Title: Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (Square-Enix)
Format: Video Game
Platform: Nintendo DS
Genre: Action RPG
The fourth installment to the Kingdom Hearts series finds a home on the Nintendo DS and once again, Square-Enix is pushing the platform to its absolute limits by delivering crisp audio and expansive worlds to explore rivaling its PS2 counterparts. Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (henceforth abbreviated as "KHDS") makes no core gameplay compromises from its shift to the DS from the PS2, delivering solid gameplay, a deep story, voice acting, plenty of cinematic time and multiplayer gameplay. As polished as the presentation is, however, some rough edges could use a little more polish. Obstructive camera tracking and a buggy targeting system are two of the game's biggest pitfalls.
KHDS is a fully-rendered 3D game in the vein of its numerical predecessors, and the gameplay closely resembles the simplistic action-RPG feel of the original Kingdom Hearts. Your top two buttons are "Jump" and "Attack", with a few customizable shortcuts for quick access to item and spell use without having to navigate the Command Menu. The game features a lot of familiar enemies as well as plenty of new ones, a small handful of Disney planets for you to visit and explore, and a lot of button-mashing the "Attack Button".
Akin to KH1, with only a few exceptions your attack combos follow a linear path, amounting to "press A a lot" when battling enemies with more HP than the average person would deem necessary. While the simplistic battle mechanics have a familiar feel, action-gaming enthusiasts may find combat in KHDS to be a bit dry and repetitive. Indeed, with a poor setup, some of the more powerful enemies may require well over 100 successful attacks to defeat, and this can quickly drain a player's interest.
Unlike the other KH games, in which levels and abilities are gained by defeating enemies, KHDS features a panel slot equipment system used to govern all aspects of your character - what weapon you're using, how high you can jump, what your level is, what abilities you possess, etc. Each "panel" (which can refer to any item or ability you acquire) has its own shape and number of tiles, and you place these panels on a grid. Panels can be linked to other panels for added effects, such as a level or spell multiplier. The system is very intuitive and easy to pick up, though some RPG enthusiasts may not be content with the concept of "equipping" level-ups.
Layout and length:
KHDS is broken up into shorter, episodic stages called "Missions". Some Missions are necessary to advance the plot, while others can be thought of as "side quests". Most missions average about five minutes a piece, allowing you to play the game in short bursts if you so choose, and won't leave you wondering what you're supposed to do if you decide to pick the game up after you haven't played in months. There are plenty of missions, both optional and mandatory, and you should be able to get upwards of 30 hours of gameplay in before completing the main story.
The difficulty in KHDS has been ramped up from its North American predecessors, and the "Proud" mode featured in KHDS arguably makes KHDS the most difficult Kingdom Hearts game released in the NTSC-U regions, a welcome change to the series' formerly pathetic difficulty.
Adding to the difficulty of the overall game is the addition of Challenges. In many of the missions are "Ordeal Badges" that you can collect which opens up a "Challenge" for that mission. Challenges have additional goals to that of the original mission (such as "Finish in record time" or "Avoid taking damage") as well as additional restrictions, such as level limits, enemy level increases, magic or item blocking, etc. Players who successfully complete these Challenges are rewarded appropriately, but if the Challenge restrictions aren't enough of a difficulty spike, some of the additional goal requirements may seem absolutely unreasonable.
For the most part, the game's controls work rather well. Despite having at least 6 fewer buttons than a PS2 controller, KHDS is easy to pick up and control. One of the major limitations is the camera control, which is mainly handled by the touch screen. The L/R buttons can spin the camera and fix it behind you, but to look around you requires that you release one of your thumbs from the buttons to twist the camera around - either that, or press select to enter the "Look Mode", which breaks the flow of the game in many situations.
The camera does a good job of pointing where it's supposed to in most situations, but when locked onto a nearby enemy in a small room or when backed into a corner can be very disorienting, as the camera tends to pull a 180 on you rather quickly, often leaving you to zig-zag in very messy circles. This, of course, can be avoided by removing the lock on any enemy with a quick button double-tap.
The Targeting system is the major shortcoming with KHDS: your ability to target an enemy can be easily broken when you do not have a direct line-of-sight. While this seems to make sense on an abstract level, the application feels half-baked at times. For example, if the enemy you're targeting moves behind a chair or a chain-link fence, for example, your lock-on will be broken (which often causes the camera to spin in one direction or another.) At other times it is near impossible to control what you want to lock on to, as proximity and direction seem to have volatile influence on what you are currently targeting.
Multiplayer is not done in a direct co-operative fashion; it is presented as a competition to see who can collect the most "points" while still attempting to fulfill mission goals. The multiplayer mode feels removed from the game, as you cannot play the main story in this fashion; missions are re-playable as multiplayer missions if you've collected that Mission's "Unity Badge" in the main story. As per Square-Enix's recent trends, Wi-Fi is not an option, and you have to resort to local multiplayer, so if you want to enjoy the multiplayer in KHDS, you and your partner(s) need to be in close physical proximity of one another and must both have the Unity Badge and Progress Rank required for the mission you want to play.
Like all other Kingdom Hearts games, KHDS has an intricate, involved, and often immersing plot. KHDS revolves around Roxas and his time spent as a member of Organization XIII. While it doesn't have a noteworthy starting point (x days after KH1, and y days before KH:CoM) it eventually becomes tied into the overall story arc and blends seamlessly into the beginning of KH2. As such, KHDS manages to avoid the crime of raising more questions than it answers. For better or for worse, this installment of the Kingdom Hearts saga has removed itself from the Disney universe considerably, focusing almost exclusively on characters unique to the Kingdom Hearts universe. Many of Disney's beloved and iconic characters are not portrayed (and in some cases they are not even mentioned) in their respective "planets".
While some things may seem confusing at first, anyone versed in the Kingdom Hearts universe should be able to easily wrap their head around what's going on, as the start and end points of the story are made known pretty early on. Even though the KH saga doesn't need re-iterating at this particular point in time, there is still much to intrigue anyone absorbed enough.
KHDS is fully rendered in 3D, something the Nintendo DS tends to be shy of doing, as it is tough to do so particularly well, given the hardware limitations. While model textures are noticeably low-resolution, the models themselves are well-represented enough to look the way they're supposed to.
But unlike sprite-based visuals which have set animation frames, the 3D animation in KHDS commits the crime that almost every 3D-rendered game does: mesh intersecting. At several points in time, a character's lock of hair will vanish into his shoulder, or someone's knee will poke through his/her cloak when squatting down, and while this is a minor detail, KHDS does little to hide it.
Another graphical nit-pick is the lack of effort in facial expression - a character's intended facial expression can only be seen in a speech dialog; the 3d model tends to have the same expression plastered on his/her face from start to finish, with the only exception being whether the eyes are open or closed. When a character is supposed to seem glum or morose, this is achieved by having that character turn his/her head away from the camera while making an appropriate sigh, which feels like a bit of a hack. Again, this is just a nit-pick preference of mine, which likely won't be caught up by the average player.
There's also roughly 45 minutes of fully voice-acted cut-scene animation, which is a nice step up from KH:CoM's cut-scene play time of perhaps 6 minutes. And that's always nice.
The music in KHDS is crisp, loud, and very well-produced. There are a lot of songs nigh-indistinguishable from the PS2 counterparts, there are some nice remixes of old favourites, and a handful of new tunes as well. The piano playing remains as top-notch as ever, and is often able to set the mood/atmosphere single-handed, especially near the end of the main story.
The sounds and (often sparse) voice acting are as good as they could be as well, despite the tacky feel of the over-used laughing sounds.
It's rude and presumptuous to say that KHDS is very impressive "for a DS game", but it really is to Square-Enix's credit. The visuals are great, the music will draw you in, the story is intriguing, and the gameplay is solid and ambitious, albeit repetitive at times. A few bugs try to tarnish the overall polish of this well-presented title, but fans of the Kingdom Hearts series are sure to appreciate this installment. While those unfamiliar with Kingdom Hearts may not appreciate the depth of the plot, KHDS is still definitely worth a look for any JRPG fan.