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Seven years ago, someone at Square Enix came up with the wacky idea to create a game blending characters from the Final Fantasy series with classic Disney friends. The game it birthed, Kingdom Hearts, was a surreal journey into a series of worlds racked with creativity, following a storyline that was blissfully nostalgic and powerfully original at the same time. It was pure entertainment and an interesting blend of characters gamers had spent years learning to love, and characters that have stood the test of time as icons.

Two sequels, one official sequel for the PS2 and one spin-off for the GBA, followed the original. Neither quite captured the perfect melancholy that defined the original. The spin-off, Chain of Memories, had a weak story. Kingdom Hearts II was overloaded, unfortunately simple to beat and felt stressed, as if the majesty and charisma that coursed through the first title had been watered down.

Now we’re back with another title to add to the Kingdom Hearts family, 358/2 Days. This DS spin-off follows the journey of Roxas. Kingdom Hearts fans will know him as the member of Organization XIII who is the Nobody of Sora, the main hero of the first two games. Non-Kingdom Hearts fans won’t have a clue what the hell that sentence means, and therein lies the biggest truth about Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days – it is a game designed for existing Kingdom Hearts fans. First-timers will find the story about Roxas’ development and the 358/2 days that took place between Kingdom Hearts I and Kingdom Hearts II incomprehensible, as it relies on an understanding of the other games to have much appeal. And it doesn’t really seem to care. It doesn’t bother to inform or catch newbies up to pace, it simply says “here’s the story – understand it or don’t.”

Still, for those who know the series, this is an interesting take on what we know that will have us recalling moments from the first games and working to connect the dots with our new-found knowledge about Roxas’ character. It offers a new type of game play, a new control structure and capitalizes on the unique characteristics of the DS to function.

The box art is stunning and features Square’s famous hand-drawn renderings of the characters. The colors are beautiful against the white background and it just screams of quality. The back lets you in on one of the story’s main plot points – the mysterious 14th member of Organization XIII that becomes an integral part of Roxas’ life.

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Specifications:

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days

In KINGDOM HEARTS, Sora turned the Keyblade on himself in order to release Kairi’s heart, but his heart was also released in the process. This brought about the creation of Roxas, Sora’s Nobody. Unlike most Nobodies, however, Roxas has no memories of… his past. He joins Organization XIII and slowly begins to discover the truth behind his existence and the Organization itself. He meets and befriends the fourteenth member of the Organization, who also has no recollection of her past. What will Roxas see during his time in the Organization? What is the connection between him, Sora and the fourteenth member? And what becomes of them? Dive into the heart of the KINGDOM HEARTS storyline’s biggest secrets.

FEATURES
* Familiar action-packed KINGDOM HEARTS gameplay that has captivated fans worldwide
* “Panel System” — a brand-new system that allows you to customize Roxas’s arsenal by placing abilities, items and weapon parts into allotted slots
* A series-first multiplayer mode, allowing up to four players to control any Organization XIII member
* Learn about the origins of the “Organization XIII” name
* Get to know the members of Organization XIII, including the mysterious fourteenth member
* Finally experience the KINGDOM HEARTS storyline’s missing chapter

Platform: Nintendo DS

Genre: Action RPG

Players: 1 (2-4 via Wireless DS Multi-Card Play)

ESRB: E10+ (Fantasy Violence)

Release Date: 9/29/2009

MSRP: $34.99

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Since we can assume by this point that you are a KH fan, otherwise you probably would have stopped reading by now, you’re likely wondering when I’m going to get to actually reviewing this game. That time is now, buddy. Hold on to your suspenders.

The synopsis of the game released by Square states you can “finally experience the Kingdom Hearts storyline’s missing chapter.” That missing chapter is the time between the two games – the 358/2 days that followed the creation of Roxas. Questions will be answered for Kingdom Hearts fans, and more questions than are worth it will be made for non-fans. The opening cinematic sets the tone for the game and introduces us to the story we are about to play.

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Though the game takes on a completely new story, it pits you in many locations you will remember from KH1 – the first of which is Twilight Town. Each location is beautifully recreated on the DS and the graphics look fantastic. It’s easy to remember you way around the locations, see familiar sights and have plenty of “oh yeah!” moments, as the handheld does an incredible job of handling what used to be Playstation 2 graphics. It really looks excellent, and the characters and settings are not awkward or deformed like many 3D DS titles.

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The only negative to that point is that most of the locations are recycled, so you’re not going to investigate a terrible amount of scenery you haven’t already played. If you’ve played every KH game to date, this will be yet another visit to some of the same places you’ve been time and time again. Square can’t keep this up much longer, because while we love seeing these things in new applications, it’s not fresh forever. These grapes are turning into raisins, I do say.

The control structure goes back to the part menu, part action system that was a strong suit of KH1. The game can be difficult straight from the start, so a mastery of the controls is crucial to getting through the title. For instance, on your second real quest, while Roxas is still a Level 2 character dealing hardly any damage, you come across an enemy with six bars of life that can kill you in two hits. It’ll take a solid ten minutes to put him down.

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The top screen shows the game, while the bottom screen generally shows a map of your current location and the locations of goals, pickups and other stuff.

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The DS handles these controls well. Different combinations of buttons control your menus, jump/attack are as you’d imagine and everything is handled with ingenuity. The stylus is more or less ignored. You can use it to rotate the camera, but with the amount of button control your hands are constantly doing, tucking a stylus in your palm for the occasional camera rotation is pretty silly. It’s easier to just flick the screen with a spare finger, or just leave the camera be. Most of the time it’s positioned fine and it rotates itself as you fight. The occasional inconvenient angle isn’t worth the struggle to use the stylus.

While the locations will be familiar to KH fans, the mode of progression for the story is not. Instead of traveling freely and completing worlds, you are given missions that take you to different places. Some are optional and end in rewards and experience, while others are mandatory and develop the plot. It’s therefore like any other mission-based game: pick one, go do it, return and pick another. This change actually works well for the story with the Organization, and with the return of older-style controls and previously-seen worlds is an interesting change in an otherwise familiar playing environment.

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Another thing that can alter the playing environment is the presence of multiplayer. Two to four buddies can join you and play as any Organization members using DS wireless. This is the first time any sort of multiplayer function has existed within KH, so that’s pretty rad.

Yet another new element is the panel system, which dictates how Roxas develops as a character. It’s basically a board with tons of empty panels where you place certain attributes you collect. They can be magic skills, physical skills or items, in any combination, any way you want. These panels can be changed after every mission, allowing you to totally change them any time you wish. For a certain mission, you can focus heavily on magic, filling up Roxas’ panels with tons of magic spells. For the next, make him as nimble as a sack of kittens with all sorts of dodge, roll and physical movement skills. If you ever enter a mission and don’t have the stats to get through it without dying over and over, you may be able to give yourself a better edge by equipping your panels in a different way. It’s clever, I tell you. Clever!

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What’s not as clever is the amount of times you have to go to certain places. You’ll spend the first few hours of playing within the same couple streets of Twilight Town. The areas aren’t as big as they were back on the PS2, and you’re going to get tired of being in the same little spots all the time. For real, it gets repetitious to an annoying level. Especially when the cut-scenes are slow and you go back and forth to the same place mission after mission. Both things happen frequently.

The cut scenes, while beautifully rendered and nicely acted, can be slow. Tick tock.

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Music, of course, is wonderful. It’s a Square game, after all. If any company is known for the power of music on its games, it’s Square. The composition quality is masterful and everything suits the game perfectly. Of course, almost all of it is recycled KH music, so that’s not surprising. Still, it’s been a while since we’ve heard it, so it’s not all that bad.


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Conclusion:

At its core, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is a true Kingdom Hearts game. Fans of the series will definitely not be let down by this title, despite its repetitive nature and recycled locations. The story is fresh, the DS gets pushed to the max to deliver a stellar visual and auditory performance and the game control structure is handled well by the console. It is a welcome addition to a series that continues to evolve.

While it’ll be very challenging for any subsequent game to invoke the ethereal whimsy that made the first Kingdom Hearts such a joyous experience, it is more than pleasurable to discover a fresh story set within an overarching tale that has been delighting gamers for seven years strong.

Pros:
+Great controls
+Beautiful graphics and sound
+Excellent new story
+Panel system
+It’s Kingdom Hearts

Cons:
-Repetitious
-Lots of recycled locations
-Recycled tunes
-Often slow and monotonous

Grades:
Overall score-8-10
Design score-8-10
Performance score-8-10