Over the past weekend, I was one of the 75,000 people lucky enough to attend PAX Prime 2010. Sure enough, I got my hands on a ton of games, but none that are scheduled to arrive sooner than Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.
For those who aren't up to speed on the game, Birth by Sleep is a PSP-only prequel to the Kingdom Hearts series, and tells the intertwined stories of Terra, Aqua, and Ventus. (Ventus, it must be said, looks suspiciously similar to previous Kingdom Hearts protagonists Sora and Riku.) From the game's official website:
Long before Sora was chosen by his Keyblade, the worlds' safety lay in the hands of the true Keyblade Masters.
Three youths -- Terra, Ventus, and Aqua -- have been training long and hard under Master Eraqus to prove that they, too, exhibit the Mark of Mastery.
But they will soon find themselves in the middle of a crisis affecting worlds far beyond their own -- just as another Keyblade Master, Xehanort, goes mysteriously missing.
Three friends, three destinies. Everything will link back to the beginning.
Sony's PSP doesn't always get its share of blockbuster third-party games, but Birth by Sleep certainly fits that description. Developed by mastermind Tetsuya Nomura and his crack team at Square Enix, Birth by Sleep is an unquestionably impressive looking game.
As you can see in the game's launch trailer, Birth by Sleep's graphics are clean, smooth, and attractive, with especially nice use of color. Character designs on the Square Enix cast are what you'd expect from a Nomura designed game, with spiky, confusing hair and elaborate outfits. The Disney characters and locations, meanwhile, are completely true to their sources.
Music and voice-over in the game are, again, of extremely high quality. In fact, the entire production seems remarkably similar to the classic PS2 Kingdom Hearts games. My time with Birth by Sleep included plenty of cutscenes, all of which flowed nicely into and out of action stages. Though I couldn't get much of a sense of how straightforward Birth by Sleep's story is (and, let's be honest, the Kingdom Hearts games are not exactly pillars of narrative coherence), the presentation of the story was top notch.
I played as two of the game's three main characters, Aqua and Ventus. With Aqua, I experienced a bit of the Radiant Garden stage. I began by exploring on my own, finding treasure chests and fighting the occasional low level enemy. Combat in Birth by Sleep is pretty much as I remember it from Kingdom Hearts 2. Which is to say, until I figured out what was going on, I did alright by basically mashing on the Attack button. But soon enough I was peppering my physical attacks with spells, and generally laying waste to whatever enemies dared face me.
After a bit more exploring, I met up with Terra and Ventus for a fairly long cinema that led straight into a boss encounter. Though I continued to control Aqua, Terra and Ventus fought alongside me, and I was responsible for keeping us all alive. The boss was quite large, and had multiple "limbs" that could be targeted by pressing both shoulder buttons on the PSP. My team dispatched our foe soon enough (likely due to how leveled up the characters were, rather than any skill on my part), and another cutscene broke out, which ended with Ventus accusing Aqua of, basically, letting her Keyblade training go to her head.
Next, I checked out a completely different part of the game. Now controlling Ventus, I set out for Deep Space, home of Disney's Stitch. The stage began with Ventus piloting his Keyblade through space, then fighting a mini boss, before crashing into the ship where Stitch was being held prisoner.
Stitch, again captured by Galactic Federation Officer Gantu, seemed somehow to know Ventus and friends. Ventus and Stitch soon became convinced that the alien Ventus fought en route to Stitch's ship had hidden within its depths. Gantu, however, refused to believe them.
Needless to say, it was up to Ventus and Stitch to break out of confinement and stop the alien intruder. Much combat ensued. After clearing several rooms of increasingly strong opponents (thus opening the way to yet more such rooms), my time with Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep had come to an end.
The Square Enix rep on hand claimed that the game would take most players between 10 and 15 hours to complete, but added that he personally had played for nearly sixty hours! Given the quality of the experience, I suspect many fans will be happy to invest similarly extensive amounts of time in Birth by Sleep.
Ranters, I am not always a fan of role playing games, but I certainly enjoyed the PS2 Kingdom Hearts titles. The combination of Disney and Square Enix characters, and -- especially -- the action heavy design kept me involved in those games right to the end. Birth by Sleep feels extraordinarily like its PS2 predecessors, in the best possible way.
How about you -- are you ready to take up the Keyblade once again, or will Birth by Sleep's PSP exclusivity keep you from playing?
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep comes to the Sony PSP September 8, 2010.