Ever since the original Kingdom Hearts debuted in 2005, fans have clamoring for more of one of the weirdest crossovers in gaming. While the first game has some dark moments, the game took the storyline to a whole new level in the sequel. But since then, the KH franchise has been rife with spin off games that lack one thing or another. The gameplay concepts are hit or miss, or the story is simply an excuse to reuse old levels and characters (The last entry, 358/2 Days, was made almost entirely of levels from Kingdom Hearts 2, making it feel more like a mod than a new game).
Birth by Sleep is noteworthy because it finally gives fans of the story something to really chew on. The game is set 10 years before the original Kingdom Hearts, and gives us a slew of new characters to learn about. This trip to the past has a Star Wars prequel feel to it. The early games left many cryptic clues about the history of the KH universe, and now we can finally see what that time was really like. Instead of seeing the Jedi Council though, we are introduced to three young keyblade users in training: Ventus, the kid we’ve seen in the secret trailers who is a dead ringer for Roxas; Aqua, a blue haired girl who leans towards magic, and Terra, a young man who is slow but the strongest of the three. Each character has their own storyline, that, while over lapping, offer different points of view, different objectives and a unique play style for each. You’ll need to play all 3 stories to see everything in the game, including the true ending. There’ll be a lot of new and old faces, and be sure to look for all the connections between this game and the later games in the series.
Despite the addition of yet another new system for equipping your characters, Birth by Sleep plays very similar to a traditional Kingdom Hearts game. Instead of simply having a magic and item menu in addition to the basic attack command, you have a command deck. Every special attack, from physical to magical, as well as items, is placed into these decks, with each ability having a cooldown time before it can be reused. The decks also are used for basic physical abilities like jumping or blocking, and can be modified with additional upgrades. In the end though, you still target enemies, mash the attack button, and use special attacks.
One of the common criticisms of past KH games was that they were simply too easy. It was possible to mash a button with your eyes closed and still come out on top. Taking that into consideration, I decided to try out Proud Mode with Terra, and I must say that it’s quite a bit tougher than the joke that Proud Mode was in KH2. The bosses range from pushover to nightmarish, so it’s a bit in consistent. But at least you’ll have to pay attention this time. Normal remained about the same, which is fine for the casual gamer that just wants to enjoy the story. There is a new Critical Mode, which I imagine will prove challenging for even seasoned KH players.
There are some new meters to be aware of. The command meter builds up with attacks, and when it’s full you can unleash a finisher, a power attack that grows and evolves as you play. The D-Link meter lets you access Command decks of other characters, and is very handy in the multiplayer because you can access player created decks. Finally, there is the focus meter, which lets you use Shotlocks, a special attack that lets you lock on to multiple enemies and clear a room in a flash.
Thankfully, all these new meters are useful, and mainly due to the challenge increase over past games. A number of abilities bestow precious invincibility frames, which you’re going to need to abuse if you want to survive some of the tougher fights.
Multiplayer is a real treat, and offers a lot of options. The best part is that all your items, abilities and experience earned will carry between both story mode and multiplayer, so you can have fun while grinding instead of slugging away in the same area over and over again in the story mode. There’s versus, arena, the Command Board, and Rumble Racing. The versus mode is self explanatory, with teams of 3 on 3 duking it out. The arena can be played alone or with a group, and you’ll face series of enemies with a powerful boss at the end.
The Command Board is a board game that lets you power up your abilities. Players roll dice and take over spaces with the abilities in their command deck. When other players land on a space you have control over, they lose points which then help level up the ability and add to your total, putting you one step closer to winning. Think of it like Monopoly (collecting property and charging rent), only you’re trying to reach a high score instead of making everyone bankrupt. Meanwhile Rumble Racing is ho-hum. It’s a kart racer tacked onto an RPG, so it’s not like much should be expected. But it’s still a nice addition none the less.
It’s all gorgeous too, as is typical of most Square Enix games, although it does hurt the game in my opinion. Because of the graphics, loading times are ridiculous (unless you install the game), averaging around 10 to 15 seconds just to load an area sometimes. There’s even a pause when entering the menu. Things can get pretty choppy during a heated battle as well. There is an option to improve the clock speed, but that drains the battery very fast, so it’s recommended that you have it charging when you do this.
I’m a little annoyed to see the opening music being the same track from Kingdom Hearts II, but otherwise there’s still a healthy amount of new tracks and remixes of old tracks. The voice acting is pretty solid for most of the cast, although Terra and Aqua feeling a little flat in their performances. Still, KH has been known to be great in this department, so you won’t be cringing at even the worst performances.
The load times however makes me regret in being on PSP, a trend that is annoying a lot of gamers. While Sony wants to push their portable really hard, getting big franchises to put key entries on the PSP isn’t exactly the best way to please fans. The PSP needs to have strong original IP, and not simply try to get PS3 owners to have a PSP as well if they want to keep up with their favorite series. The multiplayer would be perfect on the PS3 or 360, and the game wouldn’t have to worry about the load times as well. But these complaints are simply me getting on my soapbox, and don’t have much to do with the quality of the game.
All in all, Birth by Sleep is a great entry in the series, and comes out way ahead of the other spin offs. With 3 story modes, a killer multiplayer, and lots of secrets to uncover, there’s just as much time to invest with this game as you would with the big brothers on the consoles. While there are a few hang-ups, there isn’t much to really put a damper on the whole thing. Highly recommended for fans as well as people new to the series.
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