The gap between Kingdom Hearts II and III was spectacularly long. To tide us over in that interminable wait, Square-Enix decided to release a plethora of interquels, prequels, and semi-sequel things, in turn creating a vast and labyrinthine miasma of plot. 4 years after Kingdom Hearts II this process began with the awfully-titled 358/2 Days
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (NDS)
Released May 2009 | Developed: h.a.n.d. | Published: Square-Enix
(Note: Screenshots in this review were taken from the HD Cinematic Scenes of 358/2 Days from the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Remix on PS4.)
Series veterans will I’m sure remember Roxas, the fresh-faced young lad whom we played as in the infamously lengthy prologue of Kingdom Hearts II. During that prologue Roxas was hounded by a strange chap called Axel who said that they were friends and tried to bring him back to the ranks of Organization XIII. This game, set in the year between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II (well, nearly a year, hence the 358 days in the title! Clever, eh? Or not.), follows Roxas’ time as a member of the shadowy Organization.
Just like his brief role in Kingdom Hearts II, Roxas can wield the magical Keyblade. Whereas Sora uses it to defeat Heartless in his quest to save the world, Roxas however is directed to slay Heartless to help forge a path to the titular Kingdom Hearts, the heart of all worlds, and with it further the Organization aims to attain ultimate power. Roxas knows none of this though; only that he is sent on missions for the Organization. In the middle of all this, a new member is introduced in Xion, a second Keyblade user, and she and Roxas begin to strike up a friendship.
Fittingly for a game all about a quirky boss squad, the characters are at the forefront of the writing. We’ve seen all of the Organization before but mainly only in bit roles and as bosses, neither of which lend themselves to deep characterisation. That’s still kind of the case here; there are fourteen members of the Organization and there simply isn’t time to give all of them their dues, so instead a number of members simply get their one or two defining traits exaggerated. However, some are focused on and we start to see them flesh out in satisfying ways, namely the Organization second-in-commands Xigbar and Saix, and our trio of heroes, Axel, Roxas, and Xion.
There’s some (admittedly kind of flimsy) justification for the simple personalities though; as per Kingdom Hearts lore, every member of the Organization is a Nobody: an empty shell of a person left behind after they were consumed by the darkness of the Heartless. Because of this, they’re supposed to be emotionless blank slates, but our cast are the strongest of their kind and so can grow once again into new people. That does mean though that the newest members start off as bland zombies, and as Roxas and Xion are both brand new get used to waiting some time for Roxas to learn to have a personality. Once they do get going however the pathos comes thick and fast; this is a necessarily tragic tale as we already know the outcome of Roxas leaving on damningly bad terms, and personally I feel like towards the end we get what is genuinely one of the series’ saddest moments. That said, it’s hard not to feel some of this is lost in the wider story-building, especially given the franchise’s notoriously complex plot.
Like other Kingdom Hearts games, 358/2 Days is an action RPG. It features real-time combat, plus a command menu which can be cycled through during fights to use your other options. As a smaller handheld game these additional commands are limited to Magic and Items; there’s no summoning or wild combat abilities here. It’s a good sign though that they don’t feel like they’re lost in the move to a smaller, scaled-down game. It feels like there’s a greater focus on using magic in 358/2 Days compared to other entries; in previous games magic is a useful tool and mastering it is key to mastering each game, but it’s even more crucial here. Many enemies sport elemental weaknesses and hitting them with it leads to some serious damage. On top of that, status ailments have a huge place in the gameplay. There’s a huge array of ailments which can afflict Roxas and in turn be afflicted upon enemies; some are predictable, such as being poisoned or burned, while others like Blind or Silence are lifted directly from Final Fantasy.
At the risk of sounding excruciatingly boring, I was surprised at how involved and engaging the inventory management system was in 35/2 Days. No, seriously! Everything that can be applied to Roxas comes in the form of panels and you need to play some inventory Tetris in order to define what weapon you take on missions, what spells and items you have, and even what level Roxas is. Some panels come with attached slots which affect the panels you slot in there; a level modifier set lets Roxas gain more than 1 level per panel, for example, while weapon panels often have slots to attach ability panels or stat modifiers. It’s a system which rarely lets players simply go all in with everything, and instead forces you to think about your choices for each mission. It’s a creative system, and I really enjoy it.
Unique to 358/2 Days is its format. Days takes place over… well, days. Each new day in Roxas’ life brings with it a new mission, and there’s a fair few of them to get through. It does rely a little on predictable design; there are only a few basic objectives and you don’t have to get too far in the game before you’ve seen most of them. Some missions are built around collecting hearts by defeating a certain number of enemies, while others task Roxas with eliminating a specific miniboss. A pair of recurring missions is to destroy “shadow globs” and to investigate a world, which are as thrilling as they sound. I guess I like that it forces you to engage with platforming, as the level design returns to the verticality of the original Kingdom Hearts.
358/2 Days is the first entry in the series to feature multiplayer. I very rarely mention multiplayer in any of my reviews because I tend to not give a toss about it; I’m a single-player aficionado and I always will be. However, the way Days implements its multiplayer component is compelling. Up to 4 players choose any of the 14 members of the Organization to play as and can cooperatively take on missions. Every character comes with the same inventory management system as Roxas in the main game, and can all be equipped differently, allowing you to play around a lot with different weapons and abilities. Though this does lead to a similarity between characters, they each have unique stats which push them towards their own specific playstyle.
Given its platform, Days looks pretty damn good. 3D graphics can always feel a bit hit or miss to me when it comes to the DS, and screenshots never do the game justice as it can look very polygonal, but in motion the game looks perfectly fine. For major cutscenes the game renders FMV that look like downscaled PS2 graphics and they look quite nice; it’s certainly a testament to the money that was put into the game at least. I am a big fan of the animations, some of which are quite fluid, and a lot of work has clearly been put into making each character feel unique to play.
As ever Yoko Shimomura provides the soundtrack, with her usual blend of expressive orchestral arrangements built around solid melodic cores. There’s plenty of repetition of tracks and themes from previous games, but that is perhaps to be expected for a title of this scope. However, some of the original tracks are phenomenal. Xion’s theme is a notable and utterly heartrendingly beautiful addition to the franchise’s music; the slow piano and strings give it a melancholic weight not unlike either Riku’s or Roxas’ themes from Kingdom Hearts II, while the core melody, sitting isolated in the middle of the mix, communicates the loneliness of her character. The melody gets a reprise in Vector to the Heavens, which places in the context of a much more powerful build up, behind which is some of the most profound bass sections in the soundtrack.
While Days remains technically a DS exclusive title, the first collection of Kingdom Hearts games (the abhorrently-titled I.5 HD ReMix) features it in an adapted form. It is basically shown as a film, rather than a remade game in any playable form. A lot of scenes are newly voiced, which is quite impressive, and many scenes are newly animated, although the vast majority of them are scenes of dialogue, so be prepared to sit around listening to characters chatter. The voice acting direction however is not so good, with lots of awkward pausing and flat dialogue which presumably comes as a result of matching the lip animations from the original Japanese. Interspersed throughout the film are screens that are simply text of the bits of the story that aren’t important, such as whatever Roxas did on this or that Disney world. It’s hardly the ideal way to experience the game, but it is regrettably the only way to do so unless you get a hold of the DS version.
358/2 Days has a mixed reception amongst fans of the series, and I think it’s reasonably clear why. The story of Kingdom Hearts has always been bonkers but Days takes it to a new level of hazy writing and hasty retcons. I do honestly think that buried beneath all the guff is a stark and poignant tale but the writers just didn’t know how to convey that within the scope of such a bizarre franchise. Thankfully, even if you can’t get on with the story, I do think the core gameplay of the series has survived the downscale to DS relatively intact and it is still an enjoyable experience because of it.
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.