Review by starrk
"Best in series"
To commemorate the debut of Snow White's world in the Kingdom Hearts universe, I thought I would start this review with a little riddle:
Mirror, mirror on the wall,
Which Kingdom Hearts game is the best of them all?
If the mirror was into importing Japan-only games, it might tell you KH2:Final Mix, and that's hard to argue with. But for those of us who are stuck with international releases, there can only be one right answer to this question: Birth by Sleep. So yeah, I'm giving the game a rating of 10/10. Not because it's flawless (it's not), but because it does so much, and because the good parts are really, really good.
Trouble is brewing. The worlds - from Snow White's Dwarf Woodlands to Stitch's Deep Space - are being overrun by a strange kind of monster called the Unversed. Who has unleashed these creatures, how can they be stopped, and what does all this have to do with Master Xehanort's disappearance? In Birth by Sleep, you take control of three young Keyblade apprentices (for the uninitiated, think Jedis) who have gone their separate ways trying to answer these questions.
Gameplay: 9.5 / 10.
A Kingdom Hearts game, at its core, is about running around and beating the crap out of amorphous blob enemies in stylish ways. For the game to work, the single most important thing is that this combat has to be fun. And in Birth by Sleep, it is *FUN* with a capital f-u-n. The basic hack-and-slash is a pretty good formula to start with, but in a long game, you need to constantly be mixing things up to keep the combat fresh and enjoyable.
Kingdom Hearts 2 tried to use drive forms to help with this, Chain of Memories tried to use sleights. Both were cool, and both were problematic. In KH2, it took forever to charge up your drive gauge, it was a pain in the butt to level your drive forms to usefulness, and some of the forms were just bad no matter how you sliced things. In Chain of Memories, the sleight system was first of all too complicated and too user-unfriendly. Want to use Mega-Flare? Pause the game, look up what cards go into the sleight, set it up, and then go and do it. Pretty cumbersome. Worse still, sleights were so powerful that (a) you pretty much had to do them, and (b) they overwhelmed all other aspects of the gameplay. A boss is attacking you? You *could* try to dodge him, or you could just overrule his attack with another sleight.
I bring these past attempts up because Birth by Sleep in some sense does both drive forms and sleights, but it does them RIGHT. To replace drive forms, we have something called command styles. If you are constantly attacking, you will quickly fill up a bar that depending on what you do, will either make your next attack a cool finisher move, or will instantly switch you to a new command style. You can do this up to three times in a row to reach a super-powerful command style and then unleash its devastating finisher move. During this time, the new command styles will upgrade all your basic attacks in all sorts of ways without ever being a nuisance. What this means is you will be constantly switching styles, which keeps everything more varied and more interesting than ever before.
So what about sleights? For all their problems, they did offer one benefit to Chain of Memories, which was the option of using many, many abilities, some of which were really cool. Birth by Sleep accomplishes the same thing by just having many, many usable abilities from the start (over 100). Everything is based off cooldown instead of magic points too, so you won't need or want to hold back on offensive magic just to keep casting Cure. To accommodate all these abilities, there are no shortcut keys like in other Kingdom Hearts games. Instead you fill up a deck and you can use abilities from that deck anytime you want. So only a handful of the abilities will be available at any given time, but that's okay. You will always be changing your deck around (because of the leveling system - see below), and that means you will be seeing lots of different abilities throughout the game. Most importantly, everything is fluid and natural, quite unlike the cumbersome mechanics of Chain of Memories.
The upshot of this is that the basic gameplay is much more exciting than ever before. When uber-abilities like Mega Flare and Time Splicer, as well as crazy command styles like Wing Blade and Ghost Drive, get seamlessly mixed into even the most basic fights, it makes those fights a lot more interesting. And I haven't even gotten into D-Links (think summons) and Shoot Locks (think limits). There is an embarrassment of riches here.
The boss fights are also very fun in a pretty different sort of way. Against these guys, the traditional Dodge/Guard + counter-attack is usually the strongest option. So all the new abilities and command styles do not prevent Square-Enix from making complex and fun boss fights where you need to actually learn what the boss is doing and react in order to survive. Overall, the bosses look cool, they have a wide range of attacks to keep you on your toes, and many of them are very aggressive, which keeps everything nice and fast-paced. All the "final" bosses in particular are epic at a level not really seen before in Kingdom Hearts games. They are a treat to play against.
So right now, it probably sounds like I'm ready to give Birth by Sleep a 10+/10 gameplay just on the basis of combat. Of course, there IS other stuff to do. The game has some decent exploration (far more than in Kingdom Hearts 2 but a little less than in Kingdom Hearts 1) - enough to keep you entertained between the slaughter of Unversed - and there are also a lot of mini-games, some of which are great, and some of which are merely okay. But these mini-games are just interludes in the real gameplay and they are all optional, so it is hard to complain too much.
So why does the gameplay actually only get a 9.5? Well, the main problem is there is repetition. You will be exploring the same worlds three times, once with each character. You will be doing the same mini-games three times, once with each character. And so on. Now Square-Enix *does* have some tricks to keep things fresh. For example, Terra and Ven actually do not share even a single area in common when they go to the Castle of Dreams world. But by the third time around, some things started feeling like a chore for me. This was especially true for the mini-games. As I said, some of the games are very fun (my favorite was the not-at-all easy Rhythmic Icecream) but the annoying ones only get more annoying each time through. For example, Rumble Racing feels like a pretty mediocre imitation of Mario Kart, and you literally need to spend an hour on one single track (spread across the three characters) to get 100% completion.
But really, that's me quibbling. The sheer awesome of the gameplay easily makes up for a little repetition, especially when the amount of new content is actually quite huge (see Value section).
Leveling system: 10/10
I wanted to also make a point of highlighting the new leveling system in this game. Yeah, you still gain XP by killing monsters. But you will also be leveling up all your abilities just by having them in your deck. And once you have leveled up abilities, you can use something called Command Charge to transform two weaker abilities into something new and stronger. This does a lot to give you control over how you play your character, and it also encourages you to do the fun thing and try all the crazy abilities that the game has to offer. Want to use magic? Keep magic in your deck, and then combine these magic spells together for newer and more awesome magic spells. It's all very easy to use, you can't do anything you'll really regret, and in the meantime, you will have lots of fun being able to customize yourself. You might need to consult a guide at the end if you are going for 100% completion, but even that doesn't feel like a chore.
I can't really do justice to how good this system is. Let's just say the leveling system is what makes Birth by Sleep's huge range of abilities a strong point for the game rather than just a giant mess.
Birth by Sleep like other Kingdom Hearts games is an action *RPG*, and that means the story plays a pretty important role. So... how good is this story? I think the best answer I can give to that question is that it is a true Kingdom Hearts story for better and for worse. Specifically:
- A lot of the story involves dumb but big-hearted heroes meeting and being inspired by the basic goodness of Disney characters. The Disney characters themselves are often charming and funny, and they do a lot to keep Square-Enix from drowning itself in its own seriousness. There IS a pretty big downside to this formula however. You know how the best "kids" movies can somehow effortlessly avoid cheesiness? Yeah, well, let's just say Square-Enix has a lot to learn on that front. Too bad, but then again, other video games aren't at the level of high cinema either.
- The three different perspectives work quite well for story purposes. Terra, who has some dark-side problems, is the most interesting. He is more naturally drawn to the Disney villains than to the heroes, which is a neat twist. Also, the whole story for each world is split across the visits from all three characters. It's fun cobbling the pieces together, hearing about what the other characters are doing, and then coming back with those other characters to see first-hand exactly what did happen.
- Although you might forget about it during some of your visits to the Disney worlds, there is a central conflict that guides the plot for all three characters. This part of the story is both epic and personal, and it's well done. The villains here are great, and you will be seeing them a fair bunch. You will also get answers to more than a few big questions about the overall story arc of the Kingdom Hearts series.
- Speaking of which, there is a fair amount of fan service where you will see younger versions of major Kingdom Hearts characters. If you are new to the series, you may miss the point of some of these scenes, but they are pretty fun for veterans.
So what should you make of this? As with all Kingdom Hearts games, the story here is a love-it-or-hate-it affair. If you have a problem with Disney-inspired cheesiness or heroes with no brain to speak of, you might get annoyed. But if you like Disney-inspired feel-goodness or well-meaning heroes putting everything on the line and then some, you will probably love it. Comparatively speaking, the story here lacks the freshness of Kingdom Hearts 1, but its execution is tighter and better than the other stories in the series so far.
Presentation (graphics/music/etc.): 10+/10
This is the best looking portable game I have ever seen, bar none. The polygon count is probably lower than in Kingdom Hearts 2, but you would never know from playing. Everything - from the backgrounds to the animations to the models - look fantastic. You shouldn't need me to tell you this though. Go watch a trailer on youtube and judge for yourself.
The music is also very good, although you should absolutely plan on playing with headphones if you want to appreciate it. Several of the boss themes stand out as real highlights; my personal favorites are Fragments of Sorrow, Vanitas Final Theme, and the Wheel Master theme. The ambient music in the individual worlds can be more forgettable, but it's always enjoyable and sometimes more than that.
Most importantly, this is the first portable game in the Kingdom Hearts series to not recycle huge amounts of old content. Most of the worlds this time around are completely new, and the old ones have been pretty much redesigned from scratch. The enemies - from the bosses to their Unversed minions - also feel fresh and interesting.
All in all, you can tell that this game was a labor of love. Huge amounts of efforts were put into polishing pretty much everything.
How hard you find this game will depend almost entirely on how much you level up. At high enough levels, you should be able to cruise through everything by mashing the attack button. At low levels, bosses can one-shot you and your attacks will plink off them for virtually no damage. Somewhere in the middle, there is a sweet spot which hopefully you can find and enjoy. If you do want the game to be a challenge, you will probably have to bear this in mind and avoid killing every monster you see. Pretty much it's up to you to keep your level at a place where you enjoy the difficulty level.
There has been some talk of adding a new Critical Mode difficulty level for the international release, so maybe that will change things. Cross your fingers, because Critical Mode was a big part of what made KH2:FM much, much better than the international version of KH2!
There is a LOT to do in this game. In addition to the main story with all three characters, there are two optional bosses and an entire optional world called the Mirage Arena. This place is like the Olympus Coliseum in previous games, only better. There are around 10 tournaments to enter, including 2-5 new bosses (depending on how you count them), and a bunch of rewards that cannot be gotten anywhere else. There is even a multiplayer option, although I think you need some special equipment (maybe even a PS3?) to use it.
A basic clear will probably take most people close to 40 hours. If you decide to complete the journal, you will probably take 50-60 hours or maybe even more. Length-wise, I think the game compares favorably to pretty much every other Kingdom Hearts game out there.
Bottom line: 10/10
If you are a fan of Kingdom Hearts, buy this game. If you don't have a PSP, consider buying a PSP and then buying this game.
Even if you are new to the series, I would still recommend this game. Action RPGs don't come much better than this. You might not appreciate some of the inside jokes in the cutscenes, but you should be able to follow the basic plot no problem, and oh yeah, the game is FUN!
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 03/10/10
Game Release: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (JP, 01/09/10)
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