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Saturday, January 21, 2012

My Review: Kingdom Hearts- Birth by Sleep (PSP)

My Review: Kingdom Hearts- Birth by Sleep (PSP)


I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears mentioning again: I don’t think anyone could have predicted exactly how dense the Kingdom Hearts series has become. Squaresoft’s little Disney crossover game has spawned one of the most popular video game franchises in the world, and with each game the overarching narrative has only grown more complex and, at times, convoluted. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, a game that was teased at the end of Kingdom Hearts II, plays an integral role in the Kingdom Hearts saga: as a prequel to the original Kingdom Hearts, as well as an establishment of where the series will go in the future. Is this portable adventure up to the task?

STORY
Destiny is never left to chance.

As mentioned earlier, Birth by Sleep is a prequel, set ten years before the original Kingdom Hearts. The game focuses on the adventures of three protagonists, Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, who are apprentices to Keyblade Master Eraqus. After a series of events drive the heroes apart, they each set out on their own journey across the myriad worlds, dealing with their own internal conflicts and struggling to maintain their friendship in light of newfound revelations concerning themselves and their Masters, all while combating the evil Unversed, monsters that are born from negative emotion. Ventus is attempting to uncover the truth about his origins and his connection to a mysterious masked boy named Vanitas, who appears to lead the Unversed. . Aqua attempts to bring Ventus back home and watch over Terra, while questioning the morality of the orders from her Master. Meanwhile, Terra is struggling with the dark power inside him, trying to discover its place in him under the tutelage of Master Xehanort, who may have other, more sinister objectives…


Birth by Sleep acts as a sort of cornerstone for the series’ mythos, explaining the origin of the series’ main villain, the connection between this game’s heroes and the characters from the other games, and setting up the conflicts in the future games once the story is concluded. Each character has their own ten-hour long campaign that takes them through all of the same worlds as the others, a storytelling style that is both new to the series and provides an interesting perspective on each event in the story, as each character brings a different viewpoint to key moments and has their own, important role to play. That’s not to say the narrative doesn’t have some problems- the Disney worlds still fade into the background or seem like pointless filler at times, some of the dialogue is unbearably cheesy (the Disney worlds, with their lack of serious story moments, are often the culprit in this case) and you will see several of the same cutscenes in each storyline- but overall, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep tells an interesting and complex storyline that will definitely intrigue fans of the series.

GAMEPLAY

Going hand-in-hand with its three storylines, Birth by Sleep features three different playable characters, each with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Terra is a powerful fighter with an emphasis on physical attacks, Ventus focuses on speed, and Aqua is a powerful spellcaster. Aside from a few select instances, there are no party members, and each character progresses through the many Disney-themes worlds, which act as their own self-contained levels with treasure to find, story to delve into, minigames to play, and monsters to slay. The levels are somewhat linear, but there are many secrets to find for completionists.

Birth by Sleep was the first game to change up the series’ aging combat system, and ends up creating some of the best combat in any action-RPG. Players still have a command menu, but instead of cycling through it like in old Kingdom Hearts games, the menu is fully customizable. The X button used for physical attacks, but the other menu slots can be filled with different abilities that are executed with the Triangle button. These abilities grow in power and can be combined with others to form new, even stronger abilities. As a result, Birth by Sleep has a greater amount of character customization when compared to earlier games in the series, and allows players a great deal of freedom with how they deal with their enemies. The new Unversed enemies are essentially precursors to the Heartless from later games, and they behave similarly in combat. It’s worth mentioning, too, that Birth by Sleep has some of the best boss fights the series has seem since the original Kingdom Hearts, although a couple of them (Terra’s final boss in particular) can be frustrating. The game’s difficulty is, for the most part though, very even- it’s not a cakewalk like Kingdom Hearts II, but it’s a fair challenge. Two other additions to the combat help round out the package: Dimension Link lets you temporarily gain the abilities of another character, and Shotlock lets you target enemies for a devastating ranged attack. Both of these abilities are measured by gauges next to a character’s HP bar, making them powerful but costly. Characters can also enter a powered up state by using certain attacks, and after charging up a meter by successfully landing blows, can perform a mighty limit-break style attack.
                                                             Shotlock in action.

Birth by Sleep’s combat is excellent, but there are also numerous minigames to keep players busy if they so desire. Kart racing, an ice-cream themed rhythm game, and volleyball with giant fruit make up some of the eccentric activities a player can engage in, although some of the minigames don’t control as well as they should. These minigames can also be used in the game’s multiplayer mode, which also features a versus mode where players can battle one another. While it’s not quite as fun as the Phantasy Star-esque mission-based multiplayer from its DS counterpart 358/2 Days, Birth by Sleep does have a decent multiplayer mode, rounding out a varied and well-designed game.

PRESENTATION

Being a PSP game, Birth by Sleep’s presentation is a little uneven. The game strives for the same visual style and panache as its PS2 predecessor, and for the most part it succeeds. The character models don’t emote quite as well and the environments lack the same scale as some of the other games (they are designed with a portable game in mind, after all), but overall the game does look quite good. The problem with the presentation comes in the form of technical problems, which may be due to the limitations of the PSP and make me wonder whether Birth by Sleep would have been better suited to a console release.  While you can install data in order to lessen them, the game still has some pretty noticeable load times, which seem to get worse as you play through the later storylines. Sometimes loading screens pop up in the middle of cutscenes, which is obnoxious. The other problem is some significant slowdown, which says to me that the game at times pushes the limits of its hardware. In frantic combat sequences, whenever there are too many enemies on screen, or whenever you have AI controlled party members for brief segments, the game slows to a crawl. This is especially problematic during the Trinity Armor fight, a boss battle which features all three playable characters and therefore is fought in ALL THREE campaigns. What could have (and is still kind of) an epic boss fight ends up being needlessly frustrating because of how slow things are. Square might’ve needed to polish the game a little more before releasing it, because the slowdown can hamper what is otherwise an excellent game.
                                               Leonard Nimoy really sells this character.

Musically, the game features one of the best soundtracks Yoko Shimomura has ever composed, and a few other Square Enix composers such as Takeharu Ishimoto (Crisis Core’s composer) lend their talents. The opening remix of the series’ classic theme Dearly Beloved is only a hint of just how fantastic the game’s score is, and many of the songs hint at their character’s place in the series (listen for hints of ‘Destati’ in Vanitas’ songs, ‘Sora’s Theme’ in Ventus’, and ‘Darkness of the Unknown’ in Terra’s). The voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag. Leonard Nimoy delivers an excellent performance as the evil Xehanort, Mark Hamill is great as Eraqus, and voice acting in general is very high in quality, but a couple weak spots do hurt things. Terra’s voice actor is a little too monotone to carry the emotional weight of his fall into darkness (although working with Leonard Nimoy does help him along), Aqua’s voice actor is better at carrying her through emotional scenes but sounds unnecessarily sad almost all the time, and Jesse McCartney’s turn as Ventus isn’t nearly as good as his work as Roxas in the other games (to be fair, Roxas is a significantly more complex character than Ven- unfortunately, Ven is considerably more important in the grand scheme of things). Overall, though, it’s a very good dub.

CONCLUSION

Birth by Sleep has had me excited ever since the first CG trailer was shown at the end of Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix, and playing the game now I’ve been very happy with the result. The multi-faceted storyline, solid combat, and excellent music make this a very enjoyable game to play, although some of the technical issues do make me wish this game was on a system more powerful than the PSP. Still, while not quite the best in the series, this portable adventure is still a fantastic entry in the Kingdom Hearts series, and makes me excited for what is to come.

SCORE: B+


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