If you're unfamiliar with the Kingdom Hearts universe, which now spans six games across multiple handheld and home console platforms, we can safely say that this game isn't for you. In fact, even if you have played one or two of the games in the series, you may or may not be attracted to this title for its very specific focus. This is a game made for Kingdom Hearts fans, the ones who live and breathe the universe where Disney and Final Fantasy characters are often seen interacting and occasionally enjoying volleyball and other beach sports on multiple worlds constantly under threat by the plague-like Heartless. If you don't know your Nobodies from your Heartless, this game will make very little sense to you. We suggest catching up on the excellent main-series instalments on the PlayStation 2. Right, you done? Good, let's talk about Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days on Nintendo DS.
As we said, this game has a very specific narrative focus on Organisation XIII. The Organisation were the antagonists of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories on Game Boy Advance, and Kingdom Hearts II on PS2, and you're taken into their midst through the eyes of their newest recruit: Roxas. The Organisation is composed of 'Nobodies', which in the Kingdom Hearts universe are what's left behind after a person loses their heart and is turned into a Heartless - the body and soul. Devoid of hearts and emotion, they send their rank out on missions to complete their secretive ultimate objective. Roxas, able to wield the heart-collecting Keyblade, suddenly finds himself at the centre of their attention, despite the fact that he cannot remember anything of his life before the Organisation.
Players of Kingdom Hearts II will likely remember Roxas from that game's prologue. 358/2 Days serves as a mid-quel between Kingdom Hearts I and II and fills in just about all of Roxas' backstory. Even if you weren't a fan of him before this game, you'll certainly come to care about him by the end as he evolves from a self-described 'zombie' to a strong-willed and interesting character. The connections he forms with Organisation members Axel and Xion, are well-handled and actually quite sweet. At the end of just about every mission, their friendship evolves as they sit at the top of a clock tower eating ice-cream, in cut-scenes which do get repetitive and often don't advance the plot, but which do eventually become charming.
So, now that we've established that this is a game for the Kingdom Hearts faithful, what do they have to look forward to in this title? Well, unfortunately, they shouldn't be expecting anything new location-wise, as all of the environments in this game are recycled from past entries. The music hasn't even been changed. You'll re-visit Halloween Town, Olympus Coliseum, Wonderland, Neverland, and even Agrabah. While all of these are famous locations from classic Disney films, we've been to all these places before in several games so there really isn't a whole lot new to see here. Characters from each of those films do appear in their respective worlds, but they don't really have a lot to do that's interesting, having already had their main story arcs told in the PS2 games. Oh, and forget about finding new Final Fantasy characters in this game, there aren't any.
Seeing as Roxas is a full-fledged member of Organisation XIII, the game is structured around the missions he's sent out on. These are bite-sized excursions into the various worlds the game has to offer, well-constructed for the portable Nintendo DS, and you're often presented with a selection of missions at any one time (with certain ones which will advance the story highlighted). Missions can range from standard 'collect hearts' or 'defeat Heartless' missions, to fighting specific targets and racing to collect 'emblems'. Probably the weakest are the 'recon' missions which must be performed in recently-discovered worlds, where Roxas has to examine every detail of the environment before being allowed to proceed.
Unlike the series' last portable incarnation, 358/2 Days plays a lot like the original Kingdom Hearts on PlayStation 2. There's no nonsense about playing cards or deck shuffling this time, just straight up Action-RPG goodness. The game is entirely in 3D as you move Roxas around with the d-pad and attack and dodge with the face buttons. You can access item and magic menus by scrolling down and selecting them, or simply assign them to shortcut-buttons. The R-trigger allows you to lock on and center the camera. Don't expect to be using the touch-screen much, or at all, as its only function is to rotate the camera around Roxas, something which can also be done by holding down Select.
Combat in the game is fast and fun. If you're like us you'll be content to button-mash your way to victory as you spam the attack command, occasionally jumping to reach airborne enemies, while other more tactically-minded players may be more inclined to make use of the various Final Fantasy magic on hand. Spells from Fira to Thundaga can be cast against enemies weak to their elements, although you'll have to be sure to aim correctly. Due to the lack of analogue control, it can sometimes be hard to chase enemies or cast spells within their correct ranges, although the auto lock-on does its best to keep frustration to a minimum most of the time.
358/2 days also has a unique way of levelling up with its Panel system. Essentially, abilities, magic and items must be slotted into a grid-like structure in-between missions for Roxas to be able to use them in actual missions. He also collects 'Level Up' blocks which continually take up more space in the panels, creating a bit of strategy as to how you choose to fit everything in. Finally, in addition to the game's single-player story mode, there is an extensive multiplayer component in the 'Mission Mode'. These special missions can be played with up to four-players and are a blast, especially since you can select from the full roster of Organisation XIII as playable characters. Some slowdown can occur when things get hectic, but if you've got three fellow Kingdom Hearts nuts its definitely worth trying out.
Visually, Kingdom Hearts is very strong for a DS title. It definitely looks like a down-sized low-resolution PS2 title, which to be honest is about as good as the DS is going to get, and Square-Enix should be commended for fitting as much detail in as they did. In single-player, the game's framerate rarely dips, and overall it's an attractive title. However, as we said there is a lot of repetition in the design from earlier games, and indeed in the sound-design too. Much of the music is carried over from past games and repeated ad-infinitum. Some of the cut-scenes in the game are pre-rendered (about PS2-quality) and have full voice acting, but they are few and far between.
Overall, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is one for the fans. If you've been slathering at the mouth for more plot details about Xemnas and Riku and Axel, and what the purpose of Castle Oblivion was and what role DiZ played between games, then you'll enjoy this game. If you have no idea what we just said, then you'll appreciate the console-like experience on the DS, the fun and fast gameplay and the intriguing levelling system and Mission Mode, but most likely be lost in the proceedings. Hopefully a new Kingdom Hearts game is on the way that will advance the main story of Sora in a true sequel, because there is far too much repetition in 358/2 Days of previous content. In addition, the game can occasionally frustrate with its controls and opponents. However, we'd say the game is like the summer vacation which Roxas long desires. It's fun with friends, can sometimes seem to be paced quite slowly, but is often sweet and filled with nostalgia.