The combination of Disney and Square Enix worked successfully when Kingdom Hearts first came out on the PlayStation 2, and title's fanbase has grown considerably since it debuted. However, while a lot of people are anticipating Kingdom Hearts 3, Square Enix has decided to focus on some spinoffs, the first of which was Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days on the Nintendo DS. Now it's the turn of Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep, a game which is trying to push the franchise further.
For those who played Kingdom Hearts 2, a full completion enabled a glimpse a secret ending to the "next" game. This next game turned out to be Birth By Sleep. The end of Kingdom Hearts 2 is where Birth By Sleep carries on with its introduction, however, ultimately it's a glimpse at the future and we get to find out the story behind the 3 new mysteriously armour clad characters in the process. It's also a prequel to Kingdom Hearts 1 so expect to see a few cameos of recognisable faces.
The story initially follows the journey of three friends: Ventus, Terra and Aqua. Terra and Aqua are both applying to be Keyblade Masters under the supervision of Master Eraqus, while Ventus is still a bit too young to really get involved. However, when another Master named Xehanort vanishes, Terra and Aqua are sent to find him. Terra sets off first, closely followed by Ventus who was meant to remain behind but was worried about his friend, and Aqua is placed with finding the both of them as well as Xehanort. Eraqus also requests that she keeps a close eye on Terra who seems to be struggling with the Darkness inside him. From there the story divides up and each of the three characters has their own roles to play occasionally crossing over with the other two characters.
This is the interesting part, as players actually get to choose who they play as throughout the game, and on completion not only can they continue, they can start a new save and experience the story for the other two perspectives as well. While the actual worlds are the same, the locales on each world are not. These areas are off limits to the other characters and while some of the parts of the map are reused, for the most part the experience is very fresh for each character. As players progress they will find there are similarities between the three characters, so there isn't really much benefit from picking one over the other.
The formula, in essence, remains the same. Players will travel from world to world making sure the story from each Disney themed world carries out as it would in the movie. There are some discrepancies to the actual films but the worlds feel very much like stepping into the actual films. There are aspects which are drastically toned down, such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Those films actually had some of the most iconic villains with regards to just how frightening they were and that has been completely lost, but that's just a minor point.
As for the actual combat, it still keeps a lot of the similar feel with players able to lock on, attack/jump/block and perform special attacks. However, all the magic and abilities are set into a command deck. Players can add specific commands into a list which will cycle through as each is used. After this it takes time to recharge each command. Players can manually select commands by pressing up and down on the d-pad, though this at first takes some getting used to in the midst of combat. But here lies a greater amount of depth, as using certain combinations of abilities and magic triggers a command style when the command bar is filled. Each character has a unique one to begin with and then several that every character can use and these tend to be elemental command styles such as fire, ice and lightning. However, even more command styles can be unlocked from that point.
Triggering these causes your character to gain a different attack style and do substantially more damage and when the command gauge fills up based on attacks, players can then perform a special finisher. There's a great deal of variation to the combat brought on from this and it's actually very fun to just experiment and mix things up a bit. On top of this, players can level up all their command abilities; most will only level up to a max of level 3-6 though. From there players can merge commands together with synthesis items and earn attachable abilities such as boosting the number of attacks they can do in the air to reducing damage from certain elements. These can then be mastered and permanently equipped so as far as customisation in combat goes it's much deeper than its predecessors.
As well as this, there is also the Focus meter which, when a player holds down L and R allows them to lock on to multiple targets and unleash a special combination attack. There are a few variations which players can do and it basically allows for a more ranged based attack. Then there's also the D-Link meter which allows a player to borrow the moves of another character, be it the other two characters they didn't pick at the start or one of the many people they've met throughout the game.
Aside from the world to world combat and sorting out the residents' problems, which usually end in a boss battle, the game has a substantial selection of mini-games. These range from Arena based combat, Racing, Volley Ball (Fruit Ball) and Ice Cream Beat. Then there's the command board which is a really strange system. Players can totally ignore it for the purposes of completing the story; however, for the fanatics it adds a serious amount of depth. Each world has a command board which is essentially a board game. Players must pass 4 checkpoints and reach start with a certain amount of points first to win.
To make things all the more complicated as they move around, they can purchase squares with their points and then set a tax on them. So if someone else lands on this panel they have to give the player who owns it points equal to the value on it. It's not dissimilar to monopoly in that respect, as players can also level up the panels they own increasing the money they will make if someone steps on them. The purpose of this? Well the panels players put down are actually the commands in their deck and levelling up the panels also levels up the players' actual commands. Not only this, but it's possible to acquire new commands in this way as well. So there's a reason to do it, but it's not totally necessary. It's quite fun but pretty time consuming and like every board game there's an element of luck especially when moving around is controlled by rolling a dice.
The other mini-games are pretty fun except for racing, which really feels unfinished. As for the rest of the content it takes 10-12 hours to complete the bare bones story for one character, completing all 3 will take 3 x that. There are also secret bosses to slay and the level cap goes to 99 even though the story will be completed at around level 25-30. There are also trophies and two additional game modes: Proud, which is a much harder mode and Critical Mode which also enables players to turn experience gains off for an extreme challenge. As well as this, there is also multiplayer which can be played with up to 4 players in Arena co-op against monsters, versus against each other, racing, and the command board. There's definitely a lot to invest time in for players should they choose to.
Lastly the only thing left to mention is the presentation which for the most part is solid. Graphically the game looks really nice, and fits each environment well though there are times when characters appearances seem to look a little bit too flat. Then we've got two major flaws. Firstly and sadly is the music; Cinderella and Disney Town will become those songs that players will find stay in their head all day just because of how soon they loop back to the beginning repeating every 20 seconds. These will eventually drive players nuts the longer they spend on the world. The last problem might be only applicable under certain circumstances. We reviewed this without installing and on the PSP-1000. And with that environment, the load times between areas were about 15-20 seconds and oddly when triggering a command style for the first time in each area there was a 10 second delay that actually makes it look the game has crashed till it finally activates. Considering other games don't have loading times or game pauses this long under the same conditions, it is a little puzzling and does fragment the gameplay a lot in the process.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep offers a lot of content and it holds up really well with regards to story and the gameplay. The multiplayer is a welcome addition and above all, the combat and gameplay remains fun and allows players to be a bit more inventive throughout. There's also a lot to do after the game is over without even taking into consideration the multiple story campaigns and also the Final Episode. It's just a shame the music isn't quite up to scratch in places and the loading times without an install are pretty appalling. But even so it's definitely worth the purchase without a doubt.