I’ve never been able to fully grasp what originally dragged me deep into the world of Kingdom Hearts when it debuted on Playstation 2, but it must have been a powerful force, because I keep returning to it and it takes a lot of Keyblade swinging before I finally put one aside. Still, I had some reservations before digging into the DS entry, 358/2 Days, and while some of those ended up proving true, I was left once more with that strange satisfaction that only the bizarro marriage of Disney and Square Enix can provide.
The initial wariness stemmed pretty much entirely from my experience with the last portable KH outing, Chain of Memories, which was originally released on Game Boy Advance in 2004. It’s not exactly an unpopular opinion, but nearly everything about that game rubbed me the wrong way, including but not limited to the card-based battle system, which I wasn’t a fan of right off the bat. Last year’s Playstation 2 remake of the game (Re: Chain of Memories) took a few steps in the right direction, but ultimately I would have been better off skipping Chain of Memories and reading spoilers instead.
Speaking of which, I was surprised at how behind I was in the series’ lore once this game popped in my hands. It’s been a while since I played Kingdom Hearts 2, but I had forgotten just how sprawling the narrative is. This might not mean much to non-fans, but 358/2 follows the woefully memory-free Roxas in his days with the hooded folks of Organization XIII. Enlisted in their quest to collect enough hearts to finally form the eponymous Kingdom Hearts, his many combo-mashing missions eventually build up to the events of Kingdom Hearts 2, while slowly unraveling some of the questions fans have about the Organization itself.
358/2 ditches the awkwardness that was holding Chain down, instead opting for what amounts to the closest the DS can get to reproducing the KH style of play from top to bottom. It has its own quirks, which I’ll get to in a moment, but the actual combat is a familiar feeling that works well on the handheld. Developer h.a.n.d. (Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon, One Piece: Pirates Carnival) figured out a competent way of mapping specific buttons to scroll through the combat menu while keeping things moving, and aside from a slightly inconvenient lock-on system, it doesn’t take too long to get it all down.
It also looks about as Kingdom Hearts as one could hope for given the DS’s paltry 3D capabilities. It’s a little rough around the edges, sure, but it gets the job done, using the bottom screen for camera movement and map display while the top is all action.
The most interesting addition is the Panel system, which is essentially a means of properly equipping Roxas before he embarks on each mission. In the beginning, the available panels—slots that hold everything from magic abilities to the level-ups earned through experience—are slim, but completing more missions releases more panels, allowing for an increase in abilities, spells, items and so on.
Oddly enough, organizing the panels reminded me most of the attaché case inventory from Resident Evil 4. When I was playing that one, my method of sliding things in just the right order became scarily meticulous, and the same thing happened here, as well. Some things in your inventory take up multiple spaces, allowing for additional panels to be linked within the shape, multiplying their effect. While it seems limiting at first, those concerns are dashed once more panels are released, and in general it played a significant part in my enjoyment of the game.
Either a testament to the quality of the series or my own insanity, it took about 8-11 hours before the repetition of missions started to wear on me. In general, Roxas is either collecting hearts by defeating Heartless minions, performing elementary recon in new areas (“there are steps here, I bet someone uses them for something”), or fighting the occasional large Heartless/boss-type enemy. There are fits of variety mixed throughout, but this is his and our fate for the foreseeable future.
The repetitive missions wouldn’t have been such a sore spot if the locales had been switched up some. I don’t want to ruin the experience for those that have yet to play, so I won’t go into much detail, but I am done with a lot of these places. I mean, between all of the KH entries, my footprints are straight-up fossils on these grounds, and I could probably walk across the hot sands of Agrabah blindfolded. From a story standpoint, it makes sense that we’re not experiencing wholly fresh territory, but I’d at least like to see a different side of some of these places.
The days start to really trudge by at the halfway point, and the day-to-day ice cream sessions with Organization pals Axel and Xion that were initially charming wear a little thinner once Roxas is duly experienced in the routine. But I can’t skip it, I have to know everything that’s going on! That disembodied voice kept me going through the tough spots, and I’m glad it did in the long run.
Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days provides a rewarding, if at times grueling task for fans of the series. Though I may sound down on some major aspects of the title, my extended time spent in the throes of action/RPG mayhem speaks for itself. There’s also much to do beyond the main campaign, such as a mission mode that’s best tackled with a group of friends, and completionists will have their hands full in general. I still think a game called Kingdom Hearts: 179 Days would have been a much more digestible affair, but this has me properly amped for the next full outing.
Developer: Square Enix
System: Nintendo DS
Rating: E 10+