Kingdom Hearts is back in town once again courtesy of Square Enix and Disney's creative minds, this time with Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days on the Nintendo DS. It's been quite a while since Kingdom Hearts has served up some new plotline and this time Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days pits players against the heroes whose roles they normally play, for a little change of scenery, and in true Action RPG form too. Taking advantage of the platform to boast both single player and multiplayer story modes, this is definitely not the stereotypical spinoff carbon copy.
Players take control of Roxas, the latest recruit in the diabolical Organization XIII, whom Kingdom Hearts veterans will remember controlling for the six-hour-plus tutorial phase of Kingdom Hearts II in 2006. Quite literally a newborn Nobody with nothing but a name and a severe case of amnesia, Roxas is quickly picked up by Xemnas, given his acronym-derived name, and accepted into the ranks of the Organization as number XIII. The story follows Roxas' ascent from, as partner Axel calls him, a listless "zombie" into one of their more formidable warriors. The timeline runs in the background of the events that take place at the end of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, bouncing back and forth between The World that Never Was, as well as various Disney worlds where XIII conducts investigations and missions. Long time Kingdom Hearts fans will note events, like several members' departure for Castle Oblivion, as timestamps in the pre-existing Kingdom Hearts plotline, which does a nice job of rounding out the universe. In addition, a marked twist to this story, as players will be able to tell simply from looking at the cover, is the emergence of an as-of-yet-unmentioned rank XIV in the Organization, a young woman named Xion.
Gameplay, surprisingly, is very much akin to what players have grown accustomed to from the Kingdom Hearts series, despite the jump to a portable platform. Days begin in The Grey Area, a meeting room in the Organization's castle in The World That Never Was, where players can save their game and prep for the day's mission. Non-battle actions work the same as always, with players being able to move Roxas freely about the field and interact with characters or objects he approaches. Before embarking on a mission, it's essential to equip Roxas properly, as the menu is not accessible at any point during an excursion, even when no enemies are present. The game can be saved at any time from the menu, but the unavailability of the menu during missions can be quite an annoyance from the perspective of portability. Some of the missions are quite long, so it doesn't necessarily suit quick play sessions.
A notable aspect of the battle system this time around is the use of panels for equipment, items, abilities, and levelling. Players are given a backpack with a set number of blocks, or panels, and can use the stylus or arrow keys to drag items from Roxas' inventory into his backpack. Some abilities or stat boosts take up more than one panel, however, and are sometimes odd, Tetris-like shapes that call for a bit of strategizing; for instance, more powerful level-ups take up more room. Power-ups can be placed into the various multi-slot panels as well, unlocking more advanced abilities.Actual battle operates very similarly to the original Kingdom Hearts, with the Attack, Magic, and Item commands always available. Battles are surprisingly tough, a nice change from Kingdom Hearts II's almost frustratingly easy enemies. Unfortunately player back-up isn't much more help than Donald or Goofy typically were in past Kingdom Hearts games. In fact, sometimes it seems players' Organization buddy is limited to only a few attacks per battle and spends the rest of his/her time wandering aimlessly around the field like a lemming. Also, what's arguably Kingdom Hearts' weakest gameplay element comes back with a vengeance: the camera. Luckily, it's possible to turn off the "smart follow" option in deference to using the left and right shoulder buttons, which helps somewhat, but is still probably the biggest annoyance. Missions are kept relatively straightforward, with certain areas being blocked off by barriers to help guide players toward the mission's target, but luckily it isn't depressingly simple.
Players may actually find themselves wanting more battle, less prattle in this particular installment. Without spoiling the story, the daily cycle of --wake up, listen to some lines of dialogue, prepare for the mission, do the mission, eat sea-salt ice cream, sleep-- gets old quickly. However, missions are actually engaging this time around, but some may find it difficult to get through the first few hours of story, which can be quite tedious. Things certainly pick up, but the initial hook was not one of Square Enix's best.
On another note, surprisingly the environment renders are very close to those found in Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, a refreshing change, seeing as the last time the series jumped to a handheld, players were forced to deal with dumbed-down, boxy, linear representations of familiar worlds. The recreation of Twilight Town in Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, for example, is 100% derived from its PlayStation 2 predecessor. Cutscenes are cinematically on-par with the nicer in-game cutscenes from Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, playing much like movies to illustrate important events. Even in-game graphics are impressive as far as the DS is concerned. The music is derived mostly directly from Kingdom Hearts II, if not barely-noticeably simplified, and gives a pleasant nostalgic air to this installment. Voice acting is sparse, but little 'hmms' or chuckles lend the still-human feel where full voicing would be impossible. Overall, the presentation is gorgeous given its limitations, as gamers come to expect from Square Enix.
Multiplayer mode lends a whole new dynamic to this Kingdom Hearts game as well. It allows players to execute various missions without the frustration of less-than-helpful AI backup, as well as the added fun of choosing an Organization member to represent players in a group of up to four players. However, things can be seen either as a cooperative effort, or stiff competition, as a point system determines which player earns the crown points and wins the mission at its conclusion. This mode adds a degree of replayability that casual fans might say the actual story mode does not.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is definitely a worthy addition to the Kingdom Hearts franchise. It seems to bring the best out of the Nintendo DS, as it sports good graphics and has some great voice acting in parts, meaning fans of the series will instantly feel at home. However, parts of the game may get a bit repetitive, and the poorly designed camera is still present. The story also takes a while to get started, but those who stick with it will find a game that delivers, and also offers a fun multiplayer experience too.