Review by David Newton
"358 Days a Spiny-Haired Wally"
Some of the best games are those that are not only enjoyable at a gameplay level, but that are thought-provoking as well - and the mathematically-titled Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (pronounced, though it sounds somewhat unlikely, "Kingdom Hearts, Three Five Eight Days Over Two") kept on bringing up one thought throughout. It was "Why am I still playing this?".
I've mentioned before that I always found it a huge mystery why I didn't hate Kingdom Hearts, but this game did the best job yet of solving the paradox by just making me hate it after all. The series started off as a Disney-nostalgia-laden action RPG, but has now fully embraced the oncoming tidal wave of Hot Topic-ness that's been threatening to overtake it since around the time that the concept of Nobodies was introduced (sort of half-there poor photocopies of people that are created when they're turned into a Heartless or something).
This time around, you star as Roxas, one of these Nobodies with a side career of being a clueless dipstick. He has recently been indoctrinated into Organization XIII, which is a society of Square Enix characters and David Bowie, dressed in black cloaks and sporting increasingly unlikely haircuts. During the game, these people organize missions into the various Disney realities from a sort of Tron-like coffee-room of darkness, where they spout things like "RTC authorized" and talk about "recon missions", which is meant to be all mysterious but really sounds like ten year olds running a society of secret agents from their treehouse.
Your objective in these missions is usually to clear out the Heartless so that you can steal their hearts (which I must say confuses the hell out of me for a start), with the eventual goal of completing Kingdom Hearts and... getting hearts themselves, or something, I didn't quite get the explanation. Apparently Nobodies don't have hearts but Heartless do, I don't know. Still, most of these missions involve going through and whacking enemies with a big key in the best of the series' traditions, but the crown of this exercise in banality is the investigation missions. In those, your objective is to clomp around every space and along every wall in the level until a question mark icon pops up over your character, then look more closely at the immediate area, whereupon they'll say something like "Cor, a pile of sand" before you're allowed to move on. It takes them about eight "discoveries" before having the "breakthrough" that the Beast is the master of the Beast's Castle - they might as well be the Society for the Investigation of Really Boring Things.
After each menial job you're tasked with, the timeline and storyline advance a little further (usually by one day but sometimes more, so thankfully you don't have to do 358 of them), and you're often treated to a cutscene of the central characters getting together on the clock tower after work and talking about their feelings and inability to understand life like in some terrible Australian soap opera. And as if that wasn't enough punishment, you also get the unenviable opportunity to read his bleeding Livejournal - throughout the game, you'll get updates to Roxas' Diary, which contains such enthralling private thoughts as the following:
"Axel and I went to Twilight Town today. He taught me a lot. Before we RTC'd (Returned to the Castle) we swung by the clock tower and had some sea-salt ice cream. Axel called it the 'icing on the cake' after a successful mission. Well, except there was no cake - just the ice cream. I don't know what to write in this thing!"
Needless to say, you'll be looking for a Defriend button pretty soon after starting.
Now that I've got all that out the way, I'm going to have to explain why I played this to the end, and to be honest I'm not really sure myself... but I've got to say that the last sections of it suddenly got interesting after a ton of repetitive missions, so I feel like I got some reward out of it. Ignoring the storyline, it's a reasonable action RPG, even if fighting usually consists of hammering one button (you have the option of using physical attacks or magic, but the first tends to be far more useful, easier to aim and non-depletable). If you can stand the main characters for long enough, you get a sense of achievement in advancing the timeline and seeing where you're sent next - there are only a few actual environments, but different areas of them are open on each mission, meaning that the actual playfield is different each time. And occasionally, it throws the odd genuinely clever bit at you - to symbolize Roxas' vague memories coming to the surface, occasionally the bottom screen will turn off and be replaced with a grainy image of Kingdom Hearts 1 being played simultaneously with you. It feels oddly nostalgic, even though said memory was from all of about three years ago.
After the system of the similarly lengthily-titled Kingdom Hearts RE:Chain of Memories, in which I either missed something absolutely fundamental or the game was all but completely unplayable, it's interesting to note that this one's progression system is actually one of my favourites from Square Enix in a long time. The entire process of levelling up and gathering abilities is represented like an inventory - every ability and enhancement you're given is represented by a "panel" (even the level-ups), and you can swap things in and out and try to Tetris the various pieces into a space that expands gradually over the course of the game - it's quite satisfying to finally get something together that has all the abilities you want and fits into the space. And finally, I'm frankly quite impressed with it on a technical level - 90 missions, countless different enemies and about half an hour of FMV totalling about 30 hours of gameplay time are squashed into a cartridge the size of a stamp.
From the level of conversation that you're forced to page through in this game, I inevitably have the impression that the main audience for the series is made up of slash-writing fangirls. Most of the clock tower dialogue in particular surely must be pandering to them, because I don't think there's any way that I could possibly make most of those conversations any more hilarious. Faced with going back there once again, you can't help regretting that there's no option to just boot them off the clock tower at this point and end the game that way. If you've got that mmmmmmmmemorized.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10 | Originally Posted: 10/18/10
Game Release: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (US, 09/29/09)
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