Review by lilithdarkstorm

"Tons of gaming options and playtime with little satisfaction in return"

It launched in 2002, has over 7 titles in the series, and many stars lining up to voice it's characters; it's no doubt that Kingdom Hearts is one of the most successful RPG series of all time. Despite its short time on the market compared to other franchises, it's sold collectively over 12 million units as of September 2008. Birth By Sleep serves as the series 3rd handheld instalment, 1st on the PSP and as a prequel to the entire story so far.

Ventus, Terra and Aqua are keyblade masters in training, set the task of vanquishing darkness where ever it maybe. After Master Xehenort goes missing for unknown reasons, and new creatures known as the ‘Unversed' suddenly start to appear, the 3 heroes go their separate journeys to set the worlds right, and discover more about themselves then they bargained for.

The immediate selling point of Birth by Sleep is the unique storytelling; from the start of the title you choose one of the 3 heroes whose path you wish to walk on. The story is unravelled via the separate pairs of eyes. Although they have similar events or bosses to encounter, their battle styles vary and what they view from each world is unique; for example Ventus helps Cinderella and her animal friends to make her dress, Terra serves as Cinderella's bodyguard to the ball, and Aqua gets to be a part of her happy ending as she is reunited with the prince. The stories are meant to entangle and link with each other but this sadly doesn't carry over well to the game play which only has you controlling one character at a time. If the game jumped from one perspective to the next in each world it would've worked much better as we would get the full story in one sitting, instead we get it in drips and drabs with each hero being at least 15 hours long in length, meaning over half a day's worth of play time before you get to see the next 3rd of the Disney worlds. You can create 3 separate save files from the start and unravel each world individually but as separate entities they lack emotional involvement, the Disney world's come off flat (a shame as we're talking about classics such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty) and we never truly learn much about our heroes apart from the fact that they're friends and can use keyblades. The final nail in the coffin is the new enemies, the ‘Unversed'; they're complete palette swops of the Heartless, they have no unique identity in terms of design and again their origins are never fully clear.

While the plot itself maybe disappointingly shallow, the gameplay makes up for that for having a very wide range of ways to bash your opponents to the ground. Combat looks very much like previous Kingdom hearts games; use the analog stick to control character, d-pad to select attack from the mini command menu in the corner, teaming up with other Disney characters, reaction commands and so on. What goes on behind the mini menu however is quite unique and thought out. In this title you have a command deck which starts with 3 slots but grows to 8 as you go along, in it you can place the commands you wish to use in battle, this includes keyblade attacks, spells or items. By killing enemies you invest experience points into each command to increase their power and learn permanently any abilities that might be attached to them. With commands at their maximum level you can meld them with other commands to create new and more powerful attacks that aren't available in the moogle shop or otherwise, you can also use crystals to attach new abilities to them and make your character stronger. If you perform in a specific way in battle you can unlock new abilities and decks, for example if you perform mostly ice abilities in battle you can enter ‘Diamond Dusk' mode which allow you to perform special ice-based attacks and overdrives.

The game has no summons but you still partner with your favourite Disney character's via the Dimension Link skill; as you meet new characters you form a ‘D-Link' with them, which means if your ‘D-Link' bar is full you've the ability to link up with the character which grants access to their command deck and their special finishing move. If you kill enough enemies in D-Link mode you can gain unique skills when linked to that player, for instance with Ventus you can learn haste and with Mickey double EXP.

The whole system is pretty much thrown at the player from the start but the ‘Game Help' menu available from the beginning will assist for new players and once you do get your head around it all you'll realise the benefits in the long run. This system gives the player a chance to be creative and format their players exactly how they want them, whether it's a heavy magic user, levelling up combo moves or specialising in a specific element, you can shape the combat how you want it. Plus you can start melding commands straight away so with the right battles and skills you can create powerful abilities early on.

As varied as the combat is the game suffers the same flaw as Kingdom Hearts 2; both games had deep combat options, varied attacks, reaction commands, transformations...and both were far too easy. A lot of battles will only require mashing the X button from you, there will be one or two boss battles where you will need to pay a little attention but there isn't enough. Experience RPG players, or at least those who've played Kingdom Hearts games before, will fly through this title. Yes I know there's a harder mode but the standard mode is meant to be the most balanced of the difficulty settings, and going from one battle to the next without thinking is not balanced. Also camera issues and hassles locking onto enemies still remain a constant in the series, but if any Kingdom Hearts title is going to fix those problems it won't be a spin off, it'll be a main title. Even so if you put up with it before there's no reason why you won't now.

An RPG wouldn't be an RPG with additional content such as mini games, hidden treasure and so on, thankfully Kingdom Hearts doesn't skim on this. Birth By Sleep side quests sees the return of the secret documents which you need to collect to achieve the hidden ending as well as synthesis (this time with Huey, Dewey and Louie). We also get a new mini quest for stickers which are scattered across the game and various mini games. From the start you have access to the Mirage Arena, a planet dedicated to mini games and playing against friends online. You can create your own persona and play various mini games against them that you unlock as you progress in the games, it also keeps high scores so you can compete with others online and also win prizes. You also have Disney World which contains racing, a ice cream musical timing challenge and a volleyball-type game involving fruits. Most of the games are just for fun (or the sheer glory of kicking everyone's butt) apart from one of the most developed mini games in the Kingdom Hearts series; the Command Board.

To summarize, the Command Board is basically an alternative version of Monopoly combined with elements of Mario Party; you play against up to 2 other Disney characters, your aim is to collect as much GP as possible by passing the 4 coloured checkpoints on the board then making your way back to the beginning with the target GP amount (ranging from 5000 to 30,000, set by the player.) You use the dice to move around, cards in your favour to win and various events on the board will either work with or against you. The main appeal of the game though is that it can level up your commands outside of battles, like Monopoly you purchase squares on the board with the GP you collect and place your commands on the spaces to level them up as you go along, you can also purchase bonus squares that often contain rare abilities you can't get within the main game. Command Board does require an equal amount of luck and skill, the computer won't go easy on you but once you get into the flow of the game you can level up all your abilities very quickly and obtain multiple new commands at the same time. You can unlock new D-Links as well as new boards to change who you go up against and what commands you can win. The best thing about the game is that you don't need to win to gain the benefits, you can perform as poorly as you like but as long as you have commands pasted on the board they will still level up. Another brilliant addition is that you can stop the game at any time and come back if you fancy getting back to the main story. This is counter-acted however with the same error that Mario Party suffers with; you have to watch every move the computer opponents make, including rolling the dice and choosing which cards to use. You can speed up their actions in the options menu but it doesn't stop the boredom of watching them wander round the board and make moves that hinder your chances of winning.

An important factor to mention is the loading times; from the main menu you get the option to install the game, do it. Out of the 3 options choose to install the most your memory can store as there's loading times between rooms in worlds, cut scenes, within battles, and they are ALL longer than the average game should have. This will be a hassle mostly for the impatient players and those who only have time to play in small windows, thank god that the PSP can keep data on where you've left it after you switched it off!

Graphics are, of course, highly detailed, colourful and stunning to witness; they're not as polished compared to the likes of Dissidia: Final Fantasy or Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny, but there's still plenty to admire and as close to the PS2 counterparts you're going to get without actually playing on it. Yoko Shimomura returns with the score and thankfully less recycled tunes from previous titles due to a selection of new worlds, there's far more new melodies to enjoy compared to previous handheld instalments. Voice acting is top notch with plenty of star actors in the mix including Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and Mark Hamil (Luke Skywalker); being the only handheld instalment so far with full voice acting throughout the cut scenes, performances are more natural and better performing.

Birth By Sleep has got tons of positive reviews, and while I can understand why, I do not feel this is the ‘best Kingdom Hearts since the first title' like most have claimed. In terms of production and game play this is the most conventional and solid out of all the handheld spin offs which tend to try different combat systems to shake things up with mixed results, but in terms of crossover goodies and plot this is sadly one of the weakest. There's not much satisfaction from the button-bashing combat and a plot that feels like a cliff notes version of what could've been an epic tale. Overall it's fun in bits while it lasts, but it won't pull on your heart strings like other Kingdom Hearts entries.

The Good:
+ Fantastic graphics
+ Good music score and voice acting
+ Deep combat and skill levelling system with tons of options
+ Three branches of story to uncover, hidden bosses and more for long life span

The Bad:
- Game is too easy, battles can be simply button bashing
- Locking on and camera still an issue
- Disney world's feel flat, story is brief and unemotional
- Long loading times will damage title for gamers with short windows of play time

In a sentence: Tons of gaming options and playtime with little satisfaction in return

Reviewer's Rating:   3.0 - Fair

Originally Posted: 10/01/10

Game Release: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (Special Edition) (EU, 09/10/10)

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