For Kingdom Hearts fans, the wait for the next true installment of the series has been nothing short of agonizing. The wait between the first and second installments was painful enough, with Square-Enix briefly filling in the void with the Gameboy Advance interquel Chain of Memories, receiving mixed reception and generally not providing the ideal "Kingdom Hearts experience." Even a few years after the true sequel's release, Square-Enix has said nothing of a third main installment, although they again attempted to fill the void with another spinoff, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days (pronounced "three-five-eight days over two"), for the Nintendo DS. This spinoff surprisingly provides a much better Kingdom Hearts experience than Chain of Memories and its PlayStation 2 remake did.
Story-wise, 358/2 Days is a midquel to both the original Kingdom Hearts and Chain of Memories, focusing largely on Roxas, who made his first appearance in Kingdom Hearts II, and his involvement with the antagonistic Organization XIII before the events of that game. Through several missions (the player won't actually see all 358 days), Roxas and the Organization collect Hearts from Heartless to complete the mysterious MacGuffin that just so happens to bear the name of the RPG series all the cool kids are crazy over, Kingdom Hearts. Contrary to the group's name, a mysterious fourteenth member, Xion, joins the team, with Roxas himself gradually discovering his own origins.
For the most part, 358/2 Days does a superb job translating the signature Kingdom Hearts gameplay to the Nintendo DS, despite the lack of two analog sticks and the L2 and R2 buttons. There are two types of camera controls, one of which allows for camera rotation with the L and R buttons, and which is likely preferable for most players, with command shortcuts accessible by holding them both simultaneously. Like in the other Kingdom Hearts games, however, the camera can sometimes get screwy when the player is close to walls or fighting in narrow corridors, but luckily doesn't often cost the player their life, at least on the easiest difficulty.
Dictating exactly what moves Roxas can perform in battle is the Panel system, where Panels represent just about everything, including his type of Keyblade, magic, items, backpack space, special moves like gliding and high-jumping, and even levels (with new level Panels appearing once Roxas has acquired enough experience). Many Panels are able to "link," providing additional effects such as increased attack power, increased jumping height, double casts of magic, multiplied levels, and so forth. As Roxas completes missions, his panel space gradually increases, with a maximum of three pages, allowing the player to further customize his abilities.
Alongside Hearts, Roxas also acquires Munny from the Heartless he exterminates, both of which he can use at Organization XIII's headquarters to purchase or synthesize (with the right raw materials) Panels from a Moogle. All in all, despite the fewer controls, the Kingdom Hearts gameplay works well on the DS, with the only real flaws being that if certain Heartless stray too far from their points of origin, they'll disappear, with Roxas needing to re-fight them at full HP, and that Roxas can sometimes accidentally exit areas, given his constant bouncing around while attacking.
358/2 Days would have definitely benefitted from in-mission saving, given the length of some of them (although players can return to headquarters prematurely), but controls are otherwise more than adequate, with easy menus and a linear mission-based structure that keeps players moving in the right direction. Despite the save system, the game doesn't punish players too severely when they die, so it's somewhat forgivable, and interaction is solid overall.
Like the previous Kingdom Hearts spinoff Chain of Memories and its remake, 358/2 Days recycles much content from the main installments of the series like many locales, some music, and many characters, though this iteration has plenty of original content to make it feel distinct from other installments and RPGs, like the Panel system.
The story itself is actually somewhat more enjoyable than in prior Kingdom Hearts games, given its greater focus on the original characters rather than the Square-Enix or Disney characters, but mission-based gameplay, as usual, doesn't lend itself very well to good storytelling, with a disjointed feel at times, and somewhat awkward pacing. The revisiting of old worlds from previous Kingdom Hearts games doesn't help matters. Roxas's diary does keep track of all the game's events and his thoughts, and there are some decent twists, and a nice direct tie-in to Kingdom Hearts II, but the plot may confuse those who haven't played other games in the series.
358/2 Days reuses many tracks from its predecessors, not that this is a bad thing, as they still sound nice, and there are plenty of original themes. Voice acting is also present during CG cutscenes, including Wayne Allwine's final performance as Mickey Mouse, which is competent. Despite the reused music and signature Kingdom Hearts Critical Annoyance, the midquel is mostly easy on the ears.
The spinoff sports some of the best 3-D graphics on the Nintendo DS, looking close to those in the main Kingdom Hearts games, despite some blurry texturing on close-up, although plenty of CG cutscenes are present, which look superb. All in all, 358/2 Days is a definite visual treat.
Finally, the game's playing time ranges from twenty to forty hours, with plenty of things such as extra missions, holo-missions (replays of previous missions), challenges (some normal missions with added restrictions, and which can earn sigils the player can exchange for prizes), and so forth, stretching out playtime even further. Ultimately, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is an ideal example of a spinoff, being a fun mix of the old and the new, though those who think games that go green in any fashion automatically suck will be in for surefire disappointment. Those that don't mind revisiting old locales in the franchise, however, will be in for a definite treat.
+A fun mix of the old and the new.
+Sounds nice, looks better.
-In-mission saving would have been nice.
-Mission-based gameplay doesn't lend itself well to good storytelling.
-Plenty of recycled content.
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 7/10
Playing Time: 20-40 Hours