In 2002, Disney teamed up with Final Fantasy creator Square to create Kingdom Hearts – a fusion of lighthearted Disney storytelling and classic Japanese role-playing game tenants. It was fun, it was fresh and a lot of people loved it. The 2006 sequel, Kingdom Hearts II, got a little less love and a whole lot of confusion on account of spending the first 12 hours of the game playing as somebody other than the main character. Now, seven years after the original, we’re finally getting the full back story on the character switch.
There’s a lot to love about 358/2 Days – especially if you’re already a fan of the series – but let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. The control scheme is awful. It’s like they ported a PlayStation 2 game and forgot that the DS doesn’t have analog sticks.
The heavy lifting in game comes from the face buttons and the directional pad. Actions like attacking, jumping or navigating the mini-menu in the bottom left hand corner of the upper screen are left to the face buttons, while the D-pad moves Roxas around his 3D environment. The camera is really tricky because there’s no second analog stick (heck, there’s not even a first analog stick!) and the game gives you two options for how to handle it. In control scheme Type A, you have the option to use the stylus as a way to course-correct the camera with a tap to the lower screen. In Type B, which is what we went with, the L and R buttons pull triple duty to handle the camera (L or R to pan), the lock-on reticule (double-tap R) and the shortcut menu (hold L and R).
If all of that sounds confusing, imagine how it actually feels. Honestly, the controls couldn’t be less intuitive if your DS was taped to the ceiling.
Above: Learn to love these screens because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them
The game suffers from these flaws pretty badly. Sure, you unlock a couple of abilities late in the game that mitigate targeting woes and minimize frantic menu-scrolling during battles. But nothing fixes the fact that they’re pretending the D-pad is an analog stick and that’s murder on your thumbs and it’s frustrating that the stylus is more of a hindrance than a help. Also, the camera is a real jerk. It gets stuck between things and has a hard time swinging around to show you a new target once you get the auto-lock feature. This is a recipe for nausea when you’re fighting an enemy that’s hard to target in an enclosed space.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about what does work for 358/2 Days’ gameplay. Like Chain of Memories before it, Days does something different with character customization than your average level-grinding RPG. Instead of cards, though, you get a panels system that limits the amount of items, magic, abilities and even levels that Roxas can have equipped during a mission. Different kinds of panels require more space in your inventory and the shape of the panels presents a strategic challenge on par with Tetris as you try to cram as many abilities and potions as you can into the grid you’re given. To unlock more grid slots, you’ve got to complete missions to net yourself about one slot per mission – or you can earn money and buy a few from the resident Moogle in Organization XIII’s headquarters.
You can’t mention Moogles without saying anything about synthesis, so rest assured you’ll be building a lot of your own weapons in the game from various materials you pick up out on missions. However, some of the best stuff you get from the Moogle comes from redeeming tokens you earn in bonus missions and challenges.
The days of 358/2 Days are divided up by missions. Most days are loaded with various optional missions, plus a few story missions that advance the day cycle when you finish them. Or sometimes the story needs to skip ahead faster, so you only get a story mission punctuated by a cutscene. Depending on the mission, you might wind up with an Organization XIII member in your party or you might have to go it alone. Either way, once you set out, you can’t access any part of your menu to change your panels, edit your partner’s battle tactics or save. Luckily, though, the game still lets you keep whatever you earn in a mission, even if you have to withdraw halfway through because you equipped the wrong kind of magic.
To get more mileage out of gameplay, most of the missions have Ordeal and Unity Badges hidden somewhere in them. Scoring an Ordeal Badge lets you replay the mission in Challenge mode to earn tokens for the Moogle. Unity Badges, on the other hand, open up their missions to multiplayer so that you can play with a friend.
Above: Somehow the controls wound up being more complicated (and painful) than the simple action-adventure gameplay itself
The mission structure in 358/2 Days works well for the DS. For one thing, it makes you much craftier about picking out your panels. For another, it gives you a good start-and-stop pace to work with if you’re playing on public transit. Write that last one down, kids – it’s going to be the thing that sells you the game, if the story isn’t enough for you.
The story is easily the star of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. It takes places between the first and second games and almost simultaneously with the story in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, a 2004 Game Boy Advance game recently ported to the PlayStation 2.
At this point in the overarching story (which we totally spoil for you here), a boy named Sora has had his heart stolen and then later returned to him. Far from being a euphemism for love, Sora’s heart actually leaves his body. This creates both a Heartless – a little black insect thing – and a Nobody. Nobodies are “what’s left” of people when they lose their hearts, and in Sora’s case, this becomes the character Roxas.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days picks up Roxas’s story sometime in the middle of his membership with the mysterious group known as Organization XIII and then flashes back to when Roxas was first recruited. You take the role of the semi-catatonic Roxas after the flashback begins and little by little learn the controls and the reasons for Roxas’s existence. Details are scant at first, but the other Organization members make a big deal out of the fact that Roxas can use a magical sword called the Keyblade while the rest of the Nobodies can’t.
Most of the first missions revolve around Roxas releasing hearts from the Heartless living in Disney-themed worlds. The Organization also assigns him to spy on Disney characters and gather information on other kinds of Heartless that appear. At first, Roxas goes along with it all barely uttering a word. But then two things happen that get the ball rolling in the plot department: First, he makes some friends and second, he starts remembering a life that isn’t his.
Above: One of these things is not like the other. Seriously, the graphics in Days are jagged enough to cut your eyes open – why didn’t they just stick to cutesy sprites?
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is extremely meticulous about crafting its characters. Most of the main cast either aren’t in the other Kingdom Hearts games, or don’t have much screen time compared to other characters in which to display depth or emotion. To fix that, and to answer a lot of questions that come up when playing Chain of Memories where Organization XIII is first introduced, 358/2 Days zeroes in on key members of the Organization and fleshes out their connections to one another over the course of the game.
Axel in particular gets a much larger slice of the limelight. He’s the first person to befriend Roxas by convincing him that sea salt ice cream really is delicious and teaching him how to eat it on top of a clock tower with absolutely no guard rails. He’s also apparently a double-agent working on behalf of Saix – a main villain from Kingdom Hearts II. Players who’ve had the pleasure of beating II or Chain of Memories will get a kick and a lot of answers out of watching the two of them interact. The rest of us can only wonder at Axel’s motives as the game goes on and his friendship with Roxas is put to the test.
Above: Friends don’t let friends gorge on ice cream on top of a clock tower with no guard rail when they’re depressed
Then there’s Xion, who you probably haven’t heard of ‘til now. She’s certainly not in any other game and she really doesn’t look like any Kingdom Hearts character we’ve seen before. But like Roxas and his counterpart, Sora, she can also wield a Keyblade – and that makes her valuable to the Organization and to the plot. Over time, she starts to get attached to Roxas and Axel, joining them for afternoon ice cream binges on top of the clock tower in Twilight Town. She also begins to accompany Roxas on missions, which leads to some serious drama when she, too, starts suffering from strange memories that don’t belong to her.
The only bad thing about the plot and characterization in Days is the part where a newcomer has no idea what’s going on. The explanatory cutscenes are few and far between, and people who only played the first game are going be sorely disappointed by a lack of any characters they can remember (which is the same disconnect Kingdom Hearts II suffered from). But, really, who is this game for if not those who already know what’s going on?
Seriously, fanboys and fangirls, you were going to buy this game no matter what we said, right? After all, it’s a Kingdom Hearts side story aimed at Kingdom Hearts fans. So if you want to know why Roxas quits Organization XIII and where Xion winds up before the start of Kingdom Hearts II, or if you just want to see more Riku, more Mickey Mouse and enjoy the voice talents of Christopher Lee, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 cannot disappoint no matter how bad the controls might be.
Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories? It depends whether or not you’re a Riku fangirl. While he makes a significant appearance in Days and David Gallagher reprises his role as Sora’s troubled best friend, he’s not a playable character. And he is kind of an ass during the final boss fight.
Kingdom Hearts? No. Nothing will ever be quite as good as the game first was, because it was the first to bring this grand idea to life. While we’re happy to have a 3D game on the DS, the graphics in 358/2 Days are way less pretty than what the PS2 could do in its heyday.
The World Ends With You? Close call. Days has the worse controls. Yet the story somehow makes way more sense than The World Ends With you, despite leaving a lot out.
It’s got all the heart, some of the soul and a lot of missing plot pieces from the rest of the series, plus a unique gameplay concept. Too bad the control scheme and the camera suck.