If there’s ever an argument for there being no such thing as a bad idea, it’s Kingdom Hearts. Back in 2001, I’m sure Final Fantasy and Disney sounded awful to some people. The Kingdom Hearts series found its way into the PlayStation 2 with two excellent and memorable installments. The two Nintendo handheld title in the series detailed a midquel and a prequel that made attempts to change up the gameplay formula with varying success. This time on the PSP, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is back in Sony’s territory and comes full circle in returning to the fast paced hack and slash gameplay that made the series fun. Birth by Sleep opts for significant tweaks rather than a full-blown gameplay redesign with excellent results.
The secret cinematic at the end of Kingdom Hearts 2 set off an endless stream of ideas and theories of the mysterious circumstances that led the series to where it is now. Ten years prior to the first Kingdom Hearts the series focuses on a trio of students named Ventus “Ven”, Aqua, and Terra. They train in the Land of Departure to become Keyblade Masters – guardians of the worlds who maintain the balance between light and dark, a pivotal theme in the series. Upon the disappearance of one of their Masters, Xehanort, strange creatures known as the Unversed begin invading worlds. Ven, Aqua and Terra all set out for their own reasons and thus begins a series of events that set Kingdom Hearts in motion.
The story of the Kingdom Hearts is inevitably getting complicated but Birth by Sleep handles the massive affair quite well. The overarching story smoothly ties Birth by Sleep to existing canon and keeps everything consistent. Even newcomers get a fairly cohesive introduction to the Kingdom Hearts universe since this is the first chronological game in the series thus far. Central themes like the balance of light and dark as well as one’s inner darkness are handled in the way that has always made Kingdom Hearts palatable to younger audiences but keep things interested for older players too.
Ven, Aqua and Terra are characterized fairly well but unlike the trio hero in 358/2 Days these three seem to rehash the original series: Ven is the light Sora, Terra is the dark Riku, and Aqua is Kairi, also known as “the girl”. The game makes note of the similarities in a way that I won’t spoil, so I can’t fault the game too much, but some more character variety would have been nice. Aqua definitely feels like a strong, unique character but you’d swear Ven and Terra are just Sora and Riku with facelifts (and if Riku hit the gym for several weeks).
Gameplay is the faithful hack and slash action found in the PlayStation 2 iterations of the series. Longtime Kingdom Hearts fans full of PS2 controller muscle memory will be impressed at how smoothly the series has transitioned onto the PSP. Face buttons are used for jumping, dodging, and attack chains while the D-pad lets you cycle through Deck Commands – magic, items, and so on – which are customizable. The Kingdom Hearts series has always been about style and delivers with slick, fast paced action that still keeps everything visible through all of the particle effects as you introduce the Unversed to your Keyblade. This system has always been simple and easy to pick up but it nonetheless takes focus and gameplay never gets repetitive.
Birth by Sleep offers some creative new additions to combat that streamline the system. There’s a helpful new Command Meter that will fill up as you attack enemies, for example. When it’s full you can unleash a devastating finishing move. That’s not the only option, however. If you fill up your Command Meter in tandem with using specific spells or abilities, you’ll enter a Command style that temporarily gives you a significant power boost. Given that most offensive spells in Kingdom Hearts series have traditionally been far less useful than stringing attack combos, this was a great way to lend strategic use to magic.
Another addition to the combat is the summoning system, which has now been replaced by the Dimension Link system. In a nutshell, using a D-Link lets you take on the powers of other characters – including the other protagonists you aren’t using – for a brief period of time. It feels like an amalgamation between summons and Forms from Kingdom Hearts 2 but the tactical applications are far greater. I very rarely used summons in earlier Kingdom Hearts games since it was quicker to just use Forms or Keyblade combos, but the D-Link system is much more dynamic. Combat changes overall focus on emphasizing improving your character rather than powerful summons or abilities which has excellent results.
Regrettably the camera continues to be antagonistic in Birth by Sleep; this is one issue that Square-Enix hasn’t ironed out for several games. The priority lock-on seems very awkward; try locking onto a boss directly in front of you and you may simply lock onto an extremely weak Heartless seconds before your intended attack. Breakable pots are present during the game and you may simply do a 180 and lock onto those with no warning, and the camera has a terrible habit of just losing your lock when it gets into a bad mood. It doesn’t cripple the game but it can cause you to make some costly mistakes.
As is the case with RPGs you level up and gain experience by defeating enemies but there’s a new method of doing it in Birth by Sleep. The new Command Board functions as something of a hybrid between Monopoly and Mario Party. In each world you have the chance to take part in several entertaining mini-games that break up combat nicely. Factoring in mini-games as a method of contributing to experience was a great idea since it cuts down on level grinding and adds extra incentive to even partake in the Command Board. Each Command Board is unique and based on the world it’s in, and there’s a fair amount of variation.
Unlike the other Kingdom Hearts games where the focus is typically on one character, there are three interwoven stories called scenarios for Ven, Aqua, and Terra. Using all three characters you travel to various Disney themed worlds including some creative newcomers. The Enchanted Dominion, for example, is the world of Sleeping Beauty; my personal favorite is the Mysterious Tower from Fantasia. The three Scenarios inevitably suffer from some repetition of levels, cutscenes and bosses. On the other hand the gameplay is nicely varied with all three characters having unique fighting styles and each story fills in blanks that might be left by the other two.
The problem that’s always been present in the Kingdom Hearts series is that a fair number of the worlds feel linear and constricted. As interesting as the new worlds are, the old worlds are generally the same set pieces and graphical styles we’ve been seeing since the original Kingdom Hearts years ago. There’s very little interactivity in worlds in general causing them to feel static, and whenever you do interact with the world it feels very scripted. This is more of a problem with the series as a whole than Birth by Sleep specifically but new iterations have a chance to improve upon this.
The consistently high production values for Kingdom Hearts shine through in Birth by Sleep. The series has transitioned beautifully onto the PSP; visuals are crisp and character models and details are as stellar as ever. Voice acting for Ventus and Aqua is also solid while Disney characters continue to have an excellent standard. Terra’s voice isn’t nearly as impressive however; the actor seems to misinterpret “brooding” as “bland”. The musical score has stayed fairly consistent throughout the series but everything from the fast paced combat themes to the ambient world tunes sound great.
The local multiplayer is a mode known as Joint Struggle, which allows for cooperative or competitive play. Up to six people (two as each protagonist, in different clothing) can jointly tackle enemies or fight one another. The alternate versions of Ven, Terra, and Aqua all have new abilities in addition to different outfits. You and your friends can also play on the Command Board or just play the mini-games. It’s not a huge part of the game, but it’s a nice addition that lets you and friends share Kingdom Hearts together.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep isn’t just a spin-off; it’s an evolution of the series that makes helpful tweaks to combat and introduces interesting new worlds. Its problems are nitpicky enough that they never got in the way of enjoying the heartwarming story, exciting combat, and excellent (if familiar) musical score. Birth by Sleep should stand tall as part of this crossover series.
The unique art style of Kingdom Hearts is ever present in Birth By Sleep, but nothing really pushes the boundaries.
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The slick hack and slash gameplay has been tweaked and streamlined in excellent ways.
The music is excellent, if a bit familiar, and the voice acting continues to be stellar.
The story is a huge twenty hour plus undertaking, although the three stories can feel similar at times.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep isn’t just a spin-off; it’s an evolution of the series that makes helpful tweaks to combat and introduces interesting new worlds.