Sunday, June 3, 2018

Worldly Weekend: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days

Note: Merely discussing the content of this game -- or even just looking at the below cover -- paves way for some early spoilers regarding Kingdom Hearts II. If you're planning on going into the series blind, you'd best skip ahead.

And so begins not just Kingdom Hearts further wedging itself into the realm of indecipherable names, but spawning what remains its biggest folly: an endless line of "bridge" games consisting of side-stories, prequels, and pseudo-sequels, all for the purpose of either divulging a particular interim  between certain games or setting the stage for Kingdom Hearts III. Be it the fault of a developer (Square-Enix) caring only to capitalize upon a successful brand or the burgeoning over-ambition of a short-sighted director (Tetsuya Nomura), it's vital to discuss why, exactly, this direction was problematic, beginning with the most obvious reason: it's been eleven years since the first three spin-off games (358/2 Days, Birth by Sleep, and Re:coded) were announced, and we're only just getting Kingdom Hearts III this year. Whoops.

This past decade's worth of wasted time and frustration is more than enough for fans to jump ship, especially when factoring in cost: over the next six years, engaging in the full Kingdom Hearts experience required the purchase of a Sony PlayStation 2, a Nintendo DS, a Sony PSP and a Nintendo 3DS. Being an episodic series, this is not like Final Fantasy's individualized entries where one can simply pass, say, Final Fantasy IX on PlayStation and pick up Final Fantasy X on PlayStation 2 without missing any context; nay, you must at the very least engage in Birth by Sleep and Dream Drop Distance to make any sense of the series hereafter, and for the most dedicated of Kingdom Hearts fans, that potentially means shelling out cash for systems you don't particularly want (or, in my example, you're lucky enough to know someone at college who's willing to let you borrow their PSP and copy of Birth by Sleep).

The ardent Kingdom Hearts fan may remind me that Square already began this practice with 2004's Chain of Memories on Game Boy Advance, but therein lies the problem: one could play Kingdom Hearts II without knowing the full context of that game. Yes, there may be certain details that may not be fully appreciated, but it could be appreciated in itself just fine without knowledge of any of that game's events. The same cannot be said for anyone who fell off the boat following II and jumps into Kingdom Hearts III completely blind of anything that happened thereafter, what with the all-too-important story-points of Keyblade Wars and Master Xehanorts and X-Blades and what have you.

In defense of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days -- the game we are reviewing today and the first of this spin-off wave -- it takes on a Chain of Memories-esque role, taking place in that game's same interim between Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. After all, the game it's building up to was released several years earlier, and aside from a couple vague hints towards Birth by Sleep -- only one of which has any importance, and even that can easily be brushed aside as a "oh yeah, I was ordered to do this" thing -- it's largely inconsequential to the broader framework of Kingdom Hearts' story. Perhaps that's why I don't take offense to it remaining the franchise's nadir. Admittedly, this is a shaky claim on my part: I still haven't bothered with Re:coded -- and after suffering through that arduous movie adaption in 2.5 HD ReMIX, I don't plan on wasting time with it anytime soon -- nor the mobile Kingdom Hearts Unchained χ nonsense that, surprise!, is confirmed to lead into Kingdom Hearts III. Still, it is not a very fun game at all, and while it's hardly as terrible as its worst detractors may have you believe, that does little to salvage it from the depths of mediocrity.

Let us admit there is some sense in crafting a game surrounding Roxas -- the troubled youth we first met in Kingdom Hearts II -- and his origins surrounding Organization XII. We've discussed my feelings on that nefarious group before: I applauded their presence in Chain of Memories and criticized their relative lack of agency in Kingdom Hearts II, but there's no denying both Roxas and that league of villains enjoyed immense popularity following the latter's release. In capitalizing upon fan desires (358/2 Days) alongside forging ahead with the series (Birth by Sleep), a sensible direction is indeed gleaned. Not a particularly ideal one, mind, but a sensibly financial one.

I also confess I'm not opposed to how 358/2 Days plays; if anything, it's a technical marvel in how much it feels like the PS2 games. Yes, the camera's a tad wonky and D-pad controls aren't exactly optimal for 3D games such as this, but the combat still instills that same addiction found in the console games. Roxas's adventure may not have the same depth as Sora's, but the flashy combos and tight dodging remain present, and outside of some clunky boss fights, I can't take much issue with combat. I suspect my enjoyment in this area involves the Panels, which continue the handheld Kingdom Hearts direction of personalizing your moveset. It's a style not loved by every series fan, but one I happen to enjoy: in this case, micromanaging my skills within a gradually burgeoning grid is akin to a puzzle, one where the pieces (abilities and equipment) must be carefully aligned to fit.

So if it plays fine, what exactly is wrong with it? Simple: it's how the gameplay is framed within tedious, unfun missions. Yes, having Organization XII scout worlds makes sense from a narrative standpoint, but studying the effects of sandstorms on Aladdin's Agrabah or feeding bones to Zero from The Nightmare Before Christmas is not, in any definition of the word, "fun"; they are monotonous exercises, meant only to pad out the game. Let's put it this way: when you're sent on missions to clear out Heartless, they are inoffensive; when you're sent on individualized missions framed within the context of, say, recon, they're tiresome thanks to cramped, confounding world design (Aladdin's Chamber of Wonders being a particular irritant in rising pillars and obtuse crate puzzles). This isn't even the worst of it, though: every now and then, we are ordered to snoop around certain Disney characters in stealth sections, and they are never not torturous affairs, with your targets moving at a snail's pace and us being forced to redo the molasses-esque process whenever we're caught, thus wasting our time again and again.

In other words, there's a whole lot more frustration to be found than any balance of enjoyment, and 358/2 Days suffers for it. As the game is divided into numbered "Days" -- each containing their own respective missions -- we understand it's meant for play in short bursts, but even the smallest pocket of game time provides only irritation. Not that we hadn't engaged frustration in the series prior thanks to opaque navigation and unfathomable space-shooting sections, but 358/2 Days seems deliberately hellbent in boring us with a flood of aimless, meaningless tasks, and so we're left wondering what the point of it all is.

And if the actual game's pointless, how can we hope for the story to be anything else? There are many fans who point to 358/2 Days as being something of a tearjerker, but while I can point to certain touching moments, I refuse to shed any tears over something this meandering We may grow some adequate affection for Roxas, Xion and Axel -- the game's trio of protagonists, mirroring the friendship of Sora/Kairi/Riku -- but I give not a damn about near anyone else: the Chain of Memories members exit as quickly as they arrive (admittedly, this does makes sense relative to the original game's timetable, but even that requires some suspension of disbelief regarding the timeline of days), we're given little reason and exposition for the Kingdom Hearts 2 cast outside of (yet again) Saix, and Riku's snooping around renders him the only other character possessing any agency. (You'd also be forgiven if the cover fooled you into thinking Mickey has any relevance: with only one text-box scene, enjoy Wayne Allwine's last Kingdom Hearts performance in the form of exciting battle grunts for the game's mission mode while you can)

Much like the Star Wars prequels, we go into 358/2 Days knowing exactly how it's going to end: Roxas will end up ditching Organization XII's and Xion will somehow fade from existence as the group's forgotten fourteenth member. Alas, just like Star Wars prequels, the problem lies in execution: while there are enough mysteries and drama to move the story along, as mentioned before, hardly any of it contributes anything worthwhile to the series barring Xion's introduction, and even then, she is perhaps the most tangential Kingdom Hearts character. Yes, we learn her purpose and witness her struggles, but her ultimate objective  is nothing more than the gobbledygook that had already begun infecting the series since Kingdom Hearts II. Not even the series' trademark use of symbolism can salvage her purpose (there is a certain infamous line near the end regarding ice cream that's supposed to be a telling character moment for Roxas, but it just comes across as unintentional hilarity), and so she only serves to bloat the series' lore and cast.

Oh, and if I hadn't implied it already, this is the most peripheral usage of Disney in the entire Kingdom Hearts saga. Sure, one could argue their presence is not strictly needed in a tale such as this, although that hardly excuses not just their lazy implementation into the plot, but overall representation: as of this game, we engage with certain Disney properties for the fifth (fifth!) time, and we are beyond sick of seeing Aladdin and Hercules again. Perhaps that's the biggest source of exhaustion? Regardless, we know from before, and from games hereafter, they can do better than this: after all, what is the point of a Disney crossover when you don't highlight Disney at all?

Even the game's biggest claim to vindication -- playing as the Organization members in Mission Mode and multiplayer -- is a dud: it possessing the same mission list as the story is understandable, but is that any reason for the Organization characters to be so poorly designed? In particular, Xigbar and Demyx are borderline unplayable, the former especially proving projectile-focused characters are hardly a decent fit for a combo-heavy action game such as this.

At the very least, we can be thankful Yoko Shimomura possesses none of her slump present in the past couple games; true, there's an overbearing amount of recycling due to the game reusing worlds and boss themes, but let us not blame Shimomura for factors outside of her control, especially when considering the quality of the scant few new themes. There's the new Neverland themes -- yes, for once, we actually step outside Captain Hook's pirate ship and fly about on the...archipelago? Still, progress! -- which somehow recognize this new Neverland still doesn't depict Peter Pan's playground in its entirety, and we're left with something of a melancholic mischievousness. Perhaps the absence of Peter Pan himself adds to the mystique? Meanwhile, to my memory, this late-game arrangement of Sacred Moon only plays once, in a rare emotionally-effective sequence where Roxas throws everything he ever knew away.

However, anyone familiar with the game knows the two winners are both Xion-related: its in both Musique pour la tristesse de Xion and Vector to the Heavens that we are granted the illusion Xion has any actual depth, both somber pianos successfully illustrating her intention as a tragic character all the while echoing the childhood love that is Kairi's Theme. The latter is a particular fan favorite, and while I admit it's not one of my favorite Kingdom Hearts themes, the memoria! version happens to be one of my all-time favorite game orchestra arrangements, its slower pacing allowing for a stunningly grand elegy carrying an entire life's weight of reflection and loss.

Unfortunately, not even Shimomura's presence prevents 358/2 Days' identity as mercenary mediocrity. It is not particularly the most offensive game, but perhaps it's that very inoffensiveness that bloats it into uselessness, designed only to expand the Kingdom Hearts brand as opposed to building upon it. As we will learn in future entries, 358/2 Days is not the last Kingdom Hearts game constructed for this purpose, but that doesn't render it any less pointless: we simply ingest it, struggle to swallow whatever meaning it wishes to imbue within us, and move on with no further reflection.


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