Ever since unlocking the "Secret Movie" in both Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix+, fans across the world have been heavily anticipating the prequel to all of the Kingdom Hearts games, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. After anxiously waiting four years for Birth By Sleep to be released, and with the hope that questions would finally be answered, one could definitely say that there has been a lot of hype built up around this game.
In Birth By Sleep, which takes place ten years before the events in Kingdom Hearts, you play through the stories of three Keyblade chosen, Terra, Ventus, and Aqua. Instead of having just one main story campaign where you would be able to play with all three Keyblade wielders, the story is instead broken up into three individual character arcs. Each arc can last anywhere from 10-20 hours, depending on whether you want to unlock the "Secret Movie" and what difficulty you have the game set on. You have the freedom to decide which of the characters' stories to play through, but in order to understand the overall story, it is highly recommended that you play through Terra's story arc first, followed by Ventus', and then Aqua's.
Without revealing too many spoilers about the story, Master Xehanort, who is one of the two Keyblade Masters, goes missing and you are tasked with the mission to search for him. If that wasn't bad enough, strange creatures called Unversed have started appearing in all of the worlds, so it is up to you to free these worlds from the Unversed and at the same time find the lost Master.
For anyone who isn't familiar with Kingdom Hearts, every main character of any Kingdom Hearts game travels to different Disney worlds, like Never Land, Disney Town, or Olympus Colosseum, where they right what's wrong, while at the same time working towards an overall goal, which usually involves anything related to "darkness." Darkness is a big theme in this game, especially for Terra, who is struggling to keep the darkness within him in-check.
Birth by Sleep has the main characters traveling to worlds never seen before in any previous Kingdom Hearts game, such as Deep Space (which you can read about in our previous hands on look at the game), where you meet the infamous Experiment 626. Dwarf Woodlands, Enchanted Dominion, and even The Land of Departure, which is the world you start off on, are also completely new.
After finishing the game, I found the story of Birth by Sleep pretty hard to follow (and that's coming from a guy who has beaten all of the previous Kingdom Hearts games and considers himself pretty knowledgeable about the lore that has been created over the years). Perhaps that was because the story is broken up into three separate character arcs, and only so much information is revealed in each characters' story. I found that after completing all three story arcs, and even the final chapter, that I'm still really confused about what exactly was going on. Instead of having all of my questions answered, I feel I like I am now left with even more questions that I will have to ponder about until the next Kingdom Hearts games are released. However, Disney and Square Enix made a very good effort at getting you really invested in finding out what is going to happen to these characters, and learning why you really don't see them in the following Kingdom Hearts games.
The overall presentation in Birth by Sleep can leave a little bit to be desired. As I moved through each world, the design felt a little bare and immobile. Nothing really seemed to move except for myself and any enemies that appeared on screen. This has been an underlying problem throughout the Kingdom Hearts series and it was one that I was hoping would be fixed. Still, Birth by Sleep is one of the best looking PSP games to date, and could even give its PS2 predecessors a run for their money.
The music in game, which was composed by Yoko Shimomura, brings some fantastic new tracks that totally get you into the zone. A great example is the music that plays when you first enter the Castle of Dreams, which is the world where Cinderella resides. If you are playing as Terra, you find Cinderella crying and some very sad and somber music starts playing. To my surprise, the music keeps playing throughout a fight with the Unversed. One would think that the traditional Kingdom Hearts battle theme would be used, but my guess is that Disney and Sqaure Enix wanted to you to be able to empathize with Cinderella as she dreams of going to the ball and finding true love. With that being said, there are some short Disney tunes that become pretty annoying as they are being looped during the course of playing through a world.
The battle system is the bread-and-butter of Birth by Sleep, and it is hands-down the best and most EPIC battle system of all the Kingdom Hearts games. For each character, you can customize three different "decks," and within those decks, you can put in commands which include different techniques, abilities, and items to use in and out of battle. You are able to gain commands either through battle, the Munny Shop, or through melding. The D-pad is used to select each command, allowing for a shortcut command, and also to access your D-links. After you use a command, it enters a cooldown period, while the next command automatically comes up. Anyone familiar with Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories should recognize this type of deck system.
Depending on the type of commands you use, you will eventually enter a Command Style, which is similar to the Drive Forms from Kingdom Hearts II. You can even go into advanced Command Styles, which require you to already be using a Command Style. Some of the boss encounters proved to be very difficult, and effective and efficient use of Command Styles can really turn the tide if you are ever down in battle.
Dimension Links, or D-Links for short, are formed by meeting and forming bonds with different characters throughout the worlds. Think of D-Links as a precursor to summons, like in the first Kingdom Hearts game. By using a D-Link, you are temporarily able to use some of that character's techniques and abilities. This grants Birth by Sleep a very in-depth battle system that provides an immense amount of variety.
Instead of an MP bar for Magic use, there is now the Focus bar, which when filled, allows you to go into "Shotlock Mode." Using a Shotlock involves continuing to hold the lock-on button after locking on an enemy, and depending on how long held, will release devastation upon that enemy and anyone surrounding it.
Of course, what Kingdom Hearts game would be complete without a terrible camera system? I can't count how many times I have anticipated a new Kingdom Hearts game, filled with the hope that Square Enix would fix the horrible camera, only to be disappointed every time. In Birth by Sleep, you control the camera with the L and R buttons on the PSP. The camera is normally pretty decent outside of battle, and the cinemas, of course, look great. But I couldn't tell you how many times I locked onto the wrong enemy or accidentally locked onto an item on the battlefield while trying to defend myself against hordes of Unversed. In a boss fight, if you lose sight of the enemy even for a second, it could cost you your life, and that is just inexcusable.
Even with it's few shortcomings, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is an amazing entry into the Kingdom Hearts series, and could arguably be the best one. There is no doubt that it is one of the "must have" PSP games to add to your collection. Upon completing the game, it is likely that you will be anticipating Kingdom Hearts III even more, no matter how many years you are going to have to wait for it. For those needing more questions answered, there is still hope with the release of Kingdom Hearts: Re:Coded because it is heavily related to Birth by Sleep.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is available now for the PSP.