Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a prequel to the original Kingdom Hearts games. It's set roughly five years in the past, long before Sora and Riku set out on their adventures. We follow the path of three young heroes — Aqua, Terra and Ventus — who are Keyblade Wielders and have been trained to use their weapons to better the world. The Unversed, a mysterious race of creatures led by a young man in a black suit, begins invading various worlds. A Keyblade Master known as Xehanort has gone missing, seemingly in connection with the Unversed. The trio splits up to find the source of the Unversed and find out what happened to Xehanort. Along the way, they stop in Disney worlds such as Cinderella, Lilo & Stitch, and Snow White to prevent the Unversed from wrecking some of Disney's most popular movies.
Birth by Sleep's implementation of the Disney worlds feels a little half-baked, although nowhere near as bad as Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. Each of the three characters travels to the various worlds at a certain point in the story. Terra is usually there first and kicks off things by being tricked or bamboozled by the main villain of that story. Ventus is there second to cheerfully help out, and Aqua usually arrives just in time to make sure everything comes to a somewhat happy close. Sometimes you get fun sequences where the characters actively interact with the story, like Aqua assisting in Cinderella's glass slipper sequence, but mostly, they just kind of watch. It's still a step up from the other handheld Disney games, and there are some surprisingly clever and cute moments here and there. It's just difficult to not wish that there were more of them, instead of some classic Disney scenes with a spiky-haired protagonist standing off to the side and occasionally mumbling.
The plot is almost impenetrable if you're not a Kingdom Hearts fan. Many of the ideas, characters and concepts assume familiarity with the setting's strange metaphysical universe. The words "heart" and "darkness" get repeated so often that the words seem to lose meaning, and a lot of the game is spent exploring concepts that are not that interesting unless you're a fan of the franchise's non-Disney aspects. Unfortunately, even if you are, it spends time explaining things that you already know or setting up things for future sequels.
The plot's structure expects that you have some idea of what is going to happen, and this is one area where the game gets kind of bogged down. Birth by Sleep is a tragedy. It's a prequel to Kingdom Hearts, and since Aqua, Terra and Ven are not hanging out during the events of the first game, you can assume that something bad happened to them, especially considering that the main villain Xehanort is still around during Kingdom Hearts II. The entire game leads up to a somewhat depressing ending, and while it's not as grim as it could be, it may be a bit uncomfortable for the younger crowd who just wanted to see Disney characters, not an entire cast of characters go through hell between Disney adventures.
On the surface, Birth by Sleep seems like a refined version of the Kingdom Hearts combat system, with commands being the biggest change. Vaguely reminiscent of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, your characters have a deck of available commands, which represent all of their abilities. You load your deck with magic spells, special attacks and consumable items, and they can be used in combat. You begin with a small deck that allows only three commands at a time, but you can raise that number substantially. Once a command is place in the deck, you can use it in combat by pressing the Triangle button. This casts the spell, uses the attack or consumes the item in that slot and instantly moves to the next command in the deck. Once you've used up every command, it cycles back to the beginning.
It's impossible to discuss commands without mentioning one of the most unusual features of Birth by Sleep. Leveling up commands in battle isn't your only option. You can also play a minigame called Command Board to increase the strength of your attacks. You are given a series of Disney-themed boards, and each board has its own unique quirks. For example, the Peter Pan board has spaces that you can land on which let you use Tinkerbell to move an opponent's piece to any other space on the board. The Cinderella board calls upon the Fairy Godmother to give you money boosts.
Beyond that, the gameplay is functionally identical to Monopoly. If you land on a blank space, you can buy it, but purchased spaces are then filled with one of your command cards. This card, if you still own it at the end of the game, will get a huge amount of experience points, often enough to level it to max in a single game. You can choose to spend money on the card to increase its worth, rather like buying hotels in Monopoly. If your opponent has a lot of cash, he can buy the space from you, and you can do the same to him. If an opponent purchases your space, you don't lose a command, just the experience that would be earned from it. Playing a board game to get power-ups is a surprisingly innovative take on the usual grinding.
Your fighting style will change how your character fights. This is based on your character's finishing moves and can have a noticeable effect on combat. As you attack opponents, you'll build up a meter over your command bar, and when the meter is full, you can pull off a powerful finishing move. By default, you have a character-specific finishing move that does a decent amount of damage. As you play, your command choices will gradually evolve this finishing move. Depending on how you fight, you'll get new finishing moves that have special attributes. For example, Terra's finishing move eventually evolved into the Surprise! attack. It required me to complete a Quick Time Event (QTE), but if it connected, it rewarded me with extra money and health orbs.
Styles are a far more interesting concept. The commands that you use to fill the bar have a secondary effect. For example, have a character use a lot of fire magic or fire-elemental skills, and when the bar fills up, he may enter Firestorm style. These new combat styles grant the character new attacks and a significant boost to attack power. In addition, they get a special new finishing move that is substantially more powerful than their regular one. This super mode only lasts for a brief time or until you pull off a finishing move, but it can clear an entire room of enemies in a moment.
In addition to this, you also have access to dimension links, which replace the summons from previous Kingdom Hearts games. As Aqua, Terra and Ven make friends in the various worlds, they'll form dimension links with them. D-Links allow the three protagonists to temporarily borrow the abilities of their friends, effectively giving them another fighting style. Ven can form a D-Link with Snow White to change his attack commands to Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy and Sneezy, each with an attack that roughly corresponds with their name. Sleepy puts all nearby foes to sleep while Sneezy casts a powerful Aero spell.
In addition, D-Links level up if you use them in combat. Enemies have a rare chance to drop items that will permanent give a D-Link a powerful passive ability. The Aqua D-Link gets the Auto-Life ability, a rare skill that can revive the player if he's killed in combat. The downside to these D-Links is that you can only use them when you have a full D-Link meter, which is filled by collecting D-Link orbs from defeated foes. You can leave your D-Link style at any time, but you can only go back into D-Link once you've refilled the bar.
As far as difficulty goes, Birth by Sleep offers four difficulty modes ranging from easy to the brand-new critical. The lower difficulties are great for younger gamers or those who simply want to experience the story. The higher difficulties can be surprisingly rough. Without the Reaction Commands found in Kingdom Hearts II, you're expected to use your abilities and timing intelligently, or you risk dying. The game is never unreasonably hard, but on the higher difficulties, you'll have to master blocking, dodging and counterattack to defeat some of the nastier bosses. Veteran gamers will want to start on Proud or Critical mode, which offers enough of a challenge to be interesting and is even fun for experienced gamers. The Easy and Normal modes are even good for younger kids and casual gamers. It's a well-balanced game that has something for everyone.
The level design in Birth by Sleep is good but not great. While the game is full of large and memorable areas, many of them feel pretty empty. Exploring the giant prison spaceship in the Lilo & Stitch stage is neat, but the ship feels sterile and empty, aside from the hordes of Unversed. The same goes for most of the stages, which only have a bare minimum of NPCs and simple layouts. They're fun to explore but noticeably a step back from their PlayStation 2 counterparts. A little could have been done to give them additional spark and life, including the addition of some characters. The Disney cast list seems surprisingly light, and the worlds could have been fleshed out some more. There are also a few sequences where you have to do some awkward platforming because the camera doesn't want to cooperate.
Birth by Sleep is an odd game in that it's at its worst if you don't customize it. If you play the game right off the UMD, you're getting a significantly below-par experience. The loading times are abominable and can be bad enough to be unplayable. On the other hand, you'll find a group of install options on the main menu that can significantly reduce that loading time. You should have at least a 1 GB memory stick for your PSP if you intend to play Birth by Sleep. Anything less will lead to slow loading times.
Likewise, the game has options that improve the color depth and reduce the slowdown, but they have to be manually activated. This is to conserve battery power, but unless you're expecting to spend long periods of time away from a charger, you should keep them activated. It's worth praising Square Enix for even making this an option, though. Allowing players to boost their PSP's CPU speed to 333 MHz from the menu is a surprisingly excellent feature that should be included in more games. You need to flip a few switches and have a large memory stick, but once you do, the game runs like a dream.
Aside from a few minor tweaks to compensate for the PSP's weaknesses, Birth by Sleep looks great. The characters are all vivid and well-animated. The character animations have seen a boost since the Japanese iteration, giving them better facial expressions and slightly improved animations. The cut scenes and in-game animations are top-notch, and Birth by Sleep is easily one of the best-looking titles on the PSP when it is at its best. With all of the best options enabled, the game runs wonderfully and with very little slowdown. The camera can be occasionally wonky, and the camera controls are a tad awkward but can be mastered quickly enough.
The voice acting is superb. The Disney cast is mostly comprised of the original voice actors or, in a few cases, surprisingly good sound-alikes. This definitely adds to the atmosphere of the game. The main characters are reasonably well voice-acted, although Aqua and Terra sometimes sound a bit stilted. This is a problem because they're two of the main characters, but the rest of the cast is good enough to help you overlook that. The real stars of the show are Leonard Nimoy and Mark Hamill, who voice Master Xehanort and Master Eraqus, respectively. Nimoy lends a lot of charm to what might otherwise be a humdrum villain, while Mark Hamill's Eraqus adds a solid bite to a bland mentor character. Most of the voice actors do their jobs well enough, but Nimoy and Hamill steal the show. The soundtrack is good but could use a little more variation, especially in the Command Board sequences. Hearing an instrumental version of "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" during the 45 minutes of a Command Board session can make you mute your PSP right away.
As far as gameplay goes, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is easily the best of the Kingdom Hearts games and is a solid addition to the franchise. The combat is fun and interesting, and it manages to avoid feelingly overly repetitive or simplistic. The command system and multiple playable characters give the game a good amount of variety, and the boss fights are diverse and interesting. However, the story is rather lackluster and the plot is nearly impenetrable if you're not a Kingdom Hearts fan. The gameplay is fun enough to make up for that weakness, but some players may want to skip any cut scenes that don't involve Disney characters. It probably won't change the mind of anyone who didn't enjoy the previous games, but Kingdom Hearts fans should find a lot to like.
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