The Kingdom Hearts franchise occupies a unique place in the gaming world: born out of the combined universes of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy multiverse and the multiple characters of Disney, Square Enix has forged a beloved new franchise that brings both together in a way the emphasizes the strength of each without compromise. The original games for the Playstation 2 remain favorites for games of any age, and the series has been augmented by solid releases on the GameBoy Advance and the Nintendo DS. Now we get an original release for the Sony PSP. Let’s diver right in and see how they did.
Play as Terra, Ventus, and Aqua – three friends with a common dream who find themselves in the middle of a crisis affecting worlds far beyond their own. Their destinies will unfold across memorable Disney worlds in three intertwining stories. Secrets will be unraveled and friendships will be tested. The KINGDOM HEARTS saga starts here.
I have to be honest: about an hour into this game I had developed a new subtitle – Death by Cutscene! I felt like I was getting pulled out of the game so often that I was getting increasingly bored and frustrated. In fact, I actually set the game aside and let my younger son play it for a while. His advice to me – patience, it gets better.
And he was right! What starts off slow and herky-jerky ends up as the best game since the original PS2 title! It has everything: solid story, great pacing (after the fist hour), interesting characters, great use of the Disney cast, and top-notch gameplay. I could just stop now and tell you to buy it … but how about a few more details first!
The story puts you a number of years before the original Kingdom Hearts. You meet three characters – Ventus, Terra and Aqua – who are all in training to become Keyblade Masters with Master Eraqus. Ventus is the youngest of the crew, and on the day when Terra and Aqua are taking their Masters exam strange events transpire. From there the three friends travel in different directions, forcing you to choose a single path to follow the events of Birth By Sleep.
At first I anguished about my choice as all of the characters have possibilities – but I chose Ventus as he was the youngest and most ‘open’ of the trio. What I didn’t realize yet was that actually completing the game fully requires you to play through all three storylines! And since each one takes ~15 hours, you end up with a pretty hefty gaming experience!
Technically the game is very impressive. I would put the visuals on par with the PS2 games and far above either the GBA or DS entries. At the start of the game, as I mentioned, you are bombarded by loads of cutscenes. These are all pre-rendered, but are largely done using the in-game engine. They look highly impressive, as does all of the live action gameplay. Every character is perfectly modeled – you will never suspend belief to think you are looking at Disney character or Final Fantasy heroes. They might not be on par with the PS3 Final Fantasy XIII, but they are definitely a match for the gorgeous Final Fantasy XII.
At least equal to the visuals is the audio: from the sound effects to the great voice work to the sweeping soundtrack, this is a game that is a totally satisfying audio-visual experience. As I mentioned, the visuals put you right into the juxtaposition of Disney & Final Fantasy, and combined with the voice acting and music you constantly feel immersed in those worlds. And yes, those are the awesome voices of Mark Hammill and Leonard Nimoy you hear!
Speaking of worlds, one of the coolest things is how they all come together. The game plays across several Disney worlds that will put you inside many classic stories, but as I said you have to play through all three characters to get the true ending. But rather than a boring replay with each character, Ventus, Terra and Aqua all face different tasks and challenges in each area they encounter and contribute something different to the conclusion of each world’s subplot. The minor downside of this is that since you need to complete all three games and are free to finish them in any order, there is a lack of cohesive conclusions to many subplots and main items throughout the game – right down to the main ending. It isn’t disappointing, but given how detailed everything else is in the game, it feels a bit thin.
My biggest criticism is one that I tend to levy against most games in the jRPG genre: originality. Birth By Sleep feels like it took a trip with a large wheelbarrow to the closet of jRPG cliches, tropes and old standbys! There is plenty of over-wrought dialogue, teen angst, and writing that will make you cringe. Fortunately the impact of all of this is quite minor.
I’ve talked about the technical details, the setting, the stories, the characters … but what about the controls and gameplay? Since this is a third person action game on the PSP, you will likely predict that the camera and movement controls are frequently at odds – and you would be correct! Fortunately they did a great job with the movement and auto-camera parts, but occasionally to deal with enemies around you, you need to take control and manually managing the camera can be a pain.
Again that is a minor complaint because I found the controls to be some of the best I have ever seen for a third person action combat game on the PSP (yes, including the God of War games). Compared to navigating convoluted menus on the PS2, Birth By Sleep makes everything easy and straight-forward. Combat assigns the primary attack and combos to the X button, and skills to the triangle button as is commonly done in action-RPGs. If you have ever played an action-RPG on the PSP you will find Birth By Sleep very easy to learn since it makes broad use of standard conventions of the genre throughout. After dealing with too many games (ahem … Metal Gear Solid) that have their own set of non-standard standards we’re somehow supposed to care about because that was the way they did it on the PS One in the 90′s … it is nice to feel immediately at home with the game in the same way you would with a PC shooter.
The game offers other specialized skills such as the D-link, which powers up skills through the special links you forge with others throughout the game. You can also fill a Focus gauge, which allows you to unleash a specialized mega-attack, but while aiming it you are totally vulnerable. I found it to be a perfectly balanced system. As you progress you gain experience and skills through the use of weapons and other skills. This is also a pretty standard way of doing things in the genre and is handled very well – everything levels through use. Or … you can go to the Command Board! I was unsure what to think at first, but eventually I decided it was awesome. The Command Board is very much like playing Monopoly … but using your skill Commands rather than properties! By playing this mini-game you gain tons of experience and level up much faster than otherwise possible. I liked it but know many who found it a distraction … and while it is optional, it is a nice alternative to grinding!
My final criticism is that the load-times are long, even after doing the recommended largest ‘data install’. I don’t tend to like playing on the PSP-3000 as much as the PSP Go anyway, and the long loads and noisy drive exacerbated that further! I had really hoped the install would help, but in general I didn’t see much of a difference.
But the loads didn’t keep me from playing through all three stories in Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. There are some flaws in the story and the camera can be a bit touchy, but those are minor complaints. What you get as a reward is the best gameplay of the entire series, an overall presentation on par with the best PS2 games, some fun characters, and just hour after hour of great fun romping in the combined worlds of Disney and Square Enix.
Review: Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
Where to Buy: Amazon.com
Price: $39.99 (Currently on sale for $31.49)
What I Like: Excellent combat system; Stunning graphics, music and voice acting; Long game with tons of gameplay; Engaging storylines
What Needs Improvement: Things cling to many cliches at times; Ending seems a bit thin; Load times are long, even after ‘data install’; First hour is very slow
Source: Personal copy