Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

The idea behind Square-Enix and Disney's Kingdom Hearts franchise began when producer Shinji Hashimoto met with a Disney executive by chance in an elevator, with the series ultimately achieving vast commercial success, selling millions of copies worldwide and spanning several platforms. The year 2010 saw the Japanese, North American, and European release of the latest entry of the series, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, a prequel to the original game, which provides an experience largely on par with the rest of the franchise.

After some introductory cutscenes, the player can choose to play as one of three Keyblade wielders: Terra, Ventus, or Aqua. Director Tetsuya Nomura recommends playing their stories in that order to best understand the overall plot. Each character has their own unique fighting style in combat, which is real-time like other games in the series. Outside battle, the player sets up a command deck for the chosen character, with commands chiefly consisting of two types, melee and magic. Although players are initially limited in the number of commands they can assign a character, this limit gradually increases as their stories progress.

The player can lock onto the enemy with the L and R buttons, and hack away with normal attacks using the cross button. Players can scroll through the command deck with the D-pad and execute the current command with the triangle button. After using a command, it requires some time to recharge before the player can use it again. Additionally, the player can use a character's shotlock command by holding down the L and R button and targeting one or more enemies before pressing the X button to fire a certain number of blasts at the enemy, with shotlock commands consuming the Focus gauge that refills as the player hacks away at the enemy.

Throughout the game, the chosen character will establish D-Links with various playable and non-playable characters, which they can select to both refill their HP and access a unique command deck when the D-Link gauge is full. Defeating enemies while in a D-Link occasionally causes them to drop special symbols that can power up the chosen D-Link up to two levels. Moreover, normally attacking and using commands will fill up the command gauge, which, when full, allows the character to execute a powerful Finish move or enter a kind of trance mode that temporarily empowers normal attacks.

Killing enemies provides both normal experience for occasional leveling and experience for all equipped commands, and causes them to drop various prizes including HP-recovering balls, Munny balls, D-Link-recovering balls, and the occasional item. In the game menus, the player can meld commands into more powerful commands, and add an item that may provide an additional innate skill, for instance, Treasure Magnet to more easily acquire enemy drops. Mastering commands with an innate ability will cause said ability to become a permanent part of the character's ability inventory.

All in all, the battle system works well, given the endless variety of commands at the player's disposal, although some might find it annoying that they have to start the leveling process again from scratch when starting another character's quest. The camera can also be an occasional nuisance as in other series installments, and enemies can cancel out healing, which can be annoying when a character is close to death. Ultimately, combat does have its flaws, but the endless diversity of ways to fight the Unversed largely compensates for these shortcomings.

The controls in Birth by Sleep largely resemble those in other Kingdom Hearts games, with an easy menu system that nonetheless will annoy compulsive players with the flashing NEW indicators that seem to pop up every time they bring up the menus. There are some shortcomings, however, such as mandatory mini-games necessary to advance the main storyline, not to mention the return of platforming from the original Kingdom Hearts, which can annoy since attacking enemies causes the attacker to bounce around constantly. Loading times also may annoy some, although players can resolve this by installing the game to the PSP's memory card. Overall, control is reasonably tight.

The story, given the different perspectives of the three playable characters, is a reasonable drawing point to the game, with some decent twists and occasional links to Kingdom Hearts games that take place afterward, although unlocking the Secret Ending requires playing on a difficulty other than Beginner, and can be a challenge on standard difficulty. There are also some minor plot holes such as Huey, Dewey, and Louie being the same age as in other entries, despite the ten year gap between Birth by Sleep and the original Kingdom Hearts. The translation is largely adequate, although there are some minor issues such as dialogue occasionally not matching that spoken by the characters in one world, but otherwise, the plot and translation help the game more than hurt.

Yoko Shimomura's soundtrack is decent, with a mix of new tracks and old ones from other Kingdom Hearts games, and the voice acting, which features the talents of Leonard Nimoy as Xehanort and Mark Hamill as Eraqus, is largely superb. Granted, the game does commit the usual Kingdom Hearts sin of having battle voices drown out the music, but otherwise, the game is fairly easy on the ears.

The graphics largely mimic those in other Kingdom Hearts games, not that this is a bad thing as they mostly push the PlayStation Portable's visual capabilities to their limits, with colorful scenery and character models, although there are some minor imperfections such as blocky fingers, and some framerate issues in areas with dozens of Unversed. Still, as the game is easy on the ears, so too is it easy on the eyes.

Finally, completing all three characters' storylines and the additional Final Episode will take players somewhere from twenty to forty hours to complete, even more if the player decides to complete every task such as excelling at every mini-game. Ultimately, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is an experience largely on par with the rest of the franchise, what with its solid gameplay and presentation values, although there are some minor flaws such as mandatory mini-games and framerate issues. Still, the game is an enjoyable way to spend time in the ever-expanding Kingdom Hearts universe.

The Good:
+Solid Kingdom Hearts gameplay with some interesting twists.
+Tight control.
+Good story.
+Great voice acting and music.
+Superb graphics.

The Bad:
-Some mandatory mini-games.
-Some framerate issues.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: PlayStation Portable
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 8/10
Music/Sound: 8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Localization: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 7/10
Difficulty: Adjustable
Playing Time: 20-40 Hours

Overall: 8/10

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