Review by KMA10k

"BBS: Ridiculous, or Renaissance?"

Ah, my Kingdom Hearts. Teacher. Mother. Secret lover.

Well, actually, not even so secret. I think my adoration's gotten to be a bit well-known around these parts. And why not? The series, frankly, is amazing. It's every bit as brilliant as it is bizarre, and taken all together, it just makes for the single most memorable gaming experience I've ever had. Put simply, it's a high-flying, nostalgia-loving, super-cheesy, wiggly-wobbly wacky writhing bouncy brilliant genius ball of...stuff. And it's magical! I mean, it's a world where robots, ninjas, zombies, pirates, zombie pirates, and the goddamn Santa Claus, of all things, are next-door neighbors. And it works! A world full of wacky talking ducks, and it still makes for a compelling, emotional, simply fantastic little epic drama. I mean, you really just have to appreciate that. And I honestly have to say, this latest release delivers in a whole new way. It ups the ante in ways I never could have actually hoped for. Now, flawless? No. But mind-bogglingly fun? Oh, heck, yes.

So, without further ado, let's dig into Birth by Sleep.

STORY:
Now, our story opens in a bit of a hallowed place, this noble “Land of Departure,” where for generations, hopeful young heroes have been trained, tried, and tested. From the misty peaks of the great green mountains to the majestic stained glass of the castle above, it's really a beautiful place full of history and all kinds of wonder -- easily one of my favorite locales in the series. We come to one night in particular, in fact, ten years before the events of the main series, when a magic hush falls over the tranquility of the wee hours, and in one brilliant moment, the sky just seems to explode. It's a meteor shower. And as we follow its observer in childish glee down from the castle and over the hills while the stars rocket around overhead, we're introduced to our three main characters. They all have their own stories with their own save files and everything, so I'll tackle each one separately.

VEN'S STORY: 6/10.
The first is Ventus -- “Ven,” for short -- a young boy of about fifteen with a penchant for all things smiley. We see him first, as he wakes up and discovers the star shower, racing down from his room in fits of giggles to get a better look. And looking at him, I think most of us can see something a bit strange already. This guy looks just like Roxas, one of the main heroes from elsewhere in the series, but a solid decade before he's ever born. Of course, there's a reason for that, but honestly, it's almost beside the point. For me, the real value comes from the resemblance in itself. It's like we're seeing Roxas himself in a whole new light, where the villainous Organization never found him and he actually got to be a normal kid for once. And that just adds this entrancing new dimension to everything he does, and especially to the villain of his story. Unfortunately, Ven has very few merits of his own, and his story contains easily the most contrived plot points, but it still kind of works. There‘s not much I can say about his motivation or his conflict without spoiling it, but suffice it to say, the sheer and unparalleled irony brought on by Ven's “Roxas-ness” is nothing short of masterful. So while, to me, Ven has the most boring plot overall, his interaction with the other characters, and his endgame especially, make for some of the most memorable moments in particular.

TERRA'S STORY: 10/10.
Then comes this fine young man. His name his Terra, and he's the oldest of the trio -- the biggest, the buffest, and by far the most ambitious. A little bit too ambitious for his own good, actually. In very beginning, he's struggling, right on the verge of becoming a true master swordsman. His own master is like a father to him, but therein lies the problem. Becoming his own man would mean replacing his master, his foster father, the man who means the most to him. But meanwhile, Terra's also completely horrified at the thought of failing. So when the time comes and test falls upon him, as soon as he starts falling short, Terra panics, gives into the anger, the pressure, and his own fear, and basically just embarrasses himself. And so he leaves the world, feeling almost oppressed by his master but still hopeful and so eager to prove himself. As he journeys the stars, he actually interacts with the villains more than the heroes, and the whole thing just gives us an amazingly fresh, wild new perspective. It's a totally new dynamic, and it's so fantastically interesting. A lot of his story does involve working with the bad guys and coming to terms with his own inner darkness, but Terra's not your standard anti-hero by any means. He's troubled, definitely, and he does have a fair bit of angst, but he has just as many big glorious victories. And despite his darker impulses, he's still already a father figure all his own to Ven. Now, if only he knew that, it might do him some good. Terra's charming naivete is a pretty big plot point, too, both for better and worse. Overall, he's complex, he's intriguing, and he's probably my favorite character in the series so far. His tale is definitely one to behold, and the last couple hours are sure to blow your mind.

AQUA'S STORY: 8/10.
Surprisingly, there's not a lot to say about our last musketeer. Aqua's basically the best of both worlds, strong like Terra but good-hearted like Ven. She's smart, she's responsible, and she's really the glue that holds the game together. Her plot's not as boring as Ven's, but not quite as innovative as Terra's, either. She doesn't have any villains of her own, and her plot mainly revolves around looking after the boys and tying up their loose ends. As a character, she's silly, she's a genius, and she's charming, and her story is simply the rock, pure and clear, the tie that binds it all. None of the other two stories would ever work without hers, and because of that, hers is a common fan-favorite.

OVERALL STORY: 8/10.
So, after all that, I know you've got to be wondering: What's my impression overall? Honestly, it's unwaveringly positive. The very first Kingdom Hearts was fairly simple and heavily cliche, but I can forgive that. You can't be too brave when you're still testing the waters, after all. And Kingdom Hearts II made a lot of bold choices to really help the series come into its own niche. Everything from the world selection, to the plot, to the very execution of the overall game was very ballsy, to put it frankly. Now, some of it paid off, and some of it didn't, but the important thing is, they learned from it all. 358/2 Days was good, too, but suffered from things like a tutorial that went on for hours and a heavy focus on the characters at the great expense of the actual plot. Birth by Sleep basically refined the series to its finest points, taking the best of every world and for the first time, actually heading in a very clearly defined direction. Watching the secret ending, especially, it's obvious Nomura's not just writing one game ahead anymore. He's got a game plan for the series overall, and it's actually really beautiful, in my own little opinion. To me, Birth by Sleep is the perfect Kingdom Hearts -- the ideal combination of quaint fairy-tale atmosphere, high-flying action, and just such amazing, magical, wonderful heart. The characters are fantastically developed, but the main plot is still mind-blowing, too, the pacing is perfect, and the whole thing is just so polished and utterly good. Yes, a few points are lame and contrived, but they pull it off with panache. And, frankly, just look at my intro up there. This series has always been out there. But if the rest of the series continues along Birth by Sleep's path, I'll be a very happy camper.

GAMEPLAY: 10/10.
In a word, it's phenomenal. Birth by Sleep's battles are in real-time, every bit as rich and fluid as the very best in the series. What sets it apart, though, is what's called the “Command Deck” system, which is how you equip all your items and moves. Think of it like Crisis Core's materia system on massive steroids. There are literally dozens of spells, more special abilities than I'd ever care to count, and each and everyone has its own wide array of elements, levels, fusions, and paths; there's no end to the combinations and really no wrong road to take. The level of customization here is truly vast; I praised Days for the same thing, once upon a time, but Birth by Sleep just dwarfs it so many times over. The span of the attacks available is more than the series ever had, and the end effect is hours upon hours of fun.

And it's not just items and equipment, either. The variety expands even farther than that, thanks to a handy new feature called the “Command Style.” With this, you can change your appearance, your combos, your weapons, and the very core elements of your attacks based completely on how you personally play, and what commands you have in your deck. They're almost like the Drive Forms of Kingdom Hearts II, but there's so many more of them, they're much more temporary, and they don't have the broken bonuses of constantly restoring your health and everything. So essentially, you get all the fun and more variety while still enjoying a much more balanced battle environment -- definitely a plus.

Getting even deeper, now, we also have the all-new “D-Link” system. It's almost like the equivalent of summons, letting you call on the power of your allies from other worlds. But instead of actually summoning them, you literally do just call upon their powers, replacing the commands in your own deck with their trademark attacks. It's a great way to expand your base and get quick access to more advanced spells than you're really supposed to have yet. Aqua's D-Link, for example, lets Ven and Terra get early access to a much-needed Cure spell. Each one comes with its own unique finishers, too, each more useful than the last and all them so very cool-looking. Each D-Link has three different levels, starting with the default and going up the more you use them and the more enemies you defeat, so there's always more room to advance.

But, of course, there's more to gameplay than sheer battle. Birth by Sleep also highlights a good number of surprisingly intricate mini-games, ranging from kart racing to Kingdom Hearts Monopoly to something like Elite Beat Agents to a very strange mix of soccer, volleyball, and a large fruit salad. And for the more battle-minded still, there's also an exquisitely elaborate arena, featuring both solo and multiplayer matches of all kinds, both co-op and versus.

Now, there's one more element to keep in mind, here, that being the basic exploration and flow of the worlds themselves. They're not nearly as flat as Kingdom Hearts II's, though not nearly as twisted and malformed as the original‘s, either. The rooms are rather big and very, very often feature branching paths; more than once, I expected the room to be half as big as it actually looked, but…well, it just kept going, so more power to them. Treasure chests are mostly reasonably hidden, with more than a fair few being truly out of the way, so that can be lots of fun. And the out-and-out heavy plat forming elements are honestly a bit few and far between, but when they come around, boy, do they come around. One of Aqua's later worlds, just for example, has an absolutely delicious segment that I just keep playing over and over again, just for the sheer fun of it.

The one flaw, really, is that it gets a little monotonous. One story would be fine, but when there's three different independent files, each with largely the same commands to collect, levels to grind, arenas to beat, and stuff to do all over, it's a little repetitive.

All in all, though, the game basically does the same for gameplay as it does for the story: take the best of all the past games, add in a few new innovations of its own, and just crank it all up to eleven.

GRAPHICS: 10/10.
It just doesn't get better than this, folks. Quite simply, the game looks every bit as good as any of the PS2 titles. The textures are a little bit simpler and the models a bit lower in polygons, but I swear, you'd virtually never know it. Facial animations are even better than they were in Kingdom Hearts II, exactly on par with Re: Chain of Memories, and the cutscenes themselves are simply beyond belief. Here, the series reaches a whole new zenith in cinematography. The camera angles are dynamic, the shots are creative, and the whole thing is just absolutely, positively, fantastically presented. It doesn't shy away from dramatic close-ups, either, despite the lower-poly models, and even then, they still look as beautiful as all get-out.

MUSIC: 8/10.
Honestly, the only reason this isn't a perfect 10 is the Disney-world themes. For the most part, they're fairly forgettable, with only a few real standouts. Everywhere else, the work here truly shines. Yoko Shimomura's never been a slouch in the composing department, but like most everything else, she just outdoes herself completely here. The battle themes are quite simply the most totally epic I've ever actually a heard in a game. The character themes are deeply stirring, and the soundtrack by and large is simply orgasmic. Everything from the composition to the mixing just rings so triumphantly, and there's not much more to say than that. It's definitely Yoko's magnum opus.

LENGTH AND REPLAY ABILITY: 8/10.
To be honest, this was the most surprising part of the game for me. Despite being a handheld title, Birth by Sleep is the longest single game in the series by far. Each of the individual stories are typically about 10-15 hours, and all together, you're looking at probably 40-50 hours total, just for the bare bones of the story mode. 100% completion -- meaning mastering all the mini-games, collecting all the bonus trophies, delving so deeply into all three arenas, and gathering all the different commands -- will easily run you upwards of at least 75 hours total. And that's pretty darn impressive.

That said, though, there's really no reason to replay the game once you've beaten it. All the cutscenes are collected in an in-game theater, and all the bosses can be re-fought in the arena. I suppose your mileage may vary, but that kind of thoroughness is actually a big bonus in my book.

IN THE END:
So. I guess it all comes back down to this.

Birth by Sleep: Ridiculous, or Renaissance?

Answer?

Both!

It's absurd! It's weird, it's kooky, it's zany, and it's just so darn good! It revives all the classic themes of the series, gives this amazing rebirth to the fairy-tale atmosphere that made the series everything it is. Sure, one or two little plot points are kind of weird, but they way they're presented, even they work perfectly. Just like a real Disney movie, as a matter of fact. Just look at Cinderella. What was up with that whole “glass slipper” thing? The Prince saw Cinderella! He was face-to-face with her the entire night! So why try to find her by her shoe size alone? See, it only makes sense when you actually go back and look at the history of the fairy tale. But does that hurt the movie? Not one bit! Because even if it's weird, goddamn it, it worked. And it singlehandedly made the glass slipper and Cinderella's castle two of the most touching, most universal, most absolutely fantastic symbols of magic, wonder, and love in the world.

And that's Kingdom Hearts -- that same spirit, crossing ages to touch the hearts of millions. It's crazy, but it's powerful.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 02/23/10

Game Release: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (JP, 01/09/10)


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