Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days
Some things were just meant to be together. Peanut butter and jelly, cookies and milk, rum and coke, and in Kingdom Hearts’ case, Disney and Square. What made Kingdom Hearts on the PlayStation 2 such a success was the surprisingly enjoyable combination of Disney’s loveable and carefree characters and Square’s darker, dramatic lineup. Cloud meets Hercules, and the result was the making of legends. Sadly, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days for the Nintendo DS possesses little of this synergy, making the fourth installment in the series one that only aims to please the crowd that knows what they’re getting into.
Today’s protagonist is Roxas, wielding the keyblade on behalf of Organization XIII. That sentence was a test. If you read it and found yourself asking just what on earth I was talking about, then put away your DS and walk away. This game is not for you. The sad truth is that there isn’t a single aspect of 358/2 Days that will appeal to anyone coming into the series for the first time, and even if you are well versed in the language of the Kingdom Hearts universe, you’re still going to feel that a hunk of the essence that made the past titles great is absent in this new installment. 358/2 Days plays parallel to the timelines of both Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, introducing us to Roxas during his creation process when Sora sacrificed his heart in the first game. Although this interesting look into the back-story of a character that wasn’t very heavily explored in the other games is cool, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with Roxas as a character. In his early days he comes across so unbearably bland and unexciting. This is not the Roxas you will remember from Kingdom Hearts 2, but we’ll get to that.
The story progresses on a day-to-day basis, leading up to the climactic conclusion on the 358th day. Your first day will consist of being initiated into Organization XIII and being introduced to the other 12 members. Roxas’ silent treatment is played off as a mechanic that makes getting to know the other members rather easy, as they will be doing almost all of the talking during the first week or so. Your early days are comprised of a handful of very helpful training missions. Make no mistake: these training missions will save your life. Though a DS game it may be, 358/2 Days boasts the same depth that any console game would, and with only a handful of buttons at their disposal Square made use of every possible button combination they could conceive. That’s not to say that the game feels cramped or confusing – in fact the controls run extremely smoothly – it’s just to say that without a proper understanding of how everything works, you’re going to have a much harder time aiding our blonde hero in reaching his 358th day in the organization.
On the plus side of things, succeeding in combat is a task that is geared towards you particular play-style. Roxas’ spells and abilities are all tied to a grid system that makes equipping spells and abilities fun and engaging. If you enjoy spamming magic abilities or you enjoy an in-your-face approach to fighting, then 358/2 Days can accommodate, and accommodates well. Saving particular builds to aid you on different missions was a well thought out and wonderfully executed feature on square’s behalf, and if you enjoy fine-tuning your characters then a lot of your time will be spend finding the perfect sequence of block sizes to be placed on your grid, which is expanded with each successful mission. Tetris fans excel here.
You will advance through the plot and the ranks of Organization XIII by completing missions and collecting hearts via. defeating heartless. If you’re familiar with Kingdom Hearts II then you know it’s only a matter of time before Roxas meets and befriends Axel, and each of the days at your disposal house just enough time to complete one mission and then watch our two comrades share a sea-salt ice cream atop a clock tower. If the sentiment is warming your heart, then take a step back and have a deep breath, for this routine will quickly become one you will learn to hate. Sure, watching the friendship between Axel and Roxas (who remains absurdly quiet until half way into the game) is an integral part of the story, after watching the same thing happen over and over 300 times you will never want to see a clock or an ice cream cone again.
You’ll have your clichéd “what am I fighting for?” and “what’s the meaning of friendship?” moments as the days go by, and before long Roxas will have acquired some fancy looking new keyblades and some spiffy spells to toss at the heartless. All seems well until Xion shows up as the organization’s fourteenth member and second keyblade wielder, and from here all hell breaks loose (in a good way). Axel leaves for Castle Oblivion (running alongside Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories’ storyline) and Roxas is left to work alongside Xion, whose bizarre standing within the Organization leads Roxas down his inevitable path of questioning the nature of the organization’s motives and his eventual defection and betrayal. The plot here is pure fan-service: Kingdom Hearts scholars will be pleased, and the rest of the crowd will walk away feeling only semi-satisfied.
Although the game plays well and the combat remains faithful of all prior Kingdom Hearts titles, there are just too many factors at work here that keep 358/2 days from being as wonderful as its predecessors. First and foremost is the lack of Disney. Though it’s true that Roxas will travel to a small handful of the Disney worlds that Sora visited, there is little beyond the landscape to give you the feeling you’re looking for. As a member of Organization XIII Roxas is tasked with staying out of sight at all times. This means no party members outside of the organization’s draft, and no interaction whatsoever with any of the Disney crew. This flaw, although in-line with the Kingdom Hearts lore, does a depressingly successful job of destroying the chemistry between the light-hearted and the intense.
With my Disney qualms aside, the concept here is just bad. Taking an absolutely cool pack of antagonists and turning them into a strict and structured “business” of collecting souls makes Organization XIII look bland. All of the characters who were wielding giant swords or summoning dancing water allies are now assigning you missions and calling you to assembly, while promising to pay you a decent wage and a steady career advancement plan. This feels more like a Wal-Mart and less like an evil organization, and it really takes from the overall experience. Tag this with the fact that Roxas says little-to-nothing for the first few hours of the game, and a lot of what made Kingdom Hearts 2 great is gone like the wind. I remember Roxas being sharp, witty, and a steady fighter even when he had no memory, and although character development is an important part of any game, 358/2 Days has done well in making him look like the village idiot who gets about 20 minutes of proper butt-kicking intensity before his memory is wiped. Can you feel a sigh coming on?
Now don’t get me wrong, 358/2 Days isn’t a failure as Kingdom Hearts games go. This installment boasts amazing visual style considering the platform it calls home, and for the first time in the series’ history co-op is supported and all of Organization XIII’s members are yours for the playing. For the keeners out there, the game also maintains your average item-synthesis shop (so prepare to go material hunting) and a fairly un-rewarding challenge mode for the elitists. Slap this coat on an entirely engaging character customization option and some really interesting plot holes filled in, and 358/2 Days has enough for me to recommend it to someone who loves the series and needs to kills some time on the road. However, anyone who appreciates understanding what’s going on in a game and doesn’t like re-exploring the same handful of dungeons over and over for a “semi-evil” corporation only to be rewarded with a sickeningly repetitive clock tower-ice cream cinematic should steer clear. If you can name every one of Kingdom Hearts’ characters in your sleep, then 358/2 Days is certainly for you and you’d be foolish to miss out on an integral piece of the storyline puzzle. Just don’t expect the average gamer to be able to relate to you.