Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
Reviewed by Didi Cardoso
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2010-10-17 PSP Action/RPG T (Teen) Square Enix

The story in Birth By Sleep - which is actually a prequel to the original Kingdom Hearts game - revolves around three Keyblade-wielder friends, all new characters to the series: Aqua, Ventus and Terra, who are under guidance of Master Eraqus. Terra and Aqua take their Mark of Mastery test, and while Aqua passes, Terra fails due to the darkness in his heart. Terra is then sent on a mission to find Master Xehanort, who is after the Princesses of Heart, Ventus decides to follow him, and Aqua is shortly after sent to follow both to make sure Terra doesn't fall into darkness, and to bring Ventus back.

To learn all the facts about the story, you must play through the game with the three protagonists and get the details from their point of view. Ideally, you would play one chapter with all characters before moving on to the next chapter. Each character's story will be saved on a separate file. This fact definitely adds up to replay value, but the story still feels somewhat lacking in depth.

While in previous titles the balance between Disney characters and Square-Enix characters seemed somewhat equal, Birth By Sleep definitely gives the three playable protagonists a lot of focus, while the settings and characters from classic Disney stories seem to fade into the background. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, Mickey Mouse and others seem to be something like token appearances. The exceptions would be the villains, who become boss fights and are more prominent due to the light/darkness conflict. The interaction between the main characters and those that they are trying to help also seems "broken", and it seems that although you do try to help, ultimately it's another Disney character belonging to whatever story you are playing through that truly saves the situation.

There are some occasions where you are not just an "extra" in the tale, but become one of the characters, for example when Terra becomes the hunter who has to return Snow White's heart to the evil queen. Yet, it still doesn't feel quite right.

The combat skills system had a pretty steep learning curve, and it felt awkward and confusing for quite some time. Eventually, it becomes interesting and flexible due to extensive customization.

Your basic attacks can be improved and customized by allocating skills to the available slots (which will increase as you level up). You can find skills in treasure chests, get them from enemy drops or purchase them from the Moogle stores that appear in the different worlds. Your skills level up as you use them, which means you become better at them, and some of them will also give you permanent buffs when you max them.

As you chain your attacks during combat, you will be able to enter special attack modes, which are dictated by the skills you equip, as well as unleashing a powerful finishing move every now and again.

Meeting other characters and helping them during your adventures does serve a purpose, since you will be able to form Dimension Links with them. Dimension Links are temporary, but allow you to make use of the other character's skill list as if they were your own, for a limited period of time. Switching in and out of D-Links takes practice, but after a while it becomes natural and very necessary. Additionally, there is a lock-on system which is often more of a nuisance than helpful.

You can also level up in the Command Board, a Monopoly-like board game that appears in certain worlds once you have completed them. You roll the dice and move your character around the board. You receive 5 Command Cards at the start of your game, and you can use those to level up the respective skill. You earn Goal Points as you go, which you can use to purchase panels or pay when you land on another character's panel. You win the game when you achieve a certain number of Goal Points. Command Board (and a couple other games) can be played Ad-Hoc with friends, but there is no actual online multiplayer.

Personally, I didn't take the time to go back and complete everyone's story. For the most part, each game world plays in the same manner: move the Gummi ship to get there, land, watch a scene, hack and slash until you get to a final boss, which will be either a Disney villain or a unique fantasy creature. A new world will then unlock. Add to this some insane loading times, and you get a dull formula for repetitiveness.

Truthfully, I can't begin to tell you how many times I turned the PSP off and put it down, out of being annoyed by the ridiculous loading. About 5 seconds of animation, followed by 20 seconds of loading, only to show another very short 10-second or so cinematic sequence... I have no patience for that.

It seems like in the end, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep hits me as a mixed bag. The cutscenes are beautifully rendered and combat animations have plenty of "awesome!!!" moments, but you will navigate your character through some seriously bare and bland stages. The soundtrack is fantastic, but the short music loops become repetitive. The voice acting is great, consisting of some Hollywood talents (Mark Hamill, Leonard Nimoy, James Woods), but the dialogs and narrative are often too cliche. The story is lacking, and while visiting the different Disney worlds should lead to something quite magical, most of the events seem to be there just for the sake of... well, being there. The combat system is interesting and challenging, and definitely the strongest point in the game. Finally, the entire game seems shattered and hindered by the loading. But if you can put the flaws aside, you will be able to enjoy a lengthy RPG with great combat and fun mini-games.