Disney and Square Enix make for the weirdest pairing since Danny Glover fought a Predator in a sensible pair of herringbone slacks. Kingdom Hearts series newcomers might be left in the dust by the hefty mythos, but inspired storytelling and deep, deft combat make Birth by Sleep a niche JRPG game with mass appeal.
- Three linked character campaigns tell a unique story.
- New single-player combat system is deep and smooth.
- Disney environments are lovingly created and authentic feeling.
- New Command Board leveling system is complicated and boring.
- Free up some memory: load times are unbearable without the optional game install.
- The still-awful Kingdom Hearts camera makes vertical platforming sections painful.
Once Upon a Time...
Legend has it, respective bigwigs from Disney and Square Enix came up with the idea for Kingdom Hearts during a chance encounter in an elevator. How a story so endearingly complex could result from an impromptu chat in a devil closet is a testament to the series’ genius. Prequel Birth by Sleep adds to the story by examining the origin of the conflict between light and darkness surrounding the wielders of the Keyblade. If you’re just here for the meaty handheld combat, you’ll find the improved gameplay has some great tools for making monster chop suey.
If you recognize the importance of storytelling alongside whimsical violence, you’ll appreciate the three-tiered campaign mode. Ventus, Aqua, and Terra, three characters briefly shown at the end of Kingdom Hearts II, are in training to become masters of the mysterious Keyblade weapon. Aqua and Terra take the final exam while Ventus, who is too young to be a master just yet, looks on. While Aqua passes with ease, Terra is passed over due to the traces of darkness in his heart. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because these three characters are near duplicates of the main characters (Sora, Riku, and Kairi) previously featured in the series: Ventus is a gelled-up mooncalf desperate for friendship, Terra is a tall hunk of stormy man-child vulnerable to evil’s allure, and Aqua is...a girl. This is either a ham-fisted grab for nostalgic KH fans or some sort of commentary on the Circle of Life from The Lion King.
The unique narrative delivery is especially welcome. Each of the three main characters has his or her own individual fifteen-hour campaign. To grasp BBS’s complete story, you’ll need to play through all three, viewing events and characters through three different lenses. Answering questions about one character’s story (just who-or what-is the masked Vanitas?) during another’s is deeply satisfying. In order to truly understand what’s going on, though, you’ll want to read up on the series beforehand.
The fantasy atmosphere is top-notch. Each Disney property-based level and character is bold and authentic, from the helplessly flailing Snow White’s dewy doe eyes to the litter-eating grin on the evil stepmother’s cat as he pounces from on high. The voice acting is great, and at times amazing: the gravelly Leonard Nimoy (voice of the villainous Master Xehanort) should be the new Nolan North. The soundtrack is excellent, enhancing the mood with classic Disney themes and substantive originals. Humming along to "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" while helping Jaq the mouse find materials for Cinderella’s ball gown brings the Disney magic to life. And yes, it is okay to admit you are totally into it.
I only wish Square Enix would have taken advantage of Disney’s recent Pixar acquisition. Memo to Kingdom Hearts III: Toy Story level, please.
All Hands on Deck
So far, you’ve partied up with Donald Duck and Goofy for your Kingdom Hearts toon murders. Not anymore: in Birth by Sleep, you’re flying solo. Your friends will still be with you in spirit thanks to the new D-Link System, which allows you to borrow friendly characters’ unique abilities with the touch of a button. You can access the combat skills of your two best pals as well as those of the friendly Disney characters you meet along the way, like Stitch and Snow White. There’s even a cameo by a surprise Final Fantasy character.
Combat is so deep you can play through the whole game without running out of slick new options for violence. The sheer amount of individual attacks you can accumulate and upgrade via the new a la carte Command Deck system is staggering. You can also meld together found ingredients to create new attacks, hit your opponents with a projectile barrage via Shotlock targeted attacks, and activate special Command Styles midstream. Depending on which combination of commands you use to fill the Command Gauge, you’ll erupt into a Command Style like FireStorm, a powered-up mode that builds on fiery, surging attacks. You can either step up to this hot algebra pie, or put it on auto-pilot and regress into button mashing. It’s smooth enough to accommodate both. If I’ve failed to mention it already, this is all happening on a handheld.
Mo Munny Mo Problems
If you don’t have the memory for the full 624 MB game install or only rarely participate in Uncle Scrooge cosplay, leave this one on the shelf. Birth by Sleep’s disc load times are some of the longest and cruelest in recent memory. Without the optional install, expect long, inopportune loads in the middle of cut scenes and intense combat. And if you think you’ll walk away unscathed, PSP Go-ners, I’ve got bad news: as of now, there’s no way for you to play this UMD-only game.
Though you may miss out on amazing combat by skipping this title, you won’t suffer for not having experienced the new Command Board: it’s a throwaway addition to the formula. Like a cross between Monopoly and Mario Party (sans the minigames and fun), the Command Board offers pause menu board gaming that’s a lethal combination of complicated and boring. You can play to level your character’s combat skills, but you’ll want to grind the old-fashioned way instead.
The series still hasn’t quite managed to ditch its bad camera, either. Though looking to the left and right isn’t a problem, vertical platforming sections are nightmarish leaps of faith. You’ll find yourself activating your Shotlock targeting system just to get a read on your environment.
While BBS’s story and its novel delivery makes a complicated series mythos even more so, the serious advances in combat (especially by handheld standards) will appeal to those without encyclopedic Kingdom Hearts knowledge.