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Five Things: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days

It’s been a long time since I played either of the Kingdom Hearts games for the PS2, so even though they remain among the few titles that I will never even consider trading in (a somewhat rare honor these days), I’ll readily admit that I had to hit up Wikipedia for a refresher on the overall storyline of the series before I started playing this title.  Like many of Square’s games, it’s not exactly easy to keep straight, but once you get into the swing of it (and get past the WTF factor of Disney characters roaming around being badasses), Kingdom Hearts is a great ride.  Oh, uh… spoilers, by the way.

For some reason, I had convinced myself that the last Kingdom Hearts title released in the US was Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories for the GBA, later re-released as Re:Chain of Memories for the PS2; admittedly, I didn’t play the port, but the GBA release was unmitigated crap, and I expect the PS2 version didn’t make things any better.  That said, upon actually checking the dates, I found that Kingdom Hearts 2 wasn’t actually released until over a year later, so that makes me feel a lot better about my faith in the series as a whole.  Still, that means that by the time 358/stupid name came out, it had been close to four years since the previous installment, and I, for one, had been waiting with bated breath, as I’m sure many other fankids with mouse ears were.  Here’s five things about it:

1. Prettiness

I seem to make this point a lot (perhaps because I play a disproportionate number of their games), but Square really doesn’t go half-assed when it comes to presentation, and appropriately enough, this means that Kingdom Hearts is one of the best looking DS games that I’ve ever seen.  The cutscenes, relatively infrequent though they are, are lovely, and the in-game sprites are amazingly detailed and animated perfectly smoothly.  Too often, 3D rendering on the DS gives the characters that blocky PS1-era vibe, but this game avoids that particular pitfall admirably; it’s still a DS game, of course, and so there’s only so much that can be done, but at the risk of sounding cheesy, they really do take the system’s capabilities and run with them.  Color me impressed.

2. Customization

I think that a good one-quarter to one-third of my game time was spent doing one thing: fiddling with panels.  (Not a euphemism.)  This, to me, was both a good thing and a bad thing, but it tended heavily toward the good.  The way the game rolls is that each time you finish a mission, you are awarded, aside from the standard experience points, an additional slot wherein you may install a panel.  Everything you do in the game is stored on a panel, from your weapon to your magic to your levels (this is the one that bugged me, but I’ll come back to that).  The more missions you complete, then, the more stuff you can do/use.  This works as incentive to actually *do* the missions, rather than skipping the ones that don’t interest you as much, but it also forces you to really think about how your setup works.  This is proving a bit more difficult to explain than I thought it would be, so I’ll refer you to the image to the left as an example.  To the lower left, you see the panel deck: a series of blank squares that have been filled in with doodads of the player’s choice.  If it doesn’t appear on this deck, Roxas cannot use it in battle, and there is no deck management allowed once a mission has begun, so you must plan carefully and make sure you have everything you need.  In this particular arrangement, the panels in the upper left corner raise Roxas’s level, the ones in the middle left are his weapon and its enhancements, the upper right holds some of his spells, and the entire top row holds health-recovery potions.  Since it’s not only your choices that continually expand, but also the space you have to put them in, you essentially need to review your options after every mission to make sure you’re using the slots to their maximum advantage.  Sometimes this is as simple as adding a potion to replace one you used in the previous mission, and other times, you might find yourself wiping the entire deck clean and rebuilding around a new weapon or ability that you just have to have (I did this more than a few times).  It’s possible to store different configurations so that they can be selected again later, and in some situations, this would have been a great help, but I never really took advantage of it; rather than tailor myself to each individual mission, I tried to have a good all-around deck, which served me pretty well, but I can definitely see how some folks might have spent even more time than I did building just the right set for each different situation.

The major thing that I didn’t care for (and this is more a nitpick than anything else) was that your levels are on panels as well.  This effectively means that you can do all the missions in the world, but if you fail to equip the level-ups in your deck, then you get no benefit from all those tasty experience points.  It’s not a huge problem, because I did find that I rarely had to sacrifice much, if anything, in order to use all of my levels, but it just didn’t seem to fit like the rest of the panel system did.  As I said, it’s a minor complaint; for the most part I really enjoyed the system (which was so very much better than that stupid card system…. really).

3. Variety

This is where I really felt the game suffered.  There are only so many ways that you can send someone out to kill a bunch of Heartless before it starts to feel a little same-y, and believe me: by the end of 90+ missions, you are definitely feeling the same-y-ness.  One of the major reasons this seems to occur is that the worlds themselves aren’t particularly varied, or at least not as much as they are in the console titles, or even (I shudder to say) in Chain of Memories.  There are only six Disney-specific realms in which you can explore and accept missions, as opposed to about twice that in the other games.  Furthermore, you never actually get any Disney characters in your party; they are restricted to cutscenes only (they’re not even enemies), which fits with the storyline, but is still sort of a bummer, as that’s kind of been their “thing” from the beginning. 

Variety is also noticeably absent from the between-mission cutscenes; okay, yes, I get that we want to establish a relationship between these characters, and I get that we need a certain amount of plot exposition that might be difficult to deliver in a different fashion.  But really?  I am very, VERY sick of watching those three fuckers a) eat ice cream or b) angst it up about why one of them is missing their little ice cream date.  If it’s just going to be a throwaway scene, then just don’t bother putting anything in there at all; a few times would have been perfectly sufficient.

4. Portability

Traditionally, handheld systems haven’t been very kind to RPG enthusiasts.  It’s just kind of the nature of the genre that you frequently face long periods of time where it’s difficult to break in order to save your game, and (if you’re me) the use of a strategy guide impedes the ability to carry around the game with you as well.  It kind of defeats the purpose of a handheld system if you have to play it on your couch or risk losing hours of progress.  The points I’m taking away from Kingdom Hearts for variety, though, I’m giving right back for portability.  Missions rarely last longer than ten or fifteen minutes, and you are offered the opportunity to save after each one, so it’s perfectly reasonable to play in bite-sized chunks whenever you like.  Additionally, most of the missions are pretty straightforward, eliminating the strategy guide issue (yes, I did still use one.  Hush.).  Thinking back, I really can’t come up with another handheld RPG that’s untethered itself so successfully, so even though this really shouldn’t be an issue (that’s what the system is FOR, after all), I do have to give major credit to Square for finally figuring it out.  Everyone else, take notes.

5. Series Integration

 This is where that whole pesky “story” thing comes in.  Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is situated between Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, and covers the period (of 358 days, conveniently enough) that Sora was out of commission between the two.  Roxas, the character you control at the beginning of KH2, is the protagonist of this one; he’s the Nobody of Sora, but doesn’t know it.  The bulk of this installment, then, deals with Roxas’s returning memories and his eventual struggle to stay his own person rather than returning to being a part of Sora.  It’s interesting to see the series dealt with from a different angle, although I’m honestly not sure that the story and the gameplay fit together very well.  I’m not really complaining, because I enjoyed the game a great deal, but the actual Story Of Roxas might have been better explored in a different medium: anime, maybe?  Comics?  I’m not sure, but it feels a little strange to me somehow.  Regardless, after a somewhat confusing beginning (which may have been simply me forgetting stuff), things fall into place neatly as the game goes along, and you end up right where KH2 kicks off: with Roxas waking up in Twilight Town.

Oh, and I was a little slow on picking up on this, but the reason that whole dual-Keyblade thing at the end looked so familiar?  It’s because it’s this (the secret ending to KH1).  Nice touch, that.

That’s my five things.  Next time I’ll be tackling Pokemon SoulSilver, so hang on to your pants.

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