Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep

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So since the last 2 Kingdom Hearts games for handhelds were considered side-stories, it might have seemed like this one would also fall in the same category, right? However, Tetsuya Nomura, who developed this installment, has referred to Birth By Sleep as “Episode Zero” and stated that this entry is just as important as Kingdom Hearts 1 and Kingdom Hearts 2. It is actually easy to see why, since this game is based on the secret ending of Kingdom Hearts 2 and was originally planned for the PS2 with Sora as a playable prototype. However, due to the developers wanting to add multiplayer-functions to the game, it was later developed for the PSP and powered by the same engine used in the Final Fantasy games Dissidia and Crisis Core.

I did not get a PSP until I started at college, since by then it was incredibly cheap. There were plenty of titles I had missed for the system and Birth By Sleep was one of them. I was very eager to play it, as it seemed so different, yet impressive for the system. Besides: there are plenty of RPGs for this handheld, so let’s see how well this one holds up, and get at least one step closer to Kingdom Hearts 3.

Kingdom Hearts: A New Hope

Set as a prequel to the original Kingdom Hearts, Birth By Sleep stars 3 keyblade-wielders: Ventus, Terra, and Aqua. While at a graduation to become the next Keyblade Masters, Terra and Aqua are set to show of their strengths. Unfortunately only Aqua graduates as Terra is still struggling with his darkness. Later the same day, both Aqua and Terra are informed by their master Eraqus that Unversed, dark creatures feeding on negativity, have appeared and now threaten the princesses of light. It is up to them to vanquish the new threat and save the worlds. Meanwhile, Ventus has had an unpleasant visit from a masked man who warns him of Terra’s faith and decides to follow his friend.

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You will take control of one of the main trio, each with their own paths to follow. Throughout the three storylines, you will be taken to familiar Disney worlds once again and, thankfully, there are new areas to explore in this installment, such as the forests of Snow White and the spaceship where Stitch is held captive. Those that appear from previous titles, will also be adapted well into the timeline, such as Greece having a young Hercules in training. The events that occur in these areas are well connected to the plot, which is fantastic for keeping a steady narration. While you will help Cinderella get to the ball or join Peter Pan for a treasure hunt, the stories will also become more personal as you venture through with the 3 protagonists that interact with the worlds differently. This makes the events you encounter more interesting, as it becomes about more than defeating a common threat that can affect them all.

The three main-trio have a nice chemistry with each other, with struggles and strengths of their own, making them feel diverse and complementing each other’s personalities. Ventus struggles with his identity, Terra has his darkness, and Aqua has her responsibility, and all three are themes that will be tackled subtly throughout each world and in conversations. This makes the stories quite personal, with small hints of duality and how hard certain, metaphorical fights can be, especially when there are no right answers on how to tackle them. Each character also develops as they travel to different areas and try to do what they think is right, with them all having a believable personality, making them memorable and relatable. Adding to this are the characters they will interact with in these worlds. They are incredibly charming, humorous, or unsettling, making the worlds feel truly unique and varied.

Stitch

Many philosophical discussions are short, but quite direct and without clear answers, making it so the small thoughtful moments linger on and are in tone with the story of the world you are in. It all feels genuinely interesting, with lighthearted and humorous events being sprinkled throughout the plot, which provides a good balance between the lighter and darker moments. A favorite of mine is when Terra simply tells the fairy godmother that, while he believes that dreams can come true, you must make an effort for them. Most old Disney-movies are very emotional and not as thought-provoking as today, so it is quite impressive when they can add some philosophical moments in these segments.

The overall plot can be quite complicated, but never hard to follow. There is plenty of lore and elements to let fans paint a bigger picture of the world of Kingdom Hearts. While newcomers won’t feel lost thanks to this being a prequel, you will get even more out of the lore, if you are already familiar with previous titles. Much of the structure also feels somewhat similar to a Star Wars-movie, with light and dark paths being discussed, but much more in how to balance them rather than painting them as good or evil. “Darkness is a beginning, you see, not an end. At birth, every one of us emerges from darkness into a world of light, do we not?”. Lines like this are tied in with the upcoming events of the game and I love how appealing the dialogue alone can be.

Snowwhite

While the three story-paths are a fantastic setup to make it possible to see the world from different perspectives, there is one continuity-part that does not add up. It is a minor one and doesn’t affect much besides this world alone, but it is noticeable. There is also a certain boss that should not be present story-wise, but because of just how well the story is told in general, the intriguing lore and philosophies, the atmospheric worlds and how lovable the characters are, these are easily minor faults. The timelines will also be shown in the Trinity Archive, so you can easily keep up on when events happen. In all, it is a fantastic story, with an ending that still gets to me to this day.

Story Score: 9.5/10

So many beautiful ways to fight!

You will choose between the 3 different characters to play as throughout the adventure, each with their own attributes. Terra is the strongest one, Ventus has faster combos, and Aqua is powerful with her magic. Each will travel to the same worlds inspired by the works of Disney, but each will be somewhat different. For example, Terra will escort Cinderella to the ball, while Ventus will help Jack make the dress, and both will have different stage-layouts, concepts, and acquire different skills. However, while there will be some exploration sprinkled all over, the worlds are designed to be much flatter due to moving camera with only L and R, the horizontal screen of the PSP, and having more focus on combat. These are very smart moves, as no worlds feel shallow due to both the variation and how fun the combat is. Even the occasional flying or tall enemies don’t disrupt the combat either, as they can easily be locked on and the camera is centered to give a good view of the environments you are in.

Terra

Birth By Sleep is an Action RPG, with a heavy emphasis on the action that has been tremendously upgraded from the last games. The only aspect of the combat that got simplified is that you now only select what keyblade to wield, as other accessories have been removed.. Now that we have gotten the easiest part out, let’s dive into the meat of the combat. X is set this time to attack, which can be chained into combos. With it, we have the returning Command-system, but this too is different from before. Firstly, there are two different types of Commands, with the Action Commands being used to equip non-attack skills, such as dodging, blocking and jumps. The second are the Battle Commands, which makes it so items, special attacks, and magic are used on the spot. All actions must be equipped before a battle, and which command your triangle-button will do is shown through the menu on the bottom-right corner.

Each special attack and spell will need to recharge after being used, with items being usable until you run out of them. You can still change between the equipped commands by using the D-pad, which is easy to use as it is located right by the analog-stick. The concept of this new Battle Command is also a good way of making combos and think strategically about how to approach enemies. Do you want to be a magic-user, focus on healing, combo-attacks, fight up-close or afar, or combine these and other playstyles? This gets increasingly interesting, since no attacks feel useless and you can level up the ones you enjoy, and eventually expand your amount of commands to use.

Combat

This is further enhanced when attacks you use the most hit a certain level, as you can then combine two of them for new attacks, and add an item for even more extras. For example, you can combine a blizzard-spell with a special attack where you throw the keyblade, and get a combination of these attacks, with adding an item for granting you a passive skill such as more ice-damage. Passive skills can be active by equipping the attacks connected to it and if it is fully leveled up, you get to keep them regardless of if you have the attack equipped or not. You can also make up to three different decks, so there is a lot of room for experimentation.

However, this is not all. You have 3 new bars, with a health bar that should be self-explanatory. First, is the Command Gauge above your Battle Commands. It will fill up as you attack and, when it’s full, you can do a finish-move by simply pressing X. However, if you use a certain power a lot, such as wind attacks, you can make the finish command into a command power instead, where your attacks will be of that element, become stronger, and can fill up a new bar to execute a strong ultimate finishing move. For example, simply using fire-moves, will give you the command Fire-storm and make your attacks fire-elemental and eventually finish with a burst of flames. There is also one more extra to this, but I won’t spoil it as the game wants to keep it a secret as well. It is exciting and definitely worth experimenting with, as it can be tremendously helpful when in a pinch.

Music
The bar right below your health is the Focus Bar, which also fills up as you attack. As long as there is some parts filled, you can use a  “Shock Command”. These are equipable strong attacks, where you aim and lock on enemies by holding down L and R. The more you lock on, the more attacks you do. Some examples are shooting multiple ice-shots or doing rushes of dark-attacks. If you max out the number of lock-ons, you can also execute QTEs to do even more damage, and they are intense as they appear shortly on the screen and you want to do as much damage as possible by hitting the right buttons. The Shock Commands can be upgraded as well, so it is wise to choose the one you prefer.

Finally, there is “Dimension-Link”, which can be only filled by collecting certain orbs from fallen enemies. Dimension-Link is a form of summon-attack, where you borrow commands and attacks from other people, such as one of the playable characters, or a character you meet through the adventure, like Snow White or Maleficent. Activating these will refill your health and make it so you can get another playstyle that is suitable for you. These can also be further upgraded by acquiring emblems, which will grant you more attacks and even special abilities, such as teleportation-dodging or increased attack-speed. You can also do special finish-commands through these D-links, which is intriguing and a massive help.

Just about any part of this game requires experimentation, as no attacks, characters or choices feel worthless. There are plenty of stores in this game and while the commands won’t come cheap, you should always be able to try out any combination you want. No matter what, you will need to try out and find playstyles you enjoy, as this is a very challenging game. Enemies are diverse, quick, and relentless, with some having dangerous combos or attacks that can be devastating. You will have to be aware of your surroundings at all times and some will require different tactics to take them down.

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Even better are the amount of boss fights that are tremendous. Some can be ginormous and terrifying, while others will be one on one battle against another wielder, for example. These battles, however, are never unfair as you can dodge and block early on in the game, giving you a good amount of defensive options. This makes it so you never need to grind unless your skills are not up to the task. It really is one of the best methods for grinding and I hate myself for not bringing this game up in the discussion for when grinding is good.

While the combat is the main treat, levels will present varied objectives, where combat will still be of importance, as mentioned above. That is except for one town, however, where you will have the characters play a different mini-game each, but they are all enjoyable. There is a fun racer with weapons and shield (with a battle-version of the vehicle-segment appearing later), a rhythm game, and a volleyball match. These are engaging, have simple designs, and will only be required to tackle once. Despite this, I actually found myself doing them multiple times since they were fleshed out enough to be fun and easy enough to grasp quickly. The rewards you get are not shallow either.

Each campaign lasts between 7 to 8 hours, and none felt like they overstayed their welcome. You can even bypass the tutorial when you start the game again with another character, which is great. With such a fantastic focus on the combat and making it work with the limitations of the PSP, I honestly had nothing to dislike in all 3 campaigns. Variation within a focused concept goes a long way and Birth By Sleep truly shines as a prime example.

How is this on a PSP?

I start off with this question as these graphics are incredibly impressive for the system. There are huge worlds to visit in this game, each of them varied and colorful with plenty of minor details in the backgrounds and diverse areas inside themselves. Worlds such as the beautiful Radiant Garden have plenty of different areas, such as old buildings, a castle, and fountains, all connected in a believable way. All worlds provide varied setups and are different from each other to make each place feel unique. Even the chests have different emblems on them depending on which world you are in. Only one area felt barren due to a lack of people, but that’s about it.

Big stick

The character models are extraordinary, with fluent animations, and lip syncing that matches well with the audio. All characters have a unique and intriguing design to them, including the enemies and minor characters in the different worlds. This is quite a hard task to make, since we are in a universe inspired by Disney and Final Fantasy, and they succeed at combining these styles with flying colors. Certain enemies are also only in specific worlds, such as the totems in Neverland or Lucifer in Cinderella’s home, making them feel more unique and personal.

All places mix different styles of both sci-fi and fantasy, with lands that feel coherent despite clear differences. Adding to this, are the attacks that are imaginative, captivating, and bizarre, from huge explosions, attacks that your eyes can’t even follow, or literally dancing around the enemies. Cutscenes are done with the in-game presentation, and they all work well due to how technically impressive the game looks already. Unfortunately, when big attacks occur on the screen while plenty of creatures are present, the frame-rate will take a hit, even if the game is installed on the hardware. This is not a huge problem, but an unfortunate one nonetheless. The loading-times as well can be long, so it would have been nice with something more interesting than a black screen.

I have gushed over the music in Kingdom Hearts games before and this one is no exception. Each reappearing and new music-piece is fantastic and varied yet again. The orchestrated battle-themes, the calm tones near the enchanted forest, the heartbreaking and simple tone of Ventus’ theme, all are a treat to listen to. There is also plenty of voice-acting and they are on par with the music. All feel genuine, with many great performances such as Mark Hamill and Leonard Nimoy joining in, and no performance come of as shallow, with all of them giving everything they got. The sound, in general, is also fantastic, as I could even hear the waterfalls subtly in the background while my keyblade was hitting multiple enemies. It is really a marvel for the system overall.

Presentation Score: 9.5/10

Fighting with other wielders!

First of, I am incredibly happy to see that difficulty modes make it easier to unlock secret movies the harder you make the game, which is fantastic as there is a lot of hidden lore to this installment. Secondly, there are plenty of requirements for getting 100% completion, such as finding every treasure chests, doing all the mini-games, and minor side quests. All felt rewarding, as it would not just help in singleplayer by giving you different attacks or skills, but also in multiplayer.

Hades

Multiplayer is exclusive to the PSP, but what a fun extra this is with support for upwards to 6 players! You can battle against each other, or go co-op against the many bosses and monsters in survival-mode, and acquire new and grander skills, such as a cure-all spell. It is an incredibly fun driving-force and should you be a bit exhausted by the fantastic combat, there is always the racing-game which is also in multiplayer. The only thing that is awful is the board-game you can play both in singleplayer and multiplayer. It can be described as a mediocre version of Monopoly, or Fortune Street to be more accurate, but it is restricted in strategy, based on luck, and generally just a drag. It is quite a contrast to the rest of the game and I really have no idea why this was included.

Extra Score: 9/10

Verdict

This was a huge surprise to me. While I was expecting quality, I had no idea this installment would provide such an amazing experience. With a great story, fantastic combat, the presentation that still impresses to this day, and the enjoyable extras, it really is among the best Action RPGs and certainly a reason to invest in a PSP for. There is, of course, the PS3 remake which has the added content found in the Final Mix-version, such as more bosses, power-ups, and cutscenes, but I would only recommend it if you fancy yourself a solo player, as there are no options for more players in that version. The multiplayer-extra for the PSP stands quite strong as a fantastic extra for the system, and due to the limited view, you can easily tell it was made for the system. Regardless, you should experience this installment, even if you are not a fan.

95/100

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