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Review: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep photo

Kingdom Hearts fans are a long-suffering bunch. After feasting on the highly polished Kingdom Hearts II, they have had to make due with half-hearted gestures intended to tide them over until something significant could be produced. First it was a PS2 remake of the card-focused interquel Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories that contained no new bits of plot, and then it was the highly disappointing DS interquel Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, the plot of which was basically made irrelevant by the second to last mission.

It's safe to say that, like the Star Wars Expanded Universe, almost every minute between the two main installments has been filled in and explained to the point of exhaustion. And with Kingdom Hearts III not even out of the conceptual phase and the Kingdom Hearts team dicking around in the development hell that is Final Fantasy Versus XIII, it's easy to see why many fans are beginning to throw their hands up, exasperated with the franchise.

And so we come to the US release of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. Tetsuya Nomura, the guiding hand of the franchise, promises that this installment, though unnumbered and burdened with another nonsensical name like the other spin-offs, is a true prequel, an "episode zero" if you will, that would exhibit all the qualities of a main series installment. No confusing card systems, no boring "kill X number of enemy Y" missions, this is posited as the real deal. Supposedly, the entire overarching story for the series gets its start right here.

Has Square Enix finally found the key to another Kingdom Hearts II? Or is this installment destined to fade into darkness? Hit the jump for our review.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
Created by: Square Enix
Published by: Square Enix
Release Date: September 7, 2010
MSRP: $39.99

Ten years before the events of the first Kingdom Hearts, three Keyblade apprentices named Terra (Jason Dohring), Ventus (Jesse McCartney), and Aqua (Willa Holland) train under the tutilage of Master Eraqus (Mark Hamill), one of the few remaining Keyblade masters. The surprising disappearance of Master Xehanort (Leonard Nimoy) and the sudden appearance of shadowy creatures known as the Unversed brought cause for alarm, and Terra and Aqua are soon dispatched to investigate the situation and find Master Xehanort. Though left behind, Ventus is goaded into following them by an enigmatic figure. The three Keyblade wielders jump from world to world, solving the local Disney characters' problems as they search for answers to their larger mission.

I compared the Kingdom Hearts universe to Star Wars above and after noting Mark Hamill's involvement in the game, I can't help but extend the analogy further. If the first game was A New Hope, then this prequel is undoubtedly Revenge of the Sith. As if keyblade wielders weren't similar enough to Jedi, their depiction in this game cements the comparison. Here we see the end of a dying order, as they try to keep peace throughout the worlds and give grave warnings to each other about the darkness (i.e. dark side). There are several scenes between the morally ungrounded hero Terra and the Sith-like Master Xehanort that directly mirror conversations between Anakain Skywalker and Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine. There is even the requisite speech about fear leading to anger, then to suffering, then to the dark side. (Those concerned with spoilers should be aware that these connections become apparent within ten minutes of starting the game.)

With that in mind, the entire arc of Terra is incredibly predictable. On one hand, longtime Kingdom Hearts fans are sure to find plenty to speculate about the character as they play through his arc, right down to his strangely familiar haircut. On the other hand, if it looks, walks, and talks like a duck, it must be a duck, and you will probably guess that Terra's fate won't turn out to be very pretty. It's still interesting to see it all come together, and younger audiences might be more forgiving, but any older gamer could probably list most of the important story beats off the top of their head. To top it off, Dohring's performance as Terra strives to be tortured and conflicted, but never quite gets there, coming across as stilted in most of his scenes. For a character with such potential, it's sad to see him fall flat all around.

Thankfully, there's more to the story than just Terra. In a first for the series, Birth by Sleep provides three interconnected stories, each with its own protagonist. The three scenarios can be played in any order you wish, and while director Tetsuya Nomura recommends going in the order of Terra, Ventus, Aqua, nothing's stopping you from mixing it up or even switching off after each world. Personally, I found it rewarding to stick with one character at a time, retroactively discovering how the other two characters' actions played a part in Terra's journey. For example, in the Cinderella world, Ventus arrives first and helps prepare Cinderella's dress. After he leaves, Terra finds her weeping about her torn dress and guides her safely to the ball, and then Aqua finishes the world's story by playing a part in the famous glass slipper scene. While you would expect each character to be running around the same environments, the game wisely limits each character to a smaller section of the world to reduce "backtracking" and provide unique challenges for each of them, including exclusive bosses.

Fans are probably most interested in Ventus's story, due to the fact that he looks almost identical to Roxas, the darker half of series protagonist Sora. Roxas's voice actor Jesse McCartney returns, giving a comforting familiarity to the character, whose arc is full of startling secrets that flesh out Sora's backstory. Aqua, hinted at in a bonus cutscene found in the Japan-only release of Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix+, is a bit less interesting, but is still a less predictable character than Terra turns out to be.

However, Aqua's play style contrasts nicely with the other characters. After several installments of fighting Heartless with Sora, Aqua's focus on magic provides a nice challenge. Ventus, being tied to Sora and Roxas, still provides the quick, flashy moves that fans are familiar with, while the slower Terra can charge into battle with brute force and powerful physical techniques. They're not drastically different, but they will make you reconsider how to tackle certain enemies in the game.

Though the combat is similar to what we've seen in the past two games, it offers plenty of new options beyond the usual Keyblade melee attacks. Magic is still on call, though now it is filed alongside Keyblade techniques (such as special abilities like Ars Arcanum from earlier games) and items under the command menu. Taking a page from Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, anywhere from four to eight commands can be equipped at a time, and if they are leveled up enough in combat, you can combine them into a new command. In addition, you can toss a crystal into the command fusion to add a new passive ability for you to permanently learn as you level up the new command. Leveling up commands and finding new, powerful commands is surprisingly addictive, even though I normally shy away from more involved RPG elements like this.

Combat doesn't end with the command menu though. By using certain types of commands, you will shift combat styles, opening up new melee styles and powerful attacks that replace your currently equipped finishing move. If you find an opening in battle, you can charge up and lock-on to your enemies for a powerful Shotlock barrage that can wipe the field clean. And though summons are sadly gone due to processing power, they are present in spirit with the D-Link system, which allows your character to assume the skillset of another character for a considerable amount of time. To illustrate, D-Linking with Maleficent allows Terra to cast powerful dark magic, culminating in an impressive finisher in which he hovers in mid-air, spewing dragonfire at his opponents. Even without the reaction attacks of KHII, fighting enemies remains incredibly dynamic and engaging. It's just plain fun to pull off all the cool attacks and finishers.

And though all this action is found on a architecturally weaker system like the PSP, it remains just as polished as the previous main installment. In fact, the GUI and menu styles are remarkably similar, strengthening the impression that this is just as dazzling an installment as the last one. Furthermore, there is almost no recycled content. Besides the Hercules world - almost verbatim from KHII down to the music - every playable world is brand new, even the Peter Pan world, which showcases different areas than those found in previous installments. It helps that the graphics are beautiful to look at; each world perfectly captures the style of the Disney film it is based off of, and those that don't are very stylish. Artist Tetsuya Nomura often has his detractors, but there's no denying that his art style is a perfect mix of colorful and dark that's right at home in this universe, even when characters have too many belts and zippers. The game looks just as good as the PS2 games, albeit at a smaller, more jaggy resolution. But beyond that, there is no point in the game where things do not look like they could belong on the big screen.

The downside to this, however, is that all those fancy graphics and silky smooth battles take a major toll on the PSP. Square Enix tries to give you some options to fix this: you can install a large amount of data to your memory card and bump up the CPU speed to smooth out the game (at the expense of battery life), but even then, expect to sit through boring load screens and the annoying whir of the UMD drive. If you don't activate these options, playing the game will be like hitting every red light as you drive down a long street.

Birth by Sleep is not without its other faults, some of which have plagued the series since its inception. Though the command and D-Link menu is pretty cool, having to take your hand off the analog nub to sort through your options is not what you'll want to do in a tense battle; once again, Sony's refusal to provide a second analog nub cripples another game's control scheme. And as beautiful as they are, the worlds are still relatively barren besides you and the enemies. Furthermore, the contrast between the more realistic main characters and the characters they must help in the Disney worlds is somehow more apparent than with Sora and company. Most fans will have made their peace with this concept by now, especially younger fans, but seeing a tragic figure like Terra partake in the lighthearted minigames of Disney Town is a bit of a stretch even for this follower.

That said, the minigames are actually not that bad this time around. Players will find a simple volleyball game, a devious rhythm game, a four-course Mario Kart Lite, and the coup de grace, a Monopoly-like board game which is not only fun, but allows you to obtain and upgrade commands, serving as an alternative to grinding. In addition, you can team up with two friends in the Mirage Arena to play these minigames, battle each other, or take on thirteen extremely challenging arena matches, which work similar to the Hercules coliseum matches found in previous games. While not integrated with the main story and clearly just bonus content, these are much more compelling options than the multiplayer mode found in 358/2 Days. And naturally, there is a secret video at the end to unlock - if you manage to complete the final scenario, that is.

Even with its flaws, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep finally manages to deliver the highly polished sequel that fans deserve. For those who have never played the series before, it remains a solid title that won't confuse them with convoluted plot elements like Kingdom Hearts II. For fans who have followed the twisting story that happens outside the Disney worlds, it will provide the answers they've been waiting for, sometimes for questions they never knew they had, while leaving enough open for Kingdom Hearts III. For anyone who enjoys fun action games, it will stay in your UMD drive for weeks to come. Savor it - because you won't get anything like it for a while.

Score: 8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)



Continue reading: More Square Enix stories





40 comments | showing # 1 to 40
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Avalon's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:04
Avalon
ppbfffffff won't be convinced until you make a video review of you singing simple and clean.
kefkaesque's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:04
kefkaesque
Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

Naw 8.5 is a good score, I'm quite liking the game so far.
Ultima1990's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:06
Ultima1990
Great review, personally I found BBS to be the best Kingdom Hearts game since KH1.
Aurain's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:12
Aurain
It's a good game.
Avidgam3r's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:16
Avidgam3r
good because Im buying the PSP3000 bundle for it soon. and Persona 3
janoDX's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:18
janoDX
Waiting for Kingdom Hearts 3 for Nintendo3DS...
The Silent Protagonist's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:30
The Silent Protagonist
I find it strange that people consider the PS2 games good.

They have good stories.
As RPGs, they fail on just about every level.
And require no real thinking at all.

Chain of Memories - I liked the card game aspect, it made you think about the decks you built.It was actually better on the GBA, though, as the sleights exclusive to the PS2 version were rather overpowered. I could powerlevel Sora too easily. Thankfully, Riku's path was unmarred.

358/2 - Actually felt like there was an RPG in there. I got to build Roxas how I wished to play him rather than be taken down some painfully linear path of growth like Sora.

Birth By Sleep is what the console games always should have been. I get to determine how the characters grow in terms of skills. No linear growth, no dumb AI partners burning resources.

I'm just wondering why the coded the game the way they did. Crisis Core wasn't a battery hog like this one.
TheLupineOne's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:30
TheLupineOne
Leonard Nimoy!? That explains his absence from Civ V!
Salnax's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:31
Salnax
Why the hat for 358/2 Days? I thought it had the best core gameplay in the series.
kefkaesque's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:37
kefkaesque
@The Silent Protagonist

Th console games are much more action/brawler than RPG. I think they only really get called RPGs because of the leveling and due to it being SquareSoft.

That said Hard Mode KH1 required at least a bit of thinking, and I kinda sorta disagree on KH2 having a good story (it made no sense, and I've played it 4 times), but I still love both of them, the original more.
Tony Ponce's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:51
Tony Ponce
Is it just me, or does the smirk on their faces in that header image make it look like somebody just ripped a big one?
Chimpsky's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:53
Chimpsky
When I saw the first screen shot of the 3 friends (2 guys 1 girl) sitting on the ledge, I immediately got a foul taste in my mouth. This may be a good game, but after the last few iterations I think I may take a break from this franchise for a while... until the next one with a true Utada song :)
mrandydixon's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:56
mrandydixon
@Tony Ponce

I think it's just you.
Tdiddy9182's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 14:57
Tdiddy9182
Only a 8.5?! Damn Necros hating on the japanese, THE RACISM OF BOB MUIR STRIKES AGAIN!
Dexter345's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:04
Dexter345
With all of the ridiculously named Kingdom Hearts games at this point, I didn't even know this was coming out on the PSP.
Bob Muir's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:04
Bob Muir
@ Sainax

I found the entire package inconsequential. As noted, the plot was threadbare and made mostly irrelevant in the overall story by the final missions. The gameplay could have saved it, but while it's admirable what they pulled off on a DS, it doesn't change that the missions were boring, repetitive, and just plain unappealing. Efforts to put in replay value felt hollow, especially the co-op mode, which was a huge missed opportunity to play the entire game in co-op. (Instead, you got the option to replay missions in co-op well after you played them in the story.) And the enemies themselves were not only 95% reskins of previous enemies, but tweaked to just be less fun and more annoying to fight. In trying to recreate the console games on DS, they ended up providing an experience that was less compelling in pretty much every category. I could practically write an entire article on all the ways in which it failed.

Though, as The Silent Protagonist noted, the RPG systems in it were actually really good, perhaps the sole saving grace. I spent a lot of time configuring my panel set-up for maximum options and strength. Birth by Sleep includes a bit of that element, though it is more inspired by Crisis Core.
llort het's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:10
llort het
Maybe I'll buy if I ever get a psp. Still pissed off that PSP gets this game which is actually relevant to the plot, while DS is getting pointless, roxas eating sea salt ice cream spinoffs. I'm sure re:coded will be important to the Kingdom hearts mythos, considering every character is a virtual piece of data that will probably be erased at the end and never mentioned again.
Matt Welch's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:13
Matt Welch
Two things. 1) 358/2 Days is a very good game, and RE: Chain of Memories actually makes that GBA game playable and thus we get to see an essential part of the story. 2) You're just NOW reviewing this? You reviewed Shattered Dimensions, a game that will be forgotten in less than a year, before this. Seriously Destructoid, priorities. FFS.
MuddBstrd's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:20
MuddBstrd
I'm amused by the number of people on here who think a linear plot disqualifies a game from being an RPG. That logic would eliminate some of the genre's greatest and most seminal titles.
Syn's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:21
Syn
I dunno, after reading this, I'm pretty sure I know how all the shit goes down. And even though it got a good rating, It has somehow managed to turn me off. I suppose if I can find an "alternate" way to experience the game I'll check it out, otherwise, meh.
llort het's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:25
llort het
Also about the Kingdom hearts/ star wars comparisons, KH series is basic anime cliche fodder. I was under the impression that star wars was pretty much a ripoff of eastern plot tropes. (Hell if I've seen the "family member is the true bad guy" a million times in anime and video games.)
Cyril's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:34
Cyril
@Syn

Actually, there are a few final twists that will end up surprising, most of which have to do with Aqua. I can guarantee you don't know everything.
Zeta Crossfire's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:46
Zeta Crossfire
In love with it atm. Renews my faith in the KH franchise 10 folds.
worldagainstjose's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:47
worldagainstjose
i ended up putting 80 hours into this game on hard mode, seeing as that in normal mode it wouldve taken me longer to get the secret movie. i had fun with the game, some parts were kinda drab, but the boss battles definitely get my two thumbs up, the story has its weak parts but it adds something to the entire story which is being called Xehonart Saga by Nomura. If your a fan, or new to the series, this is a must play.
Bob Muir's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 15:50
Bob Muir
Cyril is correct. As I said, Terra is predictable, but Ventus and Aqua keep things interesting, even if you know the status quo is at the start of KHI.
moominsean's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 16:10
moominsean
i tried to enjoy this game, but i really didn't like it. fighting a boss is like being punished for playing a game, with the worst camera ever. I probably put 8 hours into it and finally couldn't take any of it any more and just quit, and had to keep myself from tossing the game against the wall.
Agent9's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 16:15
Agent9
i will say that kh 1, recom, 358/2, and this are the best. they focused less on disny and more on the essentials such as darkness, keyblades, and dark organizations. 2 was too much disney and too little kh related. not many stories were even changed to fit in the organizations envolvement. bbs though is great and the title does make sense.
RudyChan's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 16:35
RudyChan
I <3 this game. ;;
lewness's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 17:19
lewness
Wow, I haven't opened mine yet for more than a week. Too much going on.
gatorsax2010's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 19:07
gatorsax2010
"On the other hand, if it looks, walks, and talks like a duck, it must be a duck, and you will probably guess that Terra's fate won't turn out to be very pretty."

OMG TERRA IS DONALD???!!!
OtakuDad's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 19:20
OtakuDad
8.5? lmfao this game is gay as fuck. it's literally the worst thing i've played in years. don't download it (or buy it if you're a dumbshit)
Syn's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 19:21
Syn
@Cyril: I'll keep that in mind
Dan CiTi's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 19:30
Dan CiTi
Definitely the best KH game of them all.
Tino's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 19:55
Tino
........Necros?!
RaelXX's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 22:03
RaelXX
Also Megaflare. It fills the command bar with ONE use.
Dark Niwa's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/23/2010 22:59
Dark Niwa
Honestly a great entry to the franchise and the BEST of the side games. If you love the series, this game is extremely reminiscent of the first.
Longest to date coming it at a minimum of 45 hours.
Its easily one of the best psp games. this and persona 3 portable make the psp worth purchasing.

and did agent9 just say kh2 had too much disney?
PLEASE replay that game. NOW. You kinda paid attention tot he wrong part of the story entirely :|.
and to all the naysayers of the series.
we know you don't like it, go play a game instead of commenting on every post you see on destructoid.
RichardBlaine's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/24/2010 00:23
RichardBlaine
Very well-written review (nice to have a fan of the series sizing it up). Looking forward to playing this one.
Twin65050's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/24/2010 01:16
Twin65050
Fucking love this game. My favorite game on PSP. just wish my psp memory stick slot worked so I could save the fucking game.
Magnalon's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/25/2010 10:04
Magnalon
I'd consider this Kingdom Hearts III in my mind, gameplay wise. It's great.
Authur's Avatar - Comment posted on 09/25/2010 22:10
Authur
And that...is why I love this website. Articles like this. This is A+ reviewing work...and yes, I do admit that the whole NoBody thing is kind of...strange. XD
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