How much you get out of the story and feel of 358/2 Days is heavily dependent on whether you've played any of the other games in the series. The plot will not make a lick of sense if you haven't gone through the main two instalments and the GBA sidestory, yet the worlds, characters and even music will all feel recycled and old-hat if you have actually played the second game. 358/2's plot is completely exclusive to it, but is not a good starting point for Kingdom Hearts newbies.
Days tells the events of a boy named Roxas, and his time spent in a shadowy group called Organisation XIII. As part of this group, he is required to undertake set missions to aid a greater cause, by scouting out new worlds separate from his, and destroying creatures called 'Heartless'. The ‘358’ of the title refers to Roxas's time spent as a conscious and separate being, so as the game progresses, his character, and those around him, emerge. The game does miss a trick or two in this department though, as many end of days just have the characters sitting atop a clock tower eating ice cream, rarely saying anything of note and, despite the game's tendency to skip a week or two between groups of missions, it feels like the plot chugs as a result. The game does introduce significant plot points to compensate, such as new character Xion's origin and the effect this has on the others, but the result is not up to par with the rest of the game, which is a shame.
As touched on above, 358/2 Days uses a mission structure to progress the story. These missions do see a respectable amount of variation, with tasks and the partners you'll have in completing them, but sadly, since there are only a handful of different worlds in the game, you will be retreading old ground before you know it, and even with different objectives, this gets old very quickly. There are special emblems and treasure chests to look out for, each unique to every mission, which helps to break up the repetition a little...but not by much.
The plot depiction, mission structure, and reused elements are generally the only black marks against 358/2 Days' name though, as the rest of the game is stellar, which you'll see from the very second you start a new file. 358/ 2 Days makes superb use of the DS' horsepower, pushing around fully-realised 3D models and worlds, and using excellent voice-acted cutscenes, as if there were no hardware limitations at all. True, all of the worlds are recycled from earlier games, but just to see them running on a handheld lambasted for having ugly 3D is nothing short of a marvel. The game handles lots of enemies on screen, fireballs, blades and bullets flying everywhere, with barely a framerate hiccup in sight, even in the multiplayer mode that offers up to four players a chance to play missions together.
The music is another highlight. Again, it’s 99% recycled, but they’re still top quality themes that add a welcome element to whichever situation you happen to be in. That 1% is easily worthy of the Kingdom Hearts line, and makes the part it plays even more epic. The voice acting is also top-notch, if a little held back by slightly awkward script writing for the cutscenes, but having the main figures speak helps their characterisation a lot.
358/2 Days uses a slightly varied version of the series' fighting engine, changed to fit around the DS' button setup. This doesn't mean you'll be swiping the touch-screen to throw a Sonic Blade technique or anything (touch isn't used at all, in fact), but menus are streamlined as a result; a possible unfamiliarity (and therefore hindrance) you can thankfully configure in the options anyway. Aside from that, it carries the same battle mechanics that fans know and love, and it is never anything less than a joy to use.
A new element to the series, and one that 358/2 Days pioneers, is the Panels system. This is a squared grid that you fill at your own convenience with panels you obtain as mission spoils or purchased items, and it determines nearly everything for your fight situations: magic type and quantity, character levels, weapon form and strength, useable healing items, you name it. More of the grid opens up for use the further you progress through the game, with stronger and more efficient panels also becoming available, making the system ideal for newcomers and franchise veterans alike, offering an almost unparalleled level of customisation without feeling daunting.
The standout point, however, is the multiplayer. Accessed through a separate Mission Mode (that is also single player if you prefer), this mode offers the largest playable cast of all Kingdom Hearts games. From a choice of all fourteen Organisation XIII members, and other big franchise names you can unlock through the course of the storyline, you can team up and compete against up to three friends in missions that you've collected emblems in beforehand. Enemies are made harder to compensate for increased manpower, of course, and incentive to do well comes in the form of tokens you can redeem in the shop for special items. This mode is a lot of fun with a full headcount, and surprisingly highlights another negative aspect of single player's mission structure, as more missions with two or three computer-controlled partners would have been an ideal method of helping avoid the repetition pitfall. The game sadly doesn't offer one-cartridge multiplayer, but considering that Square-Enix had to use the largest cartridge size available for 358/2 Days’ visual and audio splendour, it's excusable. The main game is no slouch in the longevity department, but provided you have the buddies and the setup, this is the mode you'll spend the most time in. Considering the rewards on offer, that will probably apply to just one player too.
358/2 Days is an oddity in that, when summed up, it is likely to be named as the worst in the series. Yet, considering the pedigree of Kingdom Hearts as a whole, then 'worst of the best' is an enviable position to be in compared to many other titles. It’s easily one of DS' technical highlights, and a must play for any fan of the series, but for those wanting the full experience, play the first game and Chain of Memories beforehand.