With the release of Kingdom Hearts III barely a week away, fans like myself are most likely getting hyped and refreshed via the series’ dense catalog of games. Of course, OG title Kingdom Hearts and its stunning sequel Kingdom Hearts II are a given, but what about the copious amounts of interquels and side stories? How valuable are these non-numbered or oddly-numbered editions? Let’s look at the first two offshoots: Chain of Memories and 358/2 Days.
Warning: minor spoilers ahead for Chain o Memories and 358/2 Days. There are also some major spoilers for the original Kingdom Hearts.
Chain Of Memories… Say What, Now?
Before it was established that piecing together the narrative of Kingdom Hearts required extra credit, Kingdom Hearts: Chain Of Memories was originally released via the Game Boy Advance in 2004. Everything about it screamed “cash grab”, and no one knew why it was being made. The same Disney worlds and characters from the original Kingdom Hearts were rehashed into a new game for a completely different console, and a hand-held one at that. Those who skipped it were understandably befuddled upon viewing the opening cinematic of KHII: “Oh, look, a beautiful cutscene recapping the first game! There’s Hollow Bastion, and Ansem, and that great scene with Sora sacrificing himself with the keyblade and, wait-... what’s this now? Huh? When did Sora get trapped in a bubble? Who’s the blonde chick? Did I...Did I miss something?”
I swear this makes sense. Somehow.
Yes, you did.
Thus, the Kingdom Hearts “play every last title or woe be unto you” trend was set. Luckily, those of us with the determination to mine every last narrative nugget were able to invest in the Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Final Mix edition, which included an HD remake of Chain Of Memories as well as a weird version of 358/2 Days that isn't quite worth it.
First warning about CoM that you need to understand is that we’ve switched genres. This game forced me to face one of my biggest gaming nemeses: card battle systems. I can count several poor souls who have given up valuable time attempting to teach me Magic: The Gathering or Hearthstone for naught. Needless to say, when that dude in the black coat started walking me through a tutorial, flipping a bunch of attack cards at me, my heart sank. I was convinced I wasn’t beating this game.
The good news is, with a little practice, I did win, and it was even fun! The card system is a blend of properly stacking your deck and real-time action. Given that CoM is also real-time engineered, it requires fast strategizing with your cards. This means that you to have your ducks in a row before you approach that Heartless bobbing around, taunting you to challenge it for EXP. If your deck is arranged properly, with attack cards and sleights (three cards in play at the same time, resulting in a heavier attack), real-time battle is more of a breeze. For example, I set up my deck with several Sonic Blade sleights, which caused heavy, relentless damage, with Sora zooming around the screen at breakneck speed. Whenever I was facing fire-based foe Axel, I set up several sets of Blizzard cards in duos or triplets for a Blizzara or Blizzaga attack, throwing my strongest magic at him.
My point is, if you’re more acquainted with the easy handling of an action RPG and you find a card battle system daunting, CoM is less painful than you think. With a little pre-planning, it’s totally manageable. If I can do it, you can do it.
There’s also a pretty cool dungeon-building mechanism to the game. Each Disney world is basically a map with blank rooms. In addition to your attack deck, you have an additional slew of cards designed just to unlock these rooms. Depending on the card you choose, rooms maybe be littered with enemies, drowsy heartless that are ripe for an easy advantage, or even a save point or treasure.
In terms of story, CoM lays down some foundations about the main antagonists of Kingdom Hearts II: Organization XIII. It also introduces characters such as Namine and DiZ, who are crucial pieces of the overall storyline. Kingdom Hearts II makes a heck of a lot more sense when you know who these people are. Essentially, you will need to beat CoM to understand where the heck Sora’s been at beginning of Kingdom Hearts II and why he’s been asleep for a whole damn year.
Truth be told, if you really wanted to, you could skip CoM if you’re comfortable in the knowledge that there will be a few pieces you don’t “get” in Kingdom Hearts II. There are certainly some characters and plot points set into place, but over all, it’s a side story involving Sora losing his memories, and in the end (and beginning of KHII) regaining those memories, though now he doesn’t remember anything that happened in CoM’s setting, Castle Oblivion. Riku’s side story (a second “game” which is unlocked after you complete CoM) also fills in some gaps, but it can also easily be skipped. His arc just sets the tone that he’s dealing with his own internal struggle (the darkness within him) while building a solid relationship with Mickey Mouse, akin to Sora’s relationship with Donald and Goofy.
This entry makes the whole series a lot more confusing, but also gives it a lot more depth.
Overall, the game is good for some footnotes, but if you don’t want to sink the hours, just watch one of those Kingdom Hearts Timeline videos on YouTube and you’ll be fine. It's a fun game and interesting to play if you like single-player Hearthstone or Slay The Spire, but its understandable if you want to skip it.
358/2 Days, however, is another story.
358 Days of Feels...Ironically...
To set your mind at ease, 358/2 Days is relatively short. It can be finished in about 30 hours.
358/2 Days was originally released on the Nintendo DS in 2009, and it’s a rather standard action RPG that feels more like the original game. If you want the full 358/2 Day experience, the 1.5 Final Mix edition unfortunately isn’t the way to go. Rather than including the full game, it’s stocked with a “movie”, comprised of HD remakes of the game’s cutscenes. This is convenient if you’ve already beaten the game and just want a refresher, but leaves something to be desired: gameplay, dammit. Gameplay. It’s just a bit harder to relate to Roxas when you aren’t in his shoes.
The RPG elements come in the form of a panel system, in which you equip blocks to raise stats and abilities, as well as equip weapons and magic with multiple build-on components, restorative items, and add new abilities like “float”, and “high jump.” There’s also a “Limit Break” feature a la Final Fantasy VII, which can be upgraded via the panel system. Adding an extra omph to your stat building, the panels come in different sizes, adding a Tetris-esque element to arranging your panels. You have limited slots to play with, which increase over the course of the game, giving you more ways to customize Roxas to prime awesome status. The added puzzle of precisely placing your panels adds a nice spice to the overall game.
Now, let’s get to the story. Roxas, the character who baffled and irritated the hell out of players when they first picked up Kingdom Hearts II, is our mighty protagonist here. A bend on the “playing as the villain” tactic many game series employ, Roxas’ story explores the machinations of the Big Bads of Kingdom Hearts II, through the eyes of our reluctant hero.
This is the part where I whip out my Kingdom Hearts encyclopedia and sound really pretentious... but its important, I swear!
Roxas is Sora’s Nobody, and A Nobody is an “empty” shell of a being that is left behind when a person loses their heart. The heart produces a Heartless, and the remaining hollow that’s left behind produces a Nobody. Because of their lack of heart, a Nobody is devoid of basic human feelings and emotion. The most high-functioning Nobodies know they are incomplete, and are working to become whole again via the exclusive VIP club they created, Organization XIII. There’s more to it, but that’s the basic gist. You will be quizzed on this, so I hope you have it memorized!
Anyhow, 358/2 Days gives the player an inside look at Organization XIII, and Roxas’ story leading up to his time in Twilight Town in the beginning of KHII. The game plays out in a mission-based format, in which Roxas is tasked to complete certain tasks each “day” in various Disney locales such as Agrabah (Aladdin) and Neverland (Peter Pan). Given that being a part of Organization XIII is his day job, it makes perfect sense and feels like a natural maneuver between storyline and gameplay.
Bottom line, playing this game makes the beginning of KHII so much better. It gives the player a connection to not only Roxas, but his former best friend/Organization XIII assassin Axel. Axel comes across as a simple villain or henchman cloaked in mystery at the beginning of KHII, but upon viewing his friendship with Roxas, this snarky fiery side character (who, fun fact, was inspired by Final Fantasy VII’s Reno) demonstrates a deep pathos and interesting, tragic component to the Nobody mythos. He takes Roxas under his wing from the very first mission of the game, taking on an older brother role that feels genuine and relaxed in the midst of the militance of the other Organization members. In fact, Roxas, Axel, and their friend Xion reflect a mirror image of Sora, Riku, and Kairi. Almost every mission ends with our anti-heroes eating ice cream and sitting at the top of the train station tower in Twilight Town, having philosophical conversations about their plight as Nobodies, or just goofing around and developing their friendship.
It'd be almost wholesome, if you didn't already know how tragic this is about to get!
Side note: these ice cream cutscenes happen a lot. With the amount of sweet dairy goodness these characters consume, I hope Nobodies aren’t prone to diabetes. Does Organization XIII provide good healthcare? Is there a doctor on staff checking their blood sugar regularly? Pardon, I digress...another side effect of playing something as whimsical as a Disney video game while in your thirties.
Anyway, given the inner workings and agenda of Organization XIII, and the ruthlessness of their plans involving Xion and Roxas, things eventually turn ugly. This fun and free friendship, formed by people who remember, don’t have hearts and can’t experience feelings, is challenged and pulled apart by several tragic events. I’ll save the details, as it’s worth a play, but...
A few weeks ago, Square released this opening movie, which features the three “core” hero groups in the Kingdom Hearts cannon. The bit that pulled at my heartstrings the most was our three musketeers of the Organization, and the representation of their disintegration. Best believe, the story of Ventus, Aqua, and Terra from Birth By Sleep is rough too, but Axel, Roxas, and Xion’s friendship felt so honest and sweet, that it hurt a little deeper watching their story play out. Their bond, solidified by their predicament, caused them to grow extremely close over something as simple as Disney-fied Happy Hour after quittin’ time on the job.
Tying All The Storylines Together
In tying this back to Kingdom Hearts II, if Chain Of Memories serves as a plot component, then 358/2 Days serves as a emotional core. Though Roxas essentially disappears after the first two hours of KHII, his presence is very much the heart of the story, even though he’s not the main character. 358/2 Days sets that tone firmly in motion. I’ve played KHII twice now, once without the 358/2 Days as a precedent, and once with. Truth be told, playing 358/2 Days before KHII gives the game a much richer experience.
It feels weird that we have to work so hard to put together all of this plot and emotional depth, but I mean, look at Final Fantasy XV. Square Enix sometimes thinks its a good idea to break up content over multiple experiences, like DLC content, movies that aren't in the game, and future patches. It's definitely not the best system, but its one that feels very rewarding if you let yourself dive deep to get everything you can.