Birth by Sleep is not the first prequel Square Enix has made exclusively for Sony's PSP. A few years ago the veteran developers brought us Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
, a prequel that is arguably better than the original. This year Square hopes to maintain their winning streak with this Kingdom Hearts prequel. Luckily fans of the series won't be disappointed, even if this game doesn't match the company's past efforts.
If you're trying to keep track of the Kingdom Hearts timeline, Birth by Sleep fits in right before the events of the 2002 PlayStation 2 game. Here we learn all about the world, the struggle between light and dark, and who Sora was before he set off on his epic quest. For fans of the series this additional information will help fill in some games, while new players will take part in a gripping story that manages to stand on its own.
This prequel is played out in three different stories, each involving a different character. There's Terra, a headstrong young man who is fighting back the darkness in his own heart. We are also introduced to a young boy named Ventus, who is a little too anxious (and whiny) for his own good. Rounding off the list is Aqua, who is not just the only female character, but also the only one that seems to have their head screwed on straight.
Each of these three stories involves the player going to the same group of surrounding planets, mostly based on popular Disney movies. Fans of the series will already recognize many of the Disney-themed planets, which include worlds based on Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Lilo & Stitch, Peter Pan and more. There is also Disney Town, which houses many familiar faces and popular mini-games.
The three stories help flesh out a larger tale, which involves dark characters taking control of dreams and potentially destroying the world. Or something like that. Even after seeing the events play out from three different points of view, the story is a jumbled mess that I quickly lost interest in. Unfortunately that seems to be the problem I have with all Kingdom Hearts games. The moment these unlikable characters start talking, I find myself wanting to tune out.
Thankfully there are a lot of reasons to keep coming back to this game beyond the convoluted narrative. The game is held together by an exciting combat mechanic, something that keeps getting better the further you go. Each character is given a standard keyblade attack, which can be used to defeat most enemies. However, if you want to pull out something stronger, you'll need to equip the many spells, items and abilities to deck command button (the triangle button).Early in the game your character can only equip a few commands, however by the end of the game you will have a complete deck full of over-the-top magic attacks, health spells and maybe even a few secret melded attacks you've been saving up for.
The result is a combat system that is surprisingly fun to play. In order to cycle through your various deck commands, all you need to do is fiddle with the D-pad. You can even do this in the middle of combat, which allows players to plan out attacks ahead of time. What's more, these special abilities and spells level up with each enemy you take down, allowing you to create even more impressive attacks.
It's a good thing the combat is so much fun, because going through the same levels can sometimes be a real drag. The good news is that most levels play out differently depending on which story you're going through. Some boss battles are exclusive to one character, while another character might get an entirely new part of the planet to explore. Unfortunately, from time to time the three stories will come together for boss battles. This isn't so bad the first time, but if you go through all three stories, you'll be forced to sit through the same lengthy cinema and battle the same boss.
What has always disappointed me about the Kingdom Hearts series is how conservative they are when it comes to the Disney-themed levels. There's nothing wrong with this batch of levels, but I can't help but notice that we've been to each and every one of them before in a past game. If I had something brand new to see and do, I might be able to stomach going to visit Hercules for the fourth game in a row. With so many Disney properties to reference, it's too bad that we keep getting the same played out stories. I have nothing against Snow White and Peter Pan, but maybe it's time to visit the Toy Story and Pocahontas planets.
As good as the combat is, it can't make up for some of game's shortcomings. Fans of the series will already know a few of these all too well, as they are the same complaints critics level against the series each and every time. For one thing, the camera can be a real problem. Even though you're giving the ability to lock onto an enemy, I found that the game would remove my lock at inopportune times. Even more frustrating is the character's inability to cycle through locked enemies, a problem especially troubling when fighting boss battles.
Of course, all of these gripes pale in comparison to the platforming problems I continued to run into. Although most of the game involves little more than battling waves of characters, from time to time the game will force you to jump from high up platforms with little room for error. The Kingdom Hearts games are known for a lot of things, but platform jumping is not one of them. These teeny platforming areas are far and away the hardest parts of the game, excluding the battle with the unfair final boss (who I swear is cheating).If you can overlook some of these gameplay problems, you'll discover that there's a shocking amount of content on this small UMD. Each of the three stories will take a good 10 - 15 hours to beat, longer if you are looking to collect all of the junk on each planet. On top of that, the game features a significant amount of multiplayer content and other bonus stuff to fight your way through. With close to 50 hours on just the story alone, PSP players will definitely get their money's worth when it comes to Birth by Sleep.
It doesn't hurt that Kingdom Hearts on the PSP looks as good as any of the console releases. And as good as the in-game graphics are, it's the many pre-rendered cinemas that steal the show. A lot of time went into making this game look amazing, and I doubt that will be lost on anybody that sees this adventure through to the end. Best of all, players can fiddle with the settings to add more vibrant colors and improve the performance. It's hard to imagine anybody being disappointed with Birth by Sleep's visuals.
Unfortunately, not everything about the game's presentation is worth praising. For the most part the voice acting is good. The Disney characters are strong and some of the supporting cast (including the great Leonard Nimoy) is actually competent, but the voice actors behind the main three characters couldn't possibly have done a worse job. To Square's credit, the woman who voiced Aqua did a reasonably good job and I got used to the whininess of Ventus. But there's no excusing Terra's horrible acting, it sounds like the actor is reading his script for the first time. There's no excitement or enthusiasm, he just says everything in a boring monotone voice.
It's also worth noting that players can install a large portion of the game onto a memory stick. Although it's not required (unlike Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker), the install does promise faster load times and better performance. Perhaps that's true, I didn't compare them side by side. No matter how you have the game configured, you're going to be stuck sitting through a lot of long load screens. Even though it's definitely worth the wait, I wish Square could have figured out a way to shorten these screens.
I defy anybody to play through the entire game and not feel satisfied with their purchase. Even though I have some major issues with the control and repetition, I have no problem recommending this well-made adventure game. This is a return to form, which was needed after the disappointment of Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. There are a lot of things I would change about it, but ultimately Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a well made game full of cool cameos and exciting worlds to explore.