Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep is an action-role-playing game exclusively for the PSP. The game follows the story of the keyblades and those who wield them, the Keyblade Masters. Keyblade Masters are tasked with balancing the light and darkness in their worlds. Birth by Sleep takes place ten years before the events of the original Kingdom Hearts.
Whether you're a fan of the Kingdom Hearts series or not, you probably don't know much about those who wield keyblades. Keyblades, the main weapons in the series, are swords shaped like keys that unlock new power-ups and have unique looks and skills.
How does one become a keyblade master, you might ask. Birth by Sleep starts off with three youths, Terra, Aqua and Ventus, Ven for short, preparing to become masters themselves. They are training under Master Eraqus when the state of the worlds go awry.
This game doesn't just allow you to play through as one of the three main characters, but you actually have to beat all three characters’ unique stories in order to get the game's full story. Each character has unique strengths and weaknesses. Terra is big, strong and his moves are primarily strength based. Ven is small, young and fast. His combat style relies heavily on his speed. Aqua is calm and wise. She's the mage of the group and has magic based attacks.
Along with their own strengths comes their own save files. Each story can be completed in any order you want and whenever you want. The game does however strongly hint that it wants you to play as Terra, Ven and then Aqua and as I am never one to fight The Man, I did just that.
D-Link is an important feature in the game. In the first few minutes it is established how important the characters are to each other, and not just in a “friends forever” kind of way. Dimension Linking, or D-Linking allows the character you are playing as to link with another character and use their powers for an allotted amount of time along with restoring your HP.
Once you chose your character you must travel from different worlds, each based on established Disney properties, most likely dealing with a Princess, or "Princess of Light" as they are known in the series. Each world has been over-run with dark creatures called the Unversed.
I got some hands-on time with the game over the weekend and was immediately impressed by how crisp the graphics are, which isn't a surprise considering it's made by Square Enix. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the the game's look think Final Fantasy at Disneyland. The game mixes realistic graphics and an all-star cast of voice actors with polygonal, squeaky voiced Mickey Mouse.
But don't let the Mouse and other Disney characters make you think that this game is childish. This game relies heavily on real-time combat. So much so that they they've allowed you to customize your move deck. You can play through the game hacking and slashing but you won't be taking full advantage of its potential until you begin to customize your moves. You can earn or buy these special moves.
I know it's not uncommon to complain that the PSP needs another thumbstick, but Birth By Sleep's combat worked for me. The up and down on the D-pad lets you cycle through custom attacks while the left and right on the D-pad lets you choose who you want to D-link with. In the heat of a boss battle it might be easy to switch the two up, but overall it flows really well. While another joystick to control the camera would have been nice, using L and R lets you lock onto an enemy so a separate camera isn't necessary. Using the targeting system also makes sure that respawning Verseless don't become repetitive.
Levels are a bit short for what a Kingdom Hearts fan might expect, but this isn't a console game. Levels do have hordes of Verseless that keep respawning. Of course there is a boss battle and a nifty new keyblade at the end of each world. There are familiar levels if you've played the prior games, but there are new elements as well. I won't spoil it, but the first level after you leave your home world was that of my favorite Disney princess, that gave it plus points for me. If you're not into princesses like I am, there are plenty of other Disney and original characters to keep you entertained.
You’ll be glad to know that Birth by Sleep also has four multiplayer modes, that I tragically didn’t get to play. Luckily the four modes are appropriately titled so you pretty much know what you’re getting: Versus Mode, Arena Mode, Command Board and Rumble Racing.
This game is shaping up to be everything Kingdom Hearts fans want, short of Kingdom Hearts III, but could also win over new fans with its customization, story and familiar characters. Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep will be out exclusively for the PSP on September 7th in North America.*
*It’s already out in Japan so if you Nihongo wa hanashimasu and live in Japan you can get this game now.