Review: Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (Nintendo DS)

khcoverKingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 09/29/2009

(I just want to apologize for the lateness of this review. Life got busy and I got a little lax in my duties. My bad.)

I love the Kingdom Hearts series. As I mentioned in my review of Re: Chain of Memories at the end of last year, the reason is mostly because of how I grew up with and adore the Disney classics. However, since then, I’ve come to greatly appreciate KH for its own merits. While the storytelling isn’t the best, the games as a whole manage to enthrall me in a way very few series have.

Needless to say, when I heard that Square was developing new KH games for the DS and PSP, I was ecstatic; not only because they were diving deeper into the game’s world, but because my handhelds were getting some must have games in my eyes. While I’ll have to wait close to another year for the PSP’s iteration, 358/2 Days joined the crowded DS year of 2009.

Before we go any further, I’d like to assuage any worries you might have. This will not be another card battling game like CoM. Instead, this is a true third person action game with RPG elements. In a ways, it feels like an evolution of the game’s combat as well as a game tailored to the DS.

But is it any good?

Story

Let me first address my comment regarding the storytelling. I think the plot itself is great. The problem lies mostly in the script, and the way the plot is presented. The problem with the script is that it is too simple. Characters all speak with an extremely limited vocabulary and often repeat themselves over and over again. The plot is usually presented in an abstract way. The Disney levels are straightforward, but outside of those there are so many head scratching moments where new characters stay hidden in shadows and speak nonsense that you’ll need to take notes in order to get anything straight. For the former half of this problem, 358/2 Days stays true. How am I supposed to buy into any of the Org XIII members and deadly assassins when they speak like fifth graders? For the latter issue, this game does better for the most part. The plot isn’t completely direct, but you can follow it without trouble for once. On the whole, I’d say this was an improvement.

The story this time shifts away from Sora to Roxas. If you’ve played KH2, you’ll undoubtedly remember him as the character used in the nearly three hour long tutorial of the game. Of course, he still had a major role to play in the story. You’ll start the game from when he joins up with Organization XIII right up to the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II. If you’re wondering where it all fits in, this game starts roughly around the end of the first game and ends right before the second. Chain of Memories happens simultaneously, though its arc ends early on in this game’s plot.

If you haven’t played any KH games before, you will be able to get something out of this, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There are many characters that you just won’t know. Also, it should be noted that this is the first game in the series not to include any Final Fantasy characters.

kh1The game’s story is presented via small cutscenes between missions. At the same time, there are small subplots involving the Disney worlds you visit that don’t have a direct effect on the main plot. These aren’t just simple rehashes of the film’s plot this time around. For instance, Agrabah is tormented by sandstorms while the Genie is out on vacation, Beast is too busy fighting off heartless to pursue a relationship with Belle, and the Queen of Hearts screams for the heads of those who would dare annoy her (surprisingly, it isn’t Alice this time). The plot here is focused on Roxas, so these characters aren’t used to their fullest. However, the worlds are great places to for Roxas to see things he wouldn’t see in the Organization, and it helps him grow as a character.

In the end, I greatly enjoyed the story this time around. In particular, it gives great depth to the characters of Roxas and Axel, making their plights in the other games more relatable. There are some off moments, including one of the worst lines I’ve ever heard in all of gaming, but fans and non fans alike will get something out of it. Somehow, without Sora, Donald, or Goofy, it works.

Graphics

On a technical level, this is a leap for graphical power on the DS. Make no mistake. This is a fully functional 3D game with 3D models and 360 degrees of movement. This isn’t the first time a DS game has done this, but none of them look as good as this. Characters are detailed, enemies have personality and are instantly recognizable, and the environments feature some nice touches such as market items in Agrabah.

Artistically, this game follows series conventions to a tee. While there are some new sections to some established locales, you’ll also see carbon copy rooms. Sure, for those of us who’ve played the prior games, this means we won’t get lost, but on the other hand, the sense of familiarity can be overwhelming at times. It captures the essence of the Disney movies during those sections, and Twilight Town is a wonderfully designed environment, but Castle Oblivion and The Castle That Never Was are still bland because they are practically monochrome.

Another high note is the CG cut scenes. While there are the usual compression artifacts, they’re understated and you’re able to watch some great animation at work.

This is simply one of the best looking games on the DS. The variety of locations isn’t up to par with other games in the series, but Square has set the bar for 3D games on the platform.

Audio

Much like the locales, some of these songs are the exact same songs that have been used since the first game. In particular, the themes for Agrabah, Halloweentown, and Wonderland are getting just a tad bit old. Even “Sanctuary”, the theme from KHII is used in the game. There are a few new compositions in the game, including a great remix for the menu theme, but there aren’t enough of them. That’s not to say that the music is bad in any way. The soundtrack is solid, and it honestly sounds great coming out of the DS speakers.

kh2Speaking of sounding great, the voice over work is top notch. Longtime Disney fans should note that this was the final performance of Wayne Allwine as Mickey before his death. The game is dedicated to his memory. The rest of the cast does splendidly. As it turns out, if they don’t cast anyone to voice Final Fantasy characters, they get the job done. There’s no morose Cloud or annoying Aerith to worry about this time. My favorite of the bunch has to be Axel, as he’s really allowed to shine in this game.

There are some problems though. Most of the speech in the game is done through text boxes. That doesn’t stop the characters from making noise. You’ll get sighs, laughs, and even some gasps. These are second long sound bites that are always the same. When they occur multiple times in a short sequence, it can be annoying almost to the point of making you want to turn the sound off.

Still, that is a rather small bug in otherwise great package. Square’s flair for production values hasn’t waned a bit.

Gameplay

While the basic combat in 358/2 Days follows the standards set by the first game, there are some notable changes.

First of all, instead of exploring full Disney worlds in order to progress, you’ll receive missions out of a hub. Once in a location, you only need to complete the objective to reopen the portal and return to base. Missions range from killing a certain amount of heartless to recon and the rather frequent boss battle. During these missions, you won’t have the full world layout open to you. Certain sections will be closed off by energy bands. This delivers a more streamlined experience that’s suitable for portable play. You won’t spend nearly as long looking for your next objective, though there is still a little exploration when it comes to tracking down that last pesky enemy. Once you’ve filled up a mission gauge to a certain point, you can choose to return to base or continue in the level. If you completely fill the gauge, you’ll get a bonus at the end.

Perhaps the biggest change to the formula is how you level up and manage your equipment. Rather than simply raising your stats after a certain amount of experience is acquired, you’ll instead be given level up panels. You’ll have slots that can be filled with these panels. Every item, weapon, ability, spell, and basis upgrade is a panel and needs to be put in a slot in order for you to receive its benefit. For those that love inventory Tetris, this is right up your alley. What makes it interesting is link panels. For instance, a weapon might have four link panels attached to it. These panels start out as empty space and take up considerable room. However, you can attach upgrade panels to the weapon that give it various boosts. This is the same case for just about every ability. You can also gain link panels for levels and spells that give you a multiplier, as well as panels that increase the potency of said spells. The number of spells is equal to the number of panels you place. If you don’t install a fire panel, you won’t be able to use fire. Your given new slots at the end of each mission, though you’ll never have enough slots to put everything you have into play. If you manage this panel system properly, it’ll allow you to customize your character in ways never before seen for the franchise. If you don’t, you’ll be severely handicapped. This is the best feature of the game in my opinion.

As always, you have a shop you can visit between missions that allows you to spend hearts collected in order to buy new panels. Likewise, you can spend some of your hard earned cash to synthesize more powerful items, provided you’ve found the material components either in your adventure or purchased in the store.

At the hub, various Organization members will give you side quests that you can complete to gain loot items you might not get elsewhere. You’ll also have optional missions that don’t move the story forward, but allow you to build up a multiplier that grants you bonuses to the loot you get at the end of a level. Finally, you can replay any level you’ve beaten to find the last few treasure chests or gain some items. There are special badges in levels that unlock challenge missions as well.

Now for the gameplay. Basically, you’ll move your character with the d-pad and utilize the various buttons to perform various abilities and attacks. Using your keyblade, you can perform ground and air combos that vary depending on the weapon you equip. You can also set various spells and items to quick cast buttons that allow you to avoid looking them up in the menu. You have the typical fire, lighting, ice, wind, and heal spells that the series is known for. You get stronger spells as you move forward, and overall its easy to manage. Likewise, there aren’t too many different items, but there’s one for every job you need. At one point, I was able to switch over to using elixirs exclusively and they did the trick. There’s a good deal of platforming in the game, though once you’ve unlocked the movement abilities such as air dash and glide, moving through the environment will be second nature.

The only real problems I had were with the camera and lock on system. The default camera system tries to follow Roxas, but as always in these types of game, it fails on every level. I used the secondary control scheme that allowed me to use the shoulder buttons for camera control. It still wasn’t very good, but I could manage. The worst was when it got caught in a corner. The lock on system is as flawed a lock on system as I’ve seen. You have very little input as to what you lock on to. When there’s a giant flying heartless right above your heard and you lock on to a barrel, you will know true frustration. There’s even an ability panel that exacerbates this problem indefinitely. You’ll almost never lock onto anything you want to. These two problems occasionally make the game a chore to play, but don’t end up ruining it.

Overall, this is a fun 3D action RPG with a great leveling system and only a few flaws which can be traced to the system it’s on.

Replayability

kh3The main quest can last you around twenty five hours the first time through. That is not counting all of the challenge missions you can complete. In addition, the Mission Mode offers plenty of additional content that can either be explored alone or with others. Depending on how much you play around with these modes, this can add a lot of time to your game.

What really helps these missions is that you can play as one of over fifteen characters that have differing stats and combos. Seeing how you can tweak and customize the panel system based on each character’s stats, it will be different each time.

Basically, 358/2 Days has a ton of content on the cartridge. Even if you only play the main story, you’re going to get plenty of bang for your buck.

Balance

For the most part, this game strikes a decent balance between the difficulties of the first two game in the series. There are some enemies that are mere cannon fodder, but there are plenty of tougher enemies and some awesome boss battles that give the game a challenge. This isn’t a game you can grind levels from, seeing as you can only gain new slots from missions. What it all comes down to is how you manage your panels and your skill at dodging and countering attacks.

There are a few sections that are evil During a mission in Halloweentown, I had to fight about ten ghosts. Alone, these things are not even remotely a threat. In this large a group, however, they could get behind me and use an attack where they pick Roxas up and drain his life at a fast rate. You have to mash buttons to break free. With so many of them, there was almost always one about to perform this move. There was barely enough time to heal. I found a couple of moments like this.

There are three difficulty settings, but the normal mode should offer enough challenge for the average gamer. The most frustrating part is when you’re too busy messing with the camera to attack, but overall its pretty good.

Originality

In coming to the DS, there were a plethora of challenges that awaited the developers of this game. I have to say they did a pretty bang up job of overcoming them.

First off, the mission based format was a great choice for portable play. We’ve seen a few other franchises do similar things, but far too many try to replicate the console experience. For instance, Silent Hill Origins had only a small handful of save spots. It was an absolute crime. Here though, you can easily eek out a mission or two on a short bus ride.

Secondly, the panel system is honestly a great way to manage this type of thing. The only gripe I can come up with about it is that you can’t use the stylus in a way that makes sense. On the other side of that coin, the game didn’t force feed a bunch of stylus mini games that would dilute the experience. This is a sadly rare occurrence these days.

For a series jumping platform, 358/2 Days made all the right choices in my book. It might not be wholly original on its own terms, but there is never a sense of deja vu while you play (Apart from the music perhaps).

Addictiveness

I wouldn’t exactly call this game addicting. The missions end authoritatively enough that you won’t necessarily feel that urge to press on. I had few qualms about putting the game down after only a couple of missions, though I was likely to pick it back up a few hours later. I finished the game over a period of about a week. Considering I beat KHII in about a day, I’d say this is a step down in that department.

That’s not to say you won’t have fun with this game. Surely if you really get into the panel system, you’ll get hooked as you unlock new abilities and slots. Finding the weapon that has the right stats and combos for your play style is a fun part of the game for sure. Over the course of the game, I must have had over a dozen setups designed for various situations. I became a caster, switched to a combo master, and then focused more on my aerial game in order to fight flying enemies. After each mission I’d scour my inventory to find the best combination. If I didn’t have any elixirs on hand, I’d make sure to synthesize some. It was something to look forward to after every mission.

So, while it doesn’t pull you in like past entries, there’s always something to keep you coming back.

Appeal Factor

It’s no secret that Kingdom Hearts is one of Square Enix’s biggest franchises. Since its debut in 2002, the series has sold millions of copies over two platforms. The DS is the third. Given that the DS has the largest install base of the current generation by far, and the game’s target audience is in that install base, 358/2 Days will have no trouble flying off the shelves.

kh4For fans of the series, this is a step up from Chain of Memories. It also has a storyline that is very interesting in how it fits with the other games. While you won’t have to play it to understand the main series, the amount of back story that is fleshed out here is tempting to say the least.

For non fans, this is a pretty darn good action RPG on a system that doesn’t have as many as it should. The story can stand alone, though some basic knowledge goes a long way.

Miscellaneous

Overall, I don’t have very many complaints about this game. The only things I can really gripe about is the control issues that were predetermined when the game was set to come to the DS. I felt much better about this purchase than I did for either version of Chain of Memories. If this is any indication, Birth By Sleep is bound to be one of my favorite games of next year.

I do find it a bit odd that the Final Fantasy characters are absent from this title. Granted, you never have any need to go to Traverse Town. The only FF alumni in the game is a moogle. The cute little guy gets his own Organization coat and runs the shop. There’s no Cid, Leon, Aerith, Yuffie, or even Cloud this time around. I’ll be very interested to see if they return for the next numbered installment in the series, as it seems unlikely that BBS will have them.

One last bit of props has to go to how they pulled of the stories in the Disney worlds. I was so afraid we would get yet another rehash of plots we all know by heart, or that we get stupid themed variations of these plots (like in CoM). Instead, the stories were allowed to develop on their own with Roxas for the most part being an observer and using what he saw to analyze his own existence. It made things far more interesting.

This is a solid game through and through. The DS has had a hell of a year so far and it doesn’t look to be dying down one bit.

The Scores
Story: Very Good
Graphics: Incredible
Audio: Great
Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Good
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Enjoyable
Appeal Factor: Good
Miscellaneous: Good
Final Score: GOOD GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary
diehardjackKingdom Hearts 358/2 Days easily surpasses its portable predecessor in every way imaginable. The story is better, the gameplay is deeper, and it’s just more fun to play. It isn’t going to compare to the console titles, but this is an excellent entry for the series and a safe bet for any RPG fan with a DS. It appears the Disney-Square Enix combo hasn’t run its course yet. It’s just one more great title for the DS.

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