The first time I played Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep I was in Tokyo, well aware that I couldn't read the Japanese menus of the flashy new PSP instalment. The second time was this week. The game was in English.
A translation alone does not make a Kingdom Hearts game comprehensible. Latecomers to the Kingdom Hearts series - people like me - can be lost in the carnival of action in the older ones or even the new PSP game which is busy and bright in its own right. This is a series of lots of colours and characters, a constant fireworks of activity.
Earlier this week in New York at a PlayStation gaming showcase, with a spokesperson from Kingdom Hearts creators Square-Enix at my side, I tried the English-language version of Birth By Sleep. We established right away that I am unaware of most Kingdom Hearts lore and gameplay (sorry, folks...I never played the first and bailed out on the second midway through). When I was told the gameplay is reminiscent of the first Kingdom Hearts, I shrugged my shoulders.
When I was told there is only one Final Fantasy character in all of Birth By Sleep - Zack from Final Fantasy VII - I assumed that was weird. I know Kingdom Hearts has its own expanding original cast, but I thought the mashing up of Final Fantasy and Disney was still a franchise selling point. I guess not. This game is a prequel to the first Kingdom Hearts. We get to learn about how the keyblade masters come to be.
You can play the game as one of three characters, visiting several Disney-themed worlds. After completing the game you can play as one of the other characters and see how events unfold differently. Major plot points will be the same, I was told, but you might find that one character's visit to the Cinderella story involves needing to protect her stagecoach's journey to the ball whereas another character might experience the drama of making Cinderella's dress. Cut-scenes and gameplay settings will vary, though I understand that the overall plot will be the same.
I didn't have much time to play the new PSP game in New York this week. In my limited session with it, I mainly wanted to understand Birth By Sleep's gameplay better. When I played the game last September in Tokyo, I enjoyed it but was confused by all of the combat options for its abundant real-time battles. Some videos on the official Birth By Sleep site help explain how combat works - so does having a Square rep next to you. You can get through a lot of the real-time combat in the game by mashing the PSP's X button. Your hero will keep on attacking. The better way to fight is to use the triangle button to launch one of several special attacks that are stacked in a menu in the lower left corner of the screen. Doing several of these attacks fills a meter that lets you then launch a superior attack. But overdoing any move will force you to wait for it to cool down before using it again.
There are other combat options. Players can also use a D-link feature that is associated with a meter on the lower right of the screen. This option lets the main character summon the abilities of any of several supporting characters they have befriended. It's not a summon, I was told, so lo and behold, when I D-linked a character, they did not appear on my screen. The left menu's list of moves simply changed. The D-link meter will gradually drain, but as long as it has some colour in it, you can keep using these other characters' abilities. This system will help you tap into other move-sets that you might need to get out of a jam.
Pulling both of the shoulder buttons on the PSP changes to a focus mode that brings a large targeting reticle on the screen. You can target and shoot at enemies through this view, turning the game briefly into a rapid-fire shooter. As with D-link, the meter associated with this drains. And, as with D-link, you can refill it by defeating bad guys and absorbing the energy they leave behind.
I tried these moves in the Cinderella fiction and found the combat to be flashy and fun, though it didn't feel strategically demanding. I had glided through some dialogue sequences to get to the combat and was just battling blotchy enemies in a courtyard. I ran around and fought guys. Nothing deeper than that. Sorry, but I have no idea who my enemies were. The combat was fairly simplistic because I was in the early part of the game, the Square rep told me. Had I more time I would have also tried the available Lilo & Stitch and Hercules worlds, which were also set up for reporters to play.
Playing Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep in English didn't allow me to suddenly feel like I know a lot about this latest sequel in Square-Enix's hit franchise. The game appears to be dense with menus, full of abilities and, most importantly, rich with story. Those are not elements I could learn much about during a 10-minute session fiddling with the game. But I could (re-)learn that Birth By Sleep feels swift and fun, a seemingly low-stress action-adventure that could be a pleasure to play on the go so long as it is not gummed up with cut-scenes.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is set for release this September on the PSP. It is one of the biggest releases of the year for Sony's handheld platform.