Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days – Why the Sun Sets Red

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Back at TGS 2007, Square Enix announced not one, not two, but three separate Kingdom Hearts games that were going to be made at once, Lord of the Rings style, and would be released in the next few years on portable platforms. It’s been suggested that the entry we’ll be covering next was only introduced because Nintendo came to SE asking for a product to demonstrate the neglected multiplayer capabilities of their Nintendo DS, buuuut that should probably be taken with a grain of salt. One way or another, Square made the game and the end result didn’t really do anything for the multiplayer reputation of the DS. I don’t really think the quality of the product had anything to do with that, mind. The DS’ multiplayer was doomed from the start, and was going to be based around Pokemon no matter how much money Nintendo spent on other projects.

The game that Square created for the DS was the perplexingly titled “Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days,” which should be pronounced “358 Days over 2.” Was that how you thought it should be pronounced? Is that not even the order of the words in the title? Well that just goes to show how a bad a title it is. The game was created by h.a.n.d. (who had worked with Square on Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon), with – as I understand it – some collaboration with Square Enix’s Osaka team, who had created FM+ and Re:CoM, and would carry on to helm most of the Kingdom Hearts games to follow, with the exception of the cell phone version of coded and all versions of KHX.

days-2016-09-09-16h15m21s587To help achieve a hefty multiplayer roster, the game was designed to be a midquel (set alongside and after CoM, but before the events of KH2) so they could plump the roster with the members of Organization XIII, though you only control Roxas during the single-player campaign. How would a fandom that until now had been dedicated to a narrative-focused single-player game take to a dedicated multiplayer mode? I can’t say for certain, but the answer seems to have been “poorly.” You don’t often hear about Days’ multiplayer today, even dismissively, which implies to me that many fans people just straight-up never played it, and so don’t have any opinions. My own experience is limited. Kyle and I played it a few times when it came out. I tried to talk Kyle into playing the entire game multiplayer for the Marathon but he wasn’t biting. This probably had a lot to do with us playing RPGs for narrative more than gameplay. Days’ multiplayer mode includes some cutscenes, but would have ultimately left us with only half the full story, and that wouldn’t suffice. If you did give multiplayer a few whirls, feel free to share your stories when we get around to it.

Square’s new portable trilogy didn’t really make them many friends in the fandom. The games were announced for three separate systems: the DS, the PSP, and Japanese-only Docomo Prime Series-P-01A Panasonic cell phones. Thankfully that last one was eventually ported to the DS but, for a brief window, Kingdom Hearts was on at least four separate platforms: PS2, PSP, DS and Docomo. In the wrong circumstances (perhaps you’re a European fan who owned a DSi?), you might have also needed a GBA to play CoM!  Of course, if you lived in Europe, you couldn’t have a working Docomo…  As you can see, things were a mess.

The order of the games bears a brief mention: internationally, they were released in the order DS, PSP and the Docomo remake.  However, in Japan, the Docomo game was released episodically, starting first and ending last!  We’ll be covering them in the international release order… if only because I have no idea how else I could possibly cover the episodic Docomo game interspersed about the other two games and still have a coherent Retrospective.

Anyways, this weird decision to put the same series on five fucking platforms had long-term ramifications, up to and including the release of the 1.5 and 2.5 bundles. It didn’t take an interview with Nomura to tell that 1.5 and 2.5 had been released to get all the old games to the masses after Square Enix had fucked up big time. And that leads to an important point of discussion: this game’s so-called “HD port.” When Kingdom Hearts 1.5 was announced, it was also announced that Days wouldn’t be ported as a game. Instead, its key cutscenes would be extracted and remastered into a sort of movie. The same treatment was later given to coded on 2.5.

days-2016-09-09-16h17m34s227Calling Days on 1.5 a “movie” is easy to understand but a bit disingenuous. The cutscenes are interrupted by frequent text interludes that explain missed gameplay sequences, and there are some key scenes excluded altogether, god knows for what reason. It makes for very poor viewing, no matter how good the animation or voice acting, which are admittedly very good! Nevermind that Days was included in 1.5 even though you probably shouldn’t watch it until you’ve played KH2. I get that it was put there because of its timeline position. There’s definitely something to be said for playing them in chronological order, but I find the consequences outnumber the benefits (if only they hadn’t!).

I have a theory as to how the 1.5 incarnation of Days ended up in the choppy form that it did. Why not go all-out and make a full movie with no gaps? Was it just the money? Here’s how I see it. Cutscenes in video games often have to be ordered very early in the process, because of how long and how expensive they are to animate and bake. The cutscenes in 1.5 don’t seem like a movie, they seem like they’re made up of the video files Square would have received from the cutscene team for a proper game remake, stitched together in a ramshackle bundle. I feel there are two ways this could have come to pass:

  1. The cutscenes were ordered with the hope that Days would have been remade, but when the remake wasn’t approved, they decided to carry through with the cutscenes so that fans could follow the story. As a result, the cutscenes look exactly like a pile of game cutscenes detached from a game.
  2. The cutscenes were ordered knowing Days would never be remade, but were made ready to be sewn into a remake if the game were ever remade in the deep future. Square is home of the remake, after all. This seems like the sort of business plan that the corporate side of Square would like quite a bit, and so is my personal theory.

days-2016-09-09-16h18m16s231While we’re on the subject, I see a lot of my #2 theory in the “movie” adaptation of coded, which only makes sense in the second product.  While coded’s “movie” holds together a lot better than Days’, if you look closely at coded’s 2.5 film, you can still see the seams where a scene could theoretically be split apart to accommodate gameplay in the future – there’s often a camera cut. Verrry cleverly done, I appreciate the foresight involved in the process.

But back to the present, and to Days. Because of the double versions, I’m going to be doing the best I can to cover both the game and the “film” side-by-side, similar to the CoM retrospective. Aided in this endeavour, I have both DJ Firewolf’s script of the original game and MabinogiFan’s script of the “film.”  Screenshots come from RickyC’s longplay of the DS version of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days at World of Longplays (YouTube), and from Brian0451’s recording of the 1.5HD cinematics of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days at World of Longplays (YouTube).

I realize many fans have only ever been able to experience Days via the film or vice versa, and even fewer have ever played the game’s multiplayer mode, so I’m going to try to give both the gameplay and the film the best individual coverage that I can, especially features unique to one version, like rare but notable uses of the DS’ dual screens. I think this is going to be a pretty interesting Retrospective, because for a lot of you it will be your first exploration of the actual game or maybe even your first experience of the film, and I hope everyone gets something special out of it!


Introduction

days-2016-09-09-16h22m04s951Days starts with my personal favourite rendition of “Dearly Beloved”: one that is a mournful at times, but also somehow optimistic, in a way that seems to call back to Roxas’ Theme. The game also starts the tradition of using the game’s opening sequence as the game’s demo, so there’s no sense in sitting around waiting for the demo to play like we did in KH1 and 2. Good riddance. I’ll miss the wonderful orchestral tracks that Yoko Shimomura used to create for the demos, but demos were a 90s feature that deserved to be buried with the decade. Perhaps we’ll see one more with KH3, for tradition’s sake, but after that I say “burn them.”

Days has two main modes: Single Player and “Mission Mode,” which is nominally the game’s multiplayer, though there are ways to appreciate Mission Mode solo. You can start Mission Mode without starting a save game, which will give you a special sort of custom loadout to work with, but you can’t make any progress if you do so, so you’re still better off getting started with Single Player.

Days has three difficulties: Beginner, Standard and Proud. Let’s get this out up front: Days does not have an unlockable secret ending (it’s the same as CoM in that regard), though it does have a different sort of post-game, narrative content for you to unlock. That said, the difficulty level doesn’t change the unlock requirements for that content, so feel free to play in whatever difficulty you actually enjoy, for once. It does pay to be aware that Mission Mode uses a special, set difficulty that’s generally harder than even Proud mode, so if you get used to Beginner or Standard, expect an ugly surprise if you try to join a multiplayer game.

days-2016-09-09-16h24m07s955The opening sequence for Days begins with Saïx’s speech from KH2’s Battle of Hollow Bastion, when he addressed the Heartless and how the Organization was gathering their hearts so that “we can truly, finally exist.” The game cuts from here to the scene of Axel and Roxas from KH2:FM+ where their ghosts met atop Twilight Town’s tower, and they discussed whether or not they really didn’t have hearts after all. We’re getting right down to the main themes of the game with these flashbacks! This is followed by a montage of the 13 members of the Organization, listing character profiles and abilities for anyone new to the series. This takes up most of the video, but adds virtually nothing for veterans, so we’ll skip ahead to the end of the montage for one last “theme scene” from KH2, namely the scene from FM+ where Xemnas gave Roxas “purpose” and his new name. Lastly, we wrap up the opening with Axel talking about the “old days,” when he and Roxas would sit in the tower and watch the sun set. For western players, these were the first time many had seen those FM+ scenes.

There you go: the game’s main themes are set out right here in the intro. I’ve got to respect the efficiency. It would be easy to mistake Days’ opening for a random assemblage of recap videos, but I think it warrants a closer examination. Let’s look over the key points. The Organization wants to exist. Maybe the Nobodies do, in fact, have hearts. Xemnas tried to impress on Roxas that the Organization is his “purpose.” Axel and Roxas were friends. These are all key points to the game’s central plot, and I can’t fault the montage’s efficiency. We are well on our way with only a few minutes of video. As montage openings go, this is leagues ahead of Re:CoM’s, and is probably the best montage-style opening in the series to date (that is to say: the best out of Re:CoM, Days, and coded’s openings), but I far prefer the unique openings to the montage openings.

Days’ main theme is “Passion”/”Sanctuary” from KH2. It’s better than nothing. The other two games in the portable trilogy use “Hikari”/”Simple and Clean,” meaning “Hikari” is the main theme of four separate games, and let’s not forget that DDD uses Hikari Orchestra as its main theme! You start to appreciate Days using “Sanctuary” just for variety! Rumours say that “The Other Promise” was considered as Day’s main theme, but it’s too early to speculate on what-ifs.

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At this point, the opening sequence ends and we start our first in-game cinematic.  This begins with a title card reading: “Day 255: Why the Sun Sets Red.” Here, Roxas and Axel meet to eat sea salt ice cream on the clock tower, which seems to be a regular hang-out for them. Roxas informs Axel that it’s been 255 days since he joined the Organization, indeed since he was born. He remarks that for the first week he was in the Organization, he “acted like a zombie.”

Axel and Roxas then talk about the science of sunsets, which is casual, and definitely cute, but also… pointless? It’s strange, but I don’t understand why this narrative starts on this day, or more specifically, this scene. Remember in the KH1 Retrospective, I said that the opening of a work usually defines the work? Day 255 is important, but what’s important about Day 255 is happening somewhere else, to somebody else. Imagine if Star Wars: A New Hope had shown Lando Calrissian eating a salad while Luke blows up the Death Star. Yes, the scene does introduce the fact that Roxas and Axel are friends, and sunsets play into their friendship, but that information could have been grafted anywhere else, like say, somewhere actually important to the plot. If all else failed, they could have pinned this sunset scene to a significant day number, like 100 or 250! Yes, the number 255 is important to computing, but since we’re already strained for relevance, this isn’t the time for programmer in-jokes!

As the night wears on, Axel and Roxas grow impatient, and finally Roxas remarks, “Seriously, where is she?” Since I doubt these two are looking forward to seeing Larxene, you have to wonder what they’re talking about, which is the dev’s intent. And then… the scene is abruptly ended!

This is not a reassuring start to our fourth game.

days-2016-09-09-16h25m40s801In voice-over, Roxas tells us that the story really starts on Day 7, when he met “her.” So even the game realizes this Day 255 sequence has been pointless and they did it anyways? Oh, I’m impressed. In the DS, this is the first of several special text narrations that Roxas does in the first quarter of the game, after which they abruptly disappear. All of these text narrations feature a picture of Roxas moping, so don’t be surprised if I start addressing these as “Mopes.” The fact that the game eventually forgets about the Mopes is a curiosity to me. I can’t help but feel like the developers somehow lost track of the feature. It’s not like Roxas never mopes again in the mid and late game, and they could have just changed the picture to match his mood. On the other hand, maybe they shouldn’t have used an alternate style of narration for the game’s first half hour to begin with?

Oh yeah, this is a great start to our fourth game.

Prev: Kingdom Hearts 2 – Appendix and Tie-Ins
Next: Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days – Moping Zombie


This retrospective’s screenshots come from RickyC’s longplay of the DS version of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days at World of Longplays (YouTube), and from Brian0451’s recording of the 1.5HD cinematics of Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days at World of Longplays (YouTube).

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4 comments

  1. “which should be pronounced “358 over 2 Days.””

    Actually, “three-five-eight-days-over-two”, as shown on the manga covers and (supposedly) a bunch of promo material and ads.

    I’ve heard Days was going to be remade fully, but it would’ve taken an extra year to ready it and they wanted to spend that time on KH3 instead. No idea on coded.

  2. The sunset is likely intended as a form of foreshadowing that just got a little too obscured in translation (from Japanese to English or from novelist’s scenario to game? You decide!) A large portion of the plot concerns the distant effects of and on Sora. Sora is referenced throughout the script as ‘the boy in red’. Sora’s name means ‘sky’, so when discussing the sunset (red sky) they are in effect discussing Sora, and how the piercing red is about to plague Roxas’s existence.

    On a much more speculative basis it might also be referring to multiple other reds in the story. Kairi and Axel have different forms of persistence during the game, with Kairi being the first defining memory for Xion and Axel going to extremes to maintain his reality. DiZ will reach Roxas no matter how far he goes as the foregone conclusion. All three are partially defined by red in their character designs, and all three were already previously established as a different kind of persistent (Kairi never becomes a Heartless, Axel never lets you forget, DiZ never lost himself to nothingness).

    Roxas might be the most interesting though – he’s not physically red like the previous three, but his name, when pronounced like the real world version, literally means ‘red’, which seems like something Kanemaki (who’s genuinely good at layering symbolism in names if nothing else) would have noticed.

    Thus ‘red’ could relate to a significant number of characters appearing in Days’s plot – all three protagonists, the two characters in concept, and the ultimate antagonist.

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