When Kingdom Hearts was first released it offered an inspired merging of Final Fantasy and Disney, creating one of the most compelling adventure games on the PlayStation 2. Fast forward seven years and Square Enix has delivered the first entry on the Nintendo DS platform, the curiously titled Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. Fans of the series will no doubt love the familiar trappings (Keyblades, worlds based on Disney cartoons, etc.), but I was left with one lingering question: Where did all of the Final Fantasy elements go?
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (pronounced "three hundred and fifty eight days over two") takes place after the fateful events of the first Kingdom Hearts game. As the title suggests, the story unfolds over the course of one year, all leading up to the start of 2006's Kingdom Hearts 2. The story is told through the perspective of a couple of fresh recruits to the mysterious Organization XIII, a secretive group that is constantly in the background of this series. You play Roxas, the heartless Nobody version of Sora, who doesn't seem to remember his past and is under the mentorship of one of the Organization XIII elders. Throughout the course of the game Roxas becomes increasingly curious about his surroundings and ultimately discovers this group's deep, dark secrets.
If the above paragraph didn't make any sense, it's probably because you didn't play through the three Kingdom Hearts games that preceded this Nintendo DS title. Even though I had gone through the PlayStation 2 games, it had been a while and some of the details were a little murky. Needless to say, I required a refresher course on the franchise before I could simply jump into this story-heavy adventure game. If you're one of those people who somehow missed the other games, 358/2 Days will do nothing but frustrating and confuse you. The story is so convoluted and silly that it is clear that this game was not intended for new players.
358/2 Days is not the first time Kingdom Hearts has found its way to a portable game system. Several years ago Square Enix released Chain of Memories, a bizarre (and ultimately disappointing) card-based Game Boy Advance game that was later re-released as a PlayStation 2 title. Unlike Chain of Memories, this game stays true to the gameplay of the first two games. This Kingdom Hearts is a third-person action/adventure game where you hack and slash bad guys; explore Disney-inspired levels, cast magic and team up to take down big boss creatures.
Kingdom Hearts attempts to deliver a PlayStation 2-style experience on the Nintendo DS; no easy feat for the handheld's outdated hardware. While the action may feel somewhat similar, it's clear that Square Enix z made a lot of cuts in order to make the game work on Nintendo's dual-screened portable. Gone are the large worlds to explore and top-notch voice acting. Gone are the amazing cinema scenes. It has all been replaced by smaller areas to explore, repeating visuals and dialogue that requires you to read tons of written lines.
Thankfully the franchise's controls have made the transition without too many cutbacks. You control your character in a 3D world, allowing you to run, jump and cast magic just like you would in one of the console games. For the most part this works perfectly, the game buttons are responsive and the targeting system usually works like it should. Unfortunately I didn't have as much luck switching between the attack, magic and items. Instead of giving you a button for magic or items, the game requires you to push the "X" button to switch between these modes. This awkward control scheme works fine when you're off to the side not dealing with an enemy, but it's absolute hell when you're in the middle of a battle. I found that it was too easy to accidentally push the "X" button, which meant that I would accidentally use my magic and items when I was trying to attack. You also have to sift through several pages just to use a health potion, something that can be the difference between life and death when you're battling a boss. After awhile I got used to the control scheme, but it always felt a little awkward to me.
The game starts out with you exploring small chunks of Twilight Town (from Chain of Memories). Instead of giving you a large area to explore, the game cuts off certain areas to keep you confined from the rest of the area. You are tasked with finding clues about the town, figuring out its secrets so that when you come back (and trust me, you WILL come back) you'll be ready to solve mysteries, find missing people and battle bosses.
Unfortunately this is the case with all of the worlds in 358/2 Days. Instead of having a great time exploring new worlds, you are stuck with a mission that only takes you to two or three areas of a particular level. As you progress through the game you will find new hidden areas in each world, but you're still confined in a small and claustrophobic location.The game comes with close to a hundred missions, which translates to a lot of hours playing the game. While that may sound like a good thing, I quickly discovered that most of the missions play out exactly the same way. Some missions will have you doing nothing more than beating up a certain amount of bad guys before you can return home. Other missions are designed around you exploring the environment looking for clues. There are missions where all you need to do is collect a certain amount of floating emblems. And of course there are the times when you go into a level just to battle a boss. Doing these types of missions a few times isn't so bad, but before the game ends you will have done each and every one of these things dozens of times.
This wouldn't be a problem if the pacing was a little better as Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days has a leisurely pace that often feels like nothing much is happening. Even when all hell breaks loose, the main cast of characters act like they could hardly be bothered. There's absolutely no urgency to the story, to the point where I found myself not caring what was going on. Too often I was just completing missions because that's what was expected of me. Thankfully the story picks up towards the end, but it hardly makes up for the slow pacing of the first half.
The game's pacing issues are only amplified when you realize that you've been to each and every one of the worlds found in this game. One of the best things about the first two Kingdom Hearts games was that there was always a sense of excitement over where you would go next. Even if you knew what Disney-inspired world was next, you couldn't help but get there just to explore the world and meet the familiar cast of characters. Unfortunately that's not the case in 358/2 Days. If you've played the PlayStation 2 games, then you've seen all that there is to see in this game. Sure you'll have new tasks and play with different people, but that sense of wonder and excitement flies right out the window when you're stuck revisiting worlds based on Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Beauty and the Beast, Hercules and so on.
Something else that makes this game feel a little off is the fact that you rarely interact with any of the Disney characters. In the other Kingdom Hearts games you team up with your favorite protagonists from the cartoons, but here you are often trying to avoid them. You will occasionally battle monsters based on those cartoons, but it's often the only interaction you have with the characters. After a while this aspect of the game started to get to me, especially since I found each and every one of Kingdom Heart's original characters to be dreadfully dull.
While it may sound like I'm doing nothing but complaining about Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, the truth is that there are several things I really like about this game. Perhaps the most exciting new idea in the game is how you level up your character. Instead of simply battling bad guys and adding up experience, there is a unique panel system in place. Each new attack, magic spell, weapon upgrade, and item is put in a series of open squares, allowing you to customize your fighter any way you want. However, you only have so much room and some of the items require more than one square to fit. As you beat levels you will open up new panels, but you will always need to plan carefully what you want to equip and what you don't. This is an exciting new way of customizing your character; I can only hope that Square Enix uses it in a better adventure game.
I am also a big fan of the multiplayer mode, which gives me a lot of hope that we'll see something like that the inevitable Kingdom Hearts 3. You can play with up to three other people, making each and every mission a lot more bearable. With two players 358/2 Days runs smoothly, however I found that a four player game is fraught with frame rate problems. Still, I love the idea and large teams can put up with some technical problems when you're having that much fun.
The game's graphics look good for a Nintendo DS game, which is to say that it doesn't quite hit the levels of the PlayStation 2 originals, but looks a lot better than a Nintendo 64 game. The backgrounds and characters are repeated far too often for my tastes, but I understand that the developers had to cut some corners in getting the game to the Nintendo DS. Compared to most other games on the handheld, Kingdom Hearts looks fantastic.
The audio is also good, even though many of the tunes are recycled from the past Kingdom Hearts games. Sadly there isn't much voice acting, and when it does show up it's often emotionless. I miss the deliveries of the Disney characters, as well as Haley Joel Osment's portrayal of Sora. Still, the music sounds good coming through the Nintendo DS speakers and often makes it feel like a real Kingdom Hearts game.
While I know I come off negative in my review, there really is a lot to like about Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. I'm impressed with all that Square Enix was able to do on the Nintendo DS, even if part of me is disappointed by the slow pacing and repeating worlds. With close to a hundred levels, multiplayer support and bonus challenges, there's a lot for a player to do and see. I wasn't completely won over by the game's charm, but it does make for a fun diversion while we wait for Square to release Kingdom Hearts 3.