Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2 Review

The year is 2010. A number of mediocre to absolutely disgusting console titles have utterly annihilated the reputation of the once beloved blue hedgehog, Sonic. Fans and critics alike treat each new release with more and more vitriol, and look to the second dimension, in which the hedgehog was much better received, for help. The well-received handheld Advance and Rush games, developed by Dimps, had already set a precedent that 2-D Sonic games tend to fare better than the console-based 3-D ones, and thus many believed that a return to 2-D on consoles would save this declining franchise from the trash heap. Thus, SEGA once again outsourced to Dimps and Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, the start of a downloadable throwback series to the original Genesis trilogy, was created…and it received one of the most polarized receptions of any game in the series since Sonic Adventure 2. Most critics liked it, most others thought it was okay, and much of the fanbase treated it with almost as much bile as the despicable Sonic the Hedgehog 2006. To go into detail would make this introduction drag on forever, so I’m just going to use some popular buzzwords: physics, automation, physics, rehashing, and physics. Oh, and green eyes.

Of course, I did review the game back in October of 2010 and, at the time, I freaking loved it. It was the most fun I had had with a console Sonic game in nine years. Of course, after the shock of actually enjoying a Sonic game wore off and I played the game more and more, some of the problems did begin to become more apparent. In particular, the glitchy, inertia-less physics started to bug me more and even aside from that it really couldn’t hold a candle to the classics it was billing itself as a sequel to. That said, I did find myself going back to it a lot and enjoying myself every time, so I’m still happy that I bought it in the end. Now we have Episode 2, for which they promised to take our complaints to heart and make a better game. Did they succeed at doing so or do what Square Enix did earlier this year with Final Fantasy XIII-2 and fail miserably? The answer lies herein.


Let’s start things off this time by talking about the aesthetics. One thing veterans of Episode 1 will immediately notice is that the game’s visual style has been completely redone, and it looks great. The visuals are a lot more vibrant and colorful and Sonic’s sprite looks considerably better and is a lot more expressive. Environments are made out of a lot more materials than the plastic and cardboard of old. The backgrounds are simply gorgeous as well and there’s usually a lot going on in them. In Oil Desert’s background, for example, you can see the drills and machinery operating and you’ll be able to see the various colorful attractions in the background of White Park. Zones, in general, look very inspired and quite diverse, and they feature some nice set pieces as well. Oh, and rest assured: this game, for the most part, does NOT rehash Zones or enemies from older Sonic games. I can’t say, aside from the enemies, that it’s all-new, as some elements – especially in Sky Fortress - are definitely going to feel familiar, but the Zones feel new enough that I doubt you’ll have a problem with it. Unfortunately, the soundtrack doesn’t fare quite so well.  Many decried the “dying cat” synthesizers of the first episode, and thankfully, they’re gone, but they’ve been replaced by what will come off at first as an obnoxious metallic buzzing, or, in the case of Oil Desert Act 2…quacking ducks. Some tracks may eventually grow on you and there may be some that you’ll love immediately, but there were definitely several, such as the Eggman boss theme and White Park Acts 1 and 2, that I just couldn’t get into.

Now it’s time to discuss the gameplay and before you ask, yes, they did fix the physics and they did a pretty good job at that. All of Sonic’s jumps and other such movements carry inertia just as they should and Sonic can no longer stand upright on walls as if his shoes contain ridiculously powerful magnets. As such, movement feels a great deal better than it did in Episode 1. They still haven’t gotten the rolling mechanic quite down just yet, but eh, it’s a small problem at worst. So, with that said, the Rush and Rivals games aside, if you’ve played a 2-D Sonic game before, you should have a good idea of what to expect from Sonic 4: Episode 2. It’s a platformer based around the fact that Sonic can run really, really fast. There are also Rings to collect so you won’t die, enemies to bounce and homing attack into, springs to bounce off of and everything you associate with Sonic. However, Sonic 4: Episode 2 introduces a new gimmick that you will be making use of a lot in the game.

See, Episode 2 brings Sonic’s sidekick Tails back into gameplay. You won’t be able to control him solo in single player mode, but you will be using him a lot to help Sonic get through the level. Pressing the “Square” button (on PS3) on the ground will cause them both to curl up into an uncontrollable, spinning ball of death that destroys everything in their path, which is useful for clearing otherwise insurmountable obstacles and just annihilating everything. You will have to uncurl from it eventually, however, as you can’t control left or right movement while using this move. Tails’ ability to fly using his two tails also comes into play; press the “Square” button in mid-air and Tails will be able to fly you upwards for a short time, and doing so while underwater will let you use Tails to swim since, as usual, Sonic can’t do it himself. Really, you’d think he’d have taken lessons by now.  Anyway, this is an interesting gimmick that is executed pretty well. You will be using it a lot to find different routes through levels and the level design puts it to some other pretty fun and inventive uses, such as navigating an underwater cave filled with suicidal ice-breathing walruses, as the game goes on.

And that’s another thing that people hoped would see improvement: the level design, and, well…it definitely has in some ways, but some fans will still be disappointed by the overuse of automation. Yes, Episode 1 was criticized for its perceived overuse of springs and speed boosters, which some thought was often unnecessary and made the game feel like it was playing itself at some points. Unfortunately, there’s still plenty of that here. I never actually found this inherently problematic in Episode 1, but honestly, even I’m getting kind of tired of it at this point. Don’t get me wrong; in moderation, just setting the controller down and watching Sonic blast around at high speeds can be pretty satisfying and there are even times where it’s kind of satisfying here, but the problem is that this game just overuses it. Of course, that’s not to say that the level design is bad; there’s still plenty to enjoy here and the automation doesn’t hurt the experience too much – at least for me – but it is disappointing. Actually, there was one level that I thought it kind of worked for, and that was White Park Act 2. Being a level meant to simulate a giant rollercoaster, the use of springs and boosters felt like it fit and there was still some decent platforming here and there. Some fans will find the level to be bland, but personally, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Anyway, while Episode 2 doesn’t get rid of the automation, its level design does prove to be quite a bit better than Episode 1’s regardless. For one thing, levels tend to be a lot larger, providing a lot more to see and plenty of different ways to get through each stage, which is always a very good thing. Straight-up platforming appears more frequently than in Episode 1 and there is much more creative use of stage-specific gimmicks as well as the previously mentioned team actions. Levels are also very diverse in the challenges they pose, and speaking of challenge, there’s a LOT more of it than in Episode 1. It’s not quite what I’d call a particularly difficult game, but it won’t be a cakewalk either, especially in its second half. Oh, and the game also has a level that features Sonic riding on Tails’ airplane, in the vein of such stages as Sky Chase or Tornado Defense (eh…sort of), and it’s probably the best stage of its kind to appear in the series thus far. And then there are the bosses, which actually impressed me a lot. Okay, the first one is bad – really bad – but beyond that, things improve considerably. The Oil Desert and final bosses, in particular, are some of the most epic, unique and challenging bosses I’ve fought in a Sonic game in a long time – barring Generations of course – and all of the fights against Metal Sonic are really fun. It actually surprised me how good the boss design was; you can really tell that Dimps got on their A-game here…after the first one. Honestly, it confuses me how that one turned out so ridiculously easy and boring, especially considering how awesome it looks. But I digress.
The other ones are awesome, it's just...this one. How.

And then there are the special stages, which are reminiscent of Sonic Rush’s special stages, which means that they’re reminiscent of Sonic 2’s special stages, which have been recycled by the franchise a number of times now.  Sonic 4: Episode 2 unfortunately doesn’t even go as far as Sonic Heroes or Colors DS did to cover this up; you’re just running forward through a half-pipe, collecting Rings and dodging obstacles. Don’t get me wrong; the stage is still plenty fun and does add a couple of new twists, and the last few are pretty dang tough. It’s just that the Sonic 2 special stage is getting kind of old at this point, and it’s about time for them to come up with a new one. And if not that, then they really need to give the Blue Sphere special stages from Sonic 3 & Knuckles a nod. Those were the best in the whole freakin’ series.

Sonic 4: Episode 2 allows you to play co-op with a friend, either locally or online, in which one player takes control of Sonic and one takes control of Tails. I’m not much of a co-op guy myself, but I did try it out, and it seems to work pretty well. The one thing I found fault with was that both players share one Ring counter, basically meaning that if one player gets hit, neither player will have any Rings. Honestly, I think that it would have worked better if they either had separate Ring counters or only half of the collected Rings were lost if one of them took a hit. Regardless, because of this, you will want to play co-op with someone as skilled as you are, and also because it’s easy to outrun other players thanks to how fast the game moves.

One more thing: if you own both Episodes 1 and 2 on the same console, you will actually have access to a free bonus episode called “Episode Metal”, in which you play as Metal Sonic through four levels from Episode 1 in a story that bridges the gap between Episodes 1 and 2, and the four levels feature different designs from their original incarnations. Unfortunately, since I bought Episode 1 on Wii, which Episode 2 is not available for, I probably won’t be playing it anytime soon. I can’t say it’s not cool that they did that, though.

The Good:
+ Great graphics 
+ Greatly improved physics 
+ Team gimmick works well 
+ Generally solid level design 
+ Co-op is good 
+ Free bonus episode if you own both main episodes on one console 
+ Great boss fights…

The Bad:
- …Except for the first 
- Too much automation 
- Hit or miss soundtrack 
- Sonic 2-style special stages are getting old

So how does Episode 2 fare when compared to the classics? Well, I’m afraid Dimps still has a ways to go before they can reach that standard of quality. Sonic 2 and 3 & Knuckles are, after all, some of the greatest 2-D platformers ever made, though, personally, I don’t think Sonic 4 will ever get that good no matter how many episodes it gets. In its own right, though, Sonic 4: Episode 2 is a very enjoyable 2-D platformer despite the flaws and it’s a significant improvement over Episode 1. I personally found it to be worth the money I paid for it, and you just might, too. Until next time, adios.

Grade: B

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Kingdom Hearts 10th Anniversary Reviews: Birth by Sleep

---------My Rating System--------

A(-)(+) A top notch experience all the way through. It may not necessarily be perfect, but whatever flaws it does have won’t take you out of it or make it any less worth your time. (Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2)
B(-)(+) A very fun experience bogged down by some significant problems, whether they’re related to the story, gameplay, or both. However, it’s still a good game and worth the price of admission. (Kingdom Hearts: Recoded)
C(-)(+) A mixed bag.  Generally fun to some extent and may shine in some areas, but is either too flawed to fully recommend or far too short for its price. Conisder it for a reduced price, at least if you’re a fan of its genre. (Rayman 3D)
D(-)(+)  Subpar. It may not be terrible, but it is severely flawed and whatever it does well ultimately fails to save it. Even if you’re a fan of the genre, this is barely a bargain bin purchase.  (Sonic Heroes)
F Insipid, disgusting, despicable, and insufferable. It is a scar on the face of human accomplishments that time shall never heal. The best thing we can do is avoid playing it at all costs. It is the only way to prevent its parasitic disease of awfulness from spreading. (Shadow the Hedgehog)

This is it, folks. We have finally reached the last stop on our epic journey through the wonderful world of Kingdom Hearts…at least for the next few months. And what a great one we have today. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is an installment for the PSP, and is the second most recent game in the series (behind Re:coded), which came out in 2010. It serves as a prequel to the series, starring three new characters rather than Sora and company and its story is meant to provide a lot of revelations that connect to events in future games (chronologically) and will have an effect on events in the upcoming sequels. I actually don’t remember being all too excited for this one, and I’m not quite sure why. Of course, the fact that it was on the PSP may have had something to do with it. It kind of told me that it would likely be a smaller scale adventure than the two PS2 games. Not to mention, I didn’t own a PSP when it was announced, and even when I did get one, it was a used one that hardly worked and wouldn’t take the update needed to play games released after 2009. And, of course, I’m sure being massively disappointed by 358/2 Days, which came out just a year prior, didn’t help much either. Fortunately, I did get a Slim n’ Lite along with the game a couple of Christmases ago, and it not only exceeded my expectations, but it thoroughly blew them away. Ladies and gentlemen, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is quite possibly not only the best game in the series thus far, but my current favorite RPG. The statement may sound fanboyish, and, well, maybe it is a little bit, but I do have my reasons for placing this game on such a high pedestal. Let’s take a look.
The story of Birth by Sleep is seen from the perspectives of three different Keyblade wielders: Ventus – who notably looks a great deal like Roxas - Terra and Aqua, three great friends. All three of them train under Master Eraqus to eventually pass the Mark of Mastery exam and officially become Keyblade Masters, whose job it is to protect the worlds from the forces of darkness. Shortly after the game begins, Aqua and Terra take the exam. Aqua passes with flying colors, but Terra unfortunately falls short, as he can’t quite keep the darkness in his heart in check. For those who are not already familiar with the series, in the Kingdom Hearts universe, darkness is a force that lies in the hearts of all human beings and those who attempt to control it or use it for power are usually either consumed by it or turn evil. Xehanort, a fellow Keyblade Master, insists that darkness is not an inherently negative force and that light and dark should exist in balance. Going against Master Eraqus’s teachings, he encourages Terra to use and control the power of darkness, and this conflict is a central focus of Terra’s storyline. Ventus, or Ven for short, finds himself chasing after Terra after he is visited by a mysterious boy in a mask named Vanitas, who tells him that he will never see Terra again. However, Ventus is not meant to leave the Land of Departure (the opening world) and Eraqus sends Aqua after him. Of course, our heroes have another reason to be flying around the universe. All throughout the worlds, dark creatures called Unversed are popping up that are proving to be a grave threat, and Aqua and Terra are tasked with exterminating them.
From left to right: Aqua, Terra and Ventus.
You may have noticed that throughout my Kingdom Hearts reviews, I have actually given a lot of emphasis and praise to the games’ storylines. It’s actually pretty strange that a series that started as just a giant crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy could end up having such a compelling story and mythology on its own, and Birth by Sleep, more so than any other game in the series (with the possible exception of Chain of Memories), stands proudly alongside Kid Icarus: Uprising as an example of how you can find very complex and engaging stories in odd places. ...Okay, I guess I will admit that the script is a bit hit or miss with this one. It works for the most part, but there are a disconcerting number of moments where it devolves into cheese and, like with Riku’s story in Re:Chain of Memories, they really need to shut up about the “darkness”. Even for a huge fan like me, hearing them talk about the “darkness” all the time eventually gets kind of annoying and lines like “Has the DARKNESS taken YOU, TERRA?!” are just cringe worthy. Aside from that, though, this story is awesome. I didn’t like Ventus, Terra and Aqua quite as much as Sora and co., but they’re still great characters and you really feel like there’s a significant bond between them. Voice acting is mostly superb, as usual, and the cast includes such names as Leonard Nemoy, who does the voice of Master Xehanort; Mark Hamill, who does the voice of Master Eraqus; Haley Joel Osment, who does the voice of Vanitas and previously did the voice of Sora; and Jesse McCartney, who does the voice of Ventus and previously did the voice of Roxas. However, Terra’s voice actor, Jason Dohring…wasn’t so good, I hate to say. He’s okay for the most part, but there were a lot of times where he just sounded bored.

The game also adopts a Sonic Adventure approach to telling its story, as each character has his or her own playable storyline and your understanding of the events of each of them the first time through will depend on the order you played them in. The stories of the Disney worlds also all play out across all three of the storylines, which is another thing I found interesting. There is even a “Final Episode”, which you unlock by beating all three of the other storylines and finding all twelve of the secret readable reports written by Xehanort. Oh, I’m actually surprised I didn’t mention this already in any of the other reviews, so my bad. Basically, in this game as well as Kingdom Hearts I and II, you can find reports – written by a guy named Ansem in KH1 and 2 and Xehanort in this game. They chronicle the various musings and thoughts of these characters as well as the research they’ve done and experiments they’ve performed regarding objects of interest. They actually give a lot of background to the stories of these games and the motivations of these characters, and clear up what may otherwise have been some pretty significant plot holes. They’re really interesting to read and are a shining example of how much effort the writers put into the storyline and continuity of this series.

The plot of Birth by Sleep, in general, is possibly the most interesting and engaging in the series thus far. Also, it’s actually pretty unique as a prequel in that, while it takes place before the first game in the series, it leaves some loose ends for future sequels to resolve. And while the fact that it’s a prequel makes it more accessible to series newcomers, some scenes and elements and even appearances by minor characters are going to mean the most to series oldbies. Thus, I still recommend newcomers start with the original Kingdom Hearts and play in order of release date. If you don’t care, though, starting with Birth by Sleep could be a very interesting experience that will change your entire understanding of the events of the next chronological installments.

Birth by Sleep is highly impressive on the visual front, especially given the system that it’s on. Seriously, these graphics are almost on par with those of the PS2 games, especially when it comes to character models and animations. I’d probably even call it one of the best-looking games for PSP. This high visual quality does come with a few unfortunate strings attached, but Square did provide some easy remedies. Loading times are long and frequent, but you can get rid of this problem by installing the game onto your PSP, an option you are given before you start the game. The framerate also suffers quite a bit, but the CPU speed can be bumped up to get rid of this problem at the expense of some of the PSP’s battery life. Personally, I thought the trade-off was worth it. The soundtrack is all-new this time around (minus a few tracks), since the game uses all-new worlds, and it’s…possibly the best one Yoko Shimomura has composed yet. For the record, that’s saying a lot. New music has also been composed for the cutscenes of the game, and those are probably my favorite tracks of the bunch. The track that played during one scene was so sad that I actually empathized with Cinderella. Think about that. When it comes to world BGM’s, my favorite track would have to be that of the final world, which sets a dark tone and atmosphere the likes of which I doubt I’ve seen in the series before.

Moving on now, Birth by Sleep is considered a main game in the series and thus, as mentioned before, it gives us a selection of new Disney worlds, and a pretty diverse one at that. Movies represented this time around include such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Peter Pan as well as the more recent Lilo & Stitch…well, the first ten or so minutes of it, anyway. Peter Pan was represented in the series before, but the world seen here is nothing like that of the first game or 358/2 Days. The only world that really makes a return is Olympus Coliseum, based on Hercules, but the fighting tournament-style mini-game is still fun, so I’ll forgive them. Oh, and it has Zack Fair from Final Fantasy VII and Crisis Core in it. Yeah, I hope you like him, because that’s the only Final Fantasy cameo in the game.

Considering that the game is on less powerful hardware, it should go without saying that the worlds will be quite a bit smaller than what was seen on the PS2. That said, I think they did a great job with what they had. There are still plenty of treasures and such to find and the worlds feel very diverse, usually offering their own challenges for each character and even some neat gimmicks. Disney Town, for instance, is the designated mini-game world and the world based on Lilo & Stitch allows you to turn off the gravity in some areas and soar to massive heights with each jump, which is used for platforming. Speaking of which, I mentioned in my review of the first game that some people seem to have a problem with the platforming elements of the series. I’ve never minded them myself; in fact, I actually found the platforming of Birth by Sleep to be pretty enjoyable. It’s nothing amazing, but it offers some fun ideas, if nothing else. All three characters will be visiting the same worlds throughout the game, but they all have different challenges to overcome and bosses to fight and you will see different parts of the world’s storyline depending on which character you’re controlling. The fact that each character feels different to control and has his or her own specialties also helps to keep things from feeling redundant. Ven is the balanced fighter, Terra is great with physical attacks, and Aqua is skilled with magic, which will likely influence how you choose to develop each character.

This brings me to where things get really, really awesome: the combat system, and if you ever thought that previous games were too focused on button mashing, consider your prayers thoroughly answered! See, this game replaces the abilities of Kingdom Hearts I and II with a Command Deck, whose capacity increases as you continue through the game. You fill this deck with the abilities you receive over the course of the game, and use them via the triangle button after they have charged up. You get better commands as you go through the game or make them yourself (more on that later), and the commands you do have will level up as you go along. As you attack enemies, a bar will fill up above the Command Deck. You have upgradeable finishers that you can use, but depending on which commands you used to fight – elemental magic, for example – you could enter a Command Style, such as Diamond Dust, Firestorm or Lightning Bolt. Some Command Styles are also specific to each character, i.e. Ventus’s Fever Pitch, Terra’s Critical Impact and Aqua’s Spell Weaver. Using different commands during a Command Style could allow you to use other ones if you have them unlocked, such as Blade Charge, which turns your Keyblade into a giant glowing sword. These Command Styles not only augment your attack power or add elemental attributes to it, but also make your attacks lightning fast and really awesome to watch. It is worth noting, however, that you can’t abuse commands, as each command will need some time to charge up before you can use it again. See, it’s through this system that Birth by Sleep accomplishes the same fast-paced, flashy and fun combat that Kingdom Hearts II had while adding leagues of depth and strategy to it, and it works incredibly well.

That’s not even getting into just how customizable it is. You are given full control over what commands you have in your deck at all times, limited only by which ones you have collected in the game. Some commands actually come with other abilities attached to them, such as adding onto your default combo, and if that command levels up all the way, that ability is yours to keep. And then there’s the Meld Command option, which allows you to combine two commands to make a brand new one. Experimenting with this is a great way to get new abilities out of unwanted of Commands, and can also allow you to get better spells early on in the game. You won’t always know what you’re getting, so there may be risk involved if you’re wagering a good command, but who knows? You might get something really useful out of it. Sometimes, you can even combine magic spells with physical attacks to make an elemental version of said physical attack or a version that induces a status effect. Essentially, ability-wise you are given a lot of control over how your character develops, which just adds even more depth to what may be my favorite combat system in any RPG that I’ve played.

One more thing. I criticized the boss design of Kingdom Hearts II for being too easy and lackluster. So, does Birth by Sleep improve upon that as well? As a matter of fact, it does. A lot. In fact, if you’re playing on Proud Mode, a lot of these bosses are…pretty brutal, honestly, and some of them will easily one-shot you if you’re not at the right level. Heck, there are some that I remember having a lot of trouble with the first time through on Standard Mode. Oh, and Proud Mode isn’t even the highest difficulty level. That would be Critical Mode. It downright scares me to think about how hard that might be. All in all, bosses in Birth by Sleep are really difficult and a lot of fun to fight.

The Good:

+ Awesome story 
+ Great visuals 
+ Soundtrack is the best yet 
+ Three playable storylines 
+ New Disney worlds 
+ Lots of diversity 
+ Solid platforming elements 
+ Amazing combat system 
+ More customizable than ever 
+ Great boss battles 
+ Great voice acting…

The Bad:

- …Except for Terra 
- Sometimes cheesy script


After the disappointing Days, this game was just what I needed. It had just about everything I loved about the PS2 games and more, and my appreciation of it has grown even more after playing it again. This may very well be the most fun I’ve ever had with an RPG combat system, and the story, despite the problems I had with the script, is awesome, as usual. If you have a PSP, you owe it to yourself to play it. I’m giving it the same grade as Kingdom Hearts II because I can’t really give it an A+ and there are some things I believe Kingdom Hearts II does a bit better. However, overall, I do believe it to be a better game. It’s the best game in the series, possibly one of the best games for PSP, my current favorite RPG, and one of my favorite games in general.

Grade: A

And thus our journey through the Kingdom Hearts series finally comes to an end, at least for the moment. There is one more game in the series, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, but I already reviewed it. If you want the short version, though, it has a pretty weak story, but it provides its own fun take on Birth by Sleep’s gameplay style and has a great deal of gameplay variety, which makes it a very fun little side game that’s worth picking up.

Playing through these games again was a really great experience for me. Few game series have left the kind of impact on me that Kingdom Hearts has. When I was just seven years old, the first game showed me just how well a game could tell a story, and Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II continued to do so later on. Even 358/2 Days, which I was very close to giving a negative grade before the end, gave me a very nice and even heartbreaking storyline. (ba dum tssh) Dream Drop Distance is coming to the States soon, and it looks like another awesome installment to the series. As for my next review, that will probably be for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2, which hits PSN this Tuesday and XBLA on Wednesday. Farewell for now.
Cue credits sequence.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Kingdom Hearts 10th Anniversary Reviews: 358/2 Days

So it is finally time to once again discuss the (mostly) wonderful Kingdom Hearts series. Yes, sorry that this took me so long to put out. See, the Kingdom Hearts game we’re discussing today is 358/2 Days, and, well, spoiler alert, I don’t like this game very much. I began this Kingdom Hearts extravaganza with the knowledge that I would eventually have to tackle this monstrosity (which I had never actually beaten before), but I had no idea that it would be this…difficult. Anyway, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is the first of two DS installments – the other being Re:coded, which I reviewed last February – and is a mission-based game that focuses on the character Roxas, introduced in Kingdom Hearts II, during his 358 days among the awesome black-cloaked group of villains known as Organization XIII. I’m all for that and there are definitely some things that this game gets right, but in the end, it proves to be the lowest point in the series’ history. Let’s delve into the game, why don’t we. 


358/2 Days takes place before, during and after Chain of Memories and before Kingdom Hearts II. As I said before, it focuses on Roxas, at this point a newly-born Nobody (an empty shell with no heart) who has the power to use the Keyblade. He is inducted into Organization XIII, the group of powerful Nobodies introduced through Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II, and soon after he joins, a new member named Xion steps in, whom also happens to be a Keyblade master. Roxas then begins going out on missions with Xion and the other members of Organization XIII and concluding every mission by having ice cream with her and Axel, a fellow member. As he does this, he learns more about himself, the world, his purpose, the Organization and, of course, friendship, until crap inevitably hits the fan toward the end and Kingdom Hearts II begins. 
From left to right: Axel, Roxas and Xion.

The storyline is probably the only thing I seriously enjoyed about Days. Roxas and Axel were already established characters, but the game does a very nice job of developing them further. Xion actually steals the show here, partially for reasons that are a bit spoiler-y, so I won’t say much other than that she’s a great character. I always enjoyed seeing the three of them interact and I was emotionally invested in the story by the end, where things really start happening. The game is also separated into short days, as the game is basically about how Roxas lives and works day to day. I thought this was an interesting approach to telling the story that was handled well. The script is also solid this time around, and the voice acting, while there isn’t very much of it, is very well done. In the end, the story is probably the only reason why you might want to play the game. 

Yes, while the story is very good, the gameplay ultimately proves…very lackluster, which is why I advise you approach this one with caution. Well, before I start ripping this game to shreds, I should say that there is one thing I liked, and that was the character customization system. As you complete more and more missions, you gain slots on which you put “Panels”. These Panels contain your weapons, abilities, items, magic, and upgrades thereof. There are some Panels (mostly weapon and ability Panels) that take up extra spaces that could be used for other Panels; however, said Panels can often be linked to Panels that upgrade said weapon or ability, and some offer other effects such as upgrading your magic spells or doubling your experience levels. Overall, it’s a very strategic system that works very well. 

Beyond that, though, Days…has absolutely nothing of value to offer, gameplay-wise. One could argue that combat in Kingdom Hearts I and II was mostly button mashing, yes, but at least you could still use magic and other such moves to mix things up a bit and, in Kingdom Hearts II’s case, you probably wouldn’t care anyway because of how fast, flashy and satisfying the combat was. In Days, combat is just button mashing, and combat feels much slower-paced at that, which sucks a lot of the fun out of it and replaces it with boredom. You can still use magic, but you’ll barely ever use it because the game makes one of the most idiotic design decisions I’ve ever seen. By that, I mean that it puts a limit on how many casts of each spell you can bring with you into each mission, and if you want to take any abilities or items with you, you’re probably not going to be able to take too many spells. Even aside from that it’s very limiting, as there isn’t a terrible amount of different combos and moves at your disposal and the Reaction Command from KH2 is nowhere to be seen. Enemy variety isn’t exactly this game’s strong suit, either; most enemies are actually just recolors of other enemies you’ve fought, and they’re all fought the same way: mashing the “A” button over and over and over again until you get carpal tunnel syndrome. It gets incredibly repetitive and boring very quickly, and I really don’t see why the combat had to be so much worse than Kingdom Hearts II’s. You can’t really say it’s because it’s on the DS because Re:coded was for the DS, too, and its combat wasn’t significantly worse than that of the PS2 games. I just…don’t know what happened here. 

And there are the bosses, which pretty much suffer from the same problem, except it’s magnified here because boss battles drag on for so long. Their health bars are inhumanely high and from my experience you don’t even do that much damage. It’s basically ten to fifteen minutes or even longer of jump, mash the “A” button, fall, rinse, repeat. Maybe you’ll have to chase the boss around the arena, too, which…isn’t fun in the least. Also, there were at least two bosses in the game that almost made me consider giving up and watching the rest of the story in a playthrough on Youtube. The first was the Leechgrave, which was downright cheap. It had no visible pattern for its attacks, one of which was a scratching attack that would do devastating damage if you got close. Well, guess what? You have to get close to attack! Oh, and it has a poison attack that drains your health. Have fun! The second was the Ruler of the Sky. For one thing, many of its attacks have a far larger hit box than they should have. For another, it reminds me of that stupid last room in Final Fantasy X because locking onto it gives you a nauseating rotating camera since it’s always moving and there are actually icicles sprouting from the water below to stop you dead in your tracks. It’s so similar that it’s almost scary. At least this game lets you skip cutscenes… 

Finally, the missions are incredibly repetitive. Even when they pretend like they’re asking you to do different things, they really all boil down to just killing Heartless, or mashing the “A” button repeatedly, in other words. You visit the same worlds over and over again dozens of times, as well. Exploration isn’t very interesting, either; the worlds are very small and certain areas are closed off during different missions, and these are all the same worlds from the first two main games besides. To Days’ credit, there are times when it attempts to change things up, but it doesn’t really work. Halloween Town forces you to use Jack Skellington’s dog Zero to scout out Heartless by giving him treats, which just makes things more tedious, and Olympus Coliseum once again takes place in fighting tournaments and mini-games that…just aren’t fun here. Oh, and there are also some insultingly easy stealth sequences and puzzles sprinkled here and there. 

When it comes to aesthetics, though, Days doesn’t fail to please. Given the system it’s on, Square did about the best they could with the visuals, and, well, they’re not half-bad and the framerate is very good. The soundtrack is also fantastic, as always, though it’s…mostly just the exact same BGM’s from the two main games, along with Sanctuary from Kingdom Hearts II. As for the new tracks that are here, though, expect Yoko Shimomura’s usual magic.

 The Good: 
+ Great storyline 
+ Solid script and voice acting 
+ Nice customization system 
+ Great visuals 
+ Awesome soundtrack 

 The Bad:
- Boring combat 
- Awful boss battles 
- Incredibly repetitive 


 By the end of 358/2 Days, I was a little happy that I had experienced it if only because of the story, so I really can’t call it a bad game. However, the gameplay experience was…pretty agonizing, to be frank, so I can’t quite call it a good one either. Ultimately, I’d say it’s…a mediocre game. I guess it’s kind of worth playing, but don’t pay too much for it. Fortunately, this doesn’t hint at a trend in the quality of games to come. Next time, we’re looking at the fantastic Birth by Sleep, the last game on our list until I can get my hands on Dream Drop Distance. See ya. 

 Grade: C-