Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep – Staff Review

If you had told me ten years ago that one of my most anticipated games of the year would be a Kingdom Hearts game, I’d say you were crazy.  This world is full of many ridiculous things, but a collaboration between Squaresoft and Disney?!  That was possibly the silliest thing I’d ever heard of.  And my wife wanted it.  After watching her play for a bit, I saw that the game had an intriguing story, and I quickly became immersed in the world of keyblades and Heartless.  Like so many other people, I was amazed at the complexity of the story, and I have eagerly waited for each subsequent game to mete out a little bit more of the lore that gets expanded upon with each new game.  Birth by Sleep takes us ten years before the original Kingdom Hearts, and it might just be the best game in the series yet.

The game begins with a short tutorial in The Land of Departures.  The game’s three heroes, Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, are discussing the upcoming ceremony where Terra and Aqua will be hoping to obtain the Mark of Mastery and become full-fledged Keyblade Masters.  Master Eraqus, who bears a striking resemblance to Hironobu Sakaguchi, and an aged Master Xehanort watch the test.  In a duel between the two apprentices, Terra uses the powers of darkness and is deemed unfit to receive the Mark of Mastery. Before he can even sort out his feelings, Master Xehanort disappears and Master Eraqus receives troubling news.  New creatures known as the Unversed are appearing in the many worlds and wreacking havoc.  Eraqus asks Terra and Aqua to find the missing Xehanort and stop the Unversed.  All three students head out, even though Ventus was not ordered to leave.  At this point, the three stories branch off into separate scenarios that are essentially three different short games in and of themselves.  The player is free to tackle the stories in any order, though the game’s creator Tetsuya Nomura recommends the stories be played Terra–>Ventus–>Aqua.  I did not follow that advice.  I began with Terra and ended with Ventus, an order I think was more exciting.

He's behind me, isn't he?
He’s behind me, isn’t he?

As mentioned before, each of the three characters have their own separate narratives.  Even though everyone goes to the same worlds, they interact with different people and have different stories in each of them.  As such, with the exception of one shared boss between Terra and Aqua, a common boss that everyone fights, and multi-fight villains that attempt to hinder all three characters, everyone fights unique bosses and no two trips through the worlds are alike.  This keeps the stories from treading the same ground and helps each point of view feel more original, instead of playing a truncated version of the Disney movie with a keyblade wielder replacing the movie’s original lead character.  This may be one of the single best aspects that makes Birth by Sleep stand out amongst the Kingdom Hearts games.

Not only do the characters get their own stories in the worlds, everyone has a very different fighting style and feel.  Terra is much slower and more physically oriented.  Aqua is the weakest of the three, but she makes up for a lack of strength by being the best mage in the game.  Ventus is kind of in between the two characters stat-wise, and he more than makes up for any lack in physical strength with his speed and agility.  In all, all three characters are relatively balanced and require different strategies to finish their respective plots. It’s not as simple as mashing X to win.  Players will have to rely on Terra’s defensive skills to win harder fights, and Aqua will do better if players take advantage of her expanded spell list.

Like the other portable Kingdom Hearts games, Birth by Sleep uses a deck system that allows players to customize what skills their character can use.  Of most interest to players are the action commands, of which you can equip a maximum of eight abilities.  These include spells like Cure or Fire or attack skills such as Strike Raid or Blitz.  Equipped abilities earn experience with your character and quickly reach a max level.  After a certain point, abilities can be merged to make stronger skills.  What makes this interesting is you can also add items to the mix to produce skills with abilities like HP Plus, Leaf Bracer, or Dark Screen attached.  When you master the newly created skill, you get to keep the ability, even if it’s not equipped in your deck.  So later in the game, it’s worth your time to briefly build up low-level spells to meld them for ability farming.  And since skills and abilities follow set rules, once you figure out what makes what, it’s easy enough to quickly churn out necessary skills to boost your stats.

To keep things interesting, Birth by Sleep adds several new systems to the combat.  One is the Finish command.  As you do damage, a bar fills, and when it reaches full, you can do a more destructive attack.  If you stop attacking, the bar slowly depletes, so it needs to be a concentrated effort.  There are six levels of Finish commands, with roughly 10 for each character. They are unlocked sequentially by fulfilling requirements ranging from killing a set number of Unversed to taking a certain number of steps.  Once you get to the upper tiers, they become crucial to combat since they make your character temporarily invulnerable, penetrate defenses, and have a wide area of effect.

Another system that is tied to that Finish bar is the Command Style system.  By using certain skills, instead of doing a Finish command, your character will change forms, similar to Drive Gauge from Kingdom Hearts II.  In general, Command Styles offer stronger attacks, and by filling the Finish gauge, each Command Style has a unique Finish command of its own.  Especially early on, Command Styles are helpful in fighting bosses or enemies with a particular elemental weakness.

There is also a Diminsion Link system where characters form bonds with the people they meet, and in doing so, they gain access to that character’s skill set.  In the beginning, this can be a useful way to heal since you begin with a D-Link to the other two main characters, and Aqua knows Cure right off the bat.  If players use Dimension Links frequently, they can be powered up over time, but in my experience, they just got in the way.  More than once, I accidentally activated a D-Link while trying to cure myself, which is not what I intended.

The final new addition to the battle system is the Shotlock system.  By holding the two shoulder buttons, a cross hair appears on the screen.  If you move it over enemies, you can produce attacks that can hit multiple enemies at once while rendering yourself invulnerable.  Shotlocks can be incredibly damaging, sometimes doing more than one lifebar’s worth of damage to bosses.  As powerful as they are, they cannot be used indiscriminately; the player must recharge a special bar by doing damage to enemies or collecting drops to use them.

I recommend channeling it into a goatee, but really, any villainous chin-do will work
I recommend channeling it into a goatee, but really, any villainous chin-do will work

Visually, the game looks almost as good as its PS2 brethren.  The PSP offers superb graphics on its little screen, and each world pops with color and vibrancy.  As a welcome addition, most of the worlds that players will go to are new to the series, so it’s not so bad that you’ll be visiting each world at least three times throughout the game.  The worlds are generally not as long as the ones found in the PS2 games, but they are just as detailed and full of treasure chests tucked in corners.  All in all, they are faithful renditions of the Disney source material.

The game is just as good aurally as it is visually.  Birth by Sleep brings a soundtrack that is generally a joy to listen to, especially if you like Disney music.  There are a couple worlds that get annoying though, especially the Castle of Dreams; I can only take so much endlessly looping Bibbity Bobbity Boo before I start thinking of taking the headphones out.  But in all fairness, it wouldn’t be Kingdom Hearts if there weren’t at least one world that drives you up the wall.

There is also a lot of voice acting, and it is very well done. In particular, Leonard Nimoy completely steals the show with his version of Master Xehanort, and Willa Holland does a pretty good job with Aqua.  Series enthusiasts will also recognize voices of Jesse McCartney and Haley Joel Osment as well as Rick Gomez as the voice of Zack Fair. Oddly, the voice actress for Maleficient returns, but she also voices nearly every Disney villainess in the game, which is a bit jarring.

Finishing the entire game will take most players anywhere from 40 to 50 hours.  Each of the three stories takes between 10 to 15 hours to finish, possibly more if you happen to spend extra time grinding, playing the mini-games in DisneyTown. Trying for 100% completion of the Mirage Arena alone will take some time, as it has a few mini-games and twelve Colloseum-style matches that include extra, more powerful bosses. There are also Command Boards, which are dice-based board games similar to a cross between Monopoly and Mario Party. Full completion of the Mirage Arena will take upwards of 10-hours per character.  There is also a final chapter that is unlocked by collecting all three stories and collecting all of the Secret Reports.  This adds an extra boss and the true ending to the game.  Defeating the true final boss also opens two additional hidden bosses for any character that are unlocked sequentially.

All in all, Birth by Sleep is relatively easy on standard. Terra’s first boss can be a challenge if you don’t gain at least one extra level, and some of the bosses are all but impossible without specific strategies.  But in general, if a boss is givng you trouble, all you need to do is grind a couple levels, which usually takes fewer than 20 or so minutes.  Experience points are never in short supply. Those wanting a harder challenge can try Proud or Critical mode.

He's behind me, isn't he?
Sure, they look all cute when they’re just swimming around in the fish tank. But then they get big, and angry, and start wearing spandex.

One of the reasons that the Kingdom Hearts series is so popular is the story, and that is really where Birth by Sleep shines.  Previous games in the series have had too much Disney or filler-esque stale parts.  This game sidesteps both of those potholes almost completely.  From start to finish, the plot is interesting and insightful. There are very few lulls in the action, and with the exception of each story starting and finishing in the same place with the same videos, pretty much everything in between is unique to each character.  Even though you may witness the same basic event when two characters’ stories intertwine, each is presented from that character’s perspective, meaning you get to see his or her thoughts on the matter.  Considering that the game is a prequel, it would make sense that series fans will know where the plot is ultimately going, but the ending is still full of new facts and revelations that will surprise players.

Also, because Birth by Sleep predates Heartless, there are none to be found in the game.  This means that every enemy is new, and there are no repeat bosses from previous games.  For once, you won’t be fighting Darkside or hordes of reused shadow Heartless.  It makes the game feel much newer and fresher than any of the previous titles in the series.

There are many many reasons this game is great, but there are also a few shortcomings. The main one is loading time.  Birth by Sleep has some extensive slowdown and load times, especially when opening the menu.  Players can optionally install 600MB of data to their MemorySticks or opt for running the game at 333Mhz, but there is still a fair bit of lag.  It’s not crippling, but it’s annoying.

The Finish Move progression is also kind of weird.  Nowhere in the game does it actually tell you what is required to unlock each new skill.  You see a progression bar, and you can kind of figure it out.  But without looking at a walkthrough, you may not realize that you have to activate a certain skill five times or take 7000 steps. For the most part, the battle system flows pretty well, but selecting spells can be difficult in the heat of battle. The D-Pad is sufficiently far from the analog nub that it can be hard to work the up and down buttons.  Accidentally pressing right switches to D-Links, and that can be a fatal mistake if you had intended to cast a healing spell. One final gripe is minor, but I want more Utada music.  Simple and Clean is a great song, but we’ve not had anything new since Sanctuary, and that got reused in 358/2 Days.

In all, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep offers an exceptional game from start to finish.  It answers many lingering questions about the cast of the numbered titles in the series, and it gives players a glimpse of life before the Heartless invasion.  It makes you want to replay the other games to find all of the references to Birth by Sleep that have been hidden in plain sight. Some of the reveals are pretty exciting and completely unexpected.  The original Kingdom Hearts set the bar pretty high, but there is a new king of Kingdom Hearts.

This game was played to completion and reviewed using a publisher-provided review copy.

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