The amalgamated world of popular Square Enix characters and memorable Disney mascots ventures onto the Nintendo DS for the first time in Square Enix's upcoming Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. This game gives us the chance to learn more about Roxas, the thirteenth member of the Organization XIII. We've played a bit of Kingdom Hearts at several events, but this is the first time we've been able to play it from the beginning and spend some quality time with the game. We were eager to learn how Roxas came to be and his role in this unique world because he is one of the more intriguing characters in the series. The game stays true to the original Kingdom Hearts formula, so you can expect a lot of fast-paced action, Heartless of varying shapes and sizes, and plenty of treasures to find.
The story revolves around Roxas, whom we met in Kingdom Hearts II as Sora's Nobody. He has no recollection of his past, and as the days go by (there are a lot of them!), we learn more about his role and the Organization. If you haven't played the other games, it's difficult to follow the narrative because this one takes place right before Kingdom Hearts II where Sora and his sidekicks are asleep and recovering their lost memories. The spiky-haired protagonist befriends a new member of the Organization--the fourteenth--who is a quiet girl with short black hair named Xion. Together, they take on missions in the various Disney-themed worlds and get to know one another. It's clear early on that the Organization wants Roxas to collect hearts with his keyblade to ultimately form Kingdom Hearts, and Roxas obeys only because he can't remember anything prior to getting recruited by the organization. But even as a Nobody without a heart, Roxas understands more than the average member of the group.
Tailored specifically for Nintendo's handheld, the Story mode is broken up into short missions, which are fairly easy to complete and can range from collecting hearts to stalking other characters. The mandatory missions are marked with a key and must be completed to continue the story. A mission gauge indicates how much of the mission you've completed, and there are bonuses awarded if you go above and beyond your orders. The areas will look familiar (Twilight Town is exactly the same), but much of it is cordoned off so that you only focus on your objective. You can only save at your home base--also known as the Grey Area--which, for the most part, is fine. But if a mission drags on, you'll wish you had the option to quicksave because otherwise, you'll have to abandon the mission or leave your DS in sleep mode. The story progresses after each mission, which makes it feel like you're constantly experiencing something new. For those who are unfamiliar with the setup, there are plenty of tutorial missions that can take a while to get through, but at least some of the storyline is interspersed, which breaks up the gameplay and brings you up to speed.
The controls are easy to learn and the gameplay looks similar to the PlayStation 2 games where you hack your way through the many variations of Heartless while wielding your special keyblade. Your green health bar has a yellow gauge attached at the end to indicate when you can activate your limit break if your health is low. Holding the A button while your health is in the yellow temporarily gives you a boost in speed and power, which is hopefully enough to clear your enemies and heal. The camera takes a little getting used to, but once you advance further into the game, you get the option to use another set of controls, which allows you to rotate the camera using the shoulder buttons. But in the beginning, you can only use the right trigger to center your view and the touch screen to move the camera around when you want to track down items that are otherwise hard to see. You attack with the A button and jump with the B button; shortcuts can be assigned by using the left trigger. Some missions are taken on alone, but there are many in which a member of the organization will accompany you. This is not only helpful, but it's also nice to get to know the enigmatic members of this mysterious group each time you embark on a new quest.
The panel system is a new feature that has been added, which lets you customize Roxas' abilities. For example, if you want to use magic, you have to equip it in your menu first. Panels for potions, special abilities, armor, and other items are all placed on a grid so that you have access to them during a mission. Link panels are Tetris-like pieces, which take up more space and require you to place certain panels together to unlock new abilities. For example, if you get a doublecast link panel and put a blizzard and fire panel in the slots, it will give you two casts for each spell during your mission. The panel menu can only be used when you're back at the castle, so before heading out, it's a good idea to check the mission brief to see what you're up against and then shuffle your skills around because you have a limited amount of space. You can save your particular setup, or deck, so you can bring up the most efficient configuration depending on the circumstances. As you go through the game, your grid will expand, and once the moogle shop appears at the castle, you can synthesize new panels to add to your growing skill set. Leveling is also a bit different because instead of naturally getting stronger, you receive a level-up panel, which needs to be slotted into your grid.
Outside of the Story mode, there's also a Mission mode, which includes a multiplayer component. You can play alone as any member of the Organization XIII or team up with three other friends to take on missions together. Each character plays and moves very differently and has his or her own unique fighting style and choice of weapons. It's possible to play through these missions solo, but without an additional cartridge, we weren't able to test out the multiplayer. There's always the option to replay missions, as well from your menu, and there are also challenges, which are essentially tougher versions of the missions you've already completed if you're looking for more.
Fans of Kingdom Hearts are going to want to keep a close eye on this game. Like visiting an old friend and picking up where you left off, a flood of memories will return as you wander through the peaceful and familiar streets of Twilight Town, with Yoko Shimomura's charming and playful melodies playing in the background. With no Kingdom Hearts III in sight just yet, this game will have to tide you over for now. Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days is scheduled to be released on September 29, so be sure to look for our full review then.