As a prequel to the Kingdom Hearts series, Birth By Sleep does away with many of the familiar story elements and characters fans have come to know and love, including main protagonist, Sora (although he and others do pop up from time to time).
Instead, the story revolves around three new main characters, Ventus, Terra and Aqua. These keyblade masters in training embark on a quest to find Xehanort, their missing master, which leads them through assorted worlds, many of which are themed after various Disney flicks.
If you’ve played the previous Kingdom Hearts games then this will all be familiar, and you’ll know what to expect. You’ll also lap up the crossovers from the previous games, and the various revelations that precede the PS2 outings.
The core of the game is third person combat and exploration with a dose of RPG levelling and ability collecting thrown in. The main single player mode is at the centre of the title and it’s split into three separate campaigns, one for each of the main characters.
You can choose to play these in any order, and each story crosses over in some way or another with the other two. Each of these has a very healthy play time of around 15 hours, meaning that the entire single player game will last a very long time, indeed. There’s also a multiplayer component included.
I can happily say that Birth By Sleep is every bit as good as the previous outings. Controlling the action is as smooth as ever, and this time it’s beefed up with a number of new features, including a new revised command deck. This allows players to customise their character ability layout, choosing which abilities and items they can use. It’s similar to previous games, but is a little more in-depth this time. As you use abilities, these will power up, levelling up to more powerful versions. You can then choose to mix these abilities together to form new one should you wish.
The D-Link system lets you share other characters’ abilities, and comes in useful in many situations, perhaps none more so than switching to Aqua’s healing magic when you’re low on supplies.
Magic is handled differently too, and this time you’ll have to wait while abilities recharge before you can use them again. There’s no MP either, as this has been replaced by Focus. One use of this is the ‘Shotlock’ attack, which can be used, Panzer Dragoon-style, to lock on to multiple foes and fire volleys of energy at them.
One of the major additions to the game is the Command Board. This is basically a board game for each world, which is unlocked after completing that world. In this mode you move characters using rolls of dice and landing on various squares has a range of effects, with some helping you and others hindering you.
Using this board you can level up and acquire abilities, instead of solely having to rely on grinding your way through foe after foe. It’s a great idea, and one that really works. The Gummi ship shooter has been cut out, sadly, but the Command Board is a worthy replacement.
These extras, such as the command deck and impressively deep ability and item management systems, complement the smooth, accessible combat, and wandering around the various worlds is always enjoyable, and as you level up, you really do have a good deal of control over how you’ll evolve.
The worlds included are as impressive as ever, and feature locations based upon Snow White, Cinderella, Fantasia, Peter Pan, Lilo And Stitch and more, as well as a selection of Square-created locales. Each looks great, and special mention should go to the visuals, generally, which are on a par with the PS2 originals. Yes, many of the locations are a little devoid of detail but, on the whole, this is one good-looking title.
The audio is also spot on, with appropriate music and some great voice acting.
I mentioned earlier that the game includes multiplayer, and although not the main reason most will seek out the title, it’s a nice feature to have. There are several modes, including a standard versus mode, where players can fight each other in arenas, a survival co-op mode that pits teams against waves of AI-controlled foes and a multiplayer version of the Command Board mini game. There’s also a kart racing-style game.
All of these modes are good fun, and if you’ve got friends with PSPs, they’ll add greatly to the longevity of an already impressively lengthy title.
After playing Birth By Sleep, I find it very, very hard to find any real issues, except one: loading times. If you intend to play Birth By Sleep without using the data install option, prepare to spend a lot of time staring at black loading screens. These breaks are everywhere, and are so intrusive and commonplace that they really could become a game breaker for some.
Even on the full install of 624MB, loading is an issue, and the stop/start nature of the game’s flow really does hurt its overall appeal. What’s more, the various areas in each world are fairly tiny, which means you’ll run into section loads often, and that’s not to mention the many cut-scenes, all of which require loading up.
Usually, loading times in games are an irritation, of course, but so prevalent are they here, that it’s a problem that really does drop a star off the rating, in my opinion. It’s a real shame, and one that could have been avoided with some better memory use and buffered content.
I’ve rarely encountered the need to install a game to my PSP’s memory stick, but here I had no choice, so awful and frequent were the loading times.
Still, as problematic as the loading delays are, it can’t really take away from the sheer quality of the actual game, and the rock solid gameplay, epic adventure and the myriad of worlds, options, and extras make this an essential PSP title, and some may say, the best Kingdom Hearts yet.
Just make sure you’ve got some storage space. You’ll be needing it…
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.