Review by Crono09

"A prequel that lives up to the rest of the series"

My next venture into the Kingdom Hearts universe was Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep for the PSP. As a prequel to the original game, this introduces us to some new characters whose conflicts provide the background to the war that plagues the rest of the series. This game answers many questions about the complex story while simultaneously making it that much more complicated. However, by going back to some tried and true gameplay features, it brings back much of the magic that made the series so much fun.

Birth by Sleep features three main characters: Terra, Ventus, and Aqua. All three are in living in the Land of Departure and training to become Keyblade Masters. Ventus, the youngest of the three, races outside to see a meteor shower on the night before Terra and Aqua take their Mark of Mastery exam. The three of them get together to affirm their friendship. From here, you can choose which character's story you wish to follow. All three must be completed to finish the game.

Some unexpected things happen at the exam, resulting in disappointment for one of the trainee Keyblade Masters. This is when the friends go their separate ways. Some strange creatures called the Unversed have turned up in the various worlds and now threaten their safety. Master Xehanort, one of the few experienced Keyblade Masters, has also gone missing. Terra is sent to find Master Xehanort and prove himself. Ventus is persuaded by a masked boy named Vanitas to explore other worlds, so he leaves to follow Terra. Aqua is ordered to handle the Unversed problem, but upon seeing Ventus depart, she is also told to bring him back while additionally keeping an eye on Terra. Along the way, the three of them explore various worlds, often just barely missing each other and occasionally reconnecting with one another. However, while they each have separate paths, they all lead to the same denouement.

As with the other Kingdom Hearts games, the characters will venture to several worlds based on animated Disney movies and television shows. In keeping with the prequel theme, most of the worlds are either from the earlier days of the Disney library or from prequel material to later movies. The works represented here are Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Fantasia, Hercules, Lilo & Stitch, and Peter Pan. There are also a number of classic Disney characters who play featured roles, along with a world dedicated to them. The Final Fantasy characters are lacking, but in an ingenious move, we do see an appearance of Zack from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, one of the few Final Fantasy prequels. The game also includes earlier versions of worlds and characters that will go on to play prominent roles later on in the series.

Progression through the game is mostly linear, although there are a couple of points where you get to choose the order that you take on two or three worlds. All three characters will ultimately move through the same worlds, although they do so at different times. It is interesting to see how the situations set up in one character's story get resolved by another character as you play through their story. My only complaint here is that it felt repetitive to see the same worlds with each character in mostly the same order. I would have like to have seen the order of events shaken up a little better. There are also some references to later Kingdom Hearts games. Some of them are merely character cameos, while others reveal surprising background details about the worlds. In particular, we find out what the relationship is between Ventus, Sora, and Roxas and why Destiny Islands is important to the rest of the series.

The basic gameplay remains unchanged from the main Kingdom Hearts games. You hack and slash your way through worlds using your Keyblade, although each character has slightly different fighting styles. Terra is slow but powerful, Ventus is weak but lightning fast, and Aqua makes the best use of magic. Repeated attacking charges up a gauge that releases an ultra-powerful Finish Command when filled. Magic spells are replaced with Deck Commands, which are stylized physical or magical attacks. You can only have a certain number of Deck Commands at once, although you get more as you progress through the game. Using a Deck Command moves the deck to the next command, and each command takes time to recharge after use.

Other new features are Command Styles, Dimension Links, and Shotlocks. Command Styles are similar to Forms in Kingdom Hearts II and allow for more powerful basic attacks and Finish Commands. They occur when appropriate elemental attacks are used and wear off after the Finish Command is executed. Dimension Links (or D-Links) let you use commands from another character that you have encountered and can only be used when an appropriate gauge is filled by drop prizes from enemies. Shotlocks are powerful attacks that hit groups of enemies, although they take time to charge. They can only be used when the Focus Gauge is filled by attacking enemies.

With all these different types of attacks and gauges, it sounds like the controls would be overwhelming. I thought so at first, but the game does a good job of keeping the gauges visible while not covering too much of the screen and making the controls easy to manage. I occasionally forgot all the options I had available to me, especially D-Links and Shotlocks, but skilled players will learn how to make use of their entire arsenal.

The challenge of the game varies with each character. I found that Ventus was by far the easiest of the three stories to complete, partly because he is most similar to Sora and Roxas. Terra's story started rather difficult but quickly got easier, only to have the most difficult final boss of the game. Aqua's story was extremely hard at first, but it got progressively easier and had a pushover final boss. All three stories must be completed to unlock the final chapter, which consists only of the true final boss and the real ending.

The bane of this game, as with most Kingdom Hearts games, is the mini-games. Here we have a coliseum, a racing game, a rhythm game, a board game, and a few other games. The coliseum is actually fun since it consists only of challenging battles that let you gain more money and experience. Many of the other games can be completed quickly, making them mostly inconsequential. The racing and board games were my biggest upsets, partly because they have to be completed twice to get all the prizes (once in the main game and again in the coliseum) and partly because they both demand massive amounts of time to complete. The board game in particular is very slow moving and involves a random element to winning. On the normal difficulty, it is necessary to win these games to unlock the final chapter, and it is probably faster to simply restart the game at a higher difficulty. That being said, the mini-games are not as bad as they were in Kingdom Hearts II.

The overall experience of this game is much more comparable to the main Kingdom Hearts games such as the original Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II than it is the intermediary games like Chain of Memories ad 358/2 Days. Anyone who had a bad experience with the latter games will find this one much more refreshing. There is also more original content in this game than some of the others, so you don't see the duplication of past worlds like you did in Chain of Memories or coded. It is a fundamental part of the main story rather than feeling like it was wedged into the series.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep lives up to the expectations of the Kingdom Hearts series. While it doesn't break a lot of new ground, the gameplay was designed masterfully and has everything we would expect in a good action RPG. The story is told wonderfully and it weaves the experiences of the three protagonists in a unique and entertaining manner. While the lack of Final Fantasy characters was disappointing, the included Disney characters fit into the game nicely. Fans of the series will not be disappointed with the game, and even casual players will find a lot to enjoy about it.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 12/20/12

Game Release: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (US, 09/07/10)

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