Review: Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days

KingdomHeartsDS.jpg Silly title and all, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days for the DS is a surprisingly spot-on replication of the full 3D experiences offered by the lead PS2 games in the series – it doesn’t change things up with alterted card-game mechanics and whatnot like Chain of Memories did. In terms of production values and gameplay, this is a true Kingdom Hearts game. The 3D graphics are top of the line by DS standards, the impressive CG cutscenes give the game that magic Square Enix polish, the voice acting – what little there is – consists of strong performances fans will instantly feel at home with, and the soundtrack hits all the right emotional notes as you play along.

As for the gameplay, 358/2 Days, save for a few modifications I’ll touch on in a moment, plays just like the PS2 games, and as a 3D action-RPG platformer it is tremendous fun and a great fit for both quick portable gaming sessions and multi-hour marathons sitting on the couch at home. The action-oriented combat system is simple hack-n-slash fare with an intuitive real-time RPG menu system and fast, energetic pacing that keeps you plowing forward through the hordes of Heartless you’ll face throughout the game’s 20 to 25-hour adventure.

Familiar mechanics aside, 358/2 Days does tweak the Kingdom Hearts formula around in three ways. First is the game’s streamlined mission-based structure. In the game you play as Sora’s Nobody Roxas and complete missions as a member of Organization XIII. With each day that passes in the game you are given a selection of missions to choose from – some are mandatory to advance the story, some are optional – and when you select a mission you warp out to the corresponding Disney world assigned with simple tasks, such as collecting a certain amount of hearts from dead enemies, gathering intel about the area in question, seeking out and defeating key bosses, and so on and so forth. Then, once you’ve completed your task you RTC (return to castle), collect your reward, proceed to the next mission and repeat the process until you’ve completed the game. It’s a definite simplification, but taking the portability factor into account, the change makes sense for the DS.

The second tweak is the new Panel System. Instead of gaining experience, leveling up and earning new abilities automatically like usual, you have a blank character customization grid that you can fill with different panels you’ve earned, collected and/or purchased. These panels all represent the different abilities, spells, items and weapons available to your character, be it different keyblades, keyblade upgrades, healing potions, stat-boost rings, magic spells, or special abilities like dodge rolling, high jumping, and gliding. Each level you achieve is also represented by a panel, so in order to level-up you must install the appropriate number of level panels to your grid.

Initially, I wasn’t too fond of this system. As a grumpy old traditional RPG vet, I was peeved about not automatically progressing in level based on the experience I’d earned. But as I played on and watched the system evolve, I grew to love how balanced and adaptable it became. Before you take off on a mission you can read intel about possible enemy weaknesses and adjust your panels accordingly, and you can also save out different panel layouts for different situations for quick changing – you can’t change panels out in the field, though, so be well prepared before leaving for a mission. The system is incredibly well balanced, too. When you start the game, your panel grid is limited in size, but as you complete missions you slowly but surely unlock new grid slots to expand your arsenal. What’s great about this is how you are always able to equip enough panels to suit your needs, but you are never able to overpower yourself with every single ability, spell and upgrade you have on hand.

Finally, the third new feature of note is the introduction of multiplayer. While it’s a bummer the multiplayer lacks support for online play, game sharing, and the ability to play through the story cooperatively – you typically have an AI companion tagging along on your missions in solo play, so a co-op story mode would’ve made sense – there is a separate Mission Mode enabling up to four players to connect locally and play through missions unlocked in the story mode as a team (Mission Mode can be played solo as well, in case you were wondering).

Unfortunately, with only one copy of the game and the lack of online functionality, I haven’t been able to test the performance of the multiplayer. But it’s basically like playing through the solo missions with real players in place of AI partners, so I have no doubt it’d be a lot of fun for a group of Kingdom Hearts buddies to tool around with. What’s also cool about Mission Mode is how it gives you the chance to play as any one of the Organization XIII members in addition to other bonus characters like Donald and Goofy, and also how your character progress and panel collection carries over from the story mode.

After being so overwhelmingly positive thus far, I hate to turn all grumpy here, but sadly the game has a lot of negative points for me to criticize. Sadly enough, the main source of disappointment for me is the story. Personally, it took me just under 25 hours to complete every mission in the game (optional missions included in that tally), which I think is a perfect length for this type of game – it’s long enough to satisfy, but it doesn’t drag on long enough for boredom and repetition to set in.

But to me, the story didn’t really amount to anything until maybe the last five hours, and even then I never really felt like what was being told was integral to the overarching Kingdom Hearts plot. Yes, it’s kind of interesting to learn more about Roxas and Organization XIII, but for the first 15 hours almost every mission ends with Roxas, Axel and Xion (or some combination of the three) meeting on top of the Twilight Town clock tower to chat and eat ice cream pops as the sun sets. Watching what essentially amounts to the same cutscene over and over again, only with different dialogue, gets old, and in the end I missed not playing as Sora, Donald and Goofy.

And that’s my other big problem with the game: compared to the other Kingdom Hearts games, 358/2 Days feels jarringly disconnected from the Disney themes that are the lifeblood of the series. Sure, you get to visit Disney worlds like Wonderland, the Olympus Coliseum, Agrabah, Never Land and Halloween Town, and yes, each of these worlds is presented well in terms of capturing the differing art styles and audio themes of their movie counterparts. But you never really interact with the characters of these worlds like you do in the previous games, and overall the game just seems to be missing that special Disney spirit.

As an interquel to the two main PS2 games, 358/2 Days will also be incredibly confusing to series newcomers, which is another big problem with these spin-off games releasing on so many different platforms. Other than a brief storyline recap in the front of the manual, Square Enix makes no attempt to explain who certain characters are or what their involvement is with the series’ plot line.

Other flaws exist within the gameplay framework, and both will be familiar to players of previous games. The series has always had minor issues with camera and targeting controls, but on the DS these flaws seem to stand out more than ever. I don’t know if it’s the smaller screens or what, but I often found myself fighting the camera to get a suitable view of the action and having trouble keeping my sights locked onto enemies, especially those that like to fly around. Neither problem is that harmful, but they do give you enough grief to distract you from just enjoying the game.

As an enchanted Kingdom Hearts fan I wish I could be more upbeat about this latest DS spin-off, because in large part it is a fun, gorgeous-looking action-RPG that kept me glued to my DS for hours at a time and a faithful portable adaptation of the series’ core mechanics enhanced by a few unique new ideas that I’d love to see carried on and fleshed out even more in future installments. But as I said earlier, the story doesn’t add enough new material to the franchise as a whole, nor is it presented in such a way that will enable series newcomers to latch onto the characters or become charmed by the Disney magic… because it’s just not there.

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days serves its purpose as an enjoyable action-RPG romp, and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge any fan from rushing out to buy a copy no matter what I have to say. But in the grand scheme of things, this game doesn’t quite live up to its predecessors and fails to expand upon the Kingdom Hearts mythos in any significant way.

TryIt.jpg

Pros:
+ Real-time, 3D combat system just as fun as the PS2 games
+ Panel System introduces new character customization strategies
+ Mission-based structure is perfectly paced for portable play
+ Impressive 3D graphics and audio effects
+ Game length hits the sweet spot; multiplayer and theater mode add replay value

Cons:
– Story adds no real substance to the series
– Lacks the Disney charm and spirit
– Series newcomers will likely feel lost during parts of the story
– Camera and lock-on issues

Game Info:
Platform: DS
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Release Date: 9/29/09
Genre: Action-RPG
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1-4
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!