Review by Donald Love 87
"Kingdom Hearts - Friendship is Magic"
When the first Kingdom Hearts (PS2) was announced, pretty much everyone seemed to believe it was an April fools joke or something like that. Disney and Square teaming up, making a video game featuring both characters from the Final Fantasy series and classic Disney movies and shows. When the game was released, if you were to call it a license game, it was one of the best license games ever released. Not only did it manage to combine the two, very different, universes - it also managed to get the entire crossover to work very well and even told a pretty interesting story in itself. What's interesting is that since then, that story has got its own life and now it's easy to think of old Disney characters as Kingdom Hearts characters and not just guest stars when they appear in the games. So, what is Kingdom Hearts like on the DS?
For a DS game, this has pretty impressive graphics. For normal gameplay it's pretty standard DS 3D - the polygons are a bit blocky, the textures are a bit pixelated - but with the nice style and level design it's put to good use. But it's during the cutscenes the graphics really shine; I never thought that the DS could be able to play such nice video. It seems as if it's running at a bit lower resolution than the screen, but it looks as if it's put through an anti-aliasing filter making it really smooth. I know pre-rendered cutscenes shouldn't really matter in a graphics comparison, but I'm very impressed they managed to get that on a DS cart.
For gameplay the style used, as I mentioned, make you think very little of the somewhat jagged edges. Sure, the robe many of the main characters wear isn't an item of it's own but rather just something "glued" to the characters, but not many scenes prove that. When something happens that would make it too obvious, like someone sitting down or taking the hood off, in most cases it's done offscreen. The level areas look nice, but have a bit of an odd map limiting, meaning that if an area or ledge look reachable but is outside of the map (which you've got on the lower screen) you can't get there. It takes a while getting used to, but once you learn the level layouts and how it works it's nothing you'll think of.
Sound effects and music
Just like graphics, when it comes to cutscenes it's among the best I've seen for the DS. For the cutscenes, there's actually voice acting included. Voice acting! In a DS game! Sure, it will sound a bit compressed when coming from those small speakers, but it's still extremely impressive. Sadly but understandably we only get voices for the cutscenes, and at all other times we're back to the classic textboxes, mixed in with some small grunts or "uh-huh" from the people talking which just as well could have been left out as it sounds pretty stupid.
The music in the game is of good quality soundwise, but I think that the tunes are a bit boring. Still, it's nice to have them there and thematically they fit the areas and worlds they are found in. The boss theme is a favorite of mine, and it really helps raising the tension and my pulse, which is rare for a game to do nowadays. Two other compositions stand out too, interestingly enough they're the two opposite ends of the main menu theme and credits theme, and just as the voice acting impresses in cutscenes the credits theme is a real sound file where the song includes vocals. Really fitting and moving at that point of the game.
Sound effects are what they are, as they sound good and never really out of place. Sure, I've never heard a shadow monster getting hit over the head with a gigantic key used as a weapon in real life so I won't have much to compare it to, but I still think it sounds pretty much about right. Overall, I like the sound effects - they're loud and "take space" when that's what they should sound like, and a bit softer when they need to be that.
As far as I've noticed, the Kingdom Hearts series seems to be one of the most tightly connected games in modern gaming - possibly along with the Metal Gear Solid games. What I'm trying to say is that they are very direct sequels and tie in extremely much with each another, and you'll need to play all of them to get the most out of it. I've only played the first Kingdom Hearts, and that was some years ago so I don't remember very much of it. That made some parts of this game go completely over my head, but it was still possible for me to appreciate it, and some plot twists possibly made a bigger impact on me since I didn't see them coming.
The game follows Roxas, the newest recruit of Organization XIII, both while he is sent out to do jobs for the organization and during his spare time. Since the game is mostly to showcase Roxas personality and the Organization, the story is actually pretty slow. Early on in the game, Roxas befriends another organization member named Axel (as much as Nobodies CAN befriend someone), and a bit later new recruit Xion also becomes a friend. Most of the cutscenes until towards the ending of the game will be about ice-cream, friendship and thoughts about feelings and past lives. While some players might find this lack of any kind of pacing in the story to be extremely boring, I think it's nice to get some insight in a game characters everyday life instead of just getting thrown into a "hey, now you gotta go save the world"-type of situation.
Still, Roxas everyday life ain't like any of ours. Living in the Kingdom Hearts universe and working for Organization XIII, he gets to travel all over the different Kingdom Hearts worlds (Agrabah, Beast's Castle, Wonderland to name a few) and complete different objectives. The entire basis of gameplay is based around those missions, which can range from the simple "Collect hearts" (dead enemies drop those) to "Kill giant heartless". For each mission you pass there will be a day counter ticking away, and when you look at the 358 days in the title, you'll understand that's when it's going to end, and pray that there won't be too many days time-skipped after your next mission.
While much of the game take place in different Disney worlds, the game is actually extremely scarce on Disney characters - which is explained by the fact that Roxas works undercover. Of course, a few of them show up every here and there, but very little compared to the other games (both as I remember from KH and also what I've heard). It is a bit strange, but if the main reason for playing is any other than "I want to see Disney characters" you should be fine.
Getting 3D gaming to work with only a D-pad can be a bit difficult, but for this game it flows oddly natural even though targeting sometimes messes up a bit. Just for your information, there are two different types of control, one called basic and another more advanced. The advanced one is unlocked a while into the story, and I switched over to it as soon as I could and since I liked it so much I've never switched back, which means that when I'm talking controls advanced is the mapping I'm going to describe. So if you decide to get the game and find out that nothing I've said makes sense, just play through the beginning part and you'll be able to play as me then.
The directional pad is used as a replacement for an analogue stick used for movement, and apart from might getting a sore thumb after long gameplay sessions it works fine. Diagonal movement (forward and left/right at the same time) can be a bit tricky at times, but never causes any real problems. The B button is used for jumping, X is used for selecting actions during gameplay (attacking, magic or items) and A is used for performing that action. Y will let you glide in the air once you gain that ability. The L and R buttons are used to swing the camera around, while a double click of the R button lets you lock onto a target, which is something you'll do a lot during the game. Since the game lacks an analogue stick for camera changes it'll be a little slow and not as easy to master with the L and R buttons as replacements, and sometimes you'll be stuck with your viewpoint towards a wall, especially when the lock on goes bananas. Still, in most cases such things are survivable and rare enough to not be a big annoyance.
As I mentioned earlier, the missions are the main point of this game, as most of the time will be spent with them. Before going out on missions, however, you'll spend some time in a hub area where you can manage your panels/equipment, buy supplies, save, read up on files or enemy intel and talk to other Organization XIII members. When you feel ready, you'll have to talk to a specific character in the area who give you the active missions - in some cases there are multiple you can choose from but sometimes there's only one. Some missions are meant to progress the story while some are just filler to get more out of the story or extra equipment.
When taking on a mission you'll be teleported to the world it takes place in and then it's just to get to work. As I mentioned earlier, different missions have different goals, but in all except very few cases they revolve around killing heartless with your keyblade. Defeat normal heartless to collect hearts, killing off shadow globs, eliminating giant heartless. There are a few missions where there are following or sneak elements involved (complete with vision cones ala Metal Gear Solid), but they're pulled off pretty bad so I'm glad there aren't many of them. Unlike most RPG games there is pretty little exploration during most missions since the worlds are small and unimportant areas are locked off with "magic barriers".
Combat is done in the same way as I remember Kingdom Hearts was - pure action with no turn-based waiting in any way. Hack, slash, combo your way through everything with a few casts of magic mixed in and mastery of the roll and block moves is a sure way to eliminate normal enemies. For bosses, it'll take a while to learn it and to find patience for it, but after a while you'll find it's much better to actually take some time, learn patterns, weaknesses and move in for a combo strike when an opening occurs than just run in there guns blazing... or keyblades swinging is probably a better description.
One of my favorite parts of the game is the innovative Panel system. Panels are really a key point of the game, and it's pretty different from anything I've ever seen before. Panels, to say it short, is everything you can use, actively or passively, during missions. That means items, magic, abilities, weapons, equipment and even levels. Unlike other RPG games where there's usually a slot for a weapon and one for armor, here everything has to fit in the panel space. This is the most important strategy factor of the game, and it really pays off to listen to the tips people give you before missions to go in as prepared as you can - in a mission where you mainly meet ice enemies? Throw out the blizzard magic and replace it with fire, maybe even cut some levels off yourself to make place for more magic. Of course there are still some limitations within the panel slots so that you won't be able to equip more than one weapon or ring at the same time even if you could fit it, and of course more powerful things will take up more space. But those items which takes more than one square will also let you link others to it, like the weapons which you can outfit with panels to boost strength, magic, defense or criticals, and magic and other types of abilities which can be leveled up. The panel system is also a good way for the game to prevent you from powerlevling or otherwise getting too powerful too early, since most of the "Slot releaser" items are rewards for completing story missions.
In addition to the normal story mode, you always have a chance to replay the missions (not always immediately afterwards, sometimes this opens up a few missions later) to gather items you didn't get the first time around or filling the mission bar completely. Some of the items you might not be able to get on your first time are the Ordeal Badge/Blazon and the Unity Badge. These items are used to unlock the ability to play the missions in two other game modes. Mission Mode (Unity Badge unlocks missions for this) is mainly meant as a multiplayer mode, but since it's only local and I don't know anyone with the game I haven't been able to try it out that way, but it works with single player too. The big difference between the normal missions and this is that here the enemies are stronger (because you're supposed to do this with 2-4 players) and you get to choose your character. From the start you'll be able to select from the Organization XIII characters, but later in the game you'll unlock others. Since everyone uses different types of weapons and has different stats it's pretty fun to figure out who's the best for any given mission. Challenge Mode is more like replaying the missions from the game normally, since you can still only play as Roxas, but these are no walk in the park. In this mode there are goals for you to beat, which vary from not getting hit to no misses to pure time trials, usually mixed in with limitations to make it harder, like raising the enemy level, a level cap for you or no magic available. Just as the name says, some of them are really challenging (though some early ones are a breeze after you've leveled up later in the game) but most are still fun and all are totally manageable. So what's the point of these modes, you might ask? Upon beating a mission in Mission Mode solo, or by being top scorer in a multiplayer game, you get a set number Mission Crowns depending on how difficult the mission is considered (subsequent playthroughs only give you one each time). For beating the requirements of a Challenge, you get one to three Challenge Sigils, depending on how well you did. These sigils and crowns can be exchanged at the shop for items, some of which are not available anywhere else.
All in all, this is a very good game, one of my favorite DS games of those I've played so far. The fact that missions are replayable in different modes where you have other goals is great since it makes the game longer through replayability. The only real drawback the game has is that the camera angles sometimes are a bit wonky since you don't have any analogue sticks to adjust them with. Other than that, there are just small things lacking a bit - maybe some more different types of missions, sneaking could be pulled off a bit better, but the main thing with this game is the fighting and it's done really well, and if you master the system instead of just hacking and slashing the gameplay won't become repetitive. The story could feel a bit boring for many players since it's a bit slow and more down-to-earth than most others, but taking it for what it is then it's a beautiful little tale about friendship, feelings and ice cream.
This game is a clear 9 out of 10 for me, not perfect but fits well into any DS collection and especially for the fans of the Kingdom Hearts series.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 01/04/12
Game Release: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (EU, 10/09/09)
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