Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep Review
Ok, I officially have been made a fool of by Square Enix. As I write this, I'm sitting in front of the shelf that is home to my video game collection, and I can count SIX Kingdom Hearts games up there. One and two on the PS2, the Game Boy Advance's Chain of Memories and its PS2 reboot, Re: Chain of Memories, the Nintendo DS' 358/2 Days and finally, the PSP's Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Out of those six, I've truly loved one – the original Kingdom Hearts. The other five were hotly anticipated, played-through and ultimately disappointing, with Birth By Sleep being the latest letdown. So Square Enix has got me wrapped around their little finger; I've now bought five blah games based on the love of one that game out a sobering eight years ago. And guess what? They'll do it again with whatever Kingdom Hearts semi-sequel, prequel, remake or side story they put out next. None of the Kingdom Hearts follow-up games have been terrible games (except maybe Chain of Memories), but they have all lacked the fresh-faced, endearing originality of the first title, and additions to the original storyline (Organization XIII, Namine, Roxas, etc.) have been uniformly unbelievable and stupid. So here we are, with Square Enix's latest attempt to siphon some of the remaining glory from a game that is growing ever older. Does it fly? Or is Birth By Sleep another senseless retread featuring more bells and whistles while omitting the stuff that made the first game great?
Birth By Sleep is the Kingdom Hearts' series first prequel, taking place a number of years before Sora's adventure starts on Destiny Islands. The story follows three friends, Terra, Ventus and Aqua, as they become Keyblade Masters (to varying degrees) and journey across worlds in search of the ubiquitous "light" and each other. To say the plot is a bit weak is an understatement; you can alternately find a lack of any serious direction across most of the game while also being subjected to laughable clichés nearly every step of the way. Keyblade Masters Eraqus and Xenahort, though rarely seen, play the roles of Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader pretty well, and the search for your compatriots reflects the first Kingdom Hearts game almost identically, except for the fact that you continue searching for said friends despite running smack into them over and over. It all feels kind of pointless, especially with the extremely weak ties to the original game. I'm sorry, but a few cameos and the explanation of the nonsensical secret movie found at the culmination of Kingdom Hearts II does not a good prequel make. And though a few new, actually interesting Disney worlds have been added this time around, it doesn't take the sting out of having to compete in the Olympus Coliseum for, what, the sixth time? any less unpleasant. Madden games have seen less significant updates than some of these world's characters and scenarios. And the fact that Ventus, one of the game's three main characters, looks almost identical to Roxas from Kingdom Hearts II and 358/2 Days just smacks of laziness. If you've been through all the Kingdom Hearts games, as I have, you're either calling for my head at this point of waking up to the realization that, yep, the whole thing is in desperate need of some new ideas. Story is no reason to play Birth By Sleep.
The gameplay, however, is the best the series has seen yet. The combat is fresh and exciting, with all kinds of new powers to play with. Like in 358/2 Days, your attacks are based on setting up a command deck, which has you picking and choosing from new spells and special attacks found and learned as you progress. All of these are upgradeable; you can level them up through use or you can meld them with other commands, creating even more powerful attacks. That alone would be enough to save the combat from being a button-mashing nightmare, but it doesn't stop there. You also have D-Links, which act almost like summon powers, except instead of calling in a character to help, you simply gain their powers for a short time. Using these in battle gives them new abilities and powers, and between this and the upgradeable attacks, you often feel as though there aren't enough enemies out there to fully upgrade and everything you have at your fingertips. Lastly, there are Shotlocks, a kind of projectile super attack that has you painting enemies with targets before letting loose an almost too-powerful barrage of long-range death. The combat in the other Kingdom Hearts games was always action-packed and often quite fun, but here it feels fully fleshed-out and the depth of options make charging past enemies rather than fighting them (as was prudent in some past games) a fool's errand. By the time I finished the game, I had put in the extra time to level up and learn almost all the attacks, D-Links, spells, etc. and it never felt like wasting time for completion's sake. If that isn't high praise for the combat, I'm not sure what is.
Birth By Sleep's gameplay successes don't stop there. This time around, the mini games and side quests are actually a lot of fun to work through. You'll need to compete in the Mirage Arena to access the game's best weapons and powers, and the path through it is as rewarding as the prizes you'll gain. Yep, the arena challenges from past games are still present, but you'll also enjoy an Elite Beat Agents-style rhythm game, Fruitball, an amalgam of dodge and volleyball, and Rumble Racing, an awkwardly controlled but very satisfying kart racer. These can all be played with friends, and your records can be mixed with others to unlock even greater rewards. This Kingdom Hearts entry finally nails what past ones have struggled with in the side quest and mini game department and, thankfully, the Gummi Ship is only mentioned in passing.
Less optional is the Command Board, a board game you'll need to play to effectively to help level up your attacks and commands. It works just like every board game you've ever played, roll the dice, move square-by-square and collect prizes, but by outfoxing your opponents, you can augment even the most useless of commands in the blink of an eye. That is a very base recap of how deep the Command Board gameplay actually is, but it is tough to explain and even harder to learn without some hands-on experience and experimentation. Some games on the Command Board can seem to drag on forever, but it's an interesting enough, and useful enough, idea to keep you going back to it.