Review: Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
I've waited a very long time for a Kingdom Hearts game that compares to the original: Birth By Sleep comes close. From the start, no matter which character you choose to play as, you are faced with the ethics of light verses darkness - physical embodiments of purity of heart, hatred, rage, jealousy, etc. These are moral themes we’ve encountered before, having Sora tasked with literally locking the heart of each world so that darkness would not get in. The light/dark philosophy comes down to this: should we push darkness out of our hearts and live a life of pure light, or should we learn to embrace and control the darkness within ourselves and use its vast power to improve our abilities? Through Terra we see what havoc the darkness can wreak when not controlled, and through Xehanort we see what power can come from it when harnessed, but female Keyblade Master Aqua and the Sora/Roxas-like Ventus show what the light can achieve when untainted by darkness.
Birth By Sleep simplifies the increasingly convoluted story elements that each Kingdom Hearts game has added, setting the story ten years before the events of Sora’s first adventure and before the player needs to keep track of who’s whose Nobody and what villain is or has a Heartless version of themselves. There are fewer characters to juggle than in Kingdom Hearts II, making the ones that do have screen time shine that much more.
After a mysterious prologue involving Ventus and the infamous Xehanort on Destiny Islands, we meet the trio in the game’s present day. You are told to run through the training center with Ventus, and this quick tutorial leads you to a sparring ring where you can switch between each character and try them out before deciding whose path you’d like to follow. And that’s it. Fifteen minutes or less of a tutorial and you’re ready to move on to the main game, instead of the playable two-hour introduction tutorials of the two console games in the series.
The three main characters, Terra, Ventus, and Aqua, are Keyblade wielders in training in the Land of Departure. Terra and Aqua take the test to become Keyblade Masters, unfortunately only Aqua is chosen; Terra lets some of the darkness within him slip out during a one-on-one battle with Aqua and Ventus is too young to compete in this test. Not long after they receive word of dark entities called the Unversed attacking other worlds, and on top of that, Master Xehanort goes missing.
Fighting is classic Kingdom Hearts action-RPG style. You’ll mash the attack button for combos and use special keyblade attacks and magic that is equipped to a D-Pad-controlled menu. New to the battle system are D-Links and finishes. Finishes are exactly what they sound like - devastating ends to combos that can be activated when a meter atop your command menu fills up, increasing as you fight. D-Links (dimension links) allow your character to connect to someone they’ve met and draw on their abilities for battle. Who you can D-Link with changes from character to character; Ventus may form a link with someone like Cinderella, but Terra will form links with villains like Maleficent, and can then use spells that cater to her personality, like Thundara. If Terra links to Ventus he can use lots of jumping slashes and keyblade-specific moves, though linked abilities temporarily take the place of your equipped ones. Your D-Link with each character can level up twice, as well, each time gaining an automatic ability like haste or auto-remedy, for example.
My first playthrough was with Ventus. It seemed logical, as he was the object of the prologue. However, after completing his story and beginning again as Terra, I was provided more answers about the game’s world. It would have been a far better starting story. For much of my 15-hour playthrough with Ventus I was wondering what the things I was fighting were, so Ventus’ story may be better left for the second playthrough. He controls and looks like a Roxas clone, and is agile, quick, and balanced between strength and magic. Terra’s attacks are slower but stronger, and Aqua is weak but has a powerful magic boost
What’s interesting about having three storylines is that we get to see each character grow as they learn life lessons from characters on other worlds. Terra parallels a more grounded Riku and Ventus parallels Sora. Aqua has more of a Kairi sensibility, but with the maturity of age and discipline. You can see traces of the main characters of the series but at the same time they retain their own personalities. But with three characters to choose from, Birth By Sleep essentially becomes three games. Each character moves and attacks differently, gains abilities in a different order, and meets different people. My playthroughs ranged from 8 to 15 hours, time which will vary depending on how much level grinding, ability grinding, and mini-game playing you do, and what difficulty you choose. There are some battles that are nearly impossible on Proud mode (only the second hardest difficulty). In fact, after literally 40 or more tries I still cannot beat the final boss in Terra’s storyline. I’m all for a challenging fight, but this one was absolutely ridiculous to the point in which I was willing to turn to YouTube for Terra’s ending.
You’ll have new interactions with Disney characters along the way and each character will explore portions of the Disney worlds that the other characters may not have seen. Mickey, Cinderella, Prince Phillip, Sleeping Beauty, Pete, Chip ‘n Dale, Jaq, Hercules, Stitch, and more are all there, though Zack is the only Final Fantasy character present in this iteration of the series. This is possibly due to the fact that no worlds have been destroyed yet, so the Final Fantasy characters would not have been scattered to the Disney worlds at this point in the timeline.
I only wish the game gave us a more powerful demonstration of the keyblade’s unique abilities. When Sora first gained his keyblade, he used it to lock entire worlds so the darkness wouldn’t get in. In the second game he unlocked passageways between the worlds. Terra, Aqua, and Ventus open chests and sometimes locked doors, but they mainly only use it as a weapon that can fight dark entities until the end of the game. You’ll often forget you’re not using a regular sword. Birth By Sleep is also a bit light on the emotional component throughout a majority of the story. The Sora/Kairi longing was well done in Kingdom Hearts, and by the end of the second game it had a good amount of impact - their relationship was important to the player. Unfortunately, because of the nature of playing three characters that are split up from the beginning, we never truly feel the amazing friendship the characters are trying so hard to protect, not only because you hardly see them together but also because you hardly know the actual characters involved until you’ve played most or all of the storylines.
Birth By Sleep is a game every PSP owner and Kingdom Hearts fan should play. It will keep you engaged for hours at a time and includes three perspectives of the events of the game without the plot becoming stale. You’ll see the beginnings of Xehanort’s attempt to open a path to the world of Kingdom Hearts, hear his philosophies, and see what causes the split into the Heartless “Ansem” and the Nobody “Xemnas” we see in the other games of the series. It’s largely a Xehanort origin story and in no way a tale of the keyblade’s beginning, but it satisfies with interesting characters and new interactions with Disney worlds that were losing their charm by Kingdom Hearts II. There’s also an arena world where you can do single-player trials (i.e. Hercules’ stadium in past games) or compete in ad hoc multiplayer, and a board game mini-game that levels up your abilities. Play it, love it, and play it two more times to finish Terra, Aqua, and Ventus’ stories and unlock the secret ending. You’ll have a great time.