What’s so attractive about tragedy? Why is that we love a good tragedy so much? Hamlet, MacBeth, The Great Gatsby, The Book Theif, we all love tragedies. I may not know why we love tragedies as much as we do, but it is the reason I liked 358/2 Days as much as I did (And no, I don’t think 358/2 Days is as good as Hamlet, if you haven’t seen a stage performance of Hamlet look up “David Tennant Hamlet” on youtube). There have been two core titles and five spin-off titles in the Kingdom Hearts series, and the two DS games are probably the most extraneous of the series. 358/2 Days doesn’t really tell a particularly important part of the Kingdom Hearts narrative. It gives the backstory of Organization XIII and what goes on in the background from right before Sora closed Kingdom Hearts in the first game all the way until Roxas is placed in the digital version of Twilight Town in the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 2. But that doesn’t make the game’s story worthless, in fact far from it. The game’s strength lies in its ability to communicate and make you believe in the authenticity between Roxas, Axel, and brand new, mysterious character Xion and their growth into a tightly knit group. There are two ways to experience this story: a game for the Nintendo DS that felt stuffed, poorly paced, and extraneous, or on the PS3 as a movie that cuts out the extraneous missions and focus down the story to its core strengths. First I’ll cover the movie version, which is my preferred medium, and then cover the differences and deficiencies of the DS version.
Axel, Xion, and Roxas
Nomura likes to use groups of friends to tell stories, groups of three specifically. I’m not entirely sure why this works as well as it does, but easily Kingdom Hearts 1, Birth by Sleep, and 358/2 Days have the strongest, most cathartic, emotional, relatable stories in the series due to their focus on these tight knit groups. Kingdom Hearts 1 was all about the mending of the relationship between Sora, Riku and Kairi. Birth by Sleep was about the tragic tearing apart of friends already close. Kingdom Hearts 2 suffered, in my opinion, for not being as emotionally deep as those other games, due to its focus on world building and epic storytelling instead of relatable, emotional stories. Axel, Roxas, and Xion were the lifeblood of 358/2 Days. When Axel was introduced in Chain of Memories, he seemed sneaky, manipulative, and selfish, but in Kingdom Hearts 2, he seemed almost completely different. You get to see that transformation throughout 358/2 Days and it takes an otherwise unimportant (though well-liked) character, Axel, and makes him important to the larger narrative.
358/2 Days is all about watching a new bond of friendship form and then watching it get torn apart in the end. You get to watch as these oddballs (Axel, Roxas and Xion) without feelings try to take on lives of their own and start to care about each other. They feel like sheep, caught among a den of wolves, as all the other members of Organization XIII try to bring Xemnas’ plans to completion. As each person in the trio does little things to help the others, you really get the sense that the three of them grew together and cared about each other deeply. The story SHOWS you how they care, instead of just saying that they do. To top it all off, 358/2 Days has probably the single most emotional moment in the entire series, and it is always going to be one of my primary gaming memories. At the end of the game, when XXXXXXXXX, the entire moment was composed so perfectly.
The way that the music, voice acting, and visuals all come together was incredible and I could feel Roxas pain as XXXX XXXXX X XXX XXXXXXXXX XXX X (Spoilers). Overall, this has got to be one of my favorite stories in the Kingdom Hearts series, despite only being a movie type experience.
The cutscenes work pretty well. I think they use the models from Kingdom Hearts 2 or RECOM beefed up a little. They don’t always look stunning, but they get the job done. What is notable though, is the fact that it’s such an upgrade from the original DS game. Kingdom Hearts dialog has always been kind of cheesy, but it communicates its story despite that. It uses its cheesy, anime roots and bad lipsyncing to tell a story that’s simple, not subtle, but still powerful. The movie version of this game falls prey to the same strengths and weaknesses, but benefits from telling a better, more emotional, more personal story.
The Text Summaries
358/2 Days was a game first, which means it HAD gameplay to accompany its story. Sometimes, important things happen in between cut scenes that would normally happen during gameplay. These are summarized in a few short paragraphs throughout the experience. It’s usually not that important like: “Larxene taught me how to use magic, I killed some heartless and stuff…etc.” Essentially superfluous, but it helps chain the scenes together. They’re short enough that they don’t break up the flow of the story too badly, but it probably would have been better to have cutscene versions of those missions instead or include a video of Roxas beating certain heartless bosses to add some action to the narrative instead of just watching some dialogue. Regardless, they fill in the holes, but are still kinda boring. It unfortunately highlights the fact that the game was compressed and modified into its current form, which makes it feel like a less cohesive experience as a whole.
Roxas keeps a journal of his thoughts and experiences throughout the game. In the game version, you can read these as they happen, getting an inside view of his psyche and evolution from empty husk into self-actualization. When you read them in the PS3 version, it’s after you’ve watched the whole movie, so you don’t really see that self-actualization as it occurs concurrently with the events of the game. Still worth reading, just not quite as impactful as it otherwise would have been.
The media player for the movie format sucks. If you quit the movie in the middle, you have to watch all the way back through your old stuff unless you specifically “saved and quit.” Of course, the game doesn’t make this clear, so if you just decide to quit then you have to rewatch everything else. There is a continue function, but only if you saved and quit like I mentioned earlier. There’s also a scene selection, but it only plays the individual scene that you choose, so you can’t pick up the movie from any point in the whole three hour experience if you wanted to re-watch it. There’s no fast-forward, no rewind, nothing. There is a pause, but literally that’s all. You can’t even see how far you are in the movie to see how much is left. As a movie, they didn’t think very hard about how accessible it would be. I doubt that it was due to hardware limitations, probably just not worth their time, which is lazy and shameful.
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days actually had a pretty good story. It’s not subtle, but it is emotionally powerful. By taking all of the filler out of the rest of the game, the pacing from the original game was significantly improved. The movie version is still a little bit long, clocking in at around 3-4 hours. I really enjoyed my time with the title to my great surprise, and so I went ahead and got the game version. I noticed the gaps in the gameplay and had enjoyed Re:Coded (yes shoot me, we can talk later), so I picked it up. Little did I know the horror I would unleash. That said, I really enjoyed the movie version of the story, so if you’re interested you should definitely go for it. It’s short, straightforward, and emotional.
Kingdom Hearts 328/2 Days: The Game Version
Now, take everything great about the movie version of this story, and pad it out so far that you can’t see the forest for the trees. Also, take away everything fun about the combat in Kingdom Hearts and make it repetitive, boring and inaccessible. Welcome ladies and gentleman to Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, the most frustrating, hamstrung game in the entire series. And yes, I’ve already played Re:Coded.
Sora’s Memories Leaking Over
One cool little feature of the game, due to its presence on DS, is the way that Sora’s memories manifest inside Roxas. Fans of the Kingdom Hearts lore know that Roxas is actually Sora’s nobody, the remnants of his body leftover when Sora turned into a heartless. As such, when you visit locations that Sora visited, some of his old memories start to appear on the bottom screen. It’s subtle, and smart, something the rest of this game isn’t. You don’t always notice it, but that kind of adds to the charm.
Some New Heartless
Now there aren’t a lot of new heartless, and some of them are just re-skins of old heartless, but for the most part the heartless that you fight in the game feel unique and interesting. Different behaviors and patterns of attack from the mainline entries make combat slightly more interesting. Bosses have specific attributes, heartless have more complex attack behaviors, the enemies themselves aren’t usually that boring. It’s a little thing, but it’s worth noting all the same.
In order to level up, you essentially have to play Tetris. Every time you beat a level you unlock a new square on your panel board that you can then fill with a panel of your choice. It could be a fire spell, a potion, a level up, a keyblade, a high jump ability, etc. Once again, the poor pacing is what ruins this system. You only ever unlock one square at a time and it takes forever to get anywhere. No one wants to play excel in their Action RPG. The one thing that is slightly amusing about is trying to fit all the panels together, per the tetris analogy. Sometimes there are bigger panels with interesting shapes that are kind of fun to fit together, but since you only unlock one panel at a time you usually have to uninstall a bunch of useful stuff or wait several hours to complete more missions and unlock more slots one at a time. What you see above is the end game, but you start off with zero available slots, and it takes about 30-45 minutes to finish a new mission and open a new slot only for very little payoff in terms of abilities.
What happens when you make three games and then make a fourth one that happens in between all of them? You get a lot of retreading, and not a lot of surprises. 358/2 Days tells the story of what was going on with Organization XIII right after Sora became a heartless, and ends right before Kingdom Hearts 2 starts. Some of it is interesting, specifically Roxas, Axel, and Xion’s relationship, but most of it is just blah filler used as a backdrop to tell an otherwise untellable story. No one cares that Argrabah looks different in Kingdom Hearts 2 because a sandstorm ruined the old city, or that Hercules killed some heartless in the coliseum and Roxas helped. It’s just not that important. All of these unimportant details only show up in the game version though, so the narrative of the movie version isn’t affected by these useless, boring details.
The game is determined to make you feel the daily grind of Roxas’ life; what his life was like before Kingdom Hearts 2. Unfortunately, his life is boring, repetitive, and has hardly any forwards progress. It feels like going to work, doing mission after mission. This transfers over to the leveling system too, it just takes forever to get anywhere in the game. Even worse, this drags out the actually solid story going on between Xion, Roxas, and Axel over a long period of time. What was a genuinely entertaining, and well-told story degenerates, just because it takes too long to actually tell the story effectively. This applies to the level up system too, it feels like for all your work you barely get stronger at all, and there’s not really a good way to check how much EXP you have as you go. It’s somewhere in there, just not very accessible, which is a must for JRPGs, action or otherwise.
A Game Made Outside of its Constraints
Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days should never have been a 3D game. The graphics look pretty awful, which is to be expected from any 3D game made on the Nintendo DS. This ruins gameplay, and it ruins the story. Emotions are communicated in one of three ways in visual storytelling: visual cues, audio cues, and contextual cues. Contextual cues refers to the writing itself, which has never been that strong in the Kingdom Hearts series to begin with. Normally it overcomes that by relying heavily on solid performance of its visual and audio cues.
Unfortunately, 358/2 Days fails on both accounts leaving the game emotionally bankrupt. Visual cues refer to the facial expression and body language of the characters, the DS doesn’t have enough processing to actually animate their faces, and so the game fails in that regard. It can only animate the most basic of actions, and the character portraits stay the same no matter what’s going on with few exceptions. Audio cues refer to the voice acting, good voice actors breathe life into their characters, but the DS cartridges don’t’ have enough room for that either. This completely and utterly bankrupts the cutscenes of any emotional depth they might have had.
More than that though, 358/2 Days ruined the combat of previous Kingdom Hearts games.
The kinetic, dodge-roll/block, combo focused combat of the normal series just doesn’t feel good when translated to its d-pad version on the Nintendo DS. Instead of feeling smooth as you move from one enemy to the next, blocking, rolling and dodging, you feel trapped as you frantically avoid badly telegraphed, unpredictable attacks with a laggy block and a dodge roll that doesn’t give you enough screen real estate to dodge in the correct direction and see what is going on around you. The menu system is navigated using a single button instead of an entirely different input like the d-pad on PS2, primarily because the DS doesn’t have enough buttons to account for the complicated control system that Kingdom Hearts requires. Despite all these egregious faults, all of this would even be okay if they tried to work within their constraints, instead of trying to overcome them and faceplanting. As a result, you get a game that feels like it was made for the PS2, but plays on a lamer, not as good console by comparison.
I’m not referring to the multiplayer mode itself, which I imagine is just replaying your original missions with co-op friends. No, I’m referring to the primary mechanic of the game. So, each day, Roxas receives a mission from the organization that he has to carry out. There are many types of missions that are available, story missions, boss battles, recon missions, races, kill the heartless, and almost all of them are boring.
Recon missions and boss missions were probably my two favorite kinds of missions since they have some unique elements and story relevance (usually). Everything else is just repetitive, boring nonsense. You can fulfill optional objectives in order to get better rewards and more experience points. The more successive missions that are completed, the higher your multiplier gets for rewards. Sometimes before a mission, an Organization member will offer a reward if you go back and play a mission with specific requirements, but they aren’t ever that great. There is a little bit of mixing of mission structures, a “kill the heartless” will change into a “kill the boss”, a recon level becomes a story mission, etc. Even when this does happen though, it doesn’t feel daring, it just feels frustrating and boring. The pacing is all just so darn slow. Even on a home console, with all the time in the world, this game wouldn’t be that fun, because the pacing is just so darn awful.
I love Kingdom Hearts games. I love the story in Kingdom Hearts games. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days actually has a great story, if you can actually get to it in between all the padding. I really enjoyed the movie version on PS3. The voice acting, facial expressions, pacing, it’s not like it’s Metal Gear Solid or anything, but it’s leagues better than the DS version. If you want to connect with the whole of the Kingdom Hearts series, definitely check out the movie version on PS3 or on Youtube. Don’t feel like you have to play the DS version, it doesn’t add anything to the experience and will only make you regret the countless hours you could have been doing anything more productive. I make it a mission to finish games as long as I’m still having fun, but 358/2 Days will be one game I NEVER finish. It’s just straight bad.