Proving that more of the same is not always a bad thing.
Though Kingdom Hearts has seen much success since its debut in 2002, the concept remains somewhat mind-boggling. Merging the Final Fantasy franchise with Disney's many movie properties, seemed impossible, if not downright crazy. The fact that it was able to do so, was an achievement given how radically different they are. Since then, it gone on to spawn many sequels, with the latest one, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, being the second installment to see release on a portable system. And though it continues to remain virtually the same as its predecessors in terms of its gameplay , the old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" best applies here. As while it keeps much of the same elements from its predecessors, it's slew of content, and the new multiplayer mode, will no doubt hook fans and newcomers alike, and keep them playing long after they've reached the games conclusion.
Though, aforesaid newcomers will no doubt be rather perplexed by its story, which is set during the year between the events of the first and second game -- much like 2004's Chain of Memories for the Game Boy Advance. The game places you in the role of Roxas, a young boy who is one of the newest recruits for a group known as Organization XIII, whose ultimate goal is to complete a cluster of hearts fittingly called, Kingdom Hearts. The story will no doubt be of great interest to fans of the series, as it answers many unanswered questions form previous installments. But because of that, and all the references made to previous installments, newcomers will have a hard time understanding everything the story has to offer.
The gameplay is virtually the same as its predecessors were. You'll still be going to various Disney themed locals, fighting enemies, and generally exploring. The difference here, however, is that you'll be doing this through missions for the Organization, all of which have different objectives such as gathering information about the worlds you be visiting, collecting emblems scattered throughout the area, and simply defeating heartless -- the enemies you'll face throughout the game. The missions are pretty basic in how they're preformed, with you typically being told to go a certain location, defeat some Heartless, or just fill the mission gauge, making it easier for one to play a quick mission or two in a few minutes time, thereby making it a very portable friendly title -- granted you're playing Holo-Missions or Mission Mode that is (more on those later).
But even though there is some variety in mission types, they all share one thing in common: You fight lots of enemies during the course of the mission. Thankfully, they're easy to dispatch, and the ways you can do so are easy too. You can use your weapon (the keyblade), or various spells to vanquish enemies, but you'll probably end up relying on your weapon more due to it being more effective -- and accurate -- than magic is in most cases. As when you're not busy lining up yourself with the enemy to ensure the spell makes contact, the spells don't do a whole lot of damage. And to make matters worse, there's a limit you have on the number of casts, thereby further lessening its usefulness in battle. Your weapon on the other hand, is guaranteed to make contact with the enemy -- so long as you're within reach, that is.
The combat itself takes place in real-time, which makes for some fast-paced encounters with the various foes you'll face, as you'll not only need to fight, but dodge attacks, and heal you and your allies whilst you battle. Thus making a rather chaotic environment. So chaotic, in fact, that the game suffers from some frame-rate issues because of all the action on-screen. Though the slowdown isn't terribly common, it happens enough to become bothersome, especially during battles that require some quick movements, namely, boss battles. The bosses you face aren't terribly big, typically, and are instead just very powerful Heartless that take a lot of time, and more skill than your average Heartless to defeat. They aren't too challenging, but the challenge they do present is more than enough to enact a slightly more strategic approach, as many of the bosses have weaknesses that open them up for attack.
And speaking of strategy, the game features a rather interesting ability and item system known as, the Panel System. Panels are what determines the items, abilities, spells, weapons, and even your level. This system allows for much customization, specifically in the link panels (panels that have extra slots where panels of the same kind can be placed for different affects), that, depending on the panel, change an ability, or weapons attributes. The changes are mostly small ones, but they're affects can greatly improve your performance in battle by, say, improving your evasive maneuvers,increasing the number of casts you have during missions, or giving you a significant stat boost.
That last one on particular is one you'll need if you plan to attempt the challenges, or harder versions of previously completed missions in Mission Mode. As both modes offer stronger enemies, and, in some cases, various conditions and restrictions. Though the latter two mainly apply to the challenges. The type of conditions vary from completing it in the fastest time possible, completing it with taking as little damage as possible, and completing it without a single attack missing its target. These in conjunction with the various restrictions (e.g. no attack or healing magic, certain level cap, etc) make the mode live up to its name, by delivering a variety of challenging variations on missions.
Though, if those don't sound challenging enough for you, then perhaps Mission Mode will satisfy your needs. Mission Mode takes missions from the story mode, and cranks up the difficulty immensely, and also allows you to tackle them as one of the 13 members of the Organization. The way in which the difficulty is increased is mainly in the strength of the enemies. In this mode, they take more hits to defeat, and generally stronger too. Thereby almost forcing you into having a high level before attempting them. But even then, they're still quite difficult, if not frustrating in some cases. It almost feels like this was done intentionally so that you tackle them with friends in the multiplayer component of this mode, despite it being made for single-player too (albeit with all the multiplayer elements intact, like the mission balls that determine who wins at the end of the mission by how much each player has).
But as far as frustration goes, that mode isn't nearly as frustrating as the games horrid camera, which only works well in large open spaces. This wouldn't be such a huge problem if it weren't for the fact that most of the games environments are in rather small areas that have plenty of places for the camera to get stuck on. It's especially inconvenient when you're busy fighting, as your view is suddenly obscured, making it impossible to dodge or block attacks. And it doesn't help that neither control style for the camera fixes any of this, in fact, one makes matter worse due to it utilizing the shoulder buttons, with the right one also handling the lock-on system.
Visually, the game looks great. The environments feature much detail, such as moonlight seeping in through windows which help create a great atmosphere. Though many of the locals are recycled from previous iterations, so those who played the previous installments will no doubt be familiar with them, but may be left wanting a change scenery. Character models look very similar to their console counterparts surprisingly, and are well animated, though there are many jagged edges and textures look a tad ugly when shown up close. The voice acting is well delivered, and the music sounds great -- though like the environments, it's recycled from previous iterations. That said, the music sounds strikingly similar to its console counterparts, as well.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days delivers much of the same Disney Square crossover action that fans have come to expect, while giving some new features to keep players busy long after the credits have rolled. Though newcomers may be perplexed by its narrative, the exhilarating fast-paced battles, and multiplayer should hook them instantly. If you can put up with an annoying camera, and a few other faults, then 358/2 Days is sure to please.