While Kingdom Hearts fans eagerly await the third numbered entry in the franchise, Square Enix and Disney have been consistently expanding the series through portable spinoffs. Last year, the well received but strangely titled Kingdom Heart 358/2 Days graced the Nintendo DS, and now the PSP gets some love in the form of Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep (BBS). Created as a prequel to the first game, BBS feels more like the beloved PS2 titles than any other iteration available elsewhere. However, there is more to it than a mere transfer of the components that made the first two titles great. Birth By Sleep brings some much needed improvements to the combat system and an interesting new narrative approach, introducing another powerful story to the Kingdom Hearts Universe.
Kingdom Hearts has always told the story of a close trio of friends and how distance - and battling forces of light and darkness - strains their special bond, and Birth By Sleep is no different. The three new characters introduced are Terra, Ventus, and Aqua, young Keyblade masters in training. Rather than playing as just one hero you can play as all three and see the story as it unfolds from their unique perspective. After a delightfully brief tutorial, you are asked to choose a character based on an overview of their basic characteristics. You will play as that character alone for the duration of their adventure and then you will be advised to create a new save file and play with someone else.
The story starts after things go awry during Terra and Aqua’s Mark of Mastery Test, which only sees one of them achieving the rank of KeyBlade Master. Master Xehanort’s interference and subsequent disappearance leads to the trio of heroes splitting up on a mission to visit different worlds while battling a heartless-like species of enemies known as the Unversed. From there it is exactly what you expect from a Kingdom Hearts game, which means visiting and interacting with beloved Disney and Final Fantasy characters. While the paths of our three heroes do collide from time to time, and they all visit the same worlds, each faces trials that are truly their own.
Birth By Sleep plays just as well as, if not better than, any other Action RPG you can find on the PSP. The controls have been adapted extremely well to the platform and are a breeze to get used to. Circle jumps, X is the action button, and square either blocks or evades attacks. You move around with the analog nub and use the shoulder buttons to move the camera, which is generally centered directly behind you. Clicking both shoulder buttons at the same time locks onto the adversary and when pressed in succession will cycle through them. The series has had its fair share of hectic camera issues, but - aside from a few instances - I had no major problems keeping it focused on the action.
Combat is still fast, flashy, and fluid. In the past, scrolling through your character’s battle commands was clunky and broke the flow of combat. Here the problem is resolved by using X solely for your most basic Keyblade attacks and scrolling through the available list of magic, ability, and item commands with the D-pad and executing them by pressing Triangle. It sounds unwieldy at first but because of the proximity of the analog and the down button (PSP 1000-3000 series only - Birth By Sleep is not available for download on the PSP Go as of time of writing) it quickly becomes instinctual.
Strengthening your character involves more than level grinding your way through a sea of Unversed. You must also continually evolve their Command Decks by adding newly acquired abilities or even melding commands and items to create combos that are more powerful. Holding down both shoulder buttons will activate your Shotlock command, another new feature that allows you to unleash a powerful fury of attacks on one or more enemies while targeting from a first person point of view. If you monitor your character’s progression tactically, they will become extremely powerful, even though you are unlikely to go too far beyond level 30.
Ventus, Terra, and Aqua do play markedly different from one another and the gameplay does a great job of expressing that by urging you to play to their strengths. Ventus (the one who eerily resembles Roxas) is the most balanced of the trio and plays similarly to the main characters found in other games in the franchise. Aqua specializes in magic, whilst Terra is more brute force oriented. The differences help squash some of the repetitiveness caused by the overlapping adventure arcs.
Birth By Sleep marks the first appearance of a number of worlds from Disney films that were only alluded to in the past (or future, considering that this game is chronologically first) titles. Each character only witnesses part of the events that unfold on the worlds. For example, Ventus will shrink down to help Jaq put together Cinderella’s dress, Terra will escort and protect her at the Ball, while Aqua ensures she has a chance to try on the glass slipper. This method of storytelling can be a bit of convoluted at times because you have to piece together the sequence of the event yourself, but that doesn’t always matter. Following this format, the heroes will at times visit areas and encounter foes within the worlds that are exclusive to their story.
Other aspects of the gameplay, while welcome as diversions, are not quite as solid as the combat. Namely, the platforming can be very dull, finicky, and really exacerbates faults with the camera you would not be aware of while fighting. Then there are a bunch of minigames you will find scattered throughout the game, including a rhythm-based challenge to construct giant ice cream cones and surprisingly enjoyable kart racing. You travel through space by guiding your vessel to other worlds, although there are no shooter based segments that were found in Kingdom Hearts or Kingdom Hearts 2. However, there are instances where you do battle the Unversed (and even a boss) while in space, using a modified version of the combat system.
Though the hacking and slashing is very entertaining, there is a lot of it. You will press the X button to the point where you are sure your thumb will fall off during extended sessions of play. The average playtime to complete the first character’s campaign is within the realm of 10 to 12 hours. The subsequent characters will take you considerably less time to finish because a healthy portion of that time will be spent playing through events you have already experienced. Nevertheless, the positive far outweighs the negative when it comes to the gameplay. Epic boss fights are one of the game’s strong suits as well, though they become frustratingly difficult towards the end.
There are also a few multiplayer options available. One is the Mirage Arena, where you can play with or against friends or forge D-links with them. You can also race on your Keyblade Glider or play a board game called the Command Board. I won’t go into detail about the Command Board here because I didn’t find it at all enjoyable, but you should know that it's akin to Monopoly, only a little bit more colorful. The multiplayer is ad-hoc only, but you can play with up to 5 other players at a time. The interface to configure all of this multiplayer goodness is a tad convoluted but, regardless, there is potential for fun when it comes to cooperating with - or battling against - other players.
Square Enix never fail to express their graphical prowess on the PSP, and Birth By Sleep is their best effort yet. Visually the game mimics the quality of its console predecessors to an impressive degree. Character models, aside from the awkward-looking hands, are remarkable and animated beautifully. A few of the finer details are sacrificed but the trade off is well worth it for the stunningly recreated worlds. The game does this with quite a number of on-screen enemies and effects. Only when you are up against literally a hundred enemies at once do framerate drops become apparent.
A deluge of well scripted and fully voiced cutscenes tell a very important and emotional story that offers a better understanding of Kingdom Hearts as a saga. The music, some original and some recycled, is a strong accompaniment to the adventure. The voice acting is great, especially that of the Disney characters that use original voice acting. So, is there any part of this game’s presentation that is not downright phenomenal? Sadly, yes. Load times are a persistent and lengthy interference. You have the option of installing 200, 400, or 700mb of data onto your memory stick to shorten the load times. I advise you to use the greatest amount possible because even then the loading is still a nuisance.
My biggest gripe with Kingdom Hearts on the PSP is the value. Once you compete all three campaigns, you then have the opportunity to finish the story with a proper ending by battling a few more bosses. Otherwise, there are not many compelling reasons to come back to it after you're done. The length of about 30 hours is down from the PS2 games. Repeated segments and cutscenes pad out a great deal of that time. The worlds are not as large and prone to exploration as they were on the consoles. Lastly, how many times must we battle through the tournament on Mount Olympus before the developers realize that we do not care about Hercules anymore!
Overall, Kingdom Heart: Birth By Sleep is an impressive achievement and a downright enjoyable game. It really could be called Kingdom Hearts 3, or the fan-dubbed Kingdom Hearts 0, and not feel out of place. This is a great adaptation of the series for the PSP and one that fans should play as a reminder of what makes Kingdom Hearts so magical.