Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, the latest entry in the Kingdom Hearts, has finally been released in Japan, and it delivers practically everything Square Enix promised fans of the series. The story provides answers to unsolved questions, a look at the roles of past keyblade wielders and successfully sets the stage for the all of the Kingdom Hearts series even Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep‘s story begins in the Land of Departure, where Master Eraqus, Master Xehanort, Terra, Aqua, and Ventus reside. The game begins with Terra, Aqua and Ventus wishing to become keyblade masters, and training under Keyblade Master Eraqus. Terra and Aqua are able to take the test, but Eraqus forbids Ven from participating. After the test is completed, with Aqua passing, Xehanort leaves the room.
Here’s where things start falling apart. Mysterious creatures known as the Unversed have begun appearing around all the worlds, causing all kinds of trouble. Master Xehanort and his masked apprentice Vanitas both leave the Land of Departure. From here, Terra, Aqua and Ven’s path’s divide and the player chooses whose story to follow. The chronological order is Terra, then Ven and finally Aqua. In terms of difficulty, it’d go Ven, then Terra and finally Aqua. Eraqus sends Terra on a mission mainly to find Xehanort, but to also destroy Unversed. Ven sneaks off to follow behind Terra after talking to Vanitas. Finally, Aqua is sent out to sort of clean up after and watch over the both of them. She’s tasked with protecting Terra from himself and dark forces and bringing Ven back home safely.
The new main characters Terra, Aqua and Ventus deserve some praise as they’re easy to identify with and you’ll find yourself caring about them and their missions. Even those familiar with the Kingdom Hearts series, who have some inkling of what fate will befall them, will find themselves hoping for some kind of miracle or happy ending. Aqua especially is a particularly strong and moving individual, and I couldn’t help thinking of her as Birth By Sleep‘s "Sora" character. She ends up being the strongest figure. Terra is the game’s "Riku", a strong and able character with both light and dark in his heart that does try his hardest. As for Ventus, he’s more of a lighthearted individual that helps players connect more with the residents of the Disney-inspired worlds.
I also loved seeing the story through three different perspectives. It really helps you better understand what each character is feeling and experiencing. In the end, you understand and appreciate each of the heroes more, since you get to see how each reacts to situations. The multiple viewpoints gives fans the opportunity to better understand everything that happened and how the Unversed, Heartless and Nobodies all became such serious threats to the denizens of all the worlds.
It’s also interesting how each character plays differently. With Ven, it’s more about landing quick hits on an enemy, then quickly getting away to regroup or attack another enemy. Terra is a powerhouse, and you can just run up to a massive group of Unversed and take them out pretty quickly, without taking too much damage. As for Aqua, it’s more about finesse. You have to pay close attention to the magic spells you have available and ready to use, and think ahead before getting her trapped in a group of enemies. She could fight it out, but I found its best to focus on her magic abilities.
Exploration in Birth By Sleep is conducted in the same manner as any console Kingdom Hearts game. You travel through space to other worlds, and then wander through the various environments taking out Unversed and helping out familiar Disney characters. You can access the menu when not in battle, to change Deck Command options or equipment. If you happen to be at a save point, you can head to the Command Board and play the board game to level up your Deck Commands.
Speaking of the Command Board, it’s a novel and incredibly helpful means of leveling up Deck Commands. Deck Commands and your character’s abilities can level up if you equip them and use them in battle, or equip them and play the Command Board mini-game. Once they level up, or reach their max level, they’ll be more potent or even give you abilities that can also be leveled. When the extra abilities are mastered, they’ll assist your character even when the command isn’t equipped. It’s really quick to play and has your character racing around the board trying to be the first to get a certain amount of BP.
Birth By Sleep‘s battle system does not feel like a regular Kingdom Hearts game. It’s more fast paced, and much more streamlined. There are standard attacks, unleashed by by pressing the circle button, and special attacks/abilities/items that are used by pressing the triangle button. The special attacks need to recharge after use, and using them often helps unleash the mode changes. Once a mode takes effect, your character becomes an amazing force to be reckoned with. At this point, practically nothing can stand in Terra, Aqua or Ven’s way. I loved Terra’s Fatal Mode, which is absolutely devastating to all enemies, unleashing more damage than normal and attacking a wider range, and Aqua’s Diamond Dust Mode that let’s her deal ice damage to multiple enemies at the same time.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep also offered an unexpected surprise, multiplayer options. These are different from the Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days multiplayer, which is mission based. Instead, you take part in what feel more like mini-games in Joint Struggle. You can race each other on the keyblade bikes/spaceships, play the Command Board game against one another, take part in co-op arena battles, and even compete against other players to see who’s strongest. It’s ad-hoc wireless multiplayer only though. So, you either need your friends with the game in the same room, or a PS3 to use the Ad-Hoc Party.
My biggest complaint with Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep was the mandatory data install. Okay, technically it isn’t mandatory, but I doubt there’s anyone out there who’ll be willing to abide the frequent, sometimes two minute long loading times that occur if you don’t choose the data install option. So if you intend to buy the game, you need to be sure you have enough room for the 400 or 600mb install. The 200mb install option doesn’t help enough to make it an option.
The Command Deck can also be cumbersome at times. You equip specific attacks and abilities. So there’s no longer a general "Magic" or "Item" command. If you want to use a specific magic spell, or item, you must take up a slot equipping it. Early on it’s quite frustrating, though magic does end up being a much easier and more practical option. Magic spamming becomes a somewhat viable option for some boss battles since most of the time you just have to wait for it to charge up between uses. But when it comes to items, you have to equip each one separately and keeping a single cure spell equipped is just a more viable option.
While the story isn’t exactly perfect, and there are definite issues in terms of loading and some commands, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is still a great entry in the series. I enjoyed it more than Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. It’s absolutely gorgeous, expands the origins of concepts and characters in the series and offers some unexpected multiplayer options. Once it receives its worldwide release, it’ll undoubtedly be a system seller.
Food for Thought:
- Personally, I was disappointed that once again Sora ends up being a major influence on the plot. While I can understand that he’s supposed to be some kind of legendary hero, it would have nice to see a story that didn’t involve him.
- Using various attacks can take some getting used to, since you have to aim using a crosshair in the Shoot Lock Mode and have a certain amount of time.
- The Command Board is surprisingly fun when played with other people, and is an interesting mini-game.
- A few more Final Fantasy character cameos would have been nice.
- The extra episode and ending are both handled very well, and do a good job of closing the story and building a little hype for the next Kingdom Hearts game without actually showing any Kingdom Hearts III footage.