Review by UltimaZER0

"A great game but not without a few major flaws"

When Kingdom Hearts was released on the PS2, it dazzled players with its all-star cast of actors, some of the finest graphics that ever graced a television screen, and gameplay that was fun and exciting. It was so successful that it paved the way for a slew of other titles in the series, all of which have received a lot of praise. After spending a good week on 358/2 Days, I think it definitely lives up to the others despite some of its major flaws.

The game takes place after the first Kingdom Hearts, and for the entirety of the game, you play as Roxas, the first protagonist from Kingdom Hearts II. As a member of Organization XIII, you take on daily missions that reward you with an assortment of items, money, and upgrades. As you complete each mission, the story takes another step forward.

Right from the get-go, the game is easy to pick up. For players who have played any of the other games, the controls are nearly identical to those of the PS2 releases. For everyone else, the first few missions familiarize you with the mechanics of the game. Once the training wheels are off, you take on other missions, reap the rewards, lather, rinse, and repeat. This is basically the entire framework of the game itself. The plot develops through cutscenes that are seen between missions. These are especially a treat for Kingdom Hearts fans because they fill in a lot of the gaps in the story that the other games intentionally left open.

Visually, this game trumps just about every other game on the Nintendo DS. The rendered 3D graphics are right on par with what the PS1 and Saturn were capable of, which is very impressive for the DS, and the colors are rich, lively, and pleasing to the eye. Certain details such as hands and weapons aren't rendered very well, and details in Roxas's robes are pixelated, but everything flows so smoothly that you will seldom find yourself bothered by such minute flaws. The CGI movie clips are also stunning. Leave it to Square-Enix to come up with some of the best cinematics to grace any game system, small or large.

The audio is also a pleasure to listen to. The majority of the soundtrack is taken from previous Kingdom Hearts games, which is appropriate since you mainly travel between worlds that are seen in the other titles anyway. There are few new tracks that I thought were very touching, and there is a very good rendition of the Dearly Beloved track that's traditionally used for the title screen of each game in the series. The CGI footage also features some very high quality voice acting, which gives each scene all the more emotion.

Like the other Kingdom Hearts games, your adventures take you to different worlds based on Disney movies. However, your ability to explore them in 358/2 Days is limited to the boundaries set by each mission. As you work on a mission certain areas are blocked off until a later mission requires that you explore that area. While it makes the game feel somewhat linear, I also found that by blocking off unnecessary areas, it's easier to know exactly where you need to go to complete your mission objectives. Each world is also much smaller than they were in the other titles, with the exception of Twilight Town, but this smaller size seems appropriate for this particular game.

Another familiar feature is the Moogle Shop and Item Synthesis. While some items can be purchased with Heart Points acquired from killing Heartless, others have to be synthesized using materials gathered from chests and enemies. Synthesis requires munnies but it's plentiful in this game. The system works well, and I found myself acquiring new items from the shop at a reasonable pace.

The gameplay is nearly identical to the other Kingdom Hearts titles but 358/2 Days attempts something new by borrowing the Limit Break system from the Final Fantasy series. For those who are familiar with it, the concept is still the same: if you are low on health, you can use a deadly attack to tear everything to pieces. It's a nice emergency option to have but against some of the tougher enemies, I often found myself getting killed while in the middle of performing the Limit Break, so it's a risk but it's fun unleashing it on an army of Heartless.

Another new feature is the Panel system, which works a lot like the Navi Customizer from Megaman Battle Network 3. You basically mix and match Tetris-style panels on a grid. All of your upgrades, including weapons, abilities, accessories, magic spells, and even your levels, are done through this system. Some panels take up more than one square but feature empty slots that allow you to further enhance it with linking panels. As you progress through the missions, the grid expands, allowing Roxas to grow. This system especially works well in Mission Mode because it allows you to tailor your setup to certain characters. You can also save your setups, so there's no need to redo your panels every time you want to experiment with a new build.

One particular deviation from the series is the Magic system. Kingdom Hearts generally follows the same MP system that Final Fantasy traditionally uses, but 358/2 Days goes back to a time when spells had a limited number of casts, which is replenished through the use of Ethers. Through the Panel system, you can choose what spells to carry. There are linkable panels that allow you to boost the number of casts, but I often felt like I never had enough. To compensate for this, the damage done by magic in this game is absurdly high, but there were often times when I wish I had more casts.

One thing about the Magic system that I particularly like is how upgrades of a spell aren't necessarily better than its predecessor. They're stronger but they become more situational. Let's take the Cure series as an example. While Cure immediately heals you for a portion of your HP, Cura regenerates your HP over time, and Curaga creates a healing circle beneath wherever you're standing. By setting up spells this way, it prevents the older spells from becoming obsolete, and it gives you a lot more options to work with.

The combat system is a lot like it is in the first Kingdom Hearts. Combos are simplified to a certain extent but become more elaborate as your acquire new weapons through the Panel system. While you aren't going to see some of the more spectacular combos that you may be used to, they're still quite impressive. Many familiar abilities such as Reflect Guard and Dodge Roll make a comeback, and can be customized through panel links. The Lock-On system also makes an appearance, and it's a great asset, though switching targets when against a horde of enemies can be a major pain since you would have to cycle through multiple targets.

My biggest gripe with the combat in this game, however, is that there seems to be an awkward imbalance in the HP allowed for each enemy. While the smaller enemies feel as though they have just the right amount of HP, some of the bigger ones tend to have such a high amount that it takes a long time to kill them. Even if I blast them with magic, I've had too many moments where I just wished that they didn't take so long to die. After a while, killing the larger foes feels like a chore, and I would just skip them if it weren't for the Synthesis goods they occasionally drop.

Some of the enemies are also downright annoying to the point where I just don't even want to kill them. The Emerald Serenade, for example, does nothing but floats around in a path all day, but it moves quickly, and like most large enemies, it has a ridiculous amount of HP. Even with the help of Blizzara, which freezes the target and briefly lets you attack for triple damage, it took me several minutes to kill it. I would just skip it entirely if it weren't for the fact that killing it is my mission objective. I also didn't take too kindly to one of their smaller cousins, which teleport around each and every time you try to land a combo on them. As a final slap to the face, if you chase certain ones too far from their spawning point, they vanish and reset with full health, but that can't be helped when some enemies have you running after them like a horse with a carrot on a stick. While this doesn't happen that often, it's aggravating to see it happen when it does.

Another aspect of the combat that displeases me is how poorly unbalanced A.I.-controlled characters are. Their weapon attacks do a pitiful amount of damage, but their magic spells are devastating, and they seem to carry an endless supply of potions that can heal you. Unless they cast their spells, they're more or less dead weight. In fact, the only thing they're good for is the free healing that you can reap whenever they're low on health. That and they can draw attention away from you if you ever need to make a quick escape. They can also come back to life within a matter of seconds should they die, which is always a plus.

Another gripe is the Mission Mode, which is unfortunately somewhat lackluster. It's a multiplayer mode featuring specific missions from the Story Mode. You can use any of the Organization XIII members, plus some unlockable characters, and you can customize their panels before each mission. You can also save whatever items and experience you gain, which is transferred over to Roxas in Story Mode. It supports up to four players, but you can also go solo if you just want to play around with someone other than Roxas. On the surface, Mission Mode sounds like a lot of fun, but in practice, it's lacking. There aren't any major rewards from playing the Mode, and most missions don't fully utilize the benefits of having multiple players. The big selling point of this Mode is the Organization XIII members, but while their signature weapons and Limit Breaks are present, they all feel too similar to one another. While there's plenty of fun to be had when you have friends around, it leaves a lot to be desired.

Finally, the last thing that I want to discuss is the story. Most fans of the series already know what to expect in 358/2 Days, and they know how it's going to end, but the addition of a new character named Xion gives the game an interesting plot twist that will intrigue both veterans and newcomers alike. The story isn't as cryptic as that of other Kingdom Hearts game, and rightfully so. This game is intended to fill in a major story gap, and it does just that. It explores Roxas and Axel's friendship, and it gives players insight into what went on within the Organization. The game also sets itself up for one of the most tragic endings that I've ever seen in an RPG.

What especially adds to the story is Roxas's diary entries. It gives player a very interesting look into what he's thinking, and this in turn fleshes out his character and makes him feel more three-dimensional than everyone else. In fact, I would go so far as to say that his diary make him a much deeper character than Sora. Granted, these entries become awfully sad as you make your way towards the end of the game, but they touch upon events on such personal level that watching him grow and learn about the world through his diary entries adds a lot to both the game and his character.

By the time I finished the game, I felt that I got a lot of out of it. While there were some noticeable balance and gameplay issues that detracted from the game's overall appeal, 358/2 Days is a fun game that's features great visuals and audio, solid gameplay, and one of the most touching stories I ever witnessed. Any fan of the series should definitely pick this up, but casual players who have never played any of the other games will also enjoy this. I give this one a 8/10.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 06/22/09

Game Release: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (JP, 05/30/09)

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