Review: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

Let’s get one thing straight. The Kingdom Hearts universe is pretty convoluted — so much, in fact, that even though I’ve played through most of the “main” entries in the saga, I’m still not exactly sure what’s going on. Perhaps that’s why I found Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep to be such a refreshing and entertaining play. It’s familiar, yet improved in ways that change the series formula up beautifully and technically, you needn’t be a diehard Kingdom Hearts fan to enjoy the narrative that’s laid out in such a fascinating, action packed, and touching adventure that I would recommend to any fan of the franchise in a heartbeat. It’s not perfect — what game rarely is? — but, well, it’s got a lot of heart.

This PSP installment takes place before the events that unfolded in the original PlayStation 2 offering. Terra, Ventus, and Aqua, three spry young heroes, have their sights set on becoming Keyblade Masters no matter how tough the road may be. It’s business as usual until a “final exam” of sorts, where their trainer, the Master of Light, Master Eraqus, entrusts them with a mission to restore the balance of Light and Darkness. As per the usual RPG bad guy fodder fare, an “unknown force” is attempting to engulf the world with terrifyingly deep darkness. But that’s kid stuff. I mean, at least they’re not trying to destroy it. …Right?

Our three sprightly young protagonists set off on different adventures in order to get to the bottom of things, though end up uncovering much more than they bargained for along the way. As you search for the culprit who’s spreading darkness throughout familiar Disney worlds, you’ll play each campaign separately, so choose wisely. Each character has a decidedly distinct play style what with magic and abilities, but since it’s not exactly clear which character is the simplest to start off with, you might need to err on the side of caution and avoid magic-user Aqua on your first run…unlike me.

On your way through your chosen character’s campaign, you’ll run into several beloved Disney characters in their own respective worlds, just like this spinoff’s bigger console siblings. Cinderella, Stitch, Hercules, and even Peter Pan are just a few of the personalities you can interact with. What I’ve always prided the series on is that meeting these characters never felt hokey to me. Similarly, they feel like “destined” encounters in this game as well. It’s not a guilty pleasure to hang out with Jacques the mouse, trying desperately to aid Cinderella in thwarting her fairy godmother. It just flows.

No Kingdom Hearts adventure would be complete without real-time battles that manage to capture the excitement of turn-based encounters while still adding its own flavor. This is the very same battle system fans of the series are likely familiar with, albeit vastly improved. Attacks are organized via Command Lists, which are home to different abilities that players may set via the menu. After an attack is carried out, it will need time to recharge in real time, so it adds an element of strategy other than “let’s whack away at this enemy with our keyblade.”

In addition, you can call on the remaining two companions out exploring the various lands in-game, Terrus, Ventus, or Aqua, depending on who you chose to accompany. With the D-Link, Aqua’s gift to her friends, you can have any one of your partners jump into battle. You can use their own abilities, which will level up with frequent use, and will more than often drag you out of some decidedly tight spots.

It’s a blast to make your way through the latest addition to the Kingdom Hearts saga. More than a few confusing loose ends will be tied up rather neatly (even more so if you can manage to unlock the secret
chapter), and everything there is to love about the franchise is here. You won’t even miss “familiar” setpieces, as these characters quickly grew into my favorites over any of the other Kingdom Hearts companions — yes, even more than Donald and Goofy. But as much as I want to say this is one of the best offerings, just like Colossi, it has some major weak points.

Let’s talk about the hideously long loading screens. Leave an area, get a loading screen. Begin a battle, get a loading screen. Do anything! You’ll get a loading screen. Perhaps that’s somewhat of an exaggeration, but these screens don’t play around when it comes to being absolute time hogs. The wait time between these dreaded screens becomes absolutely ludicrous, and sitting down for a solid chunk of gameplay ends up in more waiting than actually playing. Don’t believe me? Time how long you sit waiting for things to happen rather than going out and doing them! Installing the game can reduce these wait times a bit, but it shouldn’t be required of players to do such a thing just to have feasible loading times. That’s just ridiculous.

In addition, the game can be brutal. If you’re not ready to give it your all, 110% all of the time, it will chew you up and spit you out. It all goes back to my cautioning new players to choose characters wisely, because a steep difficulty curve is awaiting every press of “start” and can be more than a little frustrating, more so to me than previous entries in the series.

Birth by Sleep looks and sounds great. “Simple and Clean,” the de facto “main theme” of Kingdom Hearts (though I was more partial to “Sanctuary”) rings through the speakers as the game opens. The game looks as good as you’d expect for a bigger PlayStation 2 release. Except for some strangely “empty” worlds you traipse around end, devoid of as many NPCs as there usually would be, it’s a nicely compresed adventure that seems ripped straight from a larger console for on the go adventuring. And I like it.

I told you it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly one of the better portable offerings that Kingdom Hearts fans would do well to snap up. I don’t fancy waiting ten minutes to replay a particularly austere boss fight, but it’s still an engrossing story with memorable characters that you’ll probably want to play again…if you’re patient. Let’s hope that if another “main” entry is released in the future, all of these strange quagmires will be improved upon. For now, grab this great side-story if you’re a fan of the franchise.

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