I can't possibly explain how much I missed Kingdom Hearts, because it wasn't even obvious to me until the newest game in the series was placed into my hands. This exceptionally creative and charming series has stolen hearts since 2002 when it premiered on the PlayStation 2 and brought two entertainment giants together: Square Enix and Disney. Now it wasn't always obvious that Final Fantasy would go so well with Disney movies, but the companies proved everyone wrong with this bestselling series. Kingdom Hearts is an intricate story about three friends and the things they would do to save one another. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is the newest addition to the series, although it falls chronologically before Kingdom Hearts 2, and this time focuses on Sora's Nobody, Roxas.
Just as a quick note, people who have never played this series will be completely lost in this game, and at therefore at least partially in this review. The game is technically the fifth one and even though it occurs before the second, it may still prove confusing to play this without playing the others. Believe me, it's worth it if you're interested in RPG's.
Many fans were confused by Roxas' appearance in Kingdom Hearts 2, although Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories sought to explain some of it. Essentially, when Sora gave up his heart to save Kairi in the first game, a body was left behind, a Nobody.
In Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days Roxas is taken in by Organization XIII, a group of Nobodies who have plans to claim hearts for themselves. Their leader, Xemnas, claims Roxas while Roxas is still aimlessly walking around, and immediately sends him out to collect hearts with the Keyblade he inherits from Sora. In the Organization, Roxas befriends fellow Nobody Axel, who has secrets of his own but seems to have genuine affection for Roxas. In time, Roxas and Axel also get close with a mysterious Nobody, Xion. The three of them meet up after every mission to talk and enjoy ice cream together.
As the story enfolds and Roxas is sent out on various missions all over the Disney/Square world, and other well known characters from the series appears, such as Namine, Riku, and Mickey Mouse. Xion's past is discovered, Roxas' fate is determined, and everything is set up neatly so that the plot of Kingdom Hearts 2 takes place immediately after this game finishes. This might be the saddest of the games, since you know some pieces of the puzzle and being on Roxas' side still means getting ready to lose him. Unlike the other games, this has no defined happy ending and one doesn't exactly feel any satisfaction from the end result. If one continues with the series, perhaps they can feel happy knowing how Xemnas ends and Sora's reunion with Kairi and Riku, but Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is a tragic game.
Clearly it is an elaborate plot, one which ties in beautifully with the other games, but it is not made for newcomers. It will confuse and frustrate new players, but fans of the series are sure to be delighted.
As for the gameplay itself, it is rather straightforward. The stylus is completely unnecessary, although one can use it to adjust the camera. There are exquisite cut-scenes and voiceovers from the beginning as one enters the world of the Nobodies, and the voice acting is, as always, excellent. The graphics are certainly pushing the more limited world of the Nintendo DS, and they look sharp even while exploring the simpler realms. This game can feel like something of a button masher, since one can just attack over and over until Heartless goes down, but it's challenging enough that the player still tends to need strategy to get through it all. For instance, magic sometimes works best against enemies, but the player has to equip magic in the panel system before every battle.
The panel system, a new addition to the series, is like an inventory that holds all one's potions, ethers, weapons, abilities, and magic. There are only a certain amount of slots to fill, although as the game goes on this widens and more freedom is given. However, if a magic type is or an ability is not equipped in the panel, it will not be available for the next mission. The player has to be sure to take the time to do this correctly, and if they manage every level will fly by with little problem. Failing to equip the correct items may mean a mission has to be restarted from the beginning. Additionally, in the panel system there are 'linked' abilities which tie weapons and magic together and up Roxas' levels and strengths in the game. Strategy is highly encouraged in this game, although it is not completely necessary.
Most of the time on missions, Roxas is accompanied by another Nobody, and the AI is actually very smart. I was rescued several times by my partner, who apparently knew what they were doing better than I did, and that was a great relief in some of the more serious battles. The missions offered are sometimes mandatory, while others are just for additional points and to learn more skills. The largest change in this game is that it is multiplayer compatible. That's right, up to four friends can play together in the game. The Organization XIII members are playable characters and specific missions are offered online, so if anyone's been dying for an interactive game experience in the Disney/Square world, this is it. It runs fairly well, but the full story is only told in the single-player mode.
The worlds in this edition of Kingdom Hearts are ones players have been to countless times before, and while they are still wonderful, it is a little sad that they didn't try to throw in something new. Roxas does go out into the Peter Pan world for the first time, rather than just sticking to the pirate ship, but it might have been nice to design more new settings and challenges if they planned on going to the same old worlds. Another negative is that the music is exactly the same, and while I love all of that music already, this series is known for being bright and fresh. The game is a little too much 'been there done that,' especially for fans of the series.
That being said, it is still a great accomplishment. The DS is used to the best of its abilities, the story is interesting and heartfelt, and it reminds fans why they loved Kingdom Hearts in the first place. Could the designers have pushed the envelope more? Maybe, they always have before. Is it disappointing they didn't? Yes, sadly so. Overall is it still worth the time and effort? Absolutely! Newcomers to the series should not start out here, but fans will devour it whole and just want more, more, more.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence.