A fellow Koku Gamer staffer once described the Kingdom Hearts series as saving his love of gaming, and it's easy to see why.  With its likable characters, fun combat system, and vibrant graphical style, Kingdom Hearts struck a chord with players when it first released in September of 2002.  Four years later, its sequel did much the same thing.  Ever since, lovers of this Final Fantasy/Disney hybrid have waited with baited breath for the next real entry in the series to be released.  However, Kingdom Hearts 3 hasn't been heard from in some time, and it's made a lot of us anxious, to say the least.  To tide us over until 3 hits, Square has released Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days on the Nintendo DS.

Unlike the last handheld game in the series (Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories), 358/2 Days is a tried and true KH game, with all the classic combat and and RPG elements that made the console titles so addictive.  However, unlike KH2, 358/2 Days doesn't feature a costume system, where your appearance changes based on the attachment you make to your Keyblade.  Instead, the game uses different "Gears", which change the effectiveness of your sword, along with its appearance.  This makes things a bit less confusing, and eliminates the sometimes ridiculous looking themed costumes of yesteryear.

These Gears, as well as trivial items like Potions and Ethers, are all part of your "Panel" system.  Basically, as you progress through the game, you unlock additional squares on a plane, that let you determine what Roxas will take with him on any given mission.  That's right, Roxas, the protagonist in the beginning of Kingdom Hearts 2, who turns out to be Sora's "Nobody".  358/2 follows Roxas' origins, and what he did before becoming an everyday citizen of Twilight Town.  Roxas was part of Organization XIII, aka those dudes in black cloaks that hound you throughout the first couple of games.  Needless to say, this story makes Roxas a bit more compelling of a character.  This leads me to believe that he still has a major role to play in future games, if they're taking the time to build him like this.

Getting back to mechanics, this game represents something extremely promising for the DS.  An action game button layout that actually works.  Before this, the closest thing to a decent DS combat configuration I had seen was Ninja Gaiden.  Now however, it seems that a suitable setup has been found, that will hopefully be utilized for other titles.  Like the Call of Duty/Halo control schemes becoming almost industry standard, this needs to stick, and I think it will.  Movement is controlled with the D-pad, no touch screen at all.  Though the game gives you two control setups to choose from, I went with Configuration B.  All that really changes is how you control the camera.  Attacks are assigned to the A button, and B allows you to jump.  Y is the dodge button, and X allows you to scroll through your Attack, Magic, and Items options.  The R and L shoulder buttons, depending on your control scheme, deal with camera movement.

The game is broken down by missions.  As you progress through the 358 days of Roxas' time with the Organization, you are assigned missions by Saix, apparent second in command below Xemnas.  Roxas is coveted by the group because of his ability to harvest the hearts of enemy Heartless, and add them to Kingdom Hearts.  The Organization, which is composed of Nobodies (Beings without hearts), wishes to complete Kingdom Hearts, which they hope will grant them each a heart.

Many missions will see you teamed up with a different member of the group, such as Axel, Xigbar, Demyx, or Xion.  Xion, like Roxas, has power over a keyblade, and as such, both are incredibly valuable to the Orginazation.  What makes them different, however, are their ties to the real world.

As I said before, Roxas is Sora's nobody (Sora being the protagonist of most of Kingdom Hearts I & II.)  Because of this, Roxas begins to see fuzzy images of Sora, Donald, and Goofy, as they traversed many of the same spots that he did.  These serve as memories of a sort for Roxas, even though he claims to not have any.  It's actually a bit satisfying for fans of the series, as they are easily able to connect the familiar.  Again, unlike Chain of Memories, 358/2 serves its purpose valiantly - to fill in the blanks.  While I know many people liked Chain of Memories, I found that it confused more than helped me.  This is not the case here, as the game simply enhances the story, without showing you anything earth-shattering.  A good example is what Crisis Core was to FFVII, rather then what Revenant Wings was to FFXII.  This doesn't feel like filler.

Familiarity in Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days doesn't stop with the gameplay or locales.  The music in the game includes all of our favorite themes from the series, and really lifts the game from competent to downright great.  There's a reason they perform Kingdom Hearts as part of the epic Video Games Live concerts.  They really give each level a distinct feel, combining with the visual style to make something very special.  Not to mention that the game looks fantastic - one of the best looking DS titles to date.  However, it's not without its faults.

        

First, though the control scheme is light years ahead of most anything else on the handheld, it has a drawback.  After nearly 15 hours spent on my first couple of days with the game, my left thumb was very, very sore.  This game is designed with short burst gaming in mind, and that's how it's best kept.  Also, some of the bosses health will go down very slowly, making some battles seem a bit drawn out.  There are also some difficulty spikes scattered here and there, but a few tries at them should get you through.  All that aside, there's only one other bad thing I can say about Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.  It makes me want Kingdom hearts 3 and Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep even more.  And so, the wait begins anew!