Sunday, May 13, 2012

Kingdom Hearts 10th Anniversary Reviews: Birth by Sleep

---------My Rating System--------

A(-)(+) A top notch experience all the way through. It may not necessarily be perfect, but whatever flaws it does have won’t take you out of it or make it any less worth your time. (Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2)
B(-)(+) A very fun experience bogged down by some significant problems, whether they’re related to the story, gameplay, or both. However, it’s still a good game and worth the price of admission. (Kingdom Hearts: Recoded)
C(-)(+) A mixed bag.  Generally fun to some extent and may shine in some areas, but is either too flawed to fully recommend or far too short for its price. Conisder it for a reduced price, at least if you’re a fan of its genre. (Rayman 3D)
D(-)(+)  Subpar. It may not be terrible, but it is severely flawed and whatever it does well ultimately fails to save it. Even if you’re a fan of the genre, this is barely a bargain bin purchase.  (Sonic Heroes)
F Insipid, disgusting, despicable, and insufferable. It is a scar on the face of human accomplishments that time shall never heal. The best thing we can do is avoid playing it at all costs. It is the only way to prevent its parasitic disease of awfulness from spreading. (Shadow the Hedgehog)

This is it, folks. We have finally reached the last stop on our epic journey through the wonderful world of Kingdom Hearts…at least for the next few months. And what a great one we have today. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is an installment for the PSP, and is the second most recent game in the series (behind Re:coded), which came out in 2010. It serves as a prequel to the series, starring three new characters rather than Sora and company and its story is meant to provide a lot of revelations that connect to events in future games (chronologically) and will have an effect on events in the upcoming sequels. I actually don’t remember being all too excited for this one, and I’m not quite sure why. Of course, the fact that it was on the PSP may have had something to do with it. It kind of told me that it would likely be a smaller scale adventure than the two PS2 games. Not to mention, I didn’t own a PSP when it was announced, and even when I did get one, it was a used one that hardly worked and wouldn’t take the update needed to play games released after 2009. And, of course, I’m sure being massively disappointed by 358/2 Days, which came out just a year prior, didn’t help much either. Fortunately, I did get a Slim n’ Lite along with the game a couple of Christmases ago, and it not only exceeded my expectations, but it thoroughly blew them away. Ladies and gentlemen, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is quite possibly not only the best game in the series thus far, but my current favorite RPG. The statement may sound fanboyish, and, well, maybe it is a little bit, but I do have my reasons for placing this game on such a high pedestal. Let’s take a look.
The story of Birth by Sleep is seen from the perspectives of three different Keyblade wielders: Ventus – who notably looks a great deal like Roxas - Terra and Aqua, three great friends. All three of them train under Master Eraqus to eventually pass the Mark of Mastery exam and officially become Keyblade Masters, whose job it is to protect the worlds from the forces of darkness. Shortly after the game begins, Aqua and Terra take the exam. Aqua passes with flying colors, but Terra unfortunately falls short, as he can’t quite keep the darkness in his heart in check. For those who are not already familiar with the series, in the Kingdom Hearts universe, darkness is a force that lies in the hearts of all human beings and those who attempt to control it or use it for power are usually either consumed by it or turn evil. Xehanort, a fellow Keyblade Master, insists that darkness is not an inherently negative force and that light and dark should exist in balance. Going against Master Eraqus’s teachings, he encourages Terra to use and control the power of darkness, and this conflict is a central focus of Terra’s storyline. Ventus, or Ven for short, finds himself chasing after Terra after he is visited by a mysterious boy in a mask named Vanitas, who tells him that he will never see Terra again. However, Ventus is not meant to leave the Land of Departure (the opening world) and Eraqus sends Aqua after him. Of course, our heroes have another reason to be flying around the universe. All throughout the worlds, dark creatures called Unversed are popping up that are proving to be a grave threat, and Aqua and Terra are tasked with exterminating them.
From left to right: Aqua, Terra and Ventus.
You may have noticed that throughout my Kingdom Hearts reviews, I have actually given a lot of emphasis and praise to the games’ storylines. It’s actually pretty strange that a series that started as just a giant crossover between Disney and Final Fantasy could end up having such a compelling story and mythology on its own, and Birth by Sleep, more so than any other game in the series (with the possible exception of Chain of Memories), stands proudly alongside Kid Icarus: Uprising as an example of how you can find very complex and engaging stories in odd places. ...Okay, I guess I will admit that the script is a bit hit or miss with this one. It works for the most part, but there are a disconcerting number of moments where it devolves into cheese and, like with Riku’s story in Re:Chain of Memories, they really need to shut up about the “darkness”. Even for a huge fan like me, hearing them talk about the “darkness” all the time eventually gets kind of annoying and lines like “Has the DARKNESS taken YOU, TERRA?!” are just cringe worthy. Aside from that, though, this story is awesome. I didn’t like Ventus, Terra and Aqua quite as much as Sora and co., but they’re still great characters and you really feel like there’s a significant bond between them. Voice acting is mostly superb, as usual, and the cast includes such names as Leonard Nemoy, who does the voice of Master Xehanort; Mark Hamill, who does the voice of Master Eraqus; Haley Joel Osment, who does the voice of Vanitas and previously did the voice of Sora; and Jesse McCartney, who does the voice of Ventus and previously did the voice of Roxas. However, Terra’s voice actor, Jason Dohring…wasn’t so good, I hate to say. He’s okay for the most part, but there were a lot of times where he just sounded bored.

The game also adopts a Sonic Adventure approach to telling its story, as each character has his or her own playable storyline and your understanding of the events of each of them the first time through will depend on the order you played them in. The stories of the Disney worlds also all play out across all three of the storylines, which is another thing I found interesting. There is even a “Final Episode”, which you unlock by beating all three of the other storylines and finding all twelve of the secret readable reports written by Xehanort. Oh, I’m actually surprised I didn’t mention this already in any of the other reviews, so my bad. Basically, in this game as well as Kingdom Hearts I and II, you can find reports – written by a guy named Ansem in KH1 and 2 and Xehanort in this game. They chronicle the various musings and thoughts of these characters as well as the research they’ve done and experiments they’ve performed regarding objects of interest. They actually give a lot of background to the stories of these games and the motivations of these characters, and clear up what may otherwise have been some pretty significant plot holes. They’re really interesting to read and are a shining example of how much effort the writers put into the storyline and continuity of this series.

The plot of Birth by Sleep, in general, is possibly the most interesting and engaging in the series thus far. Also, it’s actually pretty unique as a prequel in that, while it takes place before the first game in the series, it leaves some loose ends for future sequels to resolve. And while the fact that it’s a prequel makes it more accessible to series newcomers, some scenes and elements and even appearances by minor characters are going to mean the most to series oldbies. Thus, I still recommend newcomers start with the original Kingdom Hearts and play in order of release date. If you don’t care, though, starting with Birth by Sleep could be a very interesting experience that will change your entire understanding of the events of the next chronological installments.

Birth by Sleep is highly impressive on the visual front, especially given the system that it’s on. Seriously, these graphics are almost on par with those of the PS2 games, especially when it comes to character models and animations. I’d probably even call it one of the best-looking games for PSP. This high visual quality does come with a few unfortunate strings attached, but Square did provide some easy remedies. Loading times are long and frequent, but you can get rid of this problem by installing the game onto your PSP, an option you are given before you start the game. The framerate also suffers quite a bit, but the CPU speed can be bumped up to get rid of this problem at the expense of some of the PSP’s battery life. Personally, I thought the trade-off was worth it. The soundtrack is all-new this time around (minus a few tracks), since the game uses all-new worlds, and it’s…possibly the best one Yoko Shimomura has composed yet. For the record, that’s saying a lot. New music has also been composed for the cutscenes of the game, and those are probably my favorite tracks of the bunch. The track that played during one scene was so sad that I actually empathized with Cinderella. Think about that. When it comes to world BGM’s, my favorite track would have to be that of the final world, which sets a dark tone and atmosphere the likes of which I doubt I’ve seen in the series before.

Moving on now, Birth by Sleep is considered a main game in the series and thus, as mentioned before, it gives us a selection of new Disney worlds, and a pretty diverse one at that. Movies represented this time around include such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Peter Pan as well as the more recent Lilo & Stitch…well, the first ten or so minutes of it, anyway. Peter Pan was represented in the series before, but the world seen here is nothing like that of the first game or 358/2 Days. The only world that really makes a return is Olympus Coliseum, based on Hercules, but the fighting tournament-style mini-game is still fun, so I’ll forgive them. Oh, and it has Zack Fair from Final Fantasy VII and Crisis Core in it. Yeah, I hope you like him, because that’s the only Final Fantasy cameo in the game.

Considering that the game is on less powerful hardware, it should go without saying that the worlds will be quite a bit smaller than what was seen on the PS2. That said, I think they did a great job with what they had. There are still plenty of treasures and such to find and the worlds feel very diverse, usually offering their own challenges for each character and even some neat gimmicks. Disney Town, for instance, is the designated mini-game world and the world based on Lilo & Stitch allows you to turn off the gravity in some areas and soar to massive heights with each jump, which is used for platforming. Speaking of which, I mentioned in my review of the first game that some people seem to have a problem with the platforming elements of the series. I’ve never minded them myself; in fact, I actually found the platforming of Birth by Sleep to be pretty enjoyable. It’s nothing amazing, but it offers some fun ideas, if nothing else. All three characters will be visiting the same worlds throughout the game, but they all have different challenges to overcome and bosses to fight and you will see different parts of the world’s storyline depending on which character you’re controlling. The fact that each character feels different to control and has his or her own specialties also helps to keep things from feeling redundant. Ven is the balanced fighter, Terra is great with physical attacks, and Aqua is skilled with magic, which will likely influence how you choose to develop each character.

This brings me to where things get really, really awesome: the combat system, and if you ever thought that previous games were too focused on button mashing, consider your prayers thoroughly answered! See, this game replaces the abilities of Kingdom Hearts I and II with a Command Deck, whose capacity increases as you continue through the game. You fill this deck with the abilities you receive over the course of the game, and use them via the triangle button after they have charged up. You get better commands as you go through the game or make them yourself (more on that later), and the commands you do have will level up as you go along. As you attack enemies, a bar will fill up above the Command Deck. You have upgradeable finishers that you can use, but depending on which commands you used to fight – elemental magic, for example – you could enter a Command Style, such as Diamond Dust, Firestorm or Lightning Bolt. Some Command Styles are also specific to each character, i.e. Ventus’s Fever Pitch, Terra’s Critical Impact and Aqua’s Spell Weaver. Using different commands during a Command Style could allow you to use other ones if you have them unlocked, such as Blade Charge, which turns your Keyblade into a giant glowing sword. These Command Styles not only augment your attack power or add elemental attributes to it, but also make your attacks lightning fast and really awesome to watch. It is worth noting, however, that you can’t abuse commands, as each command will need some time to charge up before you can use it again. See, it’s through this system that Birth by Sleep accomplishes the same fast-paced, flashy and fun combat that Kingdom Hearts II had while adding leagues of depth and strategy to it, and it works incredibly well.

That’s not even getting into just how customizable it is. You are given full control over what commands you have in your deck at all times, limited only by which ones you have collected in the game. Some commands actually come with other abilities attached to them, such as adding onto your default combo, and if that command levels up all the way, that ability is yours to keep. And then there’s the Meld Command option, which allows you to combine two commands to make a brand new one. Experimenting with this is a great way to get new abilities out of unwanted of Commands, and can also allow you to get better spells early on in the game. You won’t always know what you’re getting, so there may be risk involved if you’re wagering a good command, but who knows? You might get something really useful out of it. Sometimes, you can even combine magic spells with physical attacks to make an elemental version of said physical attack or a version that induces a status effect. Essentially, ability-wise you are given a lot of control over how your character develops, which just adds even more depth to what may be my favorite combat system in any RPG that I’ve played.

One more thing. I criticized the boss design of Kingdom Hearts II for being too easy and lackluster. So, does Birth by Sleep improve upon that as well? As a matter of fact, it does. A lot. In fact, if you’re playing on Proud Mode, a lot of these bosses are…pretty brutal, honestly, and some of them will easily one-shot you if you’re not at the right level. Heck, there are some that I remember having a lot of trouble with the first time through on Standard Mode. Oh, and Proud Mode isn’t even the highest difficulty level. That would be Critical Mode. It downright scares me to think about how hard that might be. All in all, bosses in Birth by Sleep are really difficult and a lot of fun to fight.

The Good:

+ Awesome story 
+ Great visuals 
+ Soundtrack is the best yet 
+ Three playable storylines 
+ New Disney worlds 
+ Lots of diversity 
+ Solid platforming elements 
+ Amazing combat system 
+ More customizable than ever 
+ Great boss battles 
+ Great voice acting…

The Bad:

- …Except for Terra 
- Sometimes cheesy script


After the disappointing Days, this game was just what I needed. It had just about everything I loved about the PS2 games and more, and my appreciation of it has grown even more after playing it again. This may very well be the most fun I’ve ever had with an RPG combat system, and the story, despite the problems I had with the script, is awesome, as usual. If you have a PSP, you owe it to yourself to play it. I’m giving it the same grade as Kingdom Hearts II because I can’t really give it an A+ and there are some things I believe Kingdom Hearts II does a bit better. However, overall, I do believe it to be a better game. It’s the best game in the series, possibly one of the best games for PSP, my current favorite RPG, and one of my favorite games in general.

Grade: A

And thus our journey through the Kingdom Hearts series finally comes to an end, at least for the moment. There is one more game in the series, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, but I already reviewed it. If you want the short version, though, it has a pretty weak story, but it provides its own fun take on Birth by Sleep’s gameplay style and has a great deal of gameplay variety, which makes it a very fun little side game that’s worth picking up.

Playing through these games again was a really great experience for me. Few game series have left the kind of impact on me that Kingdom Hearts has. When I was just seven years old, the first game showed me just how well a game could tell a story, and Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II continued to do so later on. Even 358/2 Days, which I was very close to giving a negative grade before the end, gave me a very nice and even heartbreaking storyline. (ba dum tssh) Dream Drop Distance is coming to the States soon, and it looks like another awesome installment to the series. As for my next review, that will probably be for Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 2, which hits PSN this Tuesday and XBLA on Wednesday. Farewell for now.
Cue credits sequence.

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