So, we all know by now that Kingdom Hearts is an experiment that should never have worked. We mean, come on. Mickey Mouse fighting alongside Squall Leonheart? Donald Duck and Goofy participating in an Action RPG as party members? Suspiciously homosexual overtones between members of an almost entirely male organisation in a game with Disney branding? But, work it did. And sell it did. And here we are, with a series of games by Square-Enix that is immensely successful, and a fanbase that is equally interested in the formative years of King Mickey, as it is interested in cosplaying as weird characters with enough gel in their hair to almost ensure premature baldness. You could say the series is on something of a hiatus right now, as the team toils endlessly away on Final Fantasy spin-off Final Fantasy Versus XIII, but two portable games have been released to keep the fans satisfied. Birth By Sleep is the second game to be released, a prequel on PSP. Is it extraneous filler, or a genuine addition to the franchise?
As an extremely story-driven game, it's perhaps best to start with the story. Well, what we can make out of it anyway. The story of Kingdom Hearts has always been a little vague and convoluted, given the hefty task of reconciling several completely different universes. As a prequel, Birth By Sleep had the perfect opportunity to explain and simplify some of the more complex plot points which have arisen in the series. It doesn't. If anything, it's made things even more convoluted.
The game takes place many years before the original Kingdom Hearts and shifts the focus of the series onto three protagonists, Terra, Ventus and Aqua. All three are training to become Keyblade Masters under the wise Master Eraquus. However, as soon as the obviously-villanous Master Xehanort arrives to observe their exam, the mysterious monsters known as the Unversed begin to manifest on several worlds. All three characters leave to combat this threat, and to uncover Xehanort's plans. It's all very Star Wars, and a lot of geeky information that would have been helpful to know, such as what exactly a Keyblade Master is, how many there are, or even what the Keyblade War that everyone talks about entailed, is left out so that even more tenuous 'links' between characters can be provided, as they are born, re-incarnated, split apart, re-join, and have their hearts toyed with more than an episode of The Hills. Furthermore, the characters are mostly bland. Terra is so naive it's painful, Aqua won't stop giving idealistic speeches, and Ventus is just a Roxas clone, but without his personality. Nevertheless, fans will get a kick out of seeing several familiar faces, including a host of characters fated to end up in the antagonistic Organisation XIII. For gamers looking to get into this series with Birth By Sleep, prepare to be very confused.
However, Birth By Sleep benefits immensely by the way it has been treated by its developers. Rather than simplifying the gameplay for a portable console, the game has a full-fledged battle system that actually improves upon the systems seen in past games. Birth By Sleep allows you to collect spells, attacks, commands which you find in the world (and multiples of them) and use them to form your own command 'deck'. This deck is built in the menu, and accessible in battles from the on-screen menu. You always have a default attack command, but you can customise your display to have any other commands you own. These commands also 'level up' as you battle, and once they are at their maximum level, you can 'meld' two commands at a time (along with an extra ingredient for passive benefits), for instance combining 'Fire' and 'Fire' to create 'Fira'.
On top of this, a mini-game called the 'Command Board', can also be accessed to gain new commands and level up your current ones. In a derivation of Monopoly, three players play on a board game (two are AI controlled) and complete circuits to collect points and buy tiles. If you land on another player's tile, you have to pay a toll. There are several themed boards, each with their own unique paths and power-ups which keep things interesting, and while we were dreading having to play a board game to level up (not that you have to, as it's entirely optional), we found ourselves enjoying it quite a bit by the end. But, there's even more to combat - your character has 'limit breaks' of a sort that depend on combos you string and what commands you use, and allow you to unleash elemental or physical based special attacks over a short time frame. Finally, you forge 'D-Links' throughout the game that, despite their name, do not help you route your internet, but allow you to emulate the command decks of other characters (as well as receive a health boost).
Combat is fast and fluid - in fact - much more fluid than past games in the series. The analogue nub and face buttons are much better than the DS controls utilised for 358/2 days and you'll rarely find yourself frustrated with the gameplay. That said, on those occasions when you do, it'll be due to the wonky camera and somewhat fidgety lock-on controls. It's fine locking onto something, but completely unlocking or switching targets can sometimes be a hassle, and cost you valuable time in some of the more heated battles.
You're given the choice of playing through the game as either Terra, Ventus or Aqua, who each have their own strengths and weaknesses - for instance, Terra is powerful but slow, while Ventus is young and speedy, etc. You'll need to complete the game with all three characters to unlock the final story (and the secret ending, if you're playing on a higher difficulty). This does mean that there is a fair bit of re-treading across worlds, but thankfully Square Enix have added enough variety to each story so that it feels as though you are exploring different areas, completing different tasks and experiencing different portions of each world's story as you play through with each character. Expect to see new worlds drawn from Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, as well as returning worlds from films like Hercules and Peter Pan.
Another component of the game is mulitplayer, which has been introduced, called the Mirage Arena. It allows players to play in standard one-on-one matches, or more interestingly, fight against waves of Unversed, as well as play on the Command Board. It's not a vital component of the Birth By Sleep experience, and performance issues do arise when playing it, but it's there and quite fun.
Graphically, Birth By Sleep rivals its PlayStation 2 predecessors, and is quite a showcase for the PSP. Animations are smooth, and highly detailed character models are well-animated in certain cut-scenes. The music for the game is outstanding, and has some memorable tracks and capable voice actors, with special mention going to Mark Hamill as Eraquus and Leonard Nimoy as Xehanort, in his last performance before his retirement.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep may seem to be the logical choice for newcomers to the series, as it is chronologically the first game in the series' timeline. It may even set their expectations for the rest of the franchise too high. The gameplay and depth of Birth By Sleep are leaps and bounds ahead what could have been expected of a PSP incarnation of the series, and it shines as a true instalment of the series, rather than a half-baked interquel or spin-off. It may even be the best playing Kingdom Hearts game so far. Confusing storyline and bland characterisation aside, this is a very fun and fluid action role playing game to play on your PSP, and if that sounds like it's your bag, then by all means check it out.