After Kingdom Hearts II acted as the series' magnum opus, KH fans were all left with the same question: when is Kingdom Hearts III coming out? Nomura told us that he would get to work on it as soon as he could (which in hindsight, is absolutely adorable), but in the meantime, we got the announcement of not one, not two, but THREE new Kingdom Hearts games, all taking place across the series' timeline.
And across multiple platforms. None of which were PS2.
Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days was the first to be released, coming out in 2009 on the Nintendo DS. However, it would eventually see a re-release on the PS3 / PS4 as part of the 1.5 HD Remix. The catch? It was basically turned into a movie, since Nomura didn't have the time and resources to rebuild the entire game from the ground up.
Now, I will be reviewing Days in its CUTSCENE form, rather than its full game form. You may be asking yourself, "Why wouldn't you review the full game?" Well, the answer is quite simple: I never got to play it. I never owned a DS, so unless I resorted to "less than legal" means, I simply couldn't experience the game for myself. Because I'm reviewing the movie instead of the game, I can't critique 358/2 Days' gameplay features and variations. This means that my final score will have to hinge ENTIRELY on the story and presentation. So, is this side-story one that you should experience for yourself? Let's find out.
Keep in mind that this review WILL contain spoilers. You have been warned.
During Sora's original visit to Hollow Bastion, he discovered that Kairi's heart had taken refuge inside of him. In order to free her, Sora had only one option: releasing his OWN heart as well. This act saved Kairi, but caused Sora to become a Heartless for a very short while. This act had the unintentional side-effect of creating a Nobody, who would come to be known as Roxas. Due to him being a Nobody of a Keyblade wielder, Roxas also had the power to use the Keyblade. Because of this, the enigmatic Organization XIII (main antagonists of CoM and KHII) were quick to snatch him up and make him a member of their ranks. Roxas spends his days wandering the castle, destroying Heartless to build Kingdom Hearts, and watching the sunset with his friends Axel and Xion, who is the Organization's 14th member. As time goes on, though, Roxas begins to question everything around him. Why can't he remember his past? Why is the Organization so obsessed with Kingdom Hearts? Who is Sora? Why are his supposed allies so insistent on keeping secrets from him? What is it that connects him and Xion so closely? Roxas's pursuit of these answers quickly takes him down a road of pain, betrayal, and heartbreak.
I should start off by saying that you do NOT need to have experienced 358/2 Days to understand the overarching plot of Kingdom Hearts. Beyond not knowing who Xion is, this is very much a side-story, something that can enhance your enjoyment of the overall plot, but you can get by without playing. This is an approach that works far better than in Chain of Memories, which was simultaneously completely irrelevant and completely vital to understanding KHII.
Much like CoM though, Days takes itself far more seriously than other KH games. But because of the subject matter, this approach works as well. We caught a brief glimpse of Roxas's life in KHII, but we saw VERY little of his time in the Organization. Over the year that this game takes place in, we get to see Roxas going through a lot of ups and downs, highs and lows. A tricky thing with prequels is that it can kind of ruin the suspense, and it's hard to argue that's not the case here. However, I personally think the story works that to its advantage. We, as the audience, already know that Roxas' story does NOT have a happy ending, so there's this feeling of dread that hangs over the movie, even when it's just the ice cream trio hanging out and eating ice cream.
Another part of what makes this work is the characters. The main two we follow are Roxas and Xion, closely followed by Axel. While the story deals with many elements, including a traitorous plot between Axel and Saix that kinda goes nowhere, it's the friendship between this trio that drives the plot forward. What makes this so effective is that they aren't just already friends. We get to slowly watch this friendship build between Roxas and Axel, and later, Roxas and Xion. It's because we care about that friendship that it's so hard to watch it slowly fall apart as secrets start coming out and they're forced to take sides in the Organization.
Xion is a plot device. She was created to give Roxas the drive to abandon the Organization, and is disposed of when that purpose is fulfilled. It's the truth. That being said, Xion is still a likeable character in her own light. Unlike Axel, who is more of a teacher / mentor to Roxas, Xion is the one person in the Organization Roxas can relate to. Like him, Xion can use the Keyblade, and like him, she has no memories of her past life. Days is just as much about her journey as it is about Roxas, and when she discovers the (rather messed up) truth about who she is, it makes sense why it would affect Roxas so much: him and Xion have so much in common, so what if that's what he is, too? It all culminates in one of the saddest endings in the series, with Roxas losing everything and fighting in vain to take back the life that everyone around him stole from him.
That being said, the movie DOES have some pacing issues. 358/2 Days was a pretty long game taking place across multiple worlds, yet almost the entire story takes place on the Twilight Town clock tower. There are more than a few significant stretches where it feels like nothing's happening. In addition, while it's main three characters are done very well, the REST of the Organization (save for Saix) is given nothing to do. Many of them don't even get to SPEAK. Hell, Marluxia and Larxene, the two main antagonists of CoM, only appear for a combined 6 seconds. I get that it's Roxas' story at the end of the day, but the fact that so few of the Organization actually matter in the story OF the Organization is frustrating.
Naturally, being HD-ified for the PS3 / PS4 means that Days looks gorgeous, that's obvious. However, it's difficult to ignore how much it re-uses the same locations over and over and over again. It gets exhausting looking at the clock tower for such long stretches of time, honestly. And as I mentioned before, VERY few other worlds get to appear here, so it makes Days feel smaller than it already does.
All of the main voice actors reprise their roles, and they do just as great a job as they did before. Jesse McCartney still kills it as Roxas, and Quinton Flynn gives Axel an undeniable charm and charisma. However, there is ONE weak link in the cast: Alyson Stoner as Xion. She was weak, and I mean WEAK, when Days first hit in 2009, and while her performance IS better now, it's not by a whole lot. Too many of her lines sound unnatural and stilted, and her scream is still like nails on a chalkboard. Also, yet again, the lips aren't synced to the english voices.
The music is great, but limited. The game is comfortable with reusing old tracks from the series, but the few original pieces we get to hear are absolutely incredible, the highlight being Xion's theme (or "Musique Pour La Tristesse de Xion," if you feel like sounding pretentious). It's a shame we don't have more unique songs to listen to.
The things that 358/2 Days does well, it does REALLY well. The main trio are all likeable, it's visually gorgeous, the plot is laced with drama and tragedy, and it adds a ton of new depth to Kingdom Hearts II. Roxas is an incredible character, and his life slowly fall apart around him can be hard to watch. You root for him, despite knowing that his story isn't going to end well. When it goes for your emotions, it hits hard. But there are plenty of flaws too. Xion's actress is a notable weak link in the cast, the music gets repetitive, the clocktower segments can start to drag on, too much of the Organization are given nothing to do, and there is practically no action in the entire movie. That's why I'm giving Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days a:
7 / 10
It's a perfect compliment to Kingdom Hearts II: it will help you enjoy the story more, but if you want to skip it, you aren't missing a whole lot, either.
As the first of the trio of mobile KH games, it does its job. However, there was one that was built up to far more than the others. The one that got its own epic trailer if you complete KHII. That's the one people were hyped for, and that's the one that got released next.