Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is an upcoming PSP title that fans of the series have been looking forward to since the secret video at the end of Kingdom Hearts II. Released in Japan back in January, fans of the series in the Western world have since been enduring the excruciating wait for the localized release. Fans can rejoice, however, as that wait has been confirmed by Square Enix to be almost over, with the game announced for a September 7, 2010 release in the United States.
Having spent several dozen hours playing, and completing, the Japanese version of the game, I am happy to report that fans certainly have plenty to look forward to. The game offers a fresh perspective on the series without sacrificing the signature feel of the previous titles, tightening up the combat and the exploration while offering up one of the best visual experiences on the PSP. Except for a few small nitpicks, the graphics are easily on par with Kingdom Hearts II on the PS2, with very rare instances of slowdown. The game even offers configuration options to switch between 16-bit and 32-bit color modes, as well as an option to increase the clock speed of the PSP in order to improve performance at the cost of battery life.
The audio is also outstanding–Yoko Shimomura returns yet again to score the game, in what is arguably her best work in the series to date. The soundtrack consists of a mix of redone classic tracks from previous games in addition to a sizeable amount of new material. Players will find the best rendition of the series’ title theme, Dearly Beloved, awaiting them when they first boot up the game, and from there the experience only improves. The new battle themes in this iteration are some of the most powerful the franchise has heard, and the new renditions of older tunes are rearranged lovingly. Perhaps most impressive about the soundtrack, though, is the degree of musical cohesion.
A big part of the plot in Birth by Sleep is focused on the connections of these newcomers to the established main characters in the previous games–and their musical presence supports these connections. Major boss themes incorporate familiar sections from previous character and battle themes as appropriate, and by the time the game’s final (and by that I mean truly final) battle rolls around, players can practically hear the opponent’s story being told through the number of influences that previous tracks have on the final battle tune.
So the game has an outstanding audiovisual basis–anyone could have known that a game by Square Enix would–but even more importantly, the Kingdom Hearts formula is polished to near-perfection here. At its heart, the game is still an action-RPG with a menu of commands ever-present onscreen. However, unlike its PS2 brethren, Birth by Sleep offers a considerable amount of customization in combat. The main system through which this is accomplished is the Command Deck. Functioning like the card decks in the GBA and PS2 Chain of Memories games, players select from their collection of commands to create a deck of up to eight commands. These commands then appear in the player’s list, and can be cycled through with the D-pad and used by pressing the triangle button. Once a command has been used, it recharges after a set amount of time.
There are many commands to be found in the game, encompassing items (like potions and ethers), magic (like Thundara and Cure), and keyblade techniques (like Strike Raid and Sonic Blade). Each of the game’s three playable characters fights in such a way that they are predisposed towards certain types of commands, but all are able to use every command they come across, which allows for the player to fight any way they choose. For example, Terra’s attacks are slow, but his power is incredibly high, making him ideally suited to keyblade commands. However, through the use of a magic spell like Magnet, the player can pull all of the enemies in and make them helpless as he pummels them with his powerful physical attacks. There are also commands unique to each character, and these are among some of the most spectacular in the game.
Commands level up and become more powerful with use (or through the completely optional Command Board minigame, explained later), and can be combined through a fusion system called the Command Charge. This allows the player to combine two commands (and optionally, an item) to create a new command. If fused with an item, the new command will also have an ability on it, and these include classic series abilities like Combo Plus and Fire Boost. Maxing the level of a command with an ability attached it grants you that ability permanently, which gives the player some incentive to stick it out with less powerful commands, at least for a little while.
In addition to Commands, the player always has access to a regular attack with the circle button, and by pressing and holding the L and R triggers, the game goes into Shoot Lock mode, which allows the character to target a variable number of foes and unleash a variety of powerful attacks on them. There are a number of different Shoot Lock commands that can be equipped, and all are powered by the Focus gauge, which I found to recharge very quickly, making Shoot Locks a very useful tool in combat.
Still another customizable part of combat comes in the form of combo finishers. A gauge above the Command Deck fills as the player strikes enemies with regular attacks and Command attacks, and when it is maxed out, the player is able to unleash a powerful finisher attack with the circle button. These attacks grow through use and evolve into different elemental forms, and contribute even further to diversify the combat experience beyond the one or two finishers that were available in previous games in the series.
Alternatively, filling the Command Gauge with attacks of a certain element or type will put your character into a different Command Style. Command Styles function very much like more balanced version of the Drive forms from Kingdom Hearts II. For example, using many lightning spells will result in the Thunderbolt style, which offers powerful lightning-based attacks and a unique finisher that fills the screen with lightning. The elemental styles are common across all three characters, but each also has his or her own specialty Command Styles, which are usually some of the flashiest and most powerful in the game.
The final piece of the combat puzzle is the D-Link System. After meeting important characters in the story, players can then Dimensional Link with them, which brings their portrait onscreen and allows the character to utilize that character’s unique (or sometimes, not so unique) Command Deck and finisher. By finding certain items while utilizing D-Links, players can add new commands to the character’s D-Link Command Deck. Unfortunately, in all of my playthroughs, I found the D-Links to be of only limited use early in the game, as my own commands quickly became more powerful than anything I had available through D-Links. By the end of each character’s story, I found that I never used my D-Links. However, they still offer a little more variety to the combat, and allow you to access commands (like Cure) when they aren’t present in your own deck, which can occasionally be a lifesaver.
Outside of combat, world exploration is in top form. Players traverse a world map similar to the one in Kingdom Hearts II (but sorry, no Gummi Ship missions here) and visit a variety of original and Disney worlds. These are some of the best Disney worlds in the series, as they provide a balance between the wide-open areas of KHII and the platforming found in the KHI worlds. Additionally, perhaps due to the portable nature of the game, the worlds are typically completed much faster; some can be finished in less than thirty minutes. This is to the game’s credit, as it presents you with a wider variety of things to see in a shorter amount of time, and makes the Disney worlds fare much better in comparison to the original worlds than in previous games in the series.
Something I found myself concerned about prior to playing the game was that players would have to traverse these worlds three times, once with each character, and that it would lead to a serious sense of repetition–readers should be relieved to know that the game more than adequately handles this. Each character visits different parts of the worlds, with some overlap, which allows the experience to feel a bit fresher with each successive visit. Boss fights overlap only when the three characters are together, and the cutscenes are, by and large, different for each character. In this regard, the staff of Square Enix have outdone themselves and created a new benchmark for the series.
The game offers a good variety of minigames and side content for each character, and while none are particularly spectacular, they are still a nice distraction from the combat and exploration. The occasional battle onboard each character’s “keyblade ship,” keyblade racing, and a variety of other minigames break up the pace. There is also a collection quest that involves gathering ingredients to create delicious ice cream treats which, when used as items in combat, will instantly put a character into a new Command Style. There is also an entire world devoted to arena-style combat gauntlets, and there is the previously-mentioned Command Board minigame.
The Command Board is a completely optional game which allows you to level up many commands at once, as well as acquire new and sometimes unique commands which would normally be unavailable or not available until later on in the story. Functionally, it plays much like Monopoly, but instead of properties, you pay BP (the game’s currency) to place your Commands down on the board, as well as “level up” your commands. When an opponent lands on one of your commands, they are forced to pay “rent,” to you, which increases as the command reaches higher levels. If that opponent has enough BP, however, they can purchase your command from beneath you and take control of it.
You unlock different boards to play on as you progress through the game, and each is based on a world visited in the story. The different boards have different layouts and pit you against characters from that world. Also, each board has its own unique panels which will either help or hinder you, as well as bonus command panels which, if landed on, can be purchased and made available for use in the regular game. Also, opponents will sometimes place powerful commands on the board, which you can then steal from them to add to your Command Decks. Rather than playing to level up my commands, I found myself playing Command Board to gather these new commands, as games could sometimes take quite a while and it was typically easier to level commands up through usage in combat.
The Mirage Arena mode is also a pleasant distraction from the main quest, as it provides some unique bosses and combat challenges that net you additional experience, as well as some unique awards that are unavailable elsewhere. Racing, Command Board, and the Mirage Arena are all available for multiplayer play, as well as a player-versus-player versus mode, but I did not have any friends with the game, so I was unable to try it out.
With all of the new features and improvements to the formula to be found in the game, I found that it was one of the best, if not the best game in the series. The story was interesting and offered a great set up for the next game, while still offering a self-contained narrative that wrapped itself up nicely. The graphics and audio were outstanding, and the gameplay itself was a blast. It looks like English-speaking Kingdom Hearts fans have quite a bit to look forward to this September.