The Kingdom Hearts franchise has developed an aptly earned status for delivering an extremely metaphorical, bizarre narrative that wraps around itself in nonsensical ways to the point where trying to make sense of it is painful. If you’ve been keeping up on the series, however, you’ve probably been learning that there are, in fact, reasons out there, somewhere, for most every odd circumstance the franchise has dished out. Gratuitous amounts of zippers aside, the series certainly lives up to its Square-Enix-defined pedigree of evocative music, detailed visuals, and solid gameplay. Birth By Sleep isn’t merely in line with that tradition, it actually surpasses its predecessors in terms of its gameplay. Make no mistake: this title is deserving of the numeral “3” to be tacked onto the end of the Kingdom Hearts name.
Birth By Sleep takes place before any other Kingdom Hearts game so far, so if you’re new to the series, have no fear. The story won’t all add up as many elements later on are intended to be references if not explanations to key story components, such as why Sora/Riku/Kairi are able to use Keyblades, the origins of villain of the original Kingdom Hearts title. That said, they are presented in a way that does not alienate newcomers, so while some scenes may seem a little confusing or random, they’ll actually make later games in the series less confusing if you follow through and play the whole series. From a narrative perspective, there’s a lot here for fans of the franchise to dig into and reflect upon, and by the end I found myself realizing that the entire series’ narrative up until now finally adds up. I no longer have any unanswered questions. Suffice it to say there were certainly some “OMFG” moments. This is all to say that if you’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts, this one is just as good a place to start as the original PS2 title from a story perspective, and if you have been following the franchise all these years there’s a lot of explanation that happens here.
Since we’re already on the topic of story, we may as well hit all the appropriate nails here. Voice acting is spot on and in some scenes, mainly ones involving Aqua, there’s some subtle, real emotion in the acting. Terra, on the other hand, is practically the opposite. While I’m sure a lot of it is intentional, his acting is occasionally all right but generally sub par, glaringly so given the company he’s surrounded by. The Disney characters all sound practically identical to their origins, and Leonard Nimoy serves as a brilliant casting choice for the main villain. The music is a combination of old and new, but there’s not a single world that is recycled (as was the case in the DS Kingdom Hearts game) save for the Olympus Colosseum, which isn’t a ‘world’ so much as an arena, as it usually is. The Disney stories in each world are admittedly weak, however; they always have been, really, though a big part of it this time around is simply lack of aesthetic variety. In terms of being unique and engaging, Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty just don’t stand up to worlds like Pirates of the Caribbean, Lion King, and Tron, which were all worlds in Kingdom Hearts 2. As a long-time fan it’s a bit sad to see that only one Final Fantasy character shows up but it certainly doesn’t impact the story in a negative way due to the direction of the narrative.
The worlds themselves are not as high in number as Kingdom Hearts 2 – not quite – and each one will feature what seems like backtracking since you play each one three times (one as each of the three protagonists), but since each character is playing a different part in the story there are different goals to perform. Ventus has to help build Cinderella’s dress, Terra escorts her to the ball, Aqua helps the Prince find her after she loses her slipper, etc. Essentially, the developers make more with less in this regard. Speaking of less, the worlds do feel empty, barren, and pretty small. Certain locales feel pitch perfect, like entrance to Maleficent’s castle. But when you’re fighting in the Olympus Coliseum, people are cheering, and the characters are specifically talking about the crowd, yet in the same frame there are clearly no audience members…It’s entirely awkward and weird. When you’re at Cinderella’s ball and no one is there but a handful of main characters? Also bizarre. No matter how you slice it, the worlds have the visual appeal you’d expect and look appropriate, but are lacking in details, exploration, and in general lacking in life. Characters are brilliantly detailed, and many in-game cinematics use detailed facial expressions tailored to an English-speaking audience to help portray proper emotion. It adds a lot to the presentation, particularly for the core plot sequences (since the Disney stories are a bit flat overall).
So it looks good, it sounds good, the substories are OK and the main plot is welcoming to newcomers and answers many questions for fans. But how does it all play? Fortunately, it plays very well. It’s the deepest, most challenging, and most rewarding combat system to grace the series so far. The inevitable PS3 Kingdom Hearts release would do well to a least borrow if not augment the ideas here. To start, there are four difficulty levels, and unlike precious games, the hard difficulty levels actually live up to their name. If you’re a newcomer, I suggest Normal, and I strongly recommend Proud for veterans. Proud mode ramps up the challenge and is easily the most difficult Kingdom Hearts experience I’ve found so far – and that’s not even Critical difficulty, which is available at the outset if you really wish to try it. Proud mode also makes the secret ending much easier to unlock, and the Secret ending is where a lot of the big reveals occur (make sure you collect all of those Reports!). The reason why I stress difficulty here is because unlike other titles in the past, the difficulty really adds to the experience – practically every single boss I ran into required multiple tries, some taking me upwards of an hour or so to defeat by the end. The combat is fast and mistakes (at least on Proud mode) are severely punished, but due to all of the options available to you, you can plot out a strategy, learn to circumvent their patterns, and be rewarded by executing the right kinds of approaches to the tasks. It’s rather rewarding to finally take down that boss that was once slaughtering you within a few seconds.
As for the actual combat itself, it’s a melting pot from across the series. You’ve got the basic action-based combat from Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 with a mechanic similar to the cards from Chain of Memories and the element of equipping abilities from 358/2 Days. All commands are equipped – actions like dodging and defending get their own space so they don’t cut into your core commands (as they did in the DS entry) but all magic, items, and special attacks are assigned to Command Slots. There is no MP, but rather a cooldown time for each ability. Pressing triangle will activate the currently selected ability, and the command list will scroll to the next available choice, though you can manually scroll with the D-pad if you want. More powerful skills have a longer cooldown time, of course, so there’s some on-the-fly decisions you’ll have to make in moments of crisis. What’s more is that as enemies are defeated, equipped commands gain experience points (on top of your character’s base level experience) and will level up, becoming a bit stronger. Furthermore, leveled-up abilities can be combined with others to make new skills. Mix a Fire magic with a dashing attack and you get a Fire Dash. Blend two Thunders and you get a Thundara, put a Strike Raid (a ranged attack) with a Blizzard magic and infuse your boomerang-type attack with the ability to freeze foes. The possibilities aren’t endless, but there’s a lot of variety here if you put your melding mind to the task, and different types of skills will be more or less effective on different enemies.
What’s just as useful is that when you combine two abilities you can toss in one of the many special stones you’ll find – this will imbue the newly formed command with an ability that enhances your character in some way: a boost in max HP, a decrease in cooldown time for magic, a resistance to dark-type attacks, etc. If this command is fully leveled up, that ability attached to it becomes yours permanently. If that wasn’t complicated enough for you, there is also a Command Style mechanic. A combo meter builds when you land successful blows on foes. Build it all of the way and you can activate a Finisher move (which have branching paths of development as well), or you can enable a Command Style if the right types of attacks are used. These are unlocked as you play through the game and help add more variety to the already wide range of options. For example, mix some fire-type commands into a string of attacks and you’ll enable a style that imbues all of your attacks with fire and changes the way your character’s attacks function until you fill the meter again to either activate another style or unleash a devastating special finisher move. Have your mind wrapped around all of that? Then here’s the clincher: D-Links. As you meet different characters, you’ll form Dimensional Links with them. A D-Link meter can be used to establish a link with any of these characters, which will alter your basic attacks and command deck depending on who you link with. Link with Snow White and all of your commands will turn into Dwarf-based magics: Sleepy will put foes to sleep, Sneezy will create a Tornado, and so on. So just in case all of the previous elements didn’t already create more on-the-fly options for variety in combat than any previous Kingdom Hearts title (which they do), the D-Link system kicks it up another notch.
That’s all a lot to take in but what it boils down to is that the game offers a surprisingly huge array of combat abilities and strategies at the player’s fingertips and manages to confine them to a limited button set. It might be a bit cramped, and it’s admittedly tricky to scroll through commands with the same thumb you need to retreat with, but it’s probably the most elegant way to incorporate all of these elements given the PSP’s setup. Speaking of which, the system’s capabilities are worth discussing. For starters, you’re going to want to clear the hefty space needed to install game data if you’re at all able to, as the load times are unfortunately brutal for a portable game. Even with data installed, they can be just a little long. That’s the price you pay for the game’s detailed visuals, I suppose – and it looks 95% spot-on with the PS2 games. The title also allows you to accelerate the system for better performance at the cost of battery life and bump up the color palette by using a bit more resources. So if you’re playing on the go you may want to suffer a bit of slowdown once in a while for the sake of your PSP’s juice if you would prefer. The choice is up to you, and more portable/console games would do well to allow customization of settings like this.
As for the game’s structure, you have three protagonists with varied fighting styles and stories. You can play through each one straight if you prefer (they use separate save files and you’ll want to keep them for the ending). Or, you can do what I did, and bounce across campaigns – play a world or two with one character, then move to the next. I would actually suggest this method and it means you don’t restart the game and end up feeling powerless – on the other hand, it also means you’d be playing on the same world multiple times in close proximity. Bippity-Boppity-Boo music was burned into my brain and I’ve since had to get it surgically removed. Once again, it’s up to the player to decide how they’d like to proceed in this regard – though however you play, I do strongly recommend the order the game presents: Terra first, then Ventus, and at last, Aqua. I would also say that this is kind of the order of difficulty, as well. At the very least, Aqua is the hardest to play as given her low defense and weak physical attacks. That said, she’s also the most rewarding to play since her boss battles really require a level of strategy to succeed – that and if you take the time to develop her she’s probably the most powerful of the three in the end, overall. This element even works into the plot.
With deep and rewarding action-based combat and character progression, a reservoir of variety in tactics and abilities, and the content/presentation of a complete PS2 Kingdom Hearts game, Birth by Sleep is a very worthwhile experience that will certainly provide the quality and quantity experience of a purchase. It isn’t perfect – empty, barren worlds, somewhat bland Disney stories, so-so minigames, and issues with platforming and camera angles hold it back from being truly exceptional. But if you’ve played the series up until now this portable title won’t disappoint you and is an adequate evolution of the mechanics of Kingdom Hearts games. If you’ve never touched one, the plot here is a prequel to the series and you’ll be able to enjoy its more self-contained backstory while fans will get a number of questions answered. As a whole, it’s probably the most comprehensive title in the series to date, and if Kingdom Hearts 3 can replicate the depth of experience here in HD while tightening up some of the world to have more life and story in them, then PS3 owners are in for quite a treat.