Review by TaoTapp

"Much like the game's Nobodies, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days feels incomplete."

The Kingdom Hearts franchise began as something magical. In the series' first installment, players spent dozens of hours exploring multiple Disney inspired worlds as the game's 14 year old clown-shoe-wearing protagonist, Sora. The premise? Sora's just chilling at home, when one day the world as he knows it gets blown to pieces. He wakes up in a town he's never heard of, in a mysterious alternate world that he's never been to, and all he want to do is find his friends and get back home to eat some tropical fruit. Unfortunately, the first installment does not manage to finish the tale, and the second Kingdom Hearts game released for the Game Boy Advance, titled “Chain of Memories,” takes place directly where the first game left off. This one offers a darker storyline with themes involving memories, loss, and a group of men sporting dark trench coats, collectively known as “Organization XIII.” It would seem that somewhere along this line, the developers realized that men in trench coats talking about darkness yielded more sales, because future games (Kingdom Hearts II, for example) would place much more emphasis on these men, and less emphasis on the things that made the first game great, like exploration, male characters who don‘t swing their hips when they walk, and a story that doesn't flow like bad fan fiction. Luckily, the console sequel to Kingdom Hearts 1 did manage to wrap up the game rather well, doing its job as far as a sequel goes. Unfortunately, Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II's obsession with questionable raincoat men opened up another world of inquiry regarding Organization XIII, and the series' most recent addition, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (from now on referred to as “Days”), attempts to tie up any loose ends. While “Days” does answer quite a few questions, it manages to be quite the uninspired ride; at the end of the day, the main problem with Days is that it simply feels unfinished, and there is very little incentive to get to the fun parts of the game, so to speak. This review will examine some of the problems with Days by examining the game's story, gameplay, and graphics.

Before the story can be discussed, it is very important for the player to understand the events in the prior games. I'm sure that most people will shrug and perhaps even roll their eyes upon reading such an obvious fact, but this game will make plenty of references to events that occurred in the series' game boy advance title. There has got to be a five year gap (Chain of Memories was released in 2004) between the two games, and I actually found myself going online and reading summaries of the previous titles (specifically the GBA title, Chain of Memories) just to know what two characters were talking about during a particular scene. To be sure, a player can get through the game without having extensive knowledge of the previous games, but that player should expect to be confused on more than one occasion.

The Plot: Identify with characters through their dessert of choice.

Without giving away too much, Days' storyline revolves around Roxas and his time spent in the Organization before the events of Kingdom Hearts II. Roxas is a member of Organization XIII, the aforementioned club for (mostly) men who like to wear black trench coats and talk about darkness. Roxas' exciting day to day activities involve waking up, talking to a rather feminine looking authority figure named Saix about the day's mission, leaving the Organization's club house (a white castle.), completing the mission, and returning to the castle, but not before eating ice cream atop a clock tower. Delicious. Sarcasm aside, the organization is quite serious about their work, and Roxas is very necessary for their serious business, although this is not obvious after the first hour or so. As the game wears on, it is common for the player to see Organization members just standing off to the side, leaning against an uninspired castle wall, or lounging around on cold looking, poorly rendered couches. I mean, really? Anyway, the player watches as Roxas, who is first introduced as a bit of an introvert, almost vegetable like, comes out of his shell and finds friendship in Axel and Xion, two other members of the Organization. As the storyline develops, the player should, in theory, learn to love Xion and Axel and feel crushed when the trio is forced to undergo the many trials the game serves up for them.

Unfortunately, there is not much time to get to love these characters before the plot starts to really heat up, because the only interaction seen between the three friends involves watching them eat ice cream together. Even before Xion is introduced, and Roxas' only friend is a red haired individual named Axel, the “touching scenes” between the two that are supposed to make me care about their friendship involve them eating ice cream, and sometimes there isn't even dialogue involved. That's right. Sometimes they just sit there, eating ice cream, and I'm just left staring at the screen, waiting for it to be over. To be sure, the story's biggest problem lies in its inability to get the player to care about the characters. It is too self assured; it assumes that the player already cares about the relationship between Axel and Roxas, and anything else (the ice cream scenes) ought to be considered charity or fan service. And I'm sure that it is, for many people. I do not doubt that plenty of fans already cared about Roxas as a character, but I won't stand for it. Especially when such drab scenes are supposed to be considered a reward at the end of a boring mission, as I will explain next.

The Gameplay: A good idea in short bursts.

Indeed, the gameplay is mission based. This looks good on paper. After all, the game is only available on the DS, a portable system. Ideally, players will pick the game up, complete a mission while they're on the bus or something, and set the game back down until they want to play it again. This is great for that player, but for the gamer who picked up this game for the plot, and not solely to play in short bursts on the bus, it makes for a terribly dull experience, simply because the missions are so repetitive, and the gameplay consists solely of doing one mission after another, after another. A single mission will usually consist of killing a set amount of heartless (the monsters of the game), killing one particularly dangerous heartless, or, god forbid, a reconnaissance mission.

The first two types of missions are, admittedly, not that bad if one ignores the repetitive combat system, containing every problem of the first game, right down to mashing a single button to attack. In addition to this, the player must also learn to live with an odd camera system, which can be controlled by the touch screen -- not bad, unless you're in the middle of a fight and can't be bothered to fiddle with a touch screen. Then of course, there is the dull music, and the boring environments, which I will explain later. To be sure, if the player ignores these things and just focuses on beating the snot out of some monsters, then the game can be kind of fun in short bursts. But when the fifth “kill more monsters!” mission comes up in a world that you've already been to, it gets a little repetitive. Thankfully, this is my only complaint, for no amount of “kill kill kill!” can ever be as bad as the recon missions.

To be sure, the first two are not so bad, but the recon missions are absolutely dreadful. They sound good enough at first: scope out a new world. Explore. But the end result is the player running around a large, suspiciously empty and uninspired town, hoping against hope that he'll find something for the character to examine so the mission can end. Important areas are not marked on any sort of map, so the player has to examine every square inch of the town until a little question mark appears above Roxas' head, indicating that he is close to a particularly important thing that must be examined further. When this thing is discovered (it can literally be anything; one particular instance involved this “thing” being a pile of sand, and in another case, the “thing” was a wall, and no, I am not kidding.), the player must press A next to it, allowing Roxas to examine it and make some sort of dull remark, like “these boxes are empty,” or “these plates are covered with sand!” In the end, the whole point of the recon mission is moot, as the game lets Roxas do most of the figuring out for the player. There is no test at the end, no way to piece together the clues you've discovered for yourself. Instead, another Organization member will ask Roxas something like “well, what does this mean?” and Roxas will respond without any help from the player, making it a complete waste of time for anyone who enjoys problem solving. The second recon mission comes to mind almost immediately; after a good, long time spent exploring a suspiciously empty town desert town, an Organization member asked me what I thought of the place. The game allowed me to respond by presenting two choices, and allowing me to pick one. For example, an Organization member might ask “what do you make of the piles of sand everywhere?” and the player is given the choice of option A, which might say something like “perhaps there has been a sandstorm,” and option B, which is usually some inane attempt at humor, like “maybe they put the sand there for fun.” Clearly, the choices are there, but when the right choice is oftentimes so ridiculously obvious, it makes the point of such a repetitive recon mission questionable at best. The player has no incentive to pay attention during a recon mission, unless he does not want to fall asleep while playing.

It should also be mentioned that each mission has a mission bar. When you complete the original task, the bar grows partially full, and the player is allowed to return to the castle, or HQ. If you go above and beyond the requirements by doing a little extra, the bar will become completely full, yielding an extra item at the end of the level. I must say that by day 70 or so, I stopped going the extra mile just because the prizes at the end were not worth being stuck in one of those boring, empty worlds any longer than I had to be.

In the end, all three mission styles tend to be rather repetitive, but at the end of each mission, there is usually a nifty cutscene involving Roxas, Axel, and Xion … eating ice cream. Yes, that's right. At the end of each boring mission, you have a CHANCE at a cutscene that does not even move the plot along most of the time. One moment stands out for me in particular. I had gone above and beyond in a mission. I had filled that bar, because I was still naive; I expected a better cutscene for my extra work. When the chore of a mission ended, I was greeted to a scene that wasn't even 15 seconds long. Roxas and Axel sat there, eating ice cream. They didn't even say a word. The scene ended, and I was left just staring at my DS, flabbergasted. In some cases, there simply wasn't a scene involved at all. Simply put, the missions really do feel like work instead of play, and the clips afterwards are just not rewarding at all, with the exception of the scenes that move the plot forward. But the thing is, a mundane filler mission won't normally yield a plot-moving scene. The mission itself is usually not one of the typical filler missions, and a then a good scene will follow. Expect these “not filler” missions/scenes to occur rarely; be prepared to sift through a LOT of unnecessary filler missions. After all, there are a lot of days to wade through.

I feel as though I should devote a section to the slots system, but there isn't much to say about it. When a player levels up, he puts a “level up” in a slot, and that “level up” gives him extra stats. When the player wants to use fire, blizzard, or some other spell, he puts that spell into another slot, and then when he's on a mission he can use that spell. One can combine certain things (double cast can be combined with another spell, allowing it to be used multiple times, for example) in the slot grid, and there is a fixed number of slots that grows with time. In addition to levels, skills, and spells, items also go in the slots. Indeed, you cannot bring a potion into a mission with you unless it's in one of Roxas' slots first. And yes, they do fill up fast. I would make a biting comment about having to ration one's own skills, and why this should never have to happen in any game ever, but I never had a problem with the slots system. I won't say that I enjoyed it, though. In fact, I think it went too far when it required a level up to be placed in the slots, instead of simply applied to the character. Like, you know, every other game in the series. But again, I never had a huge problem with it. The game's appearance, on the other hand, is what I've really been itching to discuss.

Graphics: It's 3D, so it must be good by default. Right?

The graphics are 3D, but they are also unattractive. There, I said it. With the exception of a few well done FMV scenes, the characters look jagged, and the worlds are just dull and empty looking. Agrabah, for example, is supposed to be a bustling merchant town situated in a desert, but there are never any people in the shops, with the exception of notable characters like Aladdin and Jasmine. Oftentimes it felt like the Organization members were able to make time stand still somehow, allowing them to visit worlds without dealing with the people, or something. It almost felt like playing an online game on offline mode. The worlds were static. There should have been people, but there weren't. Even horrible cardboard cutouts would have done the job, but the towns were all so empty. Twilight Town is another good example of this, because it was also featured in the PS2 game, Kingdom Hearts II, and in that game, it was full of people. It was like a small bustling town. The DS version has no people, with the exception of three teenagers who seemed to ignore Roxas most of the time, despite his relatively odd style of dress and company (he wears a dark trench coat and travels with hooded strangers and the occasional red spiky haired tall-man, but nobody seems to notice them half the time), and the fact that he runs around with a giant key, killing the bad monsters that nobody in that town seems to ever talk about. For a very long time, I wondered if perhaps the Organization members (and the monsters) were invisible, and when one of the three kids in the town actually walked over to Roxas and spoke to him I almost jumped out of my chair. This town literally consists of three people, and the result is a very lonely, fake atmosphere. None of the towns or worlds feel real, because for a reason that I cannot put my finger on, the lack of NPCs is all too apparent in this game. Perhaps it is because my mind is allowed to wander to such things when it is not distracted by fun gameplay, and a progressive plot.

Towns aside, the game just feels like something is missing. The finished product does not feel polished. Roxas' bed doesn't have sheets, for example. In one scene, he wakes up and rolls off of what looks like a stone table. His bed literally looks like a white, rectangular stone table. Nobody could take an extra minute and give this kid something nice to sleep on? The walls of Castle Oblivion are white. There is nothing on them. No posters, no Organization XIII propaganda, no pictures of their fearless leader, nothing. The main living room consists of an uncomfortable looking couch (it looks like stone, much like Roxas' bed), a table, and usually three or four other Organization members. I'm sure it will be argued that their empty headquarters represents the empty, lacking way the Organization collectively feels, and the whole thing could have been excused if each and every other world had not followed suit with its dull environments and general lack of life. The aforementioned Agrabah is completely empty. The Beast's castle looks like it was designed by a minimalist.

None of this can compare to the character models, though. From far away, the character models look fuzzy and unrefined; up close, they look jagged and distorted -- horrific even, when compared to their beautiful hand drawn counterparts displayed next to their line of drab dialogue. In its defense, there is voice acting, but it only happens in the rare FMV cut scenes. For the rest of the game, the player is treated to over-the-top grunts, depressed sighs, and awkward body movements that simply do not fit the moment; one does not move his arm and hands about to declare the color of the sky, or to greet an acquaintance, but these characters do. They use elaborate hand and hip gestures for everything that could ever be said. The end result is a 30 second scene involving two men moaning and sighing at each other, while making gestures with their arms, hands, and hips. Awkward? You bet.

And no, I will not make exceptions for the graphics solely because it is on the DS, like everyone else has. It's been years since the system has been out, and it's about time people stopped making exceptions for it. These characters look jagged. The coloring on their trench coats looks splotchy. They never express emotion because their eyes are fixed. Clothing patterns look blurry, hair (with the exception of Axel's, which is rather well done) is either stiff, or falls in big unattractive clumps, occasionally going through a character's clothing or hands altogether. Axel's feet look like paddles. Castles that could have been exploding with color, fancy carpets, and posters (I am referring to the Beauty and the Beast world) are instead made of gray walls and floors. Bustling merchant towns are devoid of customers and sellers. Shops sit unattended, with the exception of a few characters deemed necessary. Towns are empty. Beds do not have sheets or blankets. Couches look cold, hard, and uncomfortable. In one scene, Xion is wearing a hood and in the next it is mysteriously missing. The game looks like it's still in its earliest stages, just waiting for someone to apply those finishing touches that could have made all the difference: a facial expression here, a townsperson there. This did not happen, and people really need to stop hyping these graphics just because they're good “for the DS.” If dull models and uninspired worlds are what the DS calls good three dimensional graphics, then they ought to really consider sticking with two dimensional sprites.

I've made Days seem like a monster, and do not mistake my intentions. As a gamer who did not purchase this with the intention of playing it in short bursts, I cannot say a single good thing about it. Dull, unrewarding missions made each play session feel like a chore. The worlds actually have sections blocked off, hindering exploration for the sake of exploring; the only times exploring seems to be encouraged are in the aforementioned recon missions, and even then, there is nothing to explore because each world is so devoid of life. There are treasure chests, but they are in plain sight, and each mission contains about a handful of them. And even if you find every treasure chest, the reward for doing so is rarely worth writing home about. The scene at the end of a mission will not typically move the story along, and you should consider yourself lucky if the scene even involves words between two characters. Don't get me wrong, either. I loved Kingdom Hearts 1, logging in a good 80 hours to get everything, and then playing it over again several more times. I played the hell out of Chain of Memories, and anticipated Kingdom Hearts 2 (although I was a bit disappointed by the lack of things to do in KH2, but that is not for this review) along with every other fan of the series. But Days just feels unrefined. Send it back to the lab, and apply the finishing touches.

It's impossible to rate this as a standalone game because it makes so many references to its predecessors. My hand is forced; I have to compare it to the other titles, and it simply does not meet the expectations. I did not care for the characters; missions are chores, and the game may be in 3D, but that doesn't stop its characters from looking awkward and its environments, uninspired. I'm giving it a 4/10, because despite all the bad, it does manage to tie up some loose ends, and the illustrated character art is really nice. All in all, though, anyone who is considering this game because of the story is better off watching each scene on youtube. Mission modes are great for short bursts, but just terrible for the player who wants to get to the heart of the game's story.

Reviewer's Rating:   2.0 - Poor

Originally Posted: 01/04/10

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

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