Monday, March 1, 2010

Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days

There's a lot of people, myself included, who would love to see a Kingom Hearts 3.  But while I have no doubt in my mind it will happen eventually (after FFVersus 13; you heard it here first), right now Square-Enix seems to be more focused on just expanding the plot content they've already got, with spin-offs of the two flagship PS2 games.  And so we have Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.

In 358/2 Days, you play as Roxas, who more dedicated fans will recognize as Sora's Nobody.  The game starts right from the time Roxas is created (when Sora becomes a Heartless in KH1), runs parallel to Chain of Memories for a while, then connects right into the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 2 at the end.  Most of the story centers around Roxas's everyday life during the year Sora is asleep inbetween Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts 2.

Typical of a Kingdom Hearts game, 358/2 Days starts slow.  Really slow.  The plot is separated into a couple major story arcs, tied together with glimpses at the everyday life of Roxas during his time in Organization XIII.  The plot moves so slowly, in fact, that it's difficult to summarize it in an efficient manner.  Taking the Uncharted 2 approach, starting a new game gives you a look at the happy conclusion of the ~250th or so day Roxas has spent in the Organization.  Then it zips all the way back to Day 1.  One thing's for sure, however.  If you're a fan of Organization XIII, and never got to see all of its members (before now, Chain of Memories was the only game that had most or all of them), this game is a boon.  Various Organization members accompany Roxas on daily missions, allowing for lots of dialogue which gives you an extensive look into each members' personality.  Combined with Chain of Memories, it's also a veritable gold mine of backstory information, particularly that of Roxas (like where he got his second keyblade) and of course each Organization member.

While a lot of 358/2 Days is recycled content, there are some interesting new elements.  Firstly, the game, while still linear, is mission based.  You still travel to different worlds (the same ones, in fact), but instead of steadily exploring them in one sitting, you go back to them for several visits for various objectives, and their story is given to you in tidbits, as a result.  Missions come in an acceptable amount of varieties.  Unlike the rest of the members of Organization XIII (except for Xion), Roxas is able to collect hearts from defeated Heartless enemies with his Keyblade.  Thus most missions have you going out to either hunt down specific enemy types, or just collect hearts, in general.  There's also recon missions (my favorite), where you explore a certain world and try to scope out the situation by examining anything you find unusual (for example, through recon missions you slowly piece together that Beast is in fact the ruler of his castle, and that his appearance is possibly a curse).  The Organization will also regularly challenge you to complete fitness tests, which count as missions.  Only a couple of the missions handed out each day are mandatory (you can advance the plot and skip the remaining ones), but I suspect you would find yourself a little underpowered if you made a habit of only hitting up the story related missions.  You can go back and replay each completed mission with the Holo-Mission option in the pause menu.  Most missions also contain two different badges lying around.  The Ordeal badge lets you replay the mission in Challenge mode with some set restrictions (basically Hard mode) to earn Challenge Sigils, whereas the Unity badge unlocks the mission in the multiplayer mission mode.

The progression system has also undergone a drastic change.  While abilities, magic, and levels remain, they are governed by the new panel system.  Basically, you have a grid full of empty squares in which you can embed all sorts of things.  Level ups each take up one square, as does each cast of magic, each ability, and each item you bring into a mission.  Some tiles, like those that upgrade your weapon and augment basic tiles, are bigger and take up several spaces on the grid.  You start out with only a fraction of the grid open to you, but eventually you'll open the entire grid.  Even so, space is a limited commodity, so you can't just "wing it".

Conceptually speaking, the Panel system achieves a level of stat customization similar to that in Final Fantasy 12, or Custom Robo.  You can make Roxas melee focused, dedicating grid space to strength and combo enhancing tiles, as well as abilities like Block and/or Dodge Rooll.  Or, you could make him a heavy magic user, with plenty of offensive and defensive magic tiles and ethers.  Or of course, you could strike any balance between the two, with a decent combo weapon tile and a couple projectile magic tiles for versatility.  It's up to you.  You can store several custom grids, so you don't have to manually wipe the board every time you want to make a drastic role change.

But organizing your panels gets more complex than that.  As a melee attacker, will you focus on air combos?  There's a panel for that.  Attacks with a wide reach?  There's a panel for that.  Long and quick high speed ground combos? There's a panel for that.  You can only equip one weapon panel at a time, so it's important keep in mind what you're going to be up against in the next mission as you look over your panels.  If you're going to fighting enemies that are known to strike quickly, maybe you should equip the Dodge Roll ability.  If you're going to fighting a lot of airborne enemies or doing a fitness test, go for the Air Slide ability, which lets you dash in midair and cover that extra distance you may need.  Magic works the same way.  Will you equip Fire magic?  Thunder?  It should all depend on what the enemy report says as you look over an available mission

Lastly, panels' abilities can be enhanced by linking them with special tiles.  Each time you level up, you get a level up panel to throw in the grid at your leisure.  Occasionally, you'll come across a level multiplier, with which you can link several level up panels to multiply your overall stats to new heights.  The same goes for magic, ability, and weapon panels.  Certain panels linked to the Block ability tile (which let's you deflect enemy attacks), for example, can give it special qualities, like extra recoil or the ability to immediately counter-attack.  Magic tiles linked together can multiply the number of casts available to you, reducing the number of magic-restoring ethers you might need to bring.

Inbetween missions, you'll soon have access to the store, which let's you spend points earned from collecting hearts on new panels.  You can also spend sigils earned from Challenge missions for some handy freebies, and badges earned from completing Mission Mode (more on that in a bit) tasks.

Another returning features is item synthesis.  As you complete missions, you'll both collect and be rewarded with various item materials, with which you can craft panels.  It costs money (or "munny") to synthesize items, but since you don't use your cash for anything else (remember you use heart points to do real shopping), it replenishes itself quickly.  Synthesis is a way to get your hands on powerful new panels before they become available (assuming they ever will be available) in the points store.

As you complete missions, you are occasionally granted a rank promotion, which comes with lots of benefits.  Firstly, several new items become available for purchase and synthesis each time you rank up.  You can also unlock extra characters in Mission Mode with a high enough rank.

Combat in 358/2 Days is very much unchanged from most other entries in the series.  It's still very much a game about mashing the attack button to throw out attacks.  Like in the other games, there's a heavy focus on combos, especially once you get your hands on more advanced panels.  Taking out enemies in quick succession activates a Heart Chain, which multiplies the amount of heart points you get each time you take out an enemy before the chain expires. You can employ abilities like Dodge Roll, Air Slide and Block to spice things up, and more powerful weapon panels often have you press Y to extend your combo, but it's still not anything people who played KH1 or 2 haven't already seen in some variation.  The game makes minimal use of touch screen controls, only using the bottom screen to display mission information and a map.  Despite the DS having less buttons than a console controller, the game controls really well, and will be very familiar for series veterans.  You can still hold the left bumper to access custom mapped items and spells, and the X, Y, A, and B buttons do almost all the same things Triangle, Square, X, and Circle did on the Dualshock 2.

The only major addition is Limit Breaks.  About 15-20% of your life bar (just eyeballing it) is yellow.  When your HP falls into this region, you can activate your Limit Break mode for a few seconds, which lets you unleash a wild flurry of combos that do exponentially more damage per hit.  Each time you activate Limit Break, this yellow region shrinks significantly though, requiring you to take even more damage before you can activate it again.  Because of this you can typically only use Limit Break a couple times per mission (though there are panels available that increase the size of the yellow area).

Nearly all of the music, visuals, and presentation styles have been completely recycled from the console games, so there's not much innovation to be found in that department.  In fact, I suspect a lot of development time was spent finding methods to take the existing worlds and their BGMs and compress them to fit on a DS cartridge.  They obviously managed it rather well, as the game features some pretty great visuals for a DS game.  But just know that there's very little new content to be found here in terms of presentation.

358/2 Days has a very impressive amount of replay value though.  Like I said before, each and every mission can be replayed to find extra items and materials, and most of them also have a challenge counterpart that you can attempt to complete for sigils.

Speaking of replay value, let's talk about Mission Mode.  When you're not playing the main story, you can settle back for some miscellaneous missions in Mission Mode.  Missions can be completed cooperatively by up to four players via multi-cartridge multiplayer, which is an awesome bonus.  All thirteen Organization members are playable here, including Roxas, and they all have their own unique weapons, which too can be tinkered with using the panel system (though most of them still have preset base stats which make them better at some things and bad at others).  There are also a few secret characters that can be unlocked.  Completing missions earns you emblems, which you can redeem for prizes in the main story mode shop.

Overall, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is a great entry in the series.  While it doesn't bring much of anything new to the table, there's no denying that it gets a lot of things done right, and of course features a compelling, if poorly paced, story to keep players engaged.  The four player co-op is an excellent bonus, and one I can only hope to see in the next console entry.  An 8.5/10

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