Long before I started my career here at IGN, I distinctly remember sitting with my friend and fiercely debating the pros and cons of purchasing the original Kingdom Hearts (we weren't made of money, after all). On the one hand, the game had sweet Final Fantasy cameos and awesome character designs. But on the other hand, it had all these Disney characters I didn't have any interest in. We eventually decided that the purchase was a wise decision after discovering that Tinker Bell was a summon spell. How could we go wrong with pixie power?
Almost ten years later, I'm here reviewing the latest in Square Enix's fantastic series: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, a PSP-exclusive prequel that illuminates some plot points leading up to the original Kingdom Hearts. I'm always incredibly eager to try my hand at the Kingdom Hearts games because I have a personal attachment to the story, but I'm also the first one to point out the game's enduring problems. While Birth by Sleep does continue to suffer from some of the issues that have plagued it since the original, the latest in the series also boasts one of the best Kingdom Hearts battle systems to date, and is easily the most ambitious in its design.
So breathe easy, my friends: Birth by Sleep is definitely worth your money.
Let's start with the basics for all you newcomers out there. Kingdom Hearts is an action role-playing game that combines Final Fantasy-style aesthetics with recognizable Disney worlds. Birth by Sleep is set before the events of the original Kingdom Hearts, so while you don't necessarily need to know what happened in the other games, your experience will be infinitely richer if you do.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep follows three separate storylines. At the beginning, players choose between three different characters: Terra, Ventus and Aqua. These three Keyblade wielders (and close friends) are tasked with defeating the recent uprising of creatures known as the Unversed. Along the way, they'll encounter some familiar faces and a few new threats.
These play sessions exist on separate save files, so once you start the story, you won't be jumping between them while you play. You can opt to start up a game and then quit out to a different campaign, but I found it very satisfying to play one character's story from start to finish. And as you might expect, you'll be rewarded for completing all three campaigns (the game keeps track of completed save files in order to unlock some yummy secrets).
Like the original Kingdom Hearts games, your hero in Birth by Sleep travels from world to world solving smaller problems and working towards one ultimate goal. While on a world, players move through the environments, collecting treasure and doing a small amount of exploring. The real draw, however, is the battle system, as enemies materialize around the player as he or she explores.
Fighting in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is awesome. Players can find, purchase or earn special commands that can be customized from the main menu. These commands can be selected with the d-pad during battle and executed with the triangle button. Once a command has been executed, the deck automatically cycles to the next command and the previous command enters a cool down period.
This system keeps the action fast and user-friendly, but also lets players customize their abilities at will. Commands can also be leveled up and melded to form new ones, so there's a mind-numbing amount of tweaking players have at their fingertips.
But commands are just one element in the formula. As you build up combos, a meter fills up on the side of the screen. If you use special commands to build up that meter, your character might enter a special "command style" which gives them a temporary but tremendous boost in ability. If, for example, Ventus were to cast a few thunder spells while filling the command meter, he would enter the Thunderbolt command style and his moves would be electrically charged.
If that wasn't enough depth for you, each hero also has access to attacks called Shotlocks, which are designed to help deal with large groups of enemies. These attacks take some skill to use effectively but the results are devastating.
But that's not all! Each hero also forges Destiny Links, or D-Links, with characters they meet as they travel. By activating a D-Link, your hero temporarily gains the abilities of that character. More commands means more variety when it comes to fighting, and that's a good thing.
This battle system is not only deep, but it also requires skill. This is one of the rare times when I'd actually encourage players to tackle the game on Proud difficulty mode (one step above Normal). Here, you need to dodge constantly, study enemy attack patterns, counter and even use commands like Stop and Poison to best basic opponents. The experience is much more enjoyable this way.
One of the complaints with past Kingdom Hearts games was that the mini-games included just weren't fun. Fortunately, most of the mini-games in Birth by Sleep are not only fun but are also tied in brilliantly with the main story (Except Rumble Racing. That mini-game does not control well). There's a full board available where your commands are used as playing pieces and those pieces level up when in use. So even though you're relaxing and taking a break from saving the universe, you're still developing your character in the process.
There's also a surprisingly robust multiplayer component to Birth by Sleep that goes down in a separate world, the Mirage Arena. Here, players can compete against each other or fight special arena battles that feature multiple waves of enemies. They can even play the Command Board mini-game together. Although there's definitely some framerate problems during arena matches, playing with two people is smooth enough and it's fun to tackle boss fights cooperatively. There are even special commands designed for multiplayer use, which is a great touch.
But one of the most impressive aspects of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is the fact that there are three whole stories being told. Although there's bound to be some weariness in seeing the same worlds multiple times, Square Enix did a respectable job in varying the challenges each hero faces on those similar worlds. These concurrent plots also encourage players to beat the game multiple times.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is not without issues. Just like its predecessors, the environments are painfully bare and have very little life to them. This stands in direct conflict with the otherwise eye-catching character models and particle effects, which never cease to impress. It would have been great to see the same care given to the worlds themselves, as they continue to feel static and hollow.
The stories in these worlds are also imperfect, as some of them lack the same punch as the overarching plotline of the Keyblade wielders and the Unversed. This is, of course, due to the fact that the heroes spend such a short time in each world so there isn't much room for character development, but it's still a shame that there are some boring spots to an otherwise intriguing tale.
But the most problematic issue in Birth by Sleep is the camera/lock-on system. The triggers work well most of the time to keep things under control, but in tight spaces the camera can freak out and it's tough to keep track of the action. Also frustrating is when the game decides to lock on to a nearby pot instead of the Unversed that's pummeling your face. I'll never understand why there wasn't a better priority system in place to keep that from happening.
Lastly, the load times can be a bit lengthy, especially when opening the main menu. These aren't "go make a sandwich" loads, but they're still a hassle.
Don't let these issues dissuade you from trying Birth by Sleep -- this is one seriously enjoyable adventure. There's plenty to do and the battle system is top notch. The developers even included options to alter the color depth and CPU speed of your game, which gives you control over how smoothly it runs.