A decade before Sora faced off against his first Heartless, Terra, Aqua and Ventus battled the Unversed across a multitude of Disney-themed worlds in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.
Kingdom Hearts fans have been eager to get their hands on Terra, Aqua and Ventus since they first appeared in the secret trailer for Birth by Sleep, which released with Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix in 2007. After a long wait, fans can finally experience the trio's adventures as they battle the mysterious Unversed, hobnob with well-known Disney characters and help set in motion the events that lead up to 2002's Kingdom Hearts for the PlayStation 2.
Was it worth the wait or should Square Enix have left sleeping hearts to lay?
Sleeping Beauty: As with the previous instalment of Kingdoms Hearts on the PSP, Birth by Sleep is a thing of beauty, bringing the worlds and characters of the most beloved Disney movies to life in amazing detail. Square Enix's characters retain their characteristic androgyny and spikey hair, while not looking too out of place with their Disney counterparts. While game's environments might be a bit bare and lacking in life, they still carry a pleasant aesthetic that does the best it can with the resources the PSP provides.
Coming Full Circle: Kingdom Hearts tells the story of Terra, Aqua and Ventus, good friends and keyblade wielders, all during a time 10 years before the original Kingdom Hearts. You'll play each character's story through the course of the game, the plots winding together into a grand conclusion that answers many questions raised in the earlier Kingdom Hearts titles, with plenty of familiar faces to please long-time fans. It's not quite as dense a tale as I'm used to seeing from the series, though perhaps playing through the previous titles helped me make sense of the plot twists. Though the triple nature of the story does lend itself to lots of backtracking, the differences in combat styles and the final plot payoff make the 30 hours I spent playing worth the return trips.
Old Friends: A large percentage of Kingdom Hearts' charm lies in the inclusion of characters from Disney's long-running line of animated films. Characters like Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Experiment 626 from Lilo & Stitch are the sort of iconic characters you remember your entire life. Getting the chance to walk alongside them for a time is always a treat. I love the way Square Enix manages to integrate the Disney characters with their action role-playing mechanics just enough to ensure that young boys never figure out they're playing a Disney Princesses title.
Battle Evolution: Birth by Sleep's battle system takes elements from the previous Kingdom Hearts games and mixes them together into something that feels brand new and familiar at the same time. At the base of it all is the command deck, a series of slots you fill with cards representing fighting moves, spells and items. Use one ability in battle and the next queues up while the previous cools down. As you fight, your command gauge slowly fills. Depending on what skills you use to increase the command gauge, when it fills, your command style can change, unlocking a new series of abilities with even more impressive finishing moves. The whole system adds an interesting element of strategy to how you fight. One set of attacks might be better for one group of Unversed, using less effective techniques might result in a command style better suited to the situation. It's an elegant system, providing plenty of depth without sacrificing the fast pace of the game's combat.
Strong Relationships: While they'll never quite replace the summon system from Kingdom Hearts I and II, Birth by Sleep's Dimension Links, or D-Links, are the next best thing. As you progress through the story, Terra, Aqua and Ventus will form strong emotional bonds with the Disney personalities they come across, forming a D-Link. Once a D-Link is created, you can access them during battle, exchanging your own customised command deck with that of your friend, giving you access to a wide variety of new attacks and finishing moves. Some of the game's most visually impressive skills are found in the D-Links you'll forge, and the unique powers you gain during the link are extremely helpful during the game's more difficult boss battles. My only issue is that you don't change outfits when you activate a D-Link, which just means there's something wrong with me.
The Command Board: Birth by Sleep features multiple minigames to help distract you from the threat of the Unversed, but none quite as compelling as the Command Board. Accessing an option from the main menu at any save point launches the player into an extremely entertaining board game. Players take turns rolling dice to travel around themed boards unlocked as you play through the story, using the skill cards in their inventory to buy squares. When an opposing player lands on your square, they have to pay the price, using points accumulated by passing checkpoints scattered across the playing field. It's like Kingdom Hearts Monopoly, only when you lay down your skill cards in the game, they actually gain experience, levelling up just as they would when you use them in battle. So not only is the Command Board a fun diversion, it can really help a player power up. My only regret is not having a PSP partner to try playing it via Ad Hoc wireless.
A Heavy Load: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep will hurt your PSP in ways you couldn't imagine. Multiple options are available to help lessen the loading times, from upping CPU speed (thus eating battery life) to installing a large portion of the game onto your memory card. Neither really help much, and even simple actions like opening the menu will result in the agonising whir of the disc as the system struggles to perform. Being this pretty comes at a cost, it seems.
Repeat Performances: One of the few major gripes I had with Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days returns in Birth by Sleep. Can someone please pay Hikaru Utada whatever it takes to create a new opening song for a Kingdom Hearts game? 358/2 reused "Passion" from Kingdom Hearts II, and Birth by Sleep opens with "Simple and Clean" from the original game, setting the tone for a game filled with reused music and art assets. Maybe I just want more Hikaru.
With so many elements in common with previous games in the series, it's hard to say if Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a true evolution of the franchise or yet another stepping stone on its way to something much better. Everywhere you turn you see bits and pieces of previous games. You'll hear the same music and revisit many of the characters you've already met, albeit from the fresh perspective of three sets of new eyes. Even the battle system, for all its enjoyable complexity and depth, could be considered a reworking of previous systems; familiar pieces fit together in a different way.
Perhaps that familiarity is where Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep's true strength lies. Much more than its PSP predecessor, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, Birth by Sleep is a homecoming, bringing players back to the fictional world they know and love, changing just enough to make the return visit an exciting new experience.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep was developed and published by Square Enix on September 7 for the PSP. Retails for $US39.99. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through all three stories on standard difficulty, dabbled with Proud difficulty. Fiddled with Mirage Arena but could not test out multiplayer due to lack of other people.
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