Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Reader Review
There seems to be a general consensus amongst many gamers in the west that Squaresoft haven’t made many good games since the merger with Enix but I disagree completely. While many were disappointed by Final Fantasy XIII and The Last Remnant (I wasn’t) their handheld games seem to go largely unnoticed. I consider this a great shame as some of the best games they have developed have been on DS and PSP. These include the moving FFVII prequel Crisis Core, the brain-searing dual-screen combat of The World Ends with You and of course the epic Birth by Sleep.
“Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep” is the 6th original title in Disney and Square Enix’s action RPG crossover series and the 3rd to contain exclusive worlds. Taking place 10 years prior to the original Kingdom Hearts, it tells the story of 3 friends: Terra, Ventus and Aqua as they split up to fight a hostile race of beings known as the “Unversed” across numerous Disney worlds including the Castle of Dreams from Cinderella and Deep Space from Lilo and Stitch. The game is split into 3 campaigns, one following each of the characters and the trials that they face individually such as Ventus’ rivalry with a masked boy and Terra’s fight to control the darkness within him. Completing all 3 and finding all of Xehanort’s reports will allow you access to the final episode and if you satisfy certain conditions, you can unlock the true ending: Blank Points, which neatly summarises the various plot threads of the game and ultimately the series so far.
The battle system is probably the most complex of the Kingdom Hearts games currently released. You can lock on to an enemy and cycle through them with the shoulder buttons. You can attack, jump, block and execute commands with the face buttons and select the command with the D-pad. As you fight, the command gauge will increase. When full, this will allow you to perform a finish command or invoke a command style. Finish commands are powerful attacks which often have an additional effect such as an elemental alignment or could cause the enemy to drop more of a certain type of loot. New finish commands can be unlocked through a tree structure; performing certain actions will unlock one of the stronger moves and you can move back to an earlier point to unlock another branch. Command styles are states in which your regular attacks turn into elemental or otherwise powered up attacks. The command style invoked will depend upon the actions that caused the command gauge to fill, such as Diamond Dust from ice attacks. If, during this state, the gauge is filled again, you can perform the command style’s own finish command.
Battle commands are equipped to a command deck. The number of available slots in the deck increases at set points in the story and up to 3 can be saved at any time, allowing you to choose one based on whatever strategy is required. Battle commands can be levelled up through use, or by playing a mini-game known as the command board, a board game with similarities to monopoly. When a command is levelled up fully, it can be melded with another and a synthesis item to create a new command. This will have an attached effect and when this command is maxed out, the effect will persist even after un-equipping it. This is the only way to increase the maximum limit of your health bar beyond what occurs naturally within the story. I found the easiest way to do this was to combine Fires, Firas and Soothing Crystals to create 3 Firagas with the HP Boost effect. After maxing these out, your HP will be permanently raised unless you turn it off in the menu.
In addition to these systems, as you explore the worlds and meet new characters, you will forge connections with them, known as dimensional links. D-links allow you to use the abilities of another character for the duration of the gauge. Character specific finish commands are also a part of this and D-links can be levelled up by gathering symbols from defeated enemies while in this state. Finally, there are the focus gauge and shotlock commands. Holding down both shoulder buttons at the same time will bring up the shotlock cursor allowing you to lock on to enemies multiple times before performing the combo attack. If you are able to lock on for the maximum number of attacks and instigate it before the focus gauge runs out, you will be allowed to perform a longer and more powerful attack at the end of the combo. Thankfully with all this hidden depth, comes challenge as the game contains 4 difficulties, to cater to all types of gamers from non-gamer Disney fans to those who felt let down by the easiness of KH2 (me.) I played the game on Proud and found the game a hefty challenge in places but it was great knowing that there was another, much harder level for when I replay it.
The story told in the game is quintessentially Square Enix. A cheesy script with voice acting to match offering unintentional laughs which somehow is unable to ruin the atmosphere during the game’s most epic and emotive moments, especially whenever the team’s expressive facial animation software is used. The graphics in the game are possibly the best the system has seen, mostly matching KH2 in quality. There is no greater example of this than an in-engine cutscene near the endgame which is a near shot-by-shot recreation of the impressive CGI trailer from the end of Kingdom Hearts 2: Final Mix. The game’s music follows the series tradition of merging classic Disney music with powerful original material. Sadly the theme song for the game is “Simple & Clean.” Not that I’m complaining much, it’s still a great song, it’s just I would have appreciated something new. Here’s hoping Utada Hikaru can get paid next time.
I expected that Birth by Sleep would be the third great Kingdom Hearts game, what I got instead was the best game in the series. 2010 was the best year for the PSP and 2011 looks even better, especially from Square Enix with Dissidia Duodecim Final Fantasy, The 3rd Birthday and the Japanese release of Final Fantasy Type-0 to look forward to. I have got 45 hours out of the game so far on Proud. After completing all 3 campaigns and the final episode, I have been grinding Terra so that I can face the bonus bosses, which I am apparently (At LV51) still far too weak to do. With the recent release of the Final Mix in Japan, a midquel codenamed Birth by Sleep volume 2 was teased. Of course it is possible that it is some relation to the upcoming Dream Drop Distance on 3DS, either way I am definitely interested to see what Nomura has planned for the future of the series and what part belts and zips will play in it. Finally, know that if you enjoyed either of the first two main games, you should love this. While it is not a direct sequel to KH2, I feel it is a worthy addition to the series canon, ultimately tying up loose ends, connecting it to the overarching continuity. Know that this is not another of the good-but-not-great spin-off games. Oh, and there’s no Gummi Ships!