Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep - Staff Review  

The Other Epic Mickey
by Adriaan den Ouden

Click here for game information
20-40 Hours
+ Great combat system.
+ Best Disney storytelling since the original game.
- Cheesy dialogue
- Ending lacks resolution.
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   Disney and Square Enix. Square Enix and Disney. The single most unlikely pairing in the history of video games. Back in 2002, Kingdom Hearts was a break-out hit, combining the fantasy epics of Final Fantasy with dozens of beloved Disney franchises, everything from Mickey Mouse to Mulan. Eight years later, Kingdom Hearts has become an animal all of its own, and the latest entry, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep has just arrived on the PSP.

   Several years before the events of the original Kingdom Hearts, when Sora, Riku, and Kairi were wee children, a different trio of heroes were learning the ways of the Keyblade. Ventus, Terra, and Aqua are three friends training to be Keyblade Masters under the guidance of Master Eraqus. The day that Terra and Aqua are set to become Masters themselves, events unfold that send the three friends in different directions, and it's along these three paths that the story of Birth By Sleep takes place.

   Like previous Kingdom Hearts games, the story takes place across a myriad of worlds, each based on a different Disney film. While previous games in the series have had an issue of reusing worlds, leading to a fair bit of repeated story, Birth By Sleep manages to avoid this by making use of almost nothing but new worlds. All told, there are five new Disney worlds, while only two are recycled from previous games. And the two worlds that are repeated manage to avoid the repetition by taking place in different areas or at different times. For example, the Hercules world takes place when Hercules was still a teenager, while the Peter Pan world allows you to explore Neverland more thoroughly, rather than being limited to the pirate ship as in the first game.

Only Kingdom Hearts could have an epic boss battle against a house cat. Only Kingdom Hearts could have an epic boss battle against a house cat.

   By far the most impressive aspect of the story is how it's divided into three separate parts. While playing through the game once only takes about ten to fifteen hours, it must be completed three times, once with each character, in order to get a grasp on the entire story. While the notion of playing the same game three times in a row might seem like a drawback, Birth By Sleep pulls it off flawlessly, mostly because the three characters' stories are entirely separate. They visit the same worlds, but at different times. They meet different characters, fight different bosses, and often visit different areas of the worlds. Each character even plays slightly differently, making each play through an entirely new experience. What's most interesting is that, in each world, the three characters' stories put together manage to form a whole for that world. For example, in Cinderella's world, Ventus helps repair her dress, Terra escorts her to the ball, and Aqua helps break her out of her room so she can try on the glass slipper. Each world follows a similar pattern, and it's interesting to see how they piece together.

   Despite being the most solid Disney storytelling since the original game, there are still some negative aspects to be found. The original story sequences have a tendency to be overly dramatic, cliché, and more often than not, downright cheesy, and this is coming from someone with a fairly high tolerance for JRPG cheese. Fantastic lines like, "What else is darkness but hate and rage?" permeate the text, and it's impossible to take the characters seriously, no matter how much the game might want you to. The plot also ends without answering a lot of questions, which can make the finale more than a little bit confusing. Even after playing all three storylines, there is no real resolution to the story. A "Last Episode" can be unlocked, though to unlock it, the player has to collect a set of twelve items across all three storylines, and one of these items is pleasantly nestled deep within optional content, which feels like a real kick in the teeth.

   While the story does take a front-row seat, Birth By Sleep's gameplay is equally solid. Although the game suffers from a small handful of control issues, such as an awkward camera and some unwieldly button combinations, the core gameplay is a huge improvement from the classic Kingdom Hearts formula. For one thing, the menu system seen in previous titles has been streamlined; the X button is permanently affixed to a standard combo attack, while the triangle button is used to activate skills from the menu, making it more akin to typical action RPGs.

   Birth By Sleep also takes a page from one of Square Enix's other recent RPG endeavors, The World Ends With You. Specifically, the skill system used in the former greatly resembles the pin system in the latter. As the game progresses, new skills can be found or purchased, and players can equip and use a certain number of these skills at a time, depending on their progress. As you fight, the skills gain experience and eventually level up. Once a skill has reached its maximum level, it can be fused with other skills to create new ones. Mastered skills can also permanently grant passive abilities.

Mickey Mouse: Swordsman Extraordinaire! Mickey Mouse: Swordsman Extraordinaire!

   Although skills gain experience from combat simply by being equipped, there is another, faster way to level them up, and even learn obtain new skills, and this is through a mini-game called the Command Board. The Command Board is, as its name suggests, a board game that greatly resembles Monopoly. You use your skills to purchase spaces on the board, and at the end of the game, win or lose, all the skills you placed on the board gain a large chunk of experience. The mini-game is actually remarkably fun and addictive, and a tangible reward at the end makes it worthwhile to play.

   Like Square Enix's other PSP projects, Birth By Sleep is visually stunning. The characters are impeccably modeled and animated, and the environments all manage to capture the charm of their Disney counterparts. There isn't a lot of variety in the enemies, but the bosses are all quite impressive and fun to battle. The audio is not quite on the same level, but still very good. The voice acting, particularly among the Disney characters, is fantastic. The original characters aren't quite as solid, but this is partly due to the atrocious dialogue they're forced to relay. The music is great, made up mostly of remixed Disney classics, but at the same time there are a lot of reused tracks from previous Kingdom Hearts games.

   Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep suffers from one major problem, and that's load times. Even with a 680mb installation, the load times can get quite lengthy, though they're still manageable. Without the installation, they're just ridiculous. Even so, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is a great addition to the series. The story is the most enjoyable since the original, and the gameplay has evolved quite nicely. Playing through all three stories will take most players 30-40 hours, which also makes it a great value. A couple of hang-ups prevent it from being a truly excellent experience, but regardless, it comes highly recommended.

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