Review: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (Sony PSP)

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 09/07/2010

It’s another year, and we have another Kingdom Hearts. Ever since its inception on the Playstation 2 in 2002, this franchise which blends Disney and Final Fantasy characters into one seamless universe has become so successful that it has become one of Square Enix’s main franchises alongside Dragon Quest and the aforementioned Final Fantasy. Admittedly, this series was originally a hard sell for me, as the Disney aspects of it were of little interest to me. I remember seeing some of the original trailers for it and thinking to myself that they need to scrap the idea and continue making the next “real” Final Fantasy game (as XI was planned to be an MMO at the time). Eventually, I gave it a chance and have been a fan ever since.

Fast forward eight years later and I’ve played through all of the English releases thus far. Not only has the gameplay in this series remained consistently spot on, but the franchise has introduced enough original characters that the story can now stand on its own without its FF roots to hold it up. Hot on the heels of the DS release of Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, we now have the next portable installment, Birth by Sleep. Can the latest title maintain the momentum created by the other games, or has it overstayed its welcome?

Let’s Review

Story/Modes

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a prequel to the original Kingdom Hearts, and chronicles what events took place to lead up to the creation of the Heartless. It revolves around three characters, Terra, Aqua, and Rox… I mean, Ventus, as they investigate the source of creatures called the Unversed as well as the whereabouts of their master, Xehanort. Much like the other games in the series, their search leads them to various worlds based on popular Disney films, such as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.

Unlike the other Kingdom Hearts titles, where you have one main protagonist that you use during the entire narrative, Birth by Sleep allows you to choose one of the three main characters. Your choice is not purely cosmetic either, as not only do Terra, Aqua, and Ventus play very differently from each other, the story is told from the perspective of the one you chose. Although all three of them ultimately visit all of the same places during the course of their adventures, they end up doing different tasks and discovering different things. Playing the game with each of them is practically a requirement too, since only by doing so (and meeting a set of prerequisites) will you unlock the final chapter and bring a resolution to the game.

While it’s neat that you learn new things with each character’s playthrough, the disadvantage here is that this shortens the narrative quite a bit. Depending on how much sidequesting you decide to do, each character’s story can be cleared in about ten hours. So while the tale is ultimately very good and fits in well with the rest of the Kingdom Hearts canon, it just doesn’t feel as epic as the first two games. For a portable title though, this is light years ahead of Chain of Memories or 358/2 Days.

Since this is a prequel to the other KH games, newcomers will have an easy time breaking in. The main characters are all new and BBS doesn’t require extensive knowledge of the other titles in order to fully enjoy it. However, there are a lot of references thrown in to the other games as well as small nuances that you wouldn’t appreciate unless you knew what they came from. Series veterans will definitely dig the fan service though, and there are definitely some parallels drawn between this game’s main characters and the stars of the other games, Sora, Riku, and Kairi. I enjoyed the new additions to the cast, though it’d have been nice if their personalities and relationships had more time to develop.

Story/Modes Rating: Great

Graphics

If there’s one thing you can’t accuse Square Enix of, it’s making bad looking games. Seriously, KH:BBS is one of the best looking titles on the system. While there is a definite difference between the CG opening and the in-game cutscenes, it’s not nearly as jarring as it is for other games. You may see repeat scenes as you go through the game with different characters, but you do have the option to skip them if you so please.

All of the characters and monsters are well designed and move very fluidly. Even though they’ve all been pulled from different places, they are all represented in such a way that they appear to all belong in the KH universe. It’s nice to have some consistency in the designs, as the overall style benefits from it.

Since there are numerous instances where you just see characters talking, it’s nice to see that they at least take advantage of various facial expressions. They are all portrayed very convincingly, and there are even a few instances where individuals shed animated tears. I don’t recall seeing details like this in many other games, so it’s nice that Square Enix went the extra mile to make their emotional scenes convincing. The lip movements seem to match up with the words being spoken as well, which you usually don’t expect to see happen in a game of Japanese origin.

The various worlds in Birth by Sleep do an excellent job of capturing the essence of the Disney franchises they were intended to represent. Places such as the Dwarf Woodlands represent an entire spectrum of locales from Snow White including the mines where the dwarves work, Maleficient’s castle, and even the forest with the scary trees. Other worlds similarly mimic their movie counterparts when determining what sort of locations you’ll be visiting.

Graphics Rating: Unparalleled

Sounds

Disney films are well known for their soundtracks, as most of them involve singing from the main characters. Many of these familiar songs are included in Birth by Sleep, and loop during the level representing the movie the song comes from. They should be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up with these films, and are very catchy. The tracks that play during battles, particularly the ones you hear in boss fights are especially exceptional and do a great job of getting you fired up for the game’s combat.

The opening scene includes the track “Simple and Clean” which has also been featured in the original Kingdom Hearts as well as Chain of Memories. It’s a fantastic song, and fits well with the theme of the game. However, it would have been nice to have had a new theme song for once. Perhaps one may have to wait until Kingdom Hearts III to have this granted.

The voice actors that played major characters in previous games all make return appearances, as do the ones that voiced Disney characters in their original movies. Many Japanese games end up with laughable English dubs, so it’s refreshing to have a game that is so well cast. Fans may recognize such names as Jesse McCartney, Mark Hamill, and James Woods just to name a few. They all do a superb job, and put on a very convincing performance for the player.

Sound Rating: Classic

Control/Gameplay

It’s fortunate that the PSP control scheme is at least mildly similar to that of the PS2 controller, as it made adapting to the setup that much easier. Much like the older Kingdom Hearts games, your basic functions such as attacking, jumping, and guarding are delegated to your face buttons. There’s still a menu with the list of your commands on the bottom left, but rather than having access to all of your items and skills at once, you have a limited set that you can equip at any given time. This ensures that you plan ahead and bring whatever magic and healing items you’ll be needing for the battles ahead, as you can’t change them in the midst of combat. And like before, you can scroll between them with the directional buttons, as the thumbstick controls your movement.

Locking onto enemies is slightly more awkward that it was in the past, as it requires that you hit both L and R at the same time. Once you are locked on you can swap between enemies using those same buttons and outside of battle it will control camera movement. The problem with delegating the lock-on function to these buttons is that you also use L and R to access a brand new move called Shotlock by holding them down. The Shotlock ability brings a targeting system onscreen and allows you to fire projectiles at multiple enemies at once for as long as a gauge called Focus remains at least partially filled. I found myself accidentally accessing Shotlock while frantically trying to lock onto my enemies in the midst of battle, which while my own fault, could have been prevented had it been assigned to another button.

Another new feature to the combat is a technique called D-Link. This meter replaces the magic meter (as each skill and magic spell have their own cooldowns now) and by filling it up, you can link with characters you have met during the course of the story. Doing so not only heals your HP to full, but it allows you to use the skill sets equipped on that character and continued use of the same characters will unlock new passive abilities that will help you as well. This feature cannot be utilized while you have AI companions helping you, but this is rare and you will fight most battles alone.

Even though computer controlled teammates usually only join you to help in boss fights, they have evolved into more than simply damage soakers. Sometimes they will call out to you during battle and approaching them will prompt you to press a button onscreen. You will then perform a team attack with that character and put some serious hurt on the enemies you are facing. If you are not quick or don’t follow the correct instructions you will miss your opportunity. It’s a neat mechanic that adds another dimension to the gameplay than just simply unloading all of your skills until the enemy falls.

You can still buy items and skills from moogles in BBS, and visiting new worlds will often bring new keyblades. However, the bulk of your most powerful skills will come from leveling them up and fusing them. Every skill or magic you have equipped levels up along with you and when it reaches high enough level, it becomes a candidate for fusion. When you fuse two skills you can also attach a gem to it in order to add extra bonuses for having it equipped such as additional HP or longer combos. If you max out the skill with these bonuses equipped you will learn the bonuses permanently, giving even more incentive to fusing skills rather than just buying them.

Depending on what skills or magic you perform in battle, your character can utilize what’s known as a Style Change. There’s a bar above your skill set that slowly fills as you deal consecutive damage to your enemies and by filling it completely you will unlock the Style Change and temporarily add new attacks or elemental damage to your repertoire. For example, continued use of ice attacks may give you the Diamond Dust Style Change and add an ice element to all of your attacks. Building the meter up even more will allow you to perform a powerful special attack or it may even unlock another Style Change that deals even more damage. With a little experimentation you may find yourself dealing some serious hurt to your opponents.

For the most part, the control scheme is well mapped out and the new features are welcome additions to the combat. The biggest complaint I have, which is something that plagues most games of this sort, is the camera. In most situations it works fairly well and you can rotate it as you need to. But sometimes, especially during some real intense fights, being locked on to an enemy while you are trying to move around or dodge causes it to do some really funky things. It’s very difficult to get your bearings when you are trying to roll away from enemy fire and you are zoomed way out and from an angle that’s incredibly disorienting. The thumbstick is none too comfortable either, and trying to use it to run away while selecting healing skills or items can be quite cumbersome.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Great

Replayability

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is one meaty game. Simply clearing each character’s story will net you approximately 30 hours in of itself, but when you throw in trying to achieve 100% with each one, secret boss battles, and an assortment of minigames, suddenly you have a title with enough to do to keep you busy until the next KH title. Also, by meeting a specific set of prerequisites (depending on the difficulty level you choose), you can also unlock a secret ending that not only adds more closure to the overall story, but gives hints as to what a possible followup will be about.

The minigames presented are actually pretty entertaining, consisting of simple rhythm games, racing, and other miscellaneous activities. I was bothered by the fact that the plot dictated that I had to complete some of them in order to progress. Granted, it is a nice break from the hectic combat the rest of the game contains, but I’m really annoyed by being forced into playing volleyball using watermelons and other assorted fruit if I don’t want to. Perhaps if failure didn’t require me to retry I would be more okay with this.

There’s another minigame I didn’t care for too much either, which is Command Board. Think of it almost like a KH themed Monopoly where you maneuver around a board game and lay down cards with your abilities on them for your enemies to land on and power up for you. The game suggests this as the ideal way to acquire new abilities, but I found it incredibly boring to play. Especially amidst the exciting action the rest of the title brings. I would prefer the old Gummi Ship levels over this any day.

BBS supports ad hoc play if you have some buddies that also have the game. The Mirage Arena allows you to compete in Versus, Command Board, and Rumble Racing, or you can team up to take out enemies in the arena. Frequent play allows you to raise your arena level which in turn unlocks more things for you to do as well as allowing you to earn currency for purchasing items at the Moogle’s store. The Mirage Arena alone is a place with the potential to sink in a lot of hours, so if you want a game that will get you a lot of mileage, this is it. I just wish the other minigames had more depth.

Replayability Rating: Great

Balance

The challenge in this game actually took me by surprise. It used to be when you were low on health, you could rely on Donald or Goofy to throw you a healing item and battle would continue as usual. Very rarely, if ever, do you have teammates helping you in this game, and even when you do, they do not assist in the healing. This means you not only have to dodge your enemies oncoming attacks, but you have to micromanage your own healing.

While it is true there are four different difficulty settings, even the normal mode got rather tricky in places. I had to restart battles many times, especially with Terra, so I had to really adjust my play style before I could get through boss fights with ease. Luckily, a loss doesn’t necessarily send you back to a save point, you can choose to retry and give the fight you lost another go. However, the retry option doesn’t allow you to change your skills or equipment so you’ll have to set yourself back a little ways if you find that your current customization isn’t ideal for the situation you are in. While this may be the most challenging KH game to date, the ability to adjust your difficulty and the generous retry options will ensure that with a little practice, you should be able to complete the game.

For the record, I felt Ventus had the easiest story, followed by Aqua, and then Terra. Perhaps because I started the game with Terra and I learned the game’s nuances with him whereas with the other characters, I already had a good grasp on the gameplay. Whatever the reason, I thought I would mention it for anyone wondering who to start with.

Balance Rating: Great

Originality

It may be the newest title in what is becoming a long running franchise, but there are enough new additions to the already addictive gameplay that ensures a fresh experience. With the inclusion of the Shot Locks, Style Changes, and D-Links, the gameplay is altered enough to where it doesn’t even feel like the same game anymore. Especially since you no longer have NPC’s watching your back. You may have heard the quote “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Well, the old system was far from broken, but they fixed it anyway and the results couldn’t have been more pleasing.

Originality Rating: Great

Addictiveness

To say that I got into this game would be an understatement. There was even one day where I played it so hardcore that I actually got physically ill from the amount of consecutive hours I invested into it (please don’t try this at home by the way). The gameplay stands on its own well enough, but if you combine that with a story that makes you anxious to progress just so you can fill in what you don’t know about the plot, you have a recipe for an exciting adventure that you won’t want to end. When it does end, however, it does so in a very fulfilling way, making the entire quest one worth seeing through to its conclusion.

Addictiveness Rating: Amazing

Appeal Factor

Unlike most sequels, Birth by Sleep can be played by those with no knowledge of the series and still enjoy themselves. And they should, as this is an excellently made action RPG game. Fans of the previous titles of the series should not hesitate to pick this one up if they own a PSP. Disney fans and to a lesser extent, Final Fantasy fans should get a kick out of the content of this game as well. The Final Fantasy presence is still here, though not nearly as much as past games. The moogles still sell you your items, but there was only one character from the franchise that makes an appearance. The story wants to keep his identity a surprise until a point, so I won’t spoil who it is. However, it was a little disappointing that the likes of Leon, Cid, and the rest of the gang do not make an appearance, though their absence does not ruin one’s enjoyment.

Appeal Rating: Great

Miscellaneous

Before starting this game, be sure to have a sufficient amount of space in order to perform a data install. Because if you don’t, you will be absolutely murdered by load times. The load times are so ridiculous, I thought my PSP froze up on several occasions because of how long it took to load. And it has to load before you do anything. Whether you’re watching a cutscene, about to fight a battle, or even just opening your menu, you will hear that UMD inside your system spinning like crazy. And while the data install helps, it doesn’t help by enough. You will spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen.

You may have heard by now that Square Enix opted to not have a digital release for this game. While I would never purchase a digital version in the first place (because the whole ownership thing is still a gray area), anybody who bought a PSP Go and wanted to play this game really got screwed. That, and I bet the digital version would load much faster than this snail of a UMD does. Again, this doesn’t affect me directly, but anyone browsing the Playstation Store might want to be aware of its absence.

While BBS doesn’t have the same number of playable characters as 358/2 Days, I think it benefits from being smaller in scope. The majority of the Organization XIII members in 358/2 Days felt really clunky to use and overall, not that much fun to play. I think this game, by scaling down its roster, makes each character enjoyable to play while still being fundamentally different. Terra’s attacks are powerful, but quite slow. Ventus relies more on speed, thus making it easier to stay on top of your enemies. Aqua is adept at using magic, thus rendering her physical attacks much weaker than the other two. I hope future games can integrate additional characters as successfully as this one.

Miscellaneous Rating: Good

The Scores
Story/Modes: Great
Graphics: Unparalleled
Sounds: Classic
Controls/Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Great
Balance: Great
Originality: Great
Addictiveness: Amazing
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Good

Final Score: Incredible Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep serves as a prequel to the entire Kingdom Hearts saga, and fans will be thrilled to discover the origins of many of the prominent characters in the franchise. The same classic gameplay is present and has adapted fairly well to the PSP control scheme. There are also many additions to the combat that help to evolve the experience and three new characters with unique play styles will ensure combat stays fresh. The visuals and soundtrack combine to create a fantastic presentation, though the load times are an unfortunate hindrance to the enjoyment. If you are a KH or Disney fan, or just looking for a great action RPG to take on the go, you can’t go wrong with Birth by Sleep.

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