Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep Final Mix
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A Prequel without Heart

Two entire console generations would elapse between the release of the second and third mainline Kingdom Hearts game, during which developer Square-Enix put out many rereleases, the latest compilation entitled The Story So Far. This collection encompassed the HD PlayStation 4 releases, HD 1.5 + 2.5 ReMIX and HD 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue, along with animated synopses of a few of the gaiden games. The chronologically-earliest and playable installment of the rereleases is Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep Final Mix, more or less on par with other series entries.

BBS occurs a decade before the original KH, focusing on three playable protagonists: Terra, Ventus, and Aqua (and their recommended playing order according to franchise creator Tetsuya Nomura, with which I agree), the first and last taking their Keyblade Mark of Mastery examination whilst the second watches. Terra fails due to his inability to keep the darkness in his heart in check, while Aqua passes, after which the game’s Heartless stand-ins, the Unversed, appear in various Disney-film-themed worlds. The disappearance of Master Xehanort, a witness to the exam, accompanies this, with the protagonists heading out from the World of Departure with their own motivations.

Birth By Sleep is a decent prequel to the original game and its countless successors plot-wise, with many continuity nods, but fumbles regarding its execution. The mini-stories of the Disney-based worlds serve little narrative purpose aside from fan appeal, and the humor of the films that make them bearable for older audiences is virtually nonexistent. The storyline further falls victim to various clichés prevalent in Japanese roleplaying games such as the conflict between light and darkness, amnesia, the power of love and friendship, and so forth. There are also occasional chronological headscratchers regarding things such as Donald Duck’s nephews being the same ages as they are in the first game.

Sadly, unlike in other JRPGs such as Grandia Xtreme, the writing isn’t bad in an enjoyable way; it’s lousy in a completely excruciating, infantile fashion that will undoubtedly alienate adults, and full of hackneyed dialogue about hearts, light, and dark. The translation is functional, given the absence of grammar errors, and the Disney characters have speech reflecting their cartoon equivalents. There exist other localization incongruities such as the decision to keep Terra’s name intact when there’s already a prominent Final Fantasy heroine with the name, but the likely-weak nature of the original Japanese script is perhaps far more responsible for the way the translation ultimately turned out.

Thus, BBS can only seek true salvation through its gameplay, which is actually fairly enjoyable, at least on the easiest difficulty. The different protagonists have divergent combat styles, with Terra specializing in physical prowess, Ventus in speed, and Aqua in magic. For each character, the player assembles a deck of commands consisting of physical/magical abilities and maybe consumable items if they can spare the space (with the maximum number of abilities sporadically increasing during each storyline). These accompany a standard attack command, players able to chain a combination of Keyblade strokes, with the execution of skills necessitating they recharge for some time before reusability.

As players execute attacks, the gauge above their deck gradually fills, and when full, lets them perform a finishing ability or “evolves” their current playstyle depending upon the commands performed, such as magical attacks. Consequentially, their standard attacks empower, and in some cases if they continue to use deck commands in their “evolved” style to fill their gauge, they may reach a more powerful mode with better normal assaults. In most instances, filling the command bar in an advanced disposition will result in a finishing command, after which the selected protagonist returns to their standard style.

When each protagonist “bonds” with a certain character they encounter throughout their quests, they receive a D-Link that gives them an alternate command deck with its own finishing move. While in these special modes, the player may randomly obtain a star powerup, up to two per D-Link, that unlocks more commands, with time in D-Links gradually depleting the chosen character’s Drive Gauge. Another combat ability easily overlooked is the shotlock that allows players to target multiple foes within a time limit and execute a barrage of blasts against them. Generally, Birth By Sleep follows other JRPG rules such as obtaining experience from slain enemies for occasional level-ups and increase in stats.

As players fight, the abilities in their command decks increase in level as well until they max out. Once a skill has advanced a few levels, the player can fuse two, including an extra ingredient if desired, to form a new command. Including said materials may give an additional innate ability that becomes a permanent part of the character’s skill inventory when the accompanying command is fully leveled. Some of these are actually useful, such as Leaf Bracer, which forbids enemies to interrupt the hero while executing healing magic; other notable skills include one reducing command recharge time.

The battle system mostly works well, at least on beginner mode, but as with other Kingdom Hearts titles, BBS features an irritating camera that can jerk uncontrollably and always remains close to the chosen protagonist. Furthermore, defeating a targeted enemy forces the player to target another manually, which they can only accomplish on an Unversed on the game screen. Moreover, players must memorize whether they can only execute a command on the ground, which can lead to wasted abilities. Finally, the selected hero constantly bounds about when attacking, with some platform-based fields and dungeons being terrible battlefields, although the gameplay is still more than functional.

The dungeon design is just one of many issues with control, others including the retained JRPG convention of fixed save points (although these fully restore the player except for Drive Points). Anal players will also take annoyance at the constant flashing of NEW indicators whenever they open the game interface. Additionally, while cutscenes are both pausable and completely skippable, players cannot skip the dialogue if they prefer to read it rather than listen to the entire accompanying voicework, sure to alienate hearing-impaired gamers. Still, there are more bright spots such as the general linearity and ease of navigating the menus, so interaction is by no means a total writeoff.

One of the strongest aspects of Birth By Sleep is its aural presentation, with series composer Yoko Shimomura providing plentiful original tracks, a few familiar tunes, and occasional music from the films the game references such as an instrumental version of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Cinderella. The voice acting is equally solid, with prominent actors such as Mark Hamill as Master Eraqus and the late Leonard Nimoy as the villainous Xehanort, and Disney characters such as Mickey, Donald, and Goofy sounding as they should. The cartoony nature of said Disney luminaries’ voices creates a bit of tonal dissonance with the general serious nature of the storyline, but the sound is otherwise a boon.

However, considering the game’s release on the PlayStation 4, the visuals could have used more polish. The character models contain believable proportions, as is expectant of any contemporary game, but the scenery often contains blurry and pixilated textures, characters commonly have mitten hands, and the framerate has a notable drop during voiced cutscenes compared to the standard gameplay graphics. The rare CG movies look superb, as always, but considering the capabilities of the videogame system to which Square-Enix ported the title, the general visuals could have certainly been far better.

Finally, each character’s story is beatable somewhere from six to eight hours, with an additional episode lasting for one to two after the player obtains all of Master Xehanort’s secret reports, gamers likely wishing to reference a guide to find these so they don’t have to repeat final boss fights to get them to register in clear game data. Other things exist to pad playtime such as completing the Trinity Archives and acquiring every trophy the game offers.

In the end, Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep Final Mix has many positives as its entertaining Keyblade battles, the great aurals, and lasting appeal, although the gameplay has issues regarding things such as the camera and targeting that can make it tedious to play on advanced difficulty settings, not to mention the infantile storyline and dated remastered visuals. Regardless, the general “kiddy” disposition of the prequel will most certainly appeal to younger gamers desiring a good diving board into Japanese RPGs, although older gamers will likely find a playthrough excruciating.

The Good:
+Enjoyable Keyblade combat.
+Great soundtrack.
+Solid voicework.
+Plenty lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Camera/targeting issues make game unplayable on high difficulties.
-Unskippable cutscene text.
-Infantile plot and writing.
-Graphics haven’t aged well.

The Bottom Line:
A great JRPG for kids; for adults, not so much.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation 4
Game Mechanics: 6.5/10
Controls: 3.0/10
Story: 2.0/10
Localization: 5.0/10
Music/Sound: 5.0/10
Graphics: 6.5/10
Lasting Appeal: 7.5/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: ~1 Day

Overall: 5.0/10

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