Every gamer, from the casual to the hardcore, holds a few select titles close to his heart. With no bearing on the game’s actual quality, some titles just sneak right past our discerning critic’s barriers and snuggle into our breast, further entrenching themselves as the weight of time and nostalgia drive the title deeper into the halls of cherished memory. Many games are good, several are great, but only a few reach this cherished distinction. For example, lots of people love Chrono Trigger ( I am not one of them, since I never owned and SNES, and yes, I’m still bitter about missing out on the fun), professing it to be the greatest RPG of all time even though it’s actually a dull, derivative product. As for me, personally, several titles hold a special place in my heart organ: The entire Final Fantasy series from VII-X (including Tactics, which is the best game ever), the criminally under appreciated Xenogears, the bubbly and colorful Megaman Legends, and, of course, the original Kingdom Hearts. For those not in the know, Kingdom Hearts is an action role-playing game that combines Final Fantasy and Disney worlds. Yes, as in Walt Disney. Don’t ask me how someone came up with this concept; I don’t know. I’m just glad they did. Well, the 12 year-old Japanese girl inside my brain is glad, anyway.
I’m sure the previous paragraph may seem long-winded and probably unnecessary, but I just wanted to describe the near-religious reverence I feel towards the first Kingdom Hearts. This review will not be objective; you have been warned. I’m going to delay my actual review to indulge one more tangent, and that is to stress that my unconditional love extends only to the first Kingdom Hearts, and not to any of the other 3 sequels. Chain of Memories was a great game. It had a solid battle system and really stretched the capacity of the then-cutting-edge GameBoy Advance to heights I didn’t think possible. It’s very contained plot was good too, and really allowed for some deeper character portrayal. However, that very strength was also its weakness, i.e- it’s very limited scope. The whole story was ultimately pointless enough to be condensed as a 3 minute opening CGI sequence to Kingdom hearts 2. Kingdom Hearts 2 itself was horrible, and lost almost everything that made the first so endearing. 358/2 Days was almost as bad as its title, and was even more superfluous than Chain of Memories. It had had a clunky, unresponsive battle system, and shallow non-descript worlds in which the player solely interacted with faceless enemies. Sadly, none of those sequels came close to matching the original.
Enter Birth by Sleep, the only other title in the series that reaches the same solar system of sweetness that is Kingdom Hearts 1. Finally, 5 years into its run, the PSP’s existence is justified. Unfortunately, the game is UMD disc-only, so the PSPGO still has no reason to be. Anyway, the game is good, and the story mode is split into 3 points of view of the different main characters, so the experience doesn’t ever get dull, and the story unfolds layer by layer as you revisit worlds with the different protagonists. This is a neat little twist, which really sets this title apart from the other games in the series (Chain of Memories dabbled with the concept by letting the player go through the game a second time as Riku).
Birth By Sleep is a prequel to the original game, and centers around the 3 main characters, Ventus, Terra, and Aqua (who is super hot, maybe the hottest video game character ever, not that that’s important; what’s inside is what counts). The three are apprentice keyblade masters who become trapped in the machinations of the “fallen” master Xehanort, who mysteriously shares a name with Kingdom Hearts 2 main nemesis, and has been experimenting with the power of darkness. He tries to recruit Terra to his side, and the 2 other friends must follow him through various Disney Worlds and make sure he doesn’t give in to temptation. I’ll admit, it may seem like Terra, Ventus, and Aqua are just stand ins for Riku, Sora, and Kairi from the main series, but they really are independent and well-developed characters. You can’t help but get pulled into their quest to find and help each other. And the way it all ties up in the end and sets up the beginning of Kingdom Hearts is very satisfying. As with the other sequels, the main weakness lies in the individual stories within the Disney Worlds, as they often feel rushed, and just don’t carry the same weight as the main plot.
If you’ll allow me to be concise for a minute; this is a beautiful game. Now, let me be long-winded again. Graphically, it looks every bit as good as the PlayStation 2 installments, maybe even better. It is a visual feast. The game really pushes the PSP’s capabilities. Square Enix did not spare many expenses for this title’s production. The character models especially are something to behold, let me tell you. Unfortunately, some of the environments are rather bare, and a few of the Disney Worlds feel rather shallow. As per usual with the series, camera angles can get frustrating at times. But some flaws can be forgiven, given the hand held medium.
The gameplay is great. Specifically, the battle system is amazing. It may be the best in the series. There’s the standard attack, jump, and guard buttons, of course, but there’s also a list of extra attacks called “commands” assigned to the triangle button. Not only is the order and command list customizable, but the commands themselves can leveled up for higher damage and be merged to create new, more powerful attacks. In addition, your character has finishing attacks, which can also level up and be switched out, and shot-lock attacks, used for enemy groups, which can be upgraded swapped out as well. Characters also have special forms they morph into once certain requirements are met, usually specific attack combination. Again, you are given several different forms from which to choose. The fun doesn’t end there, though, as you also have the option to D-link, which involves taking on the attack and command patterns of other characters for a limited amount of time. You can D-link with the other 2 protagonists, but also the different Disney characters you meet throughout the adventure. So what we get is an incredibly deep, fully customizable battle system. Let me suggest you play the game in Proud mode though. Normal is a bit too easy, but Proud really forces you to learn enemy attack patterns and hone your attack style.
A huge complaint most had with the previous titles, especially Kingdom Hearts 2, were the crap-rific mini games. Those sins have been atoned for. The Command Board is a mini-game you can access anytime, and is basically a violent monopoly. You move along a board game and buy spaces to which you can graft attack commands to weaken the other players as they pass by. Also, using your attacks in the mini-game actually level up the commands, too. So it’s not just a time waster. It’s addictive, too. Add multiplayer and a few more boards, and I’d pay retail value just for that game.
The music is great, too, as in all the other games in the series. This time around they used Simple and Clean from the first game as its theme song, and I have to admit when the techno remix started up in the intro video, I got pumped up.
Anyway, Birth by Sleep is an amazing title, and if you own PSP, then you have no excuse not to also own this game. Go out and get it, son. Highly recommended.