose is that they barely have personalities, and that means that a majority of the cast is regulated to uninteresting NPCS. Even worse, half of them are killed off very early on, limiting you to a few recurring characters who are completely boring.
Even the story of the main characters Roxas, Axel and Xion is mostly dull as dishwater. There's no tension or interest in what happens to Roxas or Axel, since their fates are well documented in Kingdom Hearts 2. Nothing new is added to their stories in 358/2 Days , as they spend most of their time sitting in the same place, discussing ice cream. Xion, the new Organization XIII member, is similarly uninteresting, despite her fate as the game's only real mystery. By the time the game is over, I was left wondering why they bothered to focus a game on the character, since the eventual revelation of her backstory and plot is eye-rollingly lame. There are some amusing lines and moments scattered throughout the game, mostly from Axel, but not enough to really stand out.
The title can't even be saved by its inclusion of Disney characters because it feels incredibly halfhearted. There are no new Disney worlds, and practically the entire game is spent watching Disney characters who are between the interesting events in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2. Furthermore, the goal of the Organization XIII is to remain in the shadows, so they're less likely to interact with the Disney characters. Instead of helping Aladdin foil the plot of an evil genie, you're watching him sigh and try to repair the damage done by sandstorms, or spending your time trying to figure out why Beast might have a girl in his castle. The game feels as heartless as its main cast, and the few interesting moments are those that provide some hints about the upcoming PSP title, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep.
358/2 Days is structured around the Organization XIII's castle in The World That Never Was. At the beginning of every day, Roxas can shop or talk to other organization members in order to get information or fulfill requests. There isn't a lot to do here, since it just serves as a hub point. Roxas can talk to Saix, the second-in-command, to accept missions that will teleport Roxas to one of the many worlds; his tasks can range from defeating a specific enemy to finding out more about the world or collecting emblems. Regardless of the task, he is expected to complete it to a bare minimum, although some missions allow him to go above and beyond the call of duty to receive a higher ranking. Once the task is done, Roxas will return to base and receive a reward based on the quality of his work. If you complete multiple missions in a row, you'll fill a bonus gauge, which increases the rewards you'll get for other missions. This is basically the structure of the entire game, and those hoping for more exploration will be sorely disappointed.
The mission structure of 358/2 Days makes it an okay game for pick-up-and-play gameplay, but it grows tedious rather quickly. There isn't a tremendous amount of variation in the worlds that you'll explore. You'll spend a ridiculous amount of time in Agribah or Twilight Town, revisiting the same areas over and over, and fighting the same enemies again and again. The mission requirements tend to be fairly uninteresting and dull. It's reasonably fun when you're asked to do a boss fight, but you're more likely to be asked to collect emblems or perform other tedious chores. There are enjoyable missions, but they're mostly bookended by boring ones, and you have to spend a lot of time doing the boring missions to get to the fun ones. To make matters worse, you can't even finish every mission your first time through. There were occasions when I realized that I couldn't get a perfect rank on a mission because I didn't have a high jump ability yet, which I would get significantly later in the game.
The game allows you to replay missions using a Holo-Simulator later, but it's still not very fun to waste your time on a mission that you're forced to replay later. Outside of the game's usual missions, you can also use the Holo-Simulator to replay Challenge versions of the missions. These Challenge versions feature harder enemies and special requirements, such as finishing the stage in record time or without jumping. Completing them earns you special challenge tokens that can be exchanged for some essential equipment and items, so while they may be "optional," you're going to play them anyway if you want to keep Roxas strong. Inexplicably, these Challenge versions of the missions also include all the cut scenes, even though you couldn't get the Challenge version without having finished the mission. It's a minor problem, since you can just skip the cut scene, but it's strange that they are there in the first place.
Once you're in a mission, 358/2 Days plays roughly identically to the original Kingdom Hearts, with a few modified features here and there. Roxas, as Sora's Nobody, functions just like Sora, right down to having a Keyblade as a weapon. His moves and abilities are all the same, and anyone hopping into 358/2 Days from the PS2 versions of the game should feel right at home.
Perhaps the biggest change to 358/2 Days is how magic works. Instead of being fueled by an MP bar, Roxas has individual casts of each magic spell he has equipped. You can cast them as often as you want, but only a certain number of times per mission. This actually makes magic a significantly less valid tactic than it was in Kingdom Hearts, unless you're willing to devote a lot of your character's abilities toward keeping a large stable of magic. It's usually far more effective to equip one or two abilities that mimic magic and focus entirely on melee combat.
The game also offers a Limit Break feature when the player is low on health. Once a player's health reaches about 30 percent, he'll be able to activate a Limit Break, which turns Roxas into a whirling dervish of death for a short period. Each time you use the Limit Break, it lowers the percentage of health you must have left in order to activate it. Your first use may activate at 30 percent, but your second may require you to be at 20 percent health. Eventually, you'll lose the ability to use Limit Break for the rest of the mission, unless you use a special healing item.
However, while 358/2 Days plays roughly identical to Kingdom Hearts, it is on the Nintendo DS, which comes with obvious control limitations. As far as this goes, Square Enix did an admirable job in porting the control scheme to the DS. For the most part, it's fairly easy to pick up and play, and most of your basic abilities are instantly accessible. The only real problem comes from the game's camera. There are two camera options: Type A allows you to instantly focus the camera behind Roxas by pressing R, while Type B allows you to control it manually with the L and R buttons. Type A simply doesn't function well for the required exploration and Type B is very close to being good but is frustrated by some minor quirks. You can adjust the camera using the touch-screen or standing still for a moment and manually rotating the camera, but both of these are basically worthless in any situation where time is of the essence, and those are the times the camera is most likely to wonk out. Despite these flaws, the controls work quite well for what the game asks of you, and it's possible to overlook the frustrating moments.
The leveling system in 358/2 Days is one of its most interesting features. While Roxas levels up in the traditional manner, it doesn't simply give him stats. Everything in the game, from items to abilities and weapons, is governed by panels, and Roxas improves his stats through these panels. When Roxas levels up or finds an item, he is given a panel. He can then choose to insert that panel onto a grid, which gives him the effect of that panel. Every time Roxas completes a mission or certain side-quests, he'll be given an extra grid into which he can insert panels. The game begins simply, and you can only add a handful of panels side by side, but as it progresses, it gets more complex and you'll be able to add more panels. Certain panels have different shapes, rather like Tetris blocks, and in order to fit the most abilities onto Roxas, you have to tinker with the various shaped panels to make them all fit on the grid. Even each individual cast of magic requires its own grid space.
This gets even more complex once you start taking link panels into effect. You see, in the case of the panels that take up more than one grid, the actual panel effect is only one square of that. The other squares are called link panels and are highlighted in blue. These link panels can have other abilities slotted into them to enhance the effect. For example, if you get a Triple Cast panel and slot it in, it will have two link panels attached to it. If you put a Fire spell into that panel, you'll get three casts of magic per panel, instead of one. Alternately, you can equip a weapon panel and then slot an Ability panel into that link slot to unlock new powers. In order to get the full benefit of your abilities, you'll have to learn to use these link panels effectively. The good news is that you can switch panels around at will. You can make Roxas a heavy melee fighter in one stage and a magic-using monster in the next. You can even create multiple "decks" of panels, which you can switch between before a mission. This is easily 358/2 Day's most appealing feature. There is a ridiculous amount of customization here, and being able to alter and switch Roxas at will is a lot of fun, especially once you get into creating the perfect grid for your purposes.
Outside of the main game, 358/2 Days also offers a Mission mode, which allows you to take on a mission that you've already completed, assuming you found a special hidden item in that mission. The difference is that you can play as any members of Organization XIII as well as special cameos from certain popular characters like Donald and Goofy. Each character has a unique weapon and set of abilities, including a unique Limit Break. You can customize them using the same panels you've collected in Roxas' story, and different panels may have different effects, depending on the character you've chosen. Once you've customized your character, you can take him through the missions to earn prizes, including rare Golden Crowns that can't be obtained anywhere else.
The most interesting thing about Mission mode is that it can be played alone or with other players. Alone, you simply have to complete a harder-than-average mission. With other players, you'll be racing to beat enemies and collect crystals. Whoever has the highest score at the end of the mission earns bonuses, although players will be expected to work together to complete the mission. It's a balance between co-op and competitive gameplay. Unfortunately, it also seems a bit poorly tuned. Certain characters just seemed better than others. It's fun enough as a way to waste time, but most players will likely speed through Solo mode to earn the Golden Crowns. This is made worse by the fact that it's local play only, so you'd have to get a group of friends together to play in person.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is easily one of the best-looking games on the DS. While nobody is going to mistake it for its PS2 counterpart, Square Enix did an admirable job shrinking down the game to the DS without losing much of the quality. The locations and characters are a touch blurrier and lower-quality, but otherwise identical to their counterparts in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2. This both works for and against the game: It looks great, but there's also a tragic lack of variation, and that is made even worse by a number of places being areas that you've already thoroughly explored in the other games. Not every level is identical, of course, but Twilight Town stands out because of this. Even the levels that are changed end up repeating the same few rooms. The soundtrack is excellent, although mostly filled with rehashed tunes from the previous games filtered through the DS. The only annoying bit is how the game handles voice acting. Except for a few scenes, the game is mostly silent, but every so often a character will laugh or say a word, which feels very out of place. They reuse the same laughing sound over and over, and it makes Roxas sound more like a tape recorder than an amused young boy.
Much like the Nobodies themselves, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is a game that doesn't really seem to have a reason to exist. The gameplay is competent, if repetitive, but it doesn't bring anything particularly new or interesting to the table. The story is slow and dull, and the eventual outcome is fairly uninteresting, especially since Kingdom Hearts fans already know most of what is going to happen, and newcomers will be completely lost. The Disney license is put to poor use here, and there's none of the charm or fun that came from the Disney characters in the other games. The only thing 358/2 Days really has going for it are nice graphics, a solid set of controls and an interesting leveling system, none of which does much to bring the game above average. 358/2 Days isn't bad at all, but perhaps it would be easier if it were. It's simply average in almost every way. Kingdom Hearts fans will find something to enjoy here, but anyone else would be better off picking up the cheaper, and more enjoyable, PS2 games before diving in to this game.
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