Square Enix and Disney pull off another winner.
Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is a DS installment of a series that has quietly become something more than just another peanut butter-in-my-chocolate crossover. Though the series gained fame for its mixing of Disney and Final Fantasy characters, the Kingdom Hearts franchise also has a growing cast of original characters as the stars of the show. For the first few games, the player was put in the role of Sora, a teenager with the power to wield the power of a Keyblade. However, for the first few hours of Kingdom Hearts II, the focus was on Roxas, Sora's Nobody.
Those familiar with the way Kingdom Hearts games play should have little trouble adapting to the controls in 358/2 Days. The game is controlled almost exclusively with the D-pad and buttons, with stylus input rendered to only a few select functions. The first hour or so of the game eases players into the swing of things with a series of basic tutorial missions that admittedly drags on longer than it should, but once that early hump is cleared, the pace picks up nicely.
Unlike previous entries in the series, 358/2 Days is mission-based, with each mission lasting long enough for good handheld bites. The game follows the simple flow of starting Roxas off in a hub area where you can talk to others, visit the shop, and take care of all pre-mission preparations before selecting a mission to embark on. Once the mission is cleared, Roxas returns to the hub area to attend to the next mission, with the story unveiling itself as the game progresses. The mission variety in the game is pretty good for a game of its length, with objectives occasionally switching up once the mission starts. There are a few clunkers, such as the Emerald Serenade missions that are more tedious than challenging, but such missions make up the vast minority of the game.
Taking a cue from The World Ends With You, another DS game designed by Tetsuya Nomura, the freedom given to customize Roxas's abilities is pretty staggering. Everything in Roxas's repetoire, including weapons, magic, level ups, and special abilities, are made up of panels that fit into a grid that grows as more and more missions are cleared. For example, by inserting four level-up panels and five Cure panels into the grid, Roxas becomes a level 5 character capable of casting Cure five times before requiring an Ether. There are also special panels that chain multiple panels of a specific type together, allowing such things as doubling the effects of level-up panels or adding to the properties of equipped skills. As long as you can figure out how to fit the panels together, you're free to customize Roxas pretty much however you like.
In addition to the story mode, the game also features a multiplayer component that supports up to four players locally. The lone multiplayer mode is a competitive mission mode in which players play together to complete story mode missions unlocked for multiplayer use. Players earn points during the mission and the one with the most points at mission's end wins. In this mode, players can select from all thirteen of the standard Organization XIII members as their player characters, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. More characters can also be unlocked by progressing through story mode and completing missions. As an added plus, all experience, money, and items earned in multiplayer also applies to the single-player mode. The game also makes a smart choice by allowing you to save multiple panel configurations, so you if desire, you can keep panel configurations for preferred multiplayer characters handy without worrying about hurting your single-player panel set-up.
However, the game does have a few flaws, mostly due to the camera. Anyone that's played through the previous 3D entries in the Kingdom Hearts series should be familiar with finicky camera angles, and 358/2 Days isn't immune to this trouble. To its credit, the game does offer two camera control options as well as options to adjust camera speed and distance. I personally left the camera settings at their defaults for the entire duration of the game and only occasionally found myself in a position where I couldn't make out what was going on. The minimap on the touch screen also helps a great deal knowing which way to go and where enemies are located.
The graphics in 358/2 Days are excellent for a DS game, with detailed character models and numerous FMV cinematics, though the quality of the cinematics suffers from compression. The vast majority of the game's locations are pulled straight out of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II, which, while somewhat disappointing, is understandable as an effort to maintain continuity. Sadly, there are no Final Fantasy character cameos, and the roles that the Disney characters play this time around are greatly reduced, but this is also understandable, as the members of Organization XIII don't want to risk blowing their cover. Similar to the graphics, the vast majority of the game's soundtrack is also pulled from previous games, but there are a few new tracks that are pleasant to the ear, and all of the game's cinematics are fully voiced.
Mileage in the game will vary depending on how much time you spend in multiplayer mode and replaying missions in single-player, but I completed the game after just over 45 hours, with a fair bit of that time spent in multiplayer and plenty of desire to go back for more. 358/2 Days is well worth recommending to any fan of the Kingdom Hearts series and to anyone looking for a great action RPG they can play with friends.