Review by Tranzience

"A failure on many levels"

With four other entries in this popular series, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days brings the Disney and Final Fantasy mash-up to the DS. Unlike the previous handheld spin-off, however, Days plays much like the main installments in the series – the original Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II – instead of the card-based affair that turned many away from the Game Boy Advance entry. There are some obvious obstacles in trying to emulate a PS2 game's success on the DS's hardware. Moreover, many fans of the series stay for the plot rather than the action, so there are some steep expectations in several areas for this game to live up to. To put it simply, the game does not meet these standards.

The first thing the player is treated to when starting up a new game in Days is one of Square's usual long cutscenes that briefly describes each member of the Organization XIII including the thirteenth member whom the player assumes the role of throughout the game. From there, the story is set up so that those new to the series can play and enjoy the game while veterans gain a little extra insight into knowing what's going on – especially since the fate of the main character is known to any who played Kingdom Hearts II. The basic premise is this: Roxas wields this unique weapon known as the keyblade, and the Organization wants him to go on missions and defeat monsters with the keyblade with the end goal of granting the heart-free members of the Organization their own hearts. This basic premise is established early on, but from there the story just falls apart.

It is difficult to establish the worst thing about the way the story unfolds because there are so many. The first is that the pacing is terrible. Sometimes there are long gaps without any meaningful development or conflict while at other times significant events unfold back to back to back. The second is that the character development is lop-sided and hamfisted. It is not long into the game when about half of the game's cast is simply cast off from the rest of the game. Though the reason is clear enough to anyone who has an understanding of the previous spin-off's plot, it does not excuse this blatant and poorly written plot point that leaves only a feeling of irritation at the lack of proper explanation or emotional investment in any of the characters who have been axed. Instead, the game chooses to focus on three main characters while giving the rest of the remaining some brief and unsatisfactory development.

So, about the characters the game did choose to develop – without spoiling anything, of course. The idea here is to get the player to cozy up to Roxas and gain some sort of attachment to him by watching his friendship begin, grow, and eventually end with his two best friends. A simple enough concept, but the execution is quite poor. A majority of the time, the only interaction these characters have is eating ice cream together. They never say much of value; they just sit there and eat ice cream. There is no conflict, no event they push through together, nothing that ties them except this extremely mundane and boring activity that is even more boring to the player forced to sit through it.

Nor is this boring trudge exclusive to these characters' friendship. The whole plot is severely lacking in conflict or purpose through vast expanses of the game. When the game finally does decide to kick it into gear, however, there are problems there as well. For instance, why are all these characters that are supposedly without hearts or feelings getting so emotional all the time? As a standalone story, it suffers from the fact that the ending ties up so little and that too many characters without much background or explanation start popping up right at the end. What happened to the Final Fantasy characters? With the exception of the moogle running the shop there are absolutely no Final Fantasy characters. For that matter, what happened to the Disney characters? They are given very minor roles that are more like side stories than anything with any real relevance to the story. Part of the appeal and much of the advertising to this game focuses around the fact that the series is Disney meets Final Fantasy, right? So where did they go? How did this series stray so far from its roots? It would be painful to delve any further into this game's plot, so it's time to move on.

The Kingdom Hearts series is not renowned for its complexity. While the first Kingdom Hearts gave the player the task of dodging attacks on their own to break up the monotonous affair of mashing the attack button till the enemy died, Kingdom Hearts II took what some considered a step back by adding reaction commands which essentially do the dodging/blocking for you – though others liked the cinematic flourish they added to the game's combat. This DS entry is aimed more towards those who preferred the combat of the first game, once again banking on the player's ability dodge and block attacks. The controls are fairly straightforward and easy to use and understand, and the return to a slightly more skill-based method of play combined with a significant increase in enemy stats compared to the other games makes this the most challenging entry in the series yet. Once again, however, there are problems abound.

The first complaint is that the camera is rather unfriendly. The game does offer multiple ways to control the camera, but in the heat of battle none of them are entirely satisfactory. This is not really that noticeable throughout most of the game, but when the camera issues do pop up they are most irksome. Again, this game plays more like the first Kingdom Hearts than the second, and in much the same way it loses a lot of the cinematic elements of the latter, so this camera bit is on top of the already bland looking combat. The second issue is the game's limit break system. Familiar to fans of the Final Fantasy series, the game gives the player access to a devastating attack that can only be unleashed when the character is at low health. The problem with this mechanic is two-fold. Firstly, the way to activate this ability is not conducive to being at low health: the player has to hold down the A button. When the game is beeping at you that your health is low, the last thing you want to do is sit and hold a button waiting for your character to pick up on the fact you want him to unleash that super move that can save your hide. The second is that once you get it working it works too well. The fact that it can be used multiple times back to back, especially later in the game where the tougher enemies are, means that this feature is exploitable to the point that nearly all the bosses in the game can be taken down by simply spamming this feature over and over, completely ridiculing any hint at skill-based or difficult gameplay. Lastly, there is the issue of the game's multiplayer which we will get back to in a minute.

In order to be more conducive to a handheld experience, the game is divided up into missions before and after (and sometimes even a little bit during) which the plot is dished out to the player. The missions come in three varieties: collect emblems, scout out the new area, or defeat enemies (either a certain amount of little enemies or hunting down a boss). The first two are very rare, so most of the game is spent just beating up monsters. The formula gets pretty old pretty quick, especially with the lack of variety in enemies and the annoying habit of certain enemies to take forever and a day to die. Most missions have little emblems which can either unlock one of two things: A challenge version of the mission the player can complete to get more items or the ability to play the mission in multiplayer. This brings us to the multiplayer.

The only multiplayer feature of the game is to play through missions already beaten and unlocked through the above method with friends. In this mode you can choose from basically any character from the game, all of whom have somewhat different play styles. But what's the point? There really is little to gain from playing these missions again in the multiplayer mode. There is no online multiplayer option, either, so any multiplayer affairs will be confined to your friends who both own a DS and already have their own copy of the game and have made it far enough into the game to have unlocked the mission you want to play and who haven't already beat the game and lost interest. Suddenly your options for people to play with are severely limited, just as your reasons for playing this mode already were. To put it simply, what should have been one of the main draw of this game – a multiplayer Kingdom Hearts title! – is just a tacked on feature for the sake of saying it has the feature.

One part of the game I can really compliment is that the 3D graphics are some of the best produced for the DS. They are obviously a lot more jaggy here and there than the PS2 iterations, the models are still a bit wonky especially with their unchanging facial expressions, and the animations are a bit stiff here and there, but overall the game still has nothing to envy of anything else on the system. These are a bit offset by the fact that the design choices can really drag down the presentation. There are only a few levels and all the parts of the levels look too similar, so you'll be getting that “oh god not this place again” feeling all too often; something that could have been fixed with either more levels or more liveliness lent to the levels that are there. The music is rather forgettable; pretty much all of it save for a couple of the character's themes are recycled from the other games. The not-so-great DS speakers do little to aid the music, and neither do the short bursts of the few good piano themes that come and go too quickly to enjoy. On the subject of the game's sound quality, there is voice-acting, but not very much. Expect to hear the same grunts and giggles from the characters instead. Again, while not much more can be expected out of a DS game, it does little to improve the fact that it leaves much to be desired.

What is there to be said about all of this in conclusion? The game needs work. Had it been a console installment, a lot of the later issues I mentioned could have been fixed. But in the end it would not have saved the miserable affairs that are the story and characters. For a series that has always put engaging combat second and telling a tale and giving a nod to Final Fantasy/Disney fans first, this entry has tried to follow suit but failed. There are much better ways to spend your time than on Days.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.0 - Poor

Originally Posted: 10/15/09

Game Release: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (US, 09/29/09)

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