Kingdom Hearts fans are a long-suffering bunch. After feasting on the highly polished Kingdom Hearts II, they have had to make due with half-hearted gestures intended to tide them over until something significant could be produced. First it was a PS2 remake of the card-focused interquel Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories that contained no new bits of plot, and then it was the highly disappointing DS interquel Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, the plot of which was basically made irrelevant by the second to last mission.
It's safe to say that, like the Star Wars Expanded Universe, almost every minute between the two main installments has been filled in and explained to the point of exhaustion. And with Kingdom Hearts III not even out of the conceptual phase and the Kingdom Hearts team dicking around in the development hell that is Final Fantasy Versus XIII, it's easy to see why many fans are beginning to throw their hands up, exasperated with the franchise.
And so we come to the US release of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. Tetsuya Nomura, the guiding hand of the franchise, promises that this installment, though unnumbered and burdened with another nonsensical name like the other spin-offs, is a true prequel, an "episode zero" if you will, that would exhibit all the qualities of a main series installment. No confusing card systems, no boring "kill X number of enemy Y" missions, this is posited as the real deal. Supposedly, the entire overarching story for the series gets its start right here.
Has Square Enix finally found the key to another Kingdom Hearts II? Or is this installment destined to fade into darkness? Hit the jump for our review.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
Ten years before the events of the first Kingdom Hearts, three Keyblade apprentices named Terra (Jason Dohring), Ventus (Jesse McCartney), and Aqua (Willa Holland) train under the tutilage of Master Eraqus (Mark Hamill), one of the few remaining Keyblade masters. The surprising disappearance of Master Xehanort (Leonard Nimoy) and the sudden appearance of shadowy creatures known as the Unversed brought cause for alarm, and Terra and Aqua are soon dispatched to investigate the situation and find Master Xehanort. Though left behind, Ventus is goaded into following them by an enigmatic figure. The three Keyblade wielders jump from world to world, solving the local Disney characters' problems as they search for answers to their larger mission.
I compared the Kingdom Hearts universe to Star Wars above and after noting Mark Hamill's involvement in the game, I can't help but extend the analogy further. If the first game was A New Hope, then this prequel is undoubtedly Revenge of the Sith. As if keyblade wielders weren't similar enough to Jedi, their depiction in this game cements the comparison. Here we see the end of a dying order, as they try to keep peace throughout the worlds and give grave warnings to each other about the darkness (i.e. dark side). There are several scenes between the morally ungrounded hero Terra and the Sith-like Master Xehanort that directly mirror conversations between Anakain Skywalker and Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine. There is even the requisite speech about fear leading to anger, then to suffering, then to the dark side. (Those concerned with spoilers should be aware that these connections become apparent within ten minutes of starting the game.)
With that in mind, the entire arc of Terra is incredibly predictable. On one hand, longtime Kingdom Hearts fans are sure to find plenty to speculate about the character as they play through his arc, right down to his strangely familiar haircut. On the other hand, if it looks, walks, and talks like a duck, it must be a duck, and you will probably guess that Terra's fate won't turn out to be very pretty. It's still interesting to see it all come together, and younger audiences might be more forgiving, but any older gamer could probably list most of the important story beats off the top of their head. To top it off, Dohring's performance as Terra strives to be tortured and conflicted, but never quite gets there, coming across as stilted in most of his scenes. For a character with such potential, it's sad to see him fall flat all around.
Thankfully, there's more to the story than just Terra. In a first for the series, Birth by Sleep provides three interconnected stories, each with its own protagonist. The three scenarios can be played in any order you wish, and while director Tetsuya Nomura recommends going in the order of Terra, Ventus, Aqua, nothing's stopping you from mixing it up or even switching off after each world. Personally, I found it rewarding to stick with one character at a time, retroactively discovering how the other two characters' actions played a part in Terra's journey. For example, in the Cinderella world, Ventus arrives first and helps prepare Cinderella's dress. After he leaves, Terra finds her weeping about her torn dress and guides her safely to the ball, and then Aqua finishes the world's story by playing a part in the famous glass slipper scene. While you would expect each character to be running around the same environments, the game wisely limits each character to a smaller section of the world to reduce "backtracking" and provide unique challenges for each of them, including exclusive bosses.
Fans are probably most interested in Ventus's story, due to the fact that he looks almost identical to Roxas, the darker half of series protagonist Sora. Roxas's voice actor Jesse McCartney returns, giving a comforting familiarity to the character, whose arc is full of startling secrets that flesh out Sora's backstory. Aqua, hinted at in a bonus cutscene found in the Japan-only release of Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix+, is a bit less interesting, but is still a less predictable character than Terra turns out to be.
However, Aqua's play style contrasts nicely with the other characters. After several installments of fighting Heartless with Sora, Aqua's focus on magic provides a nice challenge. Ventus, being tied to Sora and Roxas, still provides the quick, flashy moves that fans are familiar with, while the slower Terra can charge into battle with brute force and powerful physical techniques. They're not drastically different, but they will make you reconsider how to tackle certain enemies in the game.
Though the combat is similar to what we've seen in the past two games, it offers plenty of new options beyond the usual Keyblade melee attacks. Magic is still on call, though now it is filed alongside Keyblade techniques (such as special abilities like Ars Arcanum from earlier games) and items under the command menu. Taking a page from Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core, anywhere from four to eight commands can be equipped at a time, and if they are leveled up enough in combat, you can combine them into a new command. In addition, you can toss a crystal into the command fusion to add a new passive ability for you to permanently learn as you level up the new command. Leveling up commands and finding new, powerful commands is surprisingly addictive, even though I normally shy away from more involved RPG elements like this.
Combat doesn't end with the command menu though. By using certain types of commands, you will shift combat styles, opening up new melee styles and powerful attacks that replace your currently equipped finishing move. If you find an opening in battle, you can charge up and lock-on to your enemies for a powerful Shotlock barrage that can wipe the field clean. And though summons are sadly gone due to processing power, they are present in spirit with the D-Link system, which allows your character to assume the skillset of another character for a considerable amount of time. To illustrate, D-Linking with Maleficent allows Terra to cast powerful dark magic, culminating in an impressive finisher in which he hovers in mid-air, spewing dragonfire at his opponents. Even without the reaction attacks of KHII, fighting enemies remains incredibly dynamic and engaging. It's just plain fun to pull off all the cool attacks and finishers.
And though all this action is found on a architecturally weaker system like the PSP, it remains just as polished as the previous main installment. In fact, the GUI and menu styles are remarkably similar, strengthening the impression that this is just as dazzling an installment as the last one. Furthermore, there is almost no recycled content. Besides the Hercules world - almost verbatim from KHII down to the music - every playable world is brand new, even the Peter Pan world, which showcases different areas than those found in previous installments. It helps that the graphics are beautiful to look at; each world perfectly captures the style of the Disney film it is based off of, and those that don't are very stylish. Artist Tetsuya Nomura often has his detractors, but there's no denying that his art style is a perfect mix of colorful and dark that's right at home in this universe, even when characters have too many belts and zippers. The game looks just as good as the PS2 games, albeit at a smaller, more jaggy resolution. But beyond that, there is no point in the game where things do not look like they could belong on the big screen.
The downside to this, however, is that all those fancy graphics and silky smooth battles take a major toll on the PSP. Square Enix tries to give you some options to fix this: you can install a large amount of data to your memory card and bump up the CPU speed to smooth out the game (at the expense of battery life), but even then, expect to sit through boring load screens and the annoying whir of the UMD drive. If you don't activate these options, playing the game will be like hitting every red light as you drive down a long street.
Birth by Sleep is not without its other faults, some of which have plagued the series since its inception. Though the command and D-Link menu is pretty cool, having to take your hand off the analog nub to sort through your options is not what you'll want to do in a tense battle; once again, Sony's refusal to provide a second analog nub cripples another game's control scheme. And as beautiful as they are, the worlds are still relatively barren besides you and the enemies. Furthermore, the contrast between the more realistic main characters and the characters they must help in the Disney worlds is somehow more apparent than with Sora and company. Most fans will have made their peace with this concept by now, especially younger fans, but seeing a tragic figure like Terra partake in the lighthearted minigames of Disney Town is a bit of a stretch even for this follower.
That said, the minigames are actually not that bad this time around. Players will find a simple volleyball game, a devious rhythm game, a four-course Mario Kart Lite, and the coup de grace, a Monopoly-like board game which is not only fun, but allows you to obtain and upgrade commands, serving as an alternative to grinding. In addition, you can team up with two friends in the Mirage Arena to play these minigames, battle each other, or take on thirteen extremely challenging arena matches, which work similar to the Hercules coliseum matches found in previous games. While not integrated with the main story and clearly just bonus content, these are much more compelling options than the multiplayer mode found in 358/2 Days. And naturally, there is a secret video at the end to unlock - if you manage to complete the final scenario, that is.
Even with its flaws, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep finally manages to deliver the highly polished sequel that fans deserve. For those who have never played the series before, it remains a solid title that won't confuse them with convoluted plot elements like Kingdom Hearts II. For fans who have followed the twisting story that happens outside the Disney worlds, it will provide the answers they've been waiting for, sometimes for questions they never knew they had, while leaving enough open for Kingdom Hearts III. For anyone who enjoys fun action games, it will stay in your UMD drive for weeks to come. Savor it - because you won't get anything like it for a while.
Score: 8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)