Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Review
This prequel is another fun and pleasant mash-up of Final Fantasy sensibilities and Disney tales.
- Combat is fun and flashy, and it evolves as you play
- Boss fights put a fun spin on Disney characters and sets
- Great visuals capture the spirit of the source material
- Multiplayer arenas are entertaining
- Good-sized campaign.
- Camera can be a nuisance
- A lot of repetition, from environments to music
- Terra's voice acting is abysmal
- Long load times and frame rate drops.
Kingdom Hearts fans have spent quality time with Sora and Roxas; now they can add three new characters to the list: Ventus, Terra, and Aqua. These close friends are the protagonists in the newest entry in the series, Birth by Sleep, and you play as all three of them on your way to unraveling mysteries that shed new light on the events of the original Kingdom Hearts. Yet while the playable characters may be different, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep treads familiar ground. You piece together an overarching story with themes of friendship, light versus dark, and true identity all while exploring colorful Disney-themed worlds and interacting with classic Disney characters. This intriguing Square/Disney mixture has served the series well, as have great boss fights and flashy keyblade action. This prequel inherits those assets but also some of the awkwardness that has plagued previous games. The platforming is a bit clumsy, and the camera and lock-on system can both lead to awkward moments. The game's structure also leads to some repetition. You explore many of the same areas, fight many of the same enemies, and view some of the same cutscenes three times over, which might make you wish Birth by Sleep featured the never-ending parade of cameos and Disney worlds of the console games. But mechanical flaws and occasional tedium aside, both series fans and newcomers will feel at home with this good, fun third-person adventure.
An opening cutscene introduces you to Birth by Sleep's three main adventurers, and you must decide which you wish to play as first. Eventually, you repeat this step twice more and explore the developing tale from three angles so that you can reveal every truth the game harbors. The overarching story has all the hallmarks of a brooding Square/Enix story--internal struggles, strained friendships, battles between good-hearted heroes and menacing villains. In the midst of all this drama are charming Disney vignettes that see you experiencing familiar tales from a unique perspective. You fight alongside Prince Charming, protect Snow White from attacking fiends, and see the dark side of the infamous mirror, mirror on the wall, among many other scenarios. As these three characters, you witness some of the same scenes, venture down many of the same corridors (which feature the same enemy attack patterns each time), and even repeat a boss fight or two using the same tactics. The repetition is part and parcel of Birth by Sleep's structure, but you will eventually long for more environmental and storytelling variety.
Nonetheless, there are still plenty of character-specific tasks on each of the three play-throughs. You fight (mostly) different bosses and cross paths with Disney characters at different points during their own tales, occasionally meeting up with one or both of the other leading players before once again departing on your own personal journey. Time spent with Ventus and Aqua is largely rewarding. The young and energetic Ventus is well meaning enough to be appealing but not so earnest as to be annoying. Aqua is thoughtful and focused, and she provides a mature counterpoint to Ven's gung-ho attitude. Both characters are voiced well; unfortunately, the same can't be said of the brooding Terra. The character struggles with the darkness within him, yet the actor voicing him can't express angst, excitement, sincerity, or any other emotion for which the script calls. Every line sinks like a stone, and the story suffers as a result. Terra's terrible voicing is most noticeable when he shares scenes with Disney characters, mostly because their voices are uniformly excellent and absolutely comparable to the original source.
Fortunately, great care was taken with each familiar environment. A few of them are on the bland side, but most capture the spirit of the film that inspired them. You meet Snow White in a field drenched in sunlight; Cinderella's pumpkin carriage is as magical as you remember. Every character looks perfectly parallel to the animated forms that graced the silver screen, so you immediately understand and empathize with them. Birth by Sleep is a great-looking game, though the bright and attractive visuals come with some caveats. Most notably, the long load times are a real drag, even if you select the full install option from the main menu. The frame rate also takes the occasional dip, usually after one of the lengthy loading screens, though one dungeon battle suffers from major, uncomfortable slowdown throughout. The audio is occasionally annoying (the siren that signals low health is one such nuisance), but Kingdom Hearts and Disney fans alike will enjoy hearing some familiar tunes as they hop from one world to the next. It's unfortunate that some of the musical loops are so short and repeat so often; you may never want to hear "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" for the remainder of your days.
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