The visual narrative genius of Kingdom Hearts 358 / 2 Days
Kingdom Hearts has been hitting us with tear jerking endings since the PS2 original. But when it comes to the level of sadness that leaves you feeling empty and nostalgic for weeks, few games compare to Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days.
Fans of the series have derided 358/2 Days for many reasons, but its narrative is not one of them. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say it’s my personal favorite story in the entire series. Kingdom Hearts is filled to the brim with symbolic and visual storytelling, and 358/2 Days uses these devices to brilliantly frame its heartbreaking story. As much as the other games improved upon the series’ gameplay, 358/2 Days is the title that sticks with me the most.
Modern fans are able to enjoy 358/2 Days as a movie in the recent Kingdom Hearts 1.5 compilation games, but this format unfortunately loses some of the impact that the original Nintendo DS game had. That’s a crying shame, so I’m here to dive deep and explain the ways 358/2 Days is more genius than we realized. Though Square Enix has somewhat left this game behind, let’s go back and revisit our old friends who we first had ice cream with.
NOTE: While I won’t be covering every story beat, the following will absolutely spoil the heck out of Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. I recommend experiencing the story yourself first.
It starts with a constant sense of dread.
358/2 Days is a prequel to Kingdom Hearts 2, which pins its narrative into a corner. Those who played Kingdom Hearts 2 would know this story won’t have a happy ending, but new players still need to enjoy the story without requiring Kingdom Hearts 2 to be rehashed or spoiled for them. To meet both crowds where they’re at, 358/2 Days fills its story with an overwhelming sense of dread.
From the very beginning of the game, there’s virtually no happiness or joy to speak of. While the cast of Organization XIII is a lively bunch, their headquarters are painted with drab colors and accompanied by foreboding music. Protagonist Roxas doesn’t give us a lot to work with either, as he’s a shade away from mute at the start. This all informs the player that there’s no true happiness in this world, and we should be wary of any joy that does come our way.
And joy does, in fact, come our way. Roxas eventually befriends fan favorite Axel, and the two make a habit of ending each mission with an ice cream on the top of Twilight Town’s clock tower. The two are soon joined by Roxas’ quasi-love interest Xion, which we’ll dive deeper into in a minute.
The ice cream on the clock tower was first seen Kingdom Hearts 2, but its use in 358/2 Days is even more poignant. These ice cream scenes are our only reprieves from the game’s otherwise oppressive atmosphere (outside of the Disney worlds), but even these moments are filled with dread. Not only does the clock itself represent the inevitable passage of time, the three’s legs dangling off the side of the tower perfectly reflect the nature of their friendship. They’re enjoying their time together, but their very existence is on the edge of catastrophe.
The imagery of the clock tower is striking in the game’s opening hours. Eventually, these scenes become routine in the later arcs of the game, and players come to appreciate these moments as capstones to the bite sized missions. Still, these symbols inform the player that what they’re experiencing is transient, and eventually it’s going to be taken from them. Just as the clock keeps ticking above them, so too does Roxas and Xion slowly approach the fateful 358th day.
The one who gets hurt the most doesn’t deserve it.
Call me a fangirl on DeviantArt in 2007, because I love Axel.
358/2 Days is primarily a story about Roxas and Xion, but Axel breaks my heart the most. In fact, it’s because 358/2 Days is about Roxas and Xion that Axel’s role is even more tragic. As we mentioned above, Axel and Roxas are friends first, and Xion joins shortly after. Though Axel warms to Xion, it’s clear the dynamic between him and Roxas changes. He’s moved from being a best friend to a third wheel.
This is an angle that’s not often explored in pop culture narratives. Normally the “best friend” character is a comic relief or some degree of a silly support character. Yet Axel is presented as an older brother to Roxas. He’s noticeably younger than the majority of Organization XIII, but he’s taller and lankier than Roxas and Xion. This helps the player see him the way Roxas sees him; a contemporary that he knows he can count on.
As the story wears on, this dynamic morphs from charming to heartbreaking. As Roxas and Xion both continue on their destructive (yet justified) trajectories, Axel is the one who fights to hold on to their past. Their afternoons of eating ice cream become further and further away with each passing day, and he’s the only one who is doing what he thinks is best to get those days back. There’s even some subtext that he’s fighting to “save” Xion out of his friendship with Roxas, not Xion.
The tragedy in all of this is that none of Axel’s struggle is actually his fault. Roxas and Xion are the ones making decisions (again, justifiably) to rebel against Organization XIII, and Axel is just caught in the crossfire. As anyone who’s been a third wheel in real life knows, the decisions others make around you can be even more devastating than bad things directly happening to you. And the worst part is, despite Axel’s fight for the status quo, he still loses everyone in the end.
All this foreboding culminates in the final battle.
There’s a lot to unpack in the final boss of 358/2 Days, and I’ll do my best to cover the most important pieces.
The encounter doesn’t begin in an otherworldly void or in the middle of space like many RPGs would. Instead, the scene begins at that same clock tower that the player is so familiar with by now. Xion enters the scene and, after some important plot dialogue, steps off the side of the clock tower and stands on the air in front of Roxas. With a hand stretched out to Roxas, she beckons him with some menacing words.
Xion has taken that step over the edge, and she wants Roxas to come with her.
This begins a multi-phase battle against Xion, spanning different boss arenas Roxas has been in to that point. As with everything else so far, these phases help convey a sense of nostalgia to the player. They’re revisiting the places their journey has taken them, and the final phase brings the player back to the Clock Tower to end things once and for all.
Multi-phase final bosses are nothing new in RPGs, but this means an important bit of subtext in Xion’s final form is easy to miss. While all her dialogue to this point has been ominous and foreboding, her battle dialogue uses very specific vocabulary. Rather than talk down to Roxas, her quotes either goad Roxas (“Is that all you got!?”) or telegraph massive attacks (“Get ready Roxas!”). In other words, this final phase makes it clear that Xion doesn’t want to win this fight. She’s just convincing Roxas to finish her off.
With the final strike delivered, Xion falls to the ground below, with Roxas following her soon after. They’ve officially taken the leap past the point of no return.
It’s a story about yearning for the past, but never being able to go back.
I shouldn’t need to tell you that Xion’s final conversation with Roxas is as sad as you’d expect it to be. But the stand out line here is Roxas’ question before Xion disappears for good: “Who else will I have ice cream with?” It’s a line that some fans have criticized, but when you consider the themes of the game to this point, it’s the heaviest emotion Roxas can convey. Eating ice cream with Xion and Axel is his only happiness. It’s the representation of his friendships. By asking this question, Roxas finally realizes that the moments he’s always wanted to return to are gone forever.
And once again, though Xion calls Axel one of her best friends, Roxas doesn’t ask “Who else will Axel and I have ice cream with?” Roxas snubs his friendship with Axel in his moment of heartache, which just twists the knife further. The friendship these three shared has become irreversibly broken.
This isn’t the last time we see these three in the series. Yes, even Xion returns in future Kingdom Hearts games. But the strength of 358/2 Days’ narrative is actually how disconnected it is from the greater Kingdom Hearts lore. By focusing on its own narrative first and its series significance second, 358/2 Days shines with a powerful story that explores what it feels like to have loved and lost. It’s a story about losing even the memories of things you once cherished in the past, and how abandoning those childlike desires can corrupt and jade us to the rest of the world. Despite all the magic, the action, and of course the Disney cameos, 358/2 Days tells a human and deeply relatable story.
With Kingdom Hearts 3 putting an end to the long running Xehanort Saga, longtime fans may soon be feeling that same longing and nostalgia for Kingdom Hearts. But if there’s one lesson we can learn from 358/2 Days, it’s to enjoy what we have for now and be prepared for when it’s time to move on for good. In the end, the best thing we can do is to calm down, take a seat, and enjoy some sea salt ice cream along the way. It’s what Axel would have wanted.