The original Kingdom Hearts is probably one of my favorite games of the PS2 generation. Kingdom Hearts 2 is still pretty high up there, but less so, because of its shoddy story. Playing 358/2 Days last year rekindled my love for the series, but its cast of unlikeable characters and absurd storyline retcon didn't do the game any favors. Birth by Sleep, the latest entry in the Kingdom Hearts franchise seeks to tell the backstory of Xehanort, the main antagonist of the series, and it delivers not only a coherent and enthralling narrative but also one of the best games on the PSP.
Birth by Sleep tells the story of three keyblade wielders: Terra, Aqua, and Ventus. They belong to a sect of keyblade bearers similar to an order of samurai, with the keyblade master Eraqus as their mentor and father figure. The game begins with the Mark of Mastery exam for Terra and Aqua, a test to determine the ability of keyblade wielders to become masters. This exam is presided over by Eraqus' old friend Master Xehanort, a keyblade master of some renown. Terra fails his exam due to his lack of control over the darkness, but Aqua passes, causing some amount of tension between the two. Soon, sightings of vicious monsters called the Unversed are reported to Master Eraqus, who sends Terra and Aqua to investigate the many worlds they have appeared in. Ventus, though forbidden to leave the world in which he was raised, leaves in search of Terra. Loyalties shift and bridges are burned before the ultimate fate of the three keyblade wielders unfold.
The worst thing I can say about the story is that it's a fine example of the saying "evil will always triumph because good is dumb." The villain's cunning scheme could have been stymied many times with a simple and obvious solution, but the heroes take the stupidest route possible, making it all too easy for the villain to manipulate them. Also, the filler worlds between main story points offer little other than stages to hack and slash through, with virtually nothing connecting the story from one world to the next. There are no memorable worlds akin to Kingdom Hearts 2's Tron stage, Port Royal, or Timeless River, which is somewhat of a letdown. Otherwise, it gracefully sidesteps the sympathetic villain trope and makes the antagonist an irredeemable, deplorable monster, which is a nice change of pace considering the number of failed attempts Square Enix has had with that particular route. Being a self-contained story, Birth by Sleep is accessible to newcomers, but it also welcomes old fans with open arms in the form of countless appearances of recognizable characters in their younger years.
Being half Disney, the Kingdom Hearts series is a poor stage for gritty and dark storylines. Much of the series' plot implications are symbolic; in Kingdom Hearts, the subject matter of light and darkness is merely a euphemism for humans' capacity for good and evil. Chain of Memories explored the importance of memories and emotions to the human condition, as well as the necessity to do evil for the greater good. After this, however, the series spiraled into boring plotlines and absurd plot twists, losing the identity and symbolism that made it so compelling and replacing it with sophomoric storylines. Birth by Sleep is a return to form, with a storyline that's less bogged down by idiotic story reveals and more focused on its core theme; in this case, that fanatacism and extremism can cause utter ruination.
Square Enix is now synonymous with high-quality visual aesthetics; I imagined they had reached the limits of the PSP's hardware with Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, but they topped even that amazing display of technical prowess with the graphics in Birth by Sleep. The colors are rich and vibrant, the environments are meticulously detailed, and the character designs are some of the best they've done in years. There's even an option to improve the color palette at the cost of performance (though this is negated somewhat by the performance enhancement option as well as the ability to install the game). I can say without exaggeration that this is the best looking game on the PSP. Many have questioned Sony's decision to forego the announcement of a PSP2 this year, but after seeing the quality of the visuals in Birth by Sleep, it's hard to find fault with that choice – the PSP still has some life left in it.
The game also holds up aurally. Maybe not as well as it does graphically, but the musical quality the game offers is not to be downplayed. The biggest complaint I can make about the music is how much of it is rehashed. At least half of the music in the game is ripped directly from one of the PS2 games – even the opening theme is repurposed from the first game. Added to this, very few of the precious few original tracks are in any way memorable. The voices are hit-or-miss as well; Mark Hamill and Leonard Nimoy are excellent as Master Eraqus and Master Xehanort, respectively; they are entirely believable, and their line readings are perfect. However, the voice actors for Terra and Aqua sound bored for almost the whole game, and only pick up some emotion near the end. They are competent enough, but rubbing shoulders with the excellence that is Hamill and Nimoy leaves their performances showing a degree of inadequacy.
Regardless of its unquestionably high production values, the Birth by Sleep's gameplay is its main draw. The controls are simple enough; X attacks, O jumps, triangle uses special abilities, square uses movement/defense skills, and the shoulder buttons control camera movement. Sadly, the dreaded camera problems from the first game have reared their ugly heads yet again, and if you have any love for your sanity, keep the camera controls as Type A and never change them. Each of the three playable characters has a different fighting style: Terra is a powerful but slow brawler, Aqua is a graceful magician, and Ventus is a swift and agile fighter. Each character also gets unique abilities and commands, so playing through each gives a different experience, both in terms of story and gameplay.
For special abilities, characters make use of multiple "decks," which is somewhat of a misnomer. There are no cards or numbers involved, but the slots are used to equip the various attack abilities and magic spells, from multi-hit combo attacks like Strike Raid to healing spells like Cure or Esuna. Some of the more powerful abilities require two deck slots in order to be equipped. One deck (the attack/spell deck) assigns commands to the triangle button, while the other (defense/movement) is assigned to the square button. Attack/spell commands require some time to be recharged after use, but defense/movement abilities (which include abilities like dash, counter, and barrier) can be used at will. There are a limited number of slots available for equipping abilities, so equipping a fewer number of powerful attacks, a greater number of weaker but diverse attacks, or a combination of both, is very much a matter of risk versus reward.
Many of the most powerful and useful abilities can only be acquired through the ability creation system, which allows the player to meld two attacks or spells to create a new ability. In case the player melds something less powerful than what he or she started out with, the shop located near each save point always carries every ability that the player has had access to. Melded abilities can also bring passive abilities, which have a diverse range of effects from enhancing the strength of certain elemental attacks to increasing maximum HP. The player can indirectly influence the type of passive ability attached to a command by introducing crystals during the melding process, with each crystal bestowing a specific type of passive ability upon the final product.
Using attack commands fills up the command bar during battle, and once it is filled, Terra, Aqua, and Ventus can go into specialized command styles. These alter the properties of the characters' main attacks, such as increasing range dramatically or adding elemental affinities or area of effect damage to normal attacks. The command bar constantly decreases while in these modes unless the player continues to strike enemies, which refills the bar. Once the command bar fills up again, the player can use powerful finisher attacks unique to each command style.
In addition to the command bar, there are two skill meters, the D-Link and Focus meters. The D-Link meter allows use of D-Links, which enables the player to link with the many characters he or she meets among the various worlds in the game. This grants access to special command abilities and finishers (for example, Snow White's abilities involve attacks or spells based on each of the seven dwarves). The Focus meter is used to power the Shotlock command; by pressing and holding the shoulder buttons, the game goes into first person mode and a targeting reticule appears. Focusing the reticule on enemies locks onto them, and executing the shotlock makes the player character temporarily invincible while he or she fires powerful shots at the targeted enemies. Aiming the shotlock leaves the player extremely vulnerable, however, so making efficient use of the shotlock requires a careful assessment of the enemy's attack pattern.
It may seem that with all these bars and meters, the screen would be terribly cluttered, but that's not the case at all. The appropriate ability meters are very compact and don't get in the way of the action. The myriad abilities and skills accessible to the player make each enemy encounter a fresh and exciting experience, so combat never gets the least bit dull. The sheer number of features and additions to the combat is at first overwhelming, but eventually becomes incredibly easy to manage; the sign of incredible attention to game balance. While most can hack and slash through the game on the normal difficulty setting, playing on the harder difficulties demands that the player become intimately knowledgeable about the workings of the game and make skillful use of both attack and defense abilities. Aside from some sudden difficulty spikes near the end of each story scenario, the challenge level remains well balanced overall. Those who want more after the main story can head into the Mirage Arena, a co-op enabled stage where multiple players can gather via local ad-hoc and fight enemies or play minigames together. It's available in a single player mode as well, but going at it alone is ill-advised; some of the bosses are downright cheap and fight dirty.
Speaking of the minigames, I firmly believe that whatever team creates minigames for Square Enix games is composed of sadistic curmudgeons who harbor even more animosity to the individuals who play their games than they have for normal people. The first of these minigames is the Command Board, which is basically Monopoly with Command abilities instead of real estate; it's about as fun as it sounds. It's a much quicker way to level abilities than simply grinding, so because melding abilities requires fully leveled commands, participation in the command board is nearly mandatory. There's also a rhythm game (that has you tapping buttons in time to classics like It's A Small World After All), a racing game (with controls that are poorly designed and such merciless AI that it'd take a miracle to get in first place), and a volleyball game (in which the odds are stacked heavily against the player). Unfortunately, these games each offer unique and powerful abilities when satisfactory results are gained, meaning that anyone who wants these abilities is basically forced into these realms of perpetual suffering.
Playing on the hardest difficulty level, each character's story scenario took about 8 to 12 hours to play through, with a final chapter unlocked once all three characters' story modes have been finished. Overall, just playing through the story can offer anywhere from 30 to 50 hours of gameplay time, depending on difficulty level and completion percentage. There are also trophies and a veritable mountain of unlockables and extras available to completionists. Those who choose to indulge in the ancillary material can find upwards of 100 hours of content in the game.
I had my doubts about Birth by Sleep, and was prepared to call it quits for the series if this game didn't live up to expectations. However, Square Enix has delivered what is, in my opinion, the best Kingdom Hearts experience to date. Despite a few regrettable decisions regarding the minigames and side content, the core game is incredibly polished and a beautiful example of what can be accomplished in spite of aging hardware. Square Enix has not only set a new standard for visual and aural quality on the PSP, but also set one for gameplay; it is an example that other developers would do well to follow.