Video games are defined by their gameplay loops. The nature of the medium means players will more often than not be repeating the same actions ad nauseum until the credits roll. It becomes the developer’s job to keep that consistent loop consistently engaging from start to finish. It’s a reason why certain particularly long titles seem to get worse the longer they go on: not every loop can command dozens of hours of gameplay. A healthy gameplay loop has variety, a strong sense of progression, and justifies its pace. In the case of Kingdom Hearts, the first two numbered titles – and even Chain of Memories with its card-based combat – offer fast, action-oriented gameplay paced around minimal backtracking and a sense of constant narrative progression. That’s not exactly the case with the convolutedly named, but just as brilliant, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.
Starting right before and ending long after the events of Chain of Memories, few games revel in the art of the slow burn half as well as 358/2 Days (pronounced “Three-Five-Eight Days Over Two.”) Chronicling protagonist Roxas’ life prior to the events of Kingdom Hearts II, 358/2 Days takes a step back from the epic at the heart of the narrative to offer one of the most intimate RPGs on the Nintendo DS. This is a game comfortable with dedicating 30 hours of gameplay, give or take, towards a single story beat. While little happens in the way of actively advancing the plot, moving the story along isn’t the focus. Developing the cast is.
Kingdom Hearts II notably opens with players controlling Roxas, not Sora – a sudden change of pace after Chain of Memories, but not an entirely unexpected one given where it’s post-game, Reverse/Rebirth, leaves off. Riku’s role as the main character in Reverse/Rebirth set a precedent for playable characters other than Sora, and the very last scene in the game is a mysterious image of an unknown blond youth: Roxas. Chain of Memories sets the stage for Roxas to formally enter the narrative, but Kingdom Hearts II isn’t his game, nor is it his story. Roxas is simply the opening act.
An opening act audiences spend upwards of three hours playing, granted, so it’s only natural the franchise would want to further flesh out Roxas’ character. His arc was the saddest to feature in Kingdom Hearts II and his intimate connection to Sora immediately made him one of the franchise’s more intriguing characters. Born when Sora became a Heartless during the first game, Roxas is as literal a foil as they come, right down with being affiliated with the series’ core antagonists, Organization XIII. Although Roxas is certainly heroic, this isn’t a game about Kingdom Hearts’ heroes. Far from it; it’s about those in-between.
Nobodies are born when a particularly strong-willed individual “loses their heart.” Heart in Kingdom Hearts is something tangible, but it also plays an important role thematically. Heart as a concept isn’t always meant to be taken at face value, and its role in the franchise is akin to how souls work in most mythology. Turning into a Heartless or Nobody upon death plays into ideas of Karma, and the series constantly has characters defining themselves by their “heart.” Beyond the scope of mythological constructs, heart is depicted as a core part of one’s identity, something virtually every protagonist in the series struggles to come to terms with at some point– Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days specifically being Roxas’ turn to do some growing up.
Though it’s more like growing altogether as far as Roxas is concerned. The 358 days in the title refer not only to Roxas’ time in the Organization, but how long he’s been alive leading up to Kingdom Hearts II, with said game’s prologue ending on what would be Roxas’ first birthday. While Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days doesn’t subject audiences to experience every single day of Roxas’ life in the Organization, 93 story missions with their own individual days are more than enough to convey what it’s like to truly wake up in the world of Kingdom Hearts, and as a member of Organization XIII at that.
Kingdom Hearts has always done a good job of humanizing its villains, but Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days takes this to its extreme by showing them at their most vulnerable. The main hub is basically their breakroom. When in a safe setting outside the context of their villainy, the Organization’s members are more like amicable co-workers than anything. This was a detail that could be gleaned from their brief group interactions in Kingdom Hearts II, but 358/2 Days outright makes the Organization as mundane as any job. Organization members wake up, go to work on a mission, and then come home. Any free time they have exists before and after the mission with vacations scarce. Being evil is a job, and is treated as such structurally. Wake up, do a mission, rinse, repeat – a gameplay loop that makes itself.
More importantly, Roxas’ perspective is as fresh as possible, having recently become a Nobody. The daily structure means Roxas can organically learn something new each in-game day that’s playable. As a character with literally no context for the world around him, any exposition spouted at Roxas feels both narratively appropriate and necessary. It’s an approach to storytelling that’s very methodical for Kingdom Hearts, but the change of pace allows the narrative to focus on much deeper character work than it has prior. Along with that, Days avoids the RPG pitfall of over-explaining by creating a valid reason for why Roxas needs everything explained to him.
That said, this can result in the first few weeks moving at a crawl. 358/2 Days makes the most out of its structure, for better and for worse. Roxas learning something new every day is a clever way of formatting the introduction, but this also negatively pertains to tutorials. No matter how it’s sliced, it’s going to take some time to get to a point where the game actually lets you experiment with the mechanics. Like Chain of Memories before it, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days does not abide by the main series’ design conventions outside the core basics. Combat is similar to how it’s presented in Kingdom Hearts I and II, but beyond the many mechanical nuances at play, Days opts to introduce a successor to deck-building: the Panel System.
Panels functionally serve the same purpose as Cards did in Chain of Memories. While Roxas has access to a basic move set independent of Panels, there’s not much he can accomplish bare bones. Panels dictate not only which items and magic spells Roxas brings with him on a mission, but his level. Roxas does level up traditionally but levels can only be registered via Panels, otherwise, he remains at level 1 with level 1 stats. Although players will have access to three 5×8 sheets to place their Panels on when all is said and done, the majority of the game is spent working with a restricted sheet. Starting from Day 11, players will have access to a 15 slot panel sheet that they can customize. From there, almost every mission rewards a Slot Releaser which unlocks the next slot on sheet for use.
Naturally, placing Panels is seldom as simple as just dropping them onto a slot. Not all Panels are created equal, with some taking up multiple slots on the board and often in Tetromino-esque patterns. Any shape that isn’t a straight line or a 2×2 square will cause some issues with Panel placement early on. Roxas’ Level, Items, Magic, Weapon, Equipment, and Abilities are all directly tied to Panels. One Fire Panel means he can cast Fire once in a mission. Two Fire Panels mean he can cast it twice. MP as a mechanic has been completely removed, opting for a spell cast system similar to the Famicom Final Fantasy trilogy.
The only way to restore magic is by using an Item Panel like Ether. Unlike Magic Panels, however, Item Panels are exhausted once used. There’s a degree of forethought that goes into planning for a mission, more so than planning for a World in Chain of Memories. As the Panel System is the progression system, players can’t comfortably neglect it like they could deck building. It’s important to understand quickly how to arrange Panels on the grid, and which Panels are actually worth using. Each new Day calls for players to take their time and properly prepare Roxas for what’s to come. Well thought out Paneling will get players through the simpler missions, but past the halfway point, being mindful of which Panels Roxas is carrying into a mission becomes all the more important.
Not to say Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is a particularly difficult game, but it can be tiring. Home to what must be the spongiest enemies in the franchise, virtually all endgame bosses will take several minutes to take down, something that can be hell on the thumbs when playing on real hardware. A bad setup can result in some missions eating up more time than necessary, to say nothing of how weak the Keyblade can feel at times. But the truth of the matter is that Days’ combat has more depth than it looks. It’s treating the game’s action like Kingdom Hearts I or II that’ll give audiences a hard time more than anything. Roxas controls ever so slightly different from Sora. He doesn’t move as fluid, his combos don’t have that same weight, and KHII’s Reaction Commands are notably (but understandably) absent.
At the same time, it’s not as if Roxas is hurting for skills. He can inherently do less, especially early on, but Roxas consistently gains a number of abilities over the course of the game. The Panel System means players will be unlocking one new slot per day, making each mission an opportunity to experiment with Roxas’ many other Panels. There’s no good reason to settle on a single layout when the core design incentivizes and outright encourages you to play with Roxas’ Panels whenever possible. Approaching Paneling with the intent of making the most out of every mission also leads to a more satisfying experience on a whole.
Weapon Panels offer the most tangible variety in-game. Always taking up at least 2 slots with the largest one taking up 6, Weapon Panels change everything about Roxas’ Keyblade. From how they look, to how much damage they do, to how they control, Days has some of the most unique Keyblades in the series. The Skill Gear prioritizes ground combos, the Ominous Gear gives Roxas a wider reach, and the Rage Gear allows for incredibly long combos regardless of where Roxas is attacking from.
To make sure combat is more than just button mashing, Y-Combos add an important element of depth to the action. Spread across 15 weapons, Roxas’ 16 different Y-Combos are dictated by whicher Keyblade he has equipped. Twilight Blaze’s Y-Combo, for instance, is triggered by initiating a ground combo and then pressing Y at the third strike. Roxas will then launch the enemy into the air before stabbing them back down to the ground. A quick player can actually take advantage of these combos to chain lesser enemies into quick deaths.
Not being able to trigger a Y-Combo whenever, might be frustrating at first, but it forces players to get to know their Keyblades. Even basic ground combos are fairly different across different Weapon Panels. Placing down a new Weapon Panel means learning to use a new weapon, but that’s exactly why Days is paced the way it is. In a conventional Kingdom Hearts game, all these radically different Keyblades would go to waste. Just look at Kingdom Hearts II where the third Keyblade Sora gets outclasses everything else for most of the game. This isn’t the case with Roxas’ weapons, as the mission structure – by design – rewards players who experiment. Not always with tangible rewards, but with a more engaging gameplay loop.
Perhaps the biggest mistake new players make with Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days is assuming that magic is negotiable. Anyone playing Kingdom Hearts I and II on Standard for the first time will need to use Magic, but the game will rarely ever push players to a point where magic feels necessary. If Roxas doesn’t have any Magic Panels set for a mission, withdraw. The reason enemies are so spongy goes beyond just making the Organization’s daily life feel like work. It’s to push players to actually use all of Roxas’ spells. Any enemies weak to magic will take considerable damage from the right element; and between the inclusion of Fire, Blizzard, Thunder, Aero, and Cure families, it’s on the onus of the player to practice foresight.
It’s with placing Magic down where players will start to notice the difficulties of proper paneling. A single Panel only nets players one single cast, and just filling the grid with Magic Panels is a fast way of ensuring Roxas can only use magic. Days gets around this by including multi-slot multi-cast Panels.
Unlocked after Day 22, Doublecast is a 4-slot Panel which allows players to slot three different Magic Panels into its 3 empty slots. Its shape means players will need to reorganize their Panel sheet around both the Doublecast and their Weapon Panel, but there’s something fun about clearing an entire sheet and filling it back up. Often, it’s a great way of catching blind spots in your character building you otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. Things get even more complicated when taking Magic LV Panels into consideration.
Also patterned, the game’s six Magic LV Panels buff whichever spells Roxas slots into them. The LV2 Panel doubles the level of equipped Magic, LV3 triples, and LV4 quadruples. Magic Leveling caps off at LV5, but it’s worth noting that Days makes an effort to keep all tiers of Magic relevant. In Kingdom Hearts I and II, Sora’s spellcasting improves linearity. His healing spell, Cure, becomes Cura, and later Curaga. As Curaga is simply an improved version of its predecessor spells, it replaces both Cure and Cura, but this isn’t the case with Days. Instead, players will always have access to their lesser magic, and Cure & Cura aren’t necessarily worse than Curaga.
Rather than each new tier upgrading what the spell could do, -Ra and -Ga Magic offer unique side effects compared to their first-tier versions. Cure heals Roxas instantly, Cura heals him gradually over time, and Curaga creates an AoE healing field to step in. Don’t just blindly pick a high tiered Magic Panel. Consider not only what the mission calls for, but how Magic plays into your play style. Confident players might opt to use Cura, banking on them being able to stay alive long enough to fully heal, whereas less skilled players are smart in choosing the more reliable, but less restorative, Cure.
All this said, while Weapon and Magic Panels are certainly important, the Ability and Support Panels are what actually define Roxas’ day to day success. Some Ability Panels are simple like Scan and Auto-Lock, while others are fairly self-explanatory, like Block or Dodge Roll. But where Days really shines with its Abilities is in its sub-Paneling. In the case of Panels like Sliding Dash and Haste, attachable Panels just Level them up, but Dodge Roll and Block (among a few others) offer an incredible amount of customization. Block in particular has 13 unique Sub-Panels that attach to it. With Auto-Block covering the front, Round Block allowing Roxas to block from behind, and Perfect Block offering some leeway, it’s possible to pair together some seriously broken Abilities.
In an action RPG like 358/2 Days where end- and post-game bosses take generations to kill, being able to customize an overpowered Roxas is only a good thing. Plus, most Abilities are just fun to play around with. Dodge Rush lets players dodge into a combo, Aerial Payback damages enemies whenever Roxas recovers mid-air, and Ultima Weapon makes even the weakest Weapon Panels in the game totally endgame viable. For a game that opens so slowly and so little, it’s really worth pointing out just how much variety there is by Day 358. No two Roxases need be alike, with Days’ Panel System offering even more customization and personability than Chain of Memories Deck Building.
As useful as Abilities are, Support Panels will likely be every player’s main priority when Paneling a new sheet, as they’re the means of attaching levels to Roxas. Level Up Panels serve the same function as others (One Panel = One Level), but Multipliers help beef up Level Panels. There are 5 Level Doublers, 3 Level Triplers, and 3 Level Quadruplers, which makes getting new Multipliers some of the most exciting moments in Days.
In a title where progression is paced very slowly, the Multipliers offer players an incredible amount of growth all at once– potentially offsetting anyone getting impatient with mainly earning Slot Releasers as rewards. That said, Roxas also has an backpack that allows him to pick up more items during a mission. Considering how useful synthesis can be, players might be tempted to ditch a Multiplier (or any other Panels) in order to ensure they don’t run out of space for any useful items they might find.
When it comes down to it, 358/2 Days is a game about taking each day at a time. Its loop isn’t structured for non-stop constant play. It’s why Roxas always returns to the hub after a mission and it’s why Saix always reminds Roxas to prep before heading out. Emphasis is made on drawing out the day to day aspect at the heart of Days’ plot. That shines through nicely in the gameplay, with a Panel System that adds much-needed thought to a mission system that would otherwise feel mindless confined to the series’ core mechanics and design conventions. More importantly, the mission structure keeps the pace both constant and consistent.
Beyond missions breaking the game into digestible chunks for its handheld audience, breaking the game up into individual days forces the story to prioritize its core cast. There’s a plot in the background gradually leading up to Kingdom Hearts II, but Days’ narrative focus is on fleshing out the friendship and relationships between Roxas and his two best friends, Axel and Xion. Missions past the tutorial days often end with brief cutscenes featuring the characters all eating ice cream together. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they don’t, but these scenes depict a realistic friendship in a way few games do. Roxas’ arc sees him developing genuine feelings for his friends. Going from basically catatonic to joking around with Axel. From not knowing what a laugh is to sharing sincere smiles with Xion. Roxas begins the game as a totally blank slate and ends it a more emotional & expressive protagonist than either Sora or Riku.
Roxas’ Diary also offers players a chance to deep dive into his head. Deeply personal and containing some of the best writing in Kingdom Hearts, Roxas’ Diary is an in-game document players can access whenever in the hub. Updated gradually over the course of the game, Roxas’ Diary is ultimately composed of 56 entries chronicling his struggle with his lack of identity, his development into a self-actualized individual, and his crumbling state of mind as his life begins to fall apart by the end of the game. What makes the Diary all the more tragic is that Roxas’ writing isn’t initially engaging.
His first few entries are hastily written and more like brief story recaps, but beginning with Day 50, Roxas becomes more introspective. From here, the writing in his diary becomes more emotional, human. From covering Roxas’ insecurities over losing his friends, to questioning those very friendships outright, Days turns what is normally Jiminy’s Journal into an intimate vehicle for character development. Not that the actual gameplay lacks development for Roxas, but the Disney Worlds are used more as a means to juxtapose Roxas and Sora than anything.
Where Sora is allowed to interact with the Worlds he visits, making new friends and expanding his horizons, Roxas is forced into the role of an observer. He can watch, and he can even influence from the shadows, but his goal is not to make his presence known. The few non-Organization NPCs who do interact with Roxas also lack the same chemistry they would share with Sora. Roxas is a lonelier character, and his story isn’t as traditionally as exciting as Sora’s. His interactions with anyone other than Xion and Axel are either intentionally stiff of non-existent.
Between minimal plot and Disney Worlds that many brush off as “filler,” Days approaches its storytelling with more boldness than any previous Kingdom Hearts game. It fully banks players being able to accept Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days for what it is– a slow-paced RPG building towards a single climax. The dissolution of Roxas’ friendship with Axel & Xion, and his final confrontation with the latter, only works so well because of how slowly and methodically Days approaches its pacing.
By things one day at a time, the story is able to naturally develop the relationship between Roxas, Axel, and Xion. They don’t bond over one grand story moment over the course of an unspecified amount of time. They bond over the course of weeks, really only becoming best friends a few months in. Audiences watch every major beat of this friendship develop, to the point where they come off more inseparable than Sora, Kairi, and Riku did in the first. Which only makes the story tearing them apart all the more painful.
As a prequel starring two characters who need to end the game in a very specific place for Kingdom Hearts II to make sense, Days doesn’t build to the happiest of endings. For Roxas, the game simply needs to bring him where II began. In the case of Xion, however, she’s not so much as mentioned in the second game, and it doesn’t take a savvy gamer to realize what this implies. After slowly watching Roxas make friends and become more human, audiences are then forced to slowly watch him lose it all– all interspaced with gameplay. There’s something harrowing about going to work each day, knowing Roxas’ story is fated to end in sorrow. That the game itself ends with a still of Roxas facing Sora from Kingdom Hearts II is one final reminder that Roxas’ life was seemingly never his own.
But it was, and that’s the statement 358/2 Days makes with its day to day structure. Even if Roxas doesn’t know who he is or where he came from, he still lived. He woke up every day, he worked, he slept. He made friends, he lived a life, and he found some kind of purpose. Roxas’ story could have been told as a conventional action RPG, but needing to spend some much downtime in this world– as Roxas, as a member of Organization XIII, as just an inhabitant– results in something far more inspired: a game about the importance of valuing each day and of lingering on the moments that matter. Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days makes the case for taking life one day at a time.