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Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (PSP) artwork

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (PSP) review

"In all areas, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a nice break from the traditional RPG experience. The story is engaging, the combat is fast-paced and the gimmicks work. The biggest indicator of its success, though, is the fact that I was captivated throughout three playthroughs. Never once did I feel like I’d “been there and done that.” That alone is worth a recommendation."

The Disney influence has been both a blessing and a curse on the Kingdom Hearts series. While it has attracted a massive audience of those who appreciate Disney licenses, it has also chased away its share of potential fans who dislike all things Mickey Mouse. The first Kingdom Hearts felt restricted by the Disney characters. Every time something with emotional impact was happening, Goofy or Donald were bound to make a joke and ruin it. The game was chock full of happy faces to the point of making me sick. Then, in Kingdom Hearts 2, most of the Disney worlds felt like mandatory side quests. Right in the middle of chasing down some elusive member of Organization XIII you’d be whisked off to Agrabah to watch Aladdin woo the princess... a story most of us already witnessed (with more fluid animation) on the big screen in 1992.

I don’t want to be misunderstood in this. I love the Kingdom Hearts series. But I’ve always felt like the Disney element kept it from achieving its true potential as a mature RPG. I’m happy to report that Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep seems to have finally gotten the balance right.

Birth by Sleep is a prequel to the Kingdom Hearts saga and, as such, most of the action takes place in the older Disney settings. These settings come from films that were firmly rooted in the traditional fairytale genre, a genre which comes packed with the proper ingredients for an adventure game. Good and evil are clearly defined, with a ready cast of villains and heroes. It feels completely natural to fight Captain Hook and be fired upon by his ship while searching for buried treasure in Neverland. The same is true of your rush into Malificent’s castle to fight the demonic sorceress. If you have seen Sleeping Beauty, you may recall this castle as a dilapidated, dark structure filled with piggish goblin guards and beaked vulture-like archers. It’s an environment that seems to have been built specifically for use in a video game.

The selection of such environments make Birth by Sleep the first Kingdom Hearts game where I can honestly call the Disney elements a beneficial addition to the design. However, the game also stands on its own merits beyond the confines of this gimmick. Or rather, it brings in a new and interesting gimmick on top of the familiar one.

That new gimmick comes in the form of three characters and three playthroughs. Three different playthroughs, which is the key. Choose to play as Terra and you’ll be put in the shoes of a man eager to prove to his master that he has what it takes to wield the Keyblade. His quest quickly becomes personal as he uncovers a dark part of himself that he seems to have no ability to control. To play as Terra is to play as a power fighter. His moves all hit hard and allow for slow but effective combos, as opposed to the blitzing fighting style employed by the more cheerful Ventus.

Ventus moves much more quickly and focuses his efforts on finishing moves that deal as many hits as possible. He's the youngest of the three characters and also the weakest, yet the masters seem terrified of him. When he flees from their care, he ends up on a quest that pits him against a mysterious villain who seems intent on unlocking his full potential.

Finally, there’s Aqua, the magic user of the group and thus one who possesses a wide range of spell-related attacks meant to take on entire groups of foes. Aqua is put in the difficult situation of having to cull her two friends under orders from the masters. She has to decide which allegiance she is going to stand by. While I was surprised by how compelling the motivations driving all of the characters were (especially Ventus, whom I had prepared to hate on sight), it was Aqua’s story that gripped me from the very beginning. She provides an interesting new take on the tragic figure. Rather than adhering to Hamlet’s classic indecision, Aqua pushes forward with an almost blind faith that somehow her actions will eventually make sense. Whether that turns out well for her is something you’ll have to play the game to discover.

Unlike past Kingdom Hearts titles, you won't have all three of the protagonists in your party at once. Beating the game three times, once as each adventurer, is the only way to get the full story. This isn't as much of a chore as you might expect, however. The characters experience unique things, fight their own bosses and control differently enough that it’s actually exciting to replay the game to see what will be new. The whole strategy changes each time around.

A big part of controlling the characters is setting up their command deck. Those who experienced Chain of Memories may be groaning at this point, but don’t be too concerned. The card system isn’t back in its entirety, just little bits of it. You have a limited number of abilities that you can use in a battle, which you assign as you build a deck with your selection of attacks, spells, and items. When you use an ability, whether it’s an attack or a spell, it has to recharge before it can be utilized again. Combining certain attacks unlocks combo modes, where you gain status perks and some really kick-ass graphical effects for a short time. The nice thing about the deck system is that you can set up all of these combos beforehand, mixing in a tactical element with the real-time action combat. While the commands are mostly the same for all three characters, changes in the combos will ensure that you build a different deck for each one.

So, in short: gone are the Chain of Memories days of shuffling decks and matching numbers against opponents. What's been salvaged is the strong feel of customization and pre-battle planning.

Gaining commands is also a big part of the game. There are three main ways to do this. If you’re a prat, you can follow the old-fashioned routine of killing enemies, gaining gold, and buying new abilities from a Moogle. Much more interesting is the meld system, where you can take two abilities and mix them together to create a more powerful third ability. There are enough combinations that you’ll probably not figure them all out until your third trip through the game.

A final way to gain commands comes through a new addition to the leveling system, called the command board. The command board is a game you play against NPCs from different worlds. You do so by rolling dice and purchasing commands from the spaces where you land, then collecting money when other characters land there, which also levels up the command. It’s a lot like Monopoly, but unfortunately it’s only interesting the first two or three times you play it. I can't stress enough, actually, how boring it becomes after that. Try to imagine playing Monopoly against yourself and you might get the idea. Thankfully, you’re never forced to play it. It’s just another alternative to the usual power grinding fare.

In all areas, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a nice break from the traditional RPG experience. The story is engaging, the combat is fast-paced and the gimmicks work. The biggest indicator of its success, though, is the fact that I was captivated throughout three playthroughs. Never once did I feel like I’d “been there and done that.” That alone is worth a recommendation.


zippdementia's avatar
Community review by zippdementia (November 02, 2011)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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wolfqueen001 posted November 03, 2011:

Hey. Nice to see you back for a bit. I enjoyed this review simply for its straightforward presentation. You don't really rehash the basic premises of the Kingdom Hearts series like some people reviewing a sequel would, and thus appeal straight to those who are familiar with the series. I for one have been interested in this game since I heard about it (that is, since 100% completing KH2 a year ago...), and I'm glad to read that I may not have overestimated my expectations for it.

I am a bit more curious as to what sort of worlds appear or reappear in this game, and what new ones are added, but overall I'm glad you left that out because that's really something I'd like to find out on my own one day.

Maybe for Christmas I'll buy a PSP. It'd certainly be more affordable than a hi-def TV and PS3/X360, anyway. =P
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zippdementia posted November 03, 2011:

If you're okay with a used PSP, Wolf Queen, I've been thinking of selling mine. I have Birth by Sleep, as well as a ton of other games. We could probably work out a price that we were both satisfied with; just putting that out there.

Yeah, I was afraid to touch too much on the exact levels. I originally had two more paragraphs on the levels, but took it out when it felt like it was dragging. Hopefully what I said about them has excited your curiousity! I'll say that they are the best of the levels I've yet seen in a game, though they don't have quite the "scope" of the KH2 levels. You know, no huge tundra like the Pride Lands or environment spanning level like the Mulan stage.
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wolfqueen001 posted November 03, 2011:

Hm... That actually might not be a bad idea, as long as everything's in good working condition. Let me know what the best way to contact you is, and when the best time to talk about this would be, and I'll do so. Thanks! Out of curiosity, are you considering selling it because you need to or because you want to and/or just don't really use it anymore?

As for the levels, it was actually your description of Malificent's castle that piqued my interest most. I think Sleeping Beauty was my favorite Disney movie as a kid, and I'd always wondered how Kingdom Hearts would handle it. The first was pretty cool, but it really felt more of an "end of game" destination or whatever than an actual exploration of the Sleeping Beauty story or world. And the second KH kind of turned it into a base town. Either way, both replications had almost nothing to do with the Disney story, so I'd like to see how they go more in-depth with it.

As for some other comments, I did find the whole command deck thing a bit confusing and perhaps tedious, but I hadn't played Chain of Memories, so I don't have much to go on. I have a strong feeling it's something I'll figure out more as I play the game, though, and may in fact come to enjoy as you seem to.

I for one did find the notion of combining abilities interesting. I've always liked similar elements in other games, and may find it quite interesting here as well. Though, I do have to ask, when you combine abilities like you say, do you still get to keep the two you used to make the third, or does the third replace the two used to make it?

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zippdementia posted November 03, 2011:

The best way to contact me is via email. My schedule is kind've nuts (I'm sure you understand, as a fellow student!) so catching me on chat is tricky. I'll pm it to you (let me know if you don't get it).

I really enjoyed the PSP. Especially for RPGs, it was a great system and it also took some pretty standard series, like Metal Gear, and did some cool things with the concepts. Overall, a very underrated system. With me starting my final masters program next term, and working two jobs besides, I just don't have time to play as many games and I hate to see it lying around collecting dust. I'd much rather it gets used by someone who can enjoy all the cool games that are available for it!

The PSP is in perfect working condition and the screen is not scratched (aside from the hair-thin scratches that you can't see except by holding it close under a light). There is a light splattering of dust under the screen that you can only see when the screen is off... in other words, nothing on the screen affects or distracts from play). I'll throw in the 2 memory cards (they've got a few downloaded games on them, including 60 second hero, Obscure 2, and Badman 2) and a couple games I got direct from the manufacturer, for no extra charge. Of course the PSP comes with charger. I'm thinking to sell that main bundle for $70.

For games, I'm going various prices per extra game you'd like. I've got like-new copies (with original case and instructions) of Birth By Sleep, Dissidia, Metal Gear Acid 2 (that one even comes with the 3D viewer that people talk about being hard to find in one piece), PQ, Shadow of Destiny, Mega Man X remix, Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions, Tomb Raider: anniversary, GTA: Chinatown.

You'll have to cover shipping; but one of my jobs is I work at a UPS store so I can get you the best deal possible, and that will come with a tracking number and free insurance on the package.

Back to Kingdom Hearts... the card concept can be tricky to understand. I debated for a long time whether to even make the Chain of Memories comparison, but finally decided it was a good way to break into a discussion of the system.

Simply put, the card system forces you to limit the amount of abilities and special moves you can use during battle, because you have to wait for them to recharge. There are other aspects to it, but that's the biggest one. You have to decide, prior to getting into a fight, how you are going to fight. It's surprisingly exciting in this game, considering how boring it was in Chain of Memories.

Sadly, combining two abilities to make a third erases the two cards you used in the mix. But then, no loss, no gain...?
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zippdementia posted November 05, 2011:

Added photos.

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