We’ve got the creative genius of director Tetsuya Nomura to thank for bringing the surreal mix of characters from the Final Fantasy universe together with legends from the world of Disney. It’s a match that really shouldn’t have worked, especially in the notoriously hardcore RPG genre, but against the odds Kingdom Hearts has become a franchise that has enchanted gamers young and old since its inception in 2002. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep becomes the sixth title in the series and the first time the franchise has made the transition to PSP.
Birth by Sleep switches focus back to events before the original game and introduces three new playable characters, all of whom made brief appearances in Kingdom Hearts II. Trained by the Master Of Light, these three young heroes; Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, seek to become Keyblade Masters in an unfolding tale of light versus darkness and loving friendships.
The feel good theme runs through the entire game and can get a touch overbearing at times with some sickly sweet dialogue, but overall this is an enchanting story where there’s kicks to be had from seeing familiar Disney characters from a whole new perspective. Told via the help of some beautifully produced cut-scenes, it’s hard not to get sucked into the fairy-tale world of Kingdom Hearts. It’s a testament to its playability that you can jump into the magical kingdoms for half an hour or so and soon find that you’ve spent hours engrossed in its mesmerizing combat play.
Gameplay follows an identical pattern to previous games; Birth by Sleep is largely about fighting hordes of enemies. After choosing your hero, you travel through various game worlds, most of which are based on Disney franchises. The likes of Peter Pan’s Neverland, Sleeping Beauty’s Enchanted Dominion and Snow White’s Dwarf Woodlands are all here to explore, and while there you’ll meet up with the likes of Minnie Mouse, Winnie The Pooh, Pluto and many more familiar characters.
In each game world you get involved in helping out Disney characters in a battle against darkness and the evil Universed that frequent each land. Part of the appeal of Birth by Sleep is the wide range of enemies that you face and the different strategies that you have to employ to beat them. In one mission, for instance, the Queen sends you to kill Snow White and bring back her heart, but being the good person that you are you end up instead in an entertaining boss battle against the Spirit of the Mirror, an evil mask that throws fireballs at you and replicates itself by conjuring up a corridor of mirrors.
There are many more great battles to look forward to against the likes of a psychotic band conductor, known as the Symphony Master, or the Pirate of Never Land himself, Captain Hook. Fighting the many Universed is also enjoyable due to the deep combat system and different enemy types. From the three-fingered, scrawny Scrappers to the bomb-like, obese Tank Topplers, there’s challenge to be had of switching strategies on the fly and fun to be had out of experimenting with the wide range of commands.
With any game that involves a lot of fighting it’s inevitable that the word “repetitive” gets mentioned. The same word applies to Birth by Sleep. The problem with bringing such an open world series as Kingdom Hearts to the PSP is that you’re restricted in what you can achieve with the hardware. You do a lot of backtracking across the same areas where the same Universed spawn in exactly the same places. Needless to say, things can get exceedingly repetitive. It doesn’t help alleviate the feeling of déjà vu either by the fact that the graphics aren’t the best looking on PSP by a long shot. Character design is superb, but some of the locations are really quite dull to explore.
Nevertheless, combat and the command system is where Birth by Sleep really shines. Like any good RPG the ever-evolving system is what really gets you hooked and motivates you to plough forward and want to level up your character. There’s a massive list of combos, attacking, defensive and finishing moves on offer and you can customise them to suit your play style, or switch them around to adopt new strategies as and when.
Combat starts off very basic, but as you progress and pick up more skills you can assign them to shortcuts on your pad and use a whole range of visually impressive moves to defeat enemies. The game also does a good job at taking anyone new to the series by the hand and making things as simple as possible with its perfectly paced learning curve and accessible menus.
This isn’t a simple game to play though. Things do get really tough and the combat system goes very deep. New to the series is the Deck Commands, such as ‘Fire Dash,’ were you cloak yourself in fire, and then punish faraway enemies with a charging attack. These abilities rise in power as you level up, have cool down periods and add a new level of strategy over past games in the series.
Similarly, Command Styles also deepen the experience, but are more powerful abilities activated when you fill your command gauge. The likes of Ven’s ‘Fever Pitch’ which overwhelms enemies with a range of speed-based combos, is impressive to watch play out on screen. Many of the command styles are deeply satisfying when you manage to pull them off.
As if that isn’t enough, there’s also the addition of the explosive Shotlocks, a magic-based power that delivers a huge blow to enemies. This is one of our favourite new additions to the series. You activate a Shotlock and have to keep your enemy in sight in first person mode and then press L1 and R1 at exactly the right time when you’re locked on. Once again, there are tons of different types of Shotlocks to execute, from the likes of ‘Absolute Zero,’ where you cover yourself in ice, right to the other end of the spectrum and ‘Ultima Cannon,’ where your keyblade transforms into a huge weapon that causes massive explosions with every blast.
There’s also Dimension Links (or D-Links), that allow you to transfer and use the skills of other characters for a short period of time. You can even link wirelessly to a friend’s PSP to send your character over to help them out. All of these features add more layers of strategy and you can even customise your D-Link set-up, choosing your favourite characters all within the streamlined menu system. A lot of thought has obviously gone into Birth by Sleep to create a combat system that bears many of the hallmarks of past games, yet still feels fresh enough to offer a new challenge to fans of the series.
You might think this a little bizarre after the glowing review we’ve just given Birth by Sleep, but we can’t help but be a little disappointed that we’re not playing the latest Kingdom Hearts game on PS3 rather than PSP. It’s been a long wait for PlayStation owners, five years in fact since Kingdom Hearts II and Sora took off on a magical quest in search of his lost friends. The opportunity is there to create a stunning HD fantasy world that console gamers will almost certainly embrace, but what you get here is a compressed Kingdom Hearts game world that suffers from exasperatingly long and frequent loading times and repetitive landscapes.
There’s no way we’ll be finishing this review with a negative though. Granted, we’ve been slightly bored having to backtrack over the same areas and fight the same Universed, but we really have no major complaints other than not being able to play it on the big screen. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep delivers a deep and satisfying combat system that is strengthened by some solid game mechanics, great characters and brilliant boss battles.