It doesn't matter what language you speak, anyone can plainly see that Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is a ridiculous name for a videogame. Equally obvious is that it's also a very fine handheld RPG. It takes advantage of what the DS can do and then pushes those technical strengths right to their very limits. Although the version we played was largely impenetrable thanks to our total lack of any handle on the Japanese language, what shone through was 358/2 Day's sky-high production values and engaging gameplay.
For the uninitiated, Kingdom Hearts is a quirky RPG mash-up mixing Final Fantasy-like characters and Disney icons, with main character Roxas battling through a dark kingdom aided by the likes of Mickey Mouse and Goofy. PS2 owners have had two episodes already, which this DS debut sits neatly between.
This being a collaboration between Disney and Square-Enix, graphically this is clearly a treat but it seems that some sacrifices have been made in squeezing a fully fledged Kingdom Hearts game into the humble confines of the DS. Chief among these is the camera, which is rather shaky, especially when you're on the move. All too often it clouts into a wall just when you need it to be perfectly still as you battle the enemy, and shifting it as you move or attack enemies is near impossible to do without seriously injuring your thumb. It was a major factor in the first game, released some seven years ago, but then, as now, it's by no means a game-breaker - even when you're struggling to see where you're going in the frequent platforming sections. Unfortunately it's highly unlikely to be resolved by the time we see the game released in Europe, unless Nintendo rushes out a new DS with an analogue control stick - and that just ain't going to happen we're afraid.
On the other hand the customisation system - a grid-based affair which organises your entire inventory - is particularly cool. As you complete more missions you gain more slots for this inventory, and that in turn allows you to pack in more skills and items for Roxas (the game's main protagonist) to call upon. Micro-managing his skillset is almost a game in itself. Each skill, ability, spell or item is a different size and shape, so it's a puzzler arranging and rearranging everything so as to fit as much as possible into what is (at first) a very tight space. Spells and abilities are upgradeable, so most take up multiple slots - one for the basic action, then other slots for enhancements. You'll constantly be fiddling around in an attempt to fully optimise Roxas, and you'll be drawn to 358/2 Day's peculiar form of grinding.
Ahead Of The Curve?
There's real variety in the challenge offered. Some missions are incredibly easy, while others are at the other end of the difficulty curve. There doesn't seem to be much order - a trifling, easy mission can be followed immediately by a daunting encounter with the Heartless (the shadowy enemy Roxas is pitted against). One in particular had Roxas helping Aladdin to overcome a succession of the Heartless in a dimly lit town, only some of the Heartless were present in a supporting role - there to prevent their battling comrades from falling. Armed with plenty of action magic, their role was to keep a number of Heartless alive. It's tricky to say the least. But most missions are short and snappy in length, which helps hold your attention and encourages you to have just one more go, further improving Roxas' abilities as you do so.
There are still some rough edges and control issues, but this is a powerful demonstration of the DS's ability to stage a grand adventure. Dragon Quest IX has a real fight on its hands for RPG fans' hearts.