Version tested: PSP
Almost ten years into Square Enix and Disney's marriage, and the tensions have only grown with time. Not that the union, first consummated in 2002's Kingdom Hearts, was necessarily ill-advised. Both companies are committed to crafting modern fairytales filled with vibrant, marketable characters for younger audiences; they should make for easy bedfellows.
But the differences between Disney's straightforward Western storytelling, in which the roles of protagonist and antagonist are always defined in primary colours, and Square Enix's Eastern approach that focuses on inner demons painted in shades of grey have never quite been reconciled. The result is a series of action-RPGs that can feel fractured, little more than a parade of iconic characters inside a woolly RPG narrative. Square Enix is yet to fully unlock the potential of Disney's treasure-trove heritage, no matter how many key-blades they throw at it. Birth By Sleep, a prequel to the first game in the series, makes a number of concerted attempts to absorb the distinct Disney classics into a more unified story. Artist Tetsuya Nomura is still in the director's chair, ensuring that the experience naturally veers toward style over substance, but a welcome overhaul of the game's systems indicates the team's desire to deepen the franchise as well as widen it. On this latter point, the game is a triumph. Combat is smart and elegant, pressing supreme flexibility into the player's hand right from the off.
Basic offensive attacks with the keyblade weapon are augmented by customisable abilities, equipped in slots that increase in number as you level up your character. Skills are found in the treasure chests that litter the universe, dropped by enemies, or can be purchased at the Moogle store in each world and immediately inserted into your move roster.
Each skill levels up through continued use, with some offering further, permanent buffs to your character when maxed out. Battles are often a succession of flip-card messages informing you of new unlocks in your character's development tree, and Square's RPG pedigree shines here, putting so many recent action games to shame in its compelling communication of meaningful upgrades.
As you chain together hits, so your character can enter various heightened attack modes (specified by the moves you used to get there) and periodically you can trigger shotlocks: powerful finishing moves that explode enemies into a shower of confetti. As you meet other characters on your travels, so you form Dimension Links with them, allowing you to assume their alternate move lists during battle for a limited amount of time.
A gimmick on the standard difficulty level, d-links soon become an essential tactical consideration as the stakes raise, and you'll find switching to, say, Cinderella's move set in order to heal yourself before reverting back to your character's natural skills becomes second nature. It sounds convoluted and fussy on paper but in battle it works well, especially when you have the space and time to explore the strategic options open to you during the boss fights that punctuate each world.
Structurally, too, Birth By Sleep is interesting. The game contains three stories, each focusing on a character that's new to the series. The stories are set concurrently, with a few crossover points, but must be played separately from one another (each has its own save slot), with bonuses and unlocks for completing the set.