Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep focuses on three different characters: Terra, Aqua, and Ventus (Ven). Not only does each character’s story vary, but because each one fights using a different style, I find myself having to adopt entirely different strategies for each one based off of their own sets of attack commands and specialties.
Let’s go through them in the Nomura-suggested order. Terra is a heavy hitter. He is also the easiest to use, and fighting early on really only requires button-mashing X with the occasional triangle for a Command. His Commands are usually physical, but magic Commands are key to unlocking his better Command Styles. Later on, some of his magic really packs a punch, and he can wipe out whole screens of enemies with a single area spell; something the other characters don’t seem to have.
However, Terra is also incredibly slow. Sometimes, I find myself tearing out my hair because he refuses to swing his sword fast enough. For him, finding ways to increase the number of times he can attack in a combo is key because when he links the attacks together, he actually moves at a decent speed. Interestingly enough, though, he is the one with the fastest dodging move, Dash, which really makes up for his lack of movement speed towards the end of the game. All in all, Terra remains the easiest character for me to use out of all three.
Ventus is the living embodiment of the Pokémon move “Quick Attack.” Fast, but not powerful. At all. I’d even go as far to say that Ventus does one-fourth the damage that Terra does with each hit. Fighting with Ventus takes a lot of patience because, despite the fact that he hits the quickest and the most, he really doesn’t put much of a dent in enemies.
Ventus seems to be the happy average in terms of attack and magic, so by all means he should be an easy-to-use character because he’s well-rounded. Unfortunately, and this may just be my speculation, I felt that Ventus actually leveled up slower than the other two characters. He had a harder time keeping up level-wise, both with regard to himself and his Commands. Ventus ultimately ended up being the hardest character to use because he doesn’t really have any assets that offsets his weakness.
He does have the nifty Glide and SuperGlide Commands, though, which are, when combined, a God in moving through maps quickly.
As expected, Aqua is the mage of the trio. Her spells are devastating, but her physical attacks aren’t too bad either. They’re about on par with Ventus’ but I have a feeling Aqua actually might do a tiny bit more damage. The main problem with this is that, early on in the game, Aqua’s spells are rather ineffective. Plus, she’s a lot more fragile than Terra, so she can’t take too many hits.
Luckily, after I gained access to the second level “–ara” spells, she became a lot easier to use. Her spells hit for devastating damage, and her attacks worked damage. Or to put it more effectively, she didn’t die every other screen. While her spells aren’t area-wide hitters, she can deal a lot of concentrated damage to a single opponent, making her wonderful in boss fights.
For those curious, since both of the other characters seemed to have inherited Sora’s abilities, Aqua called dibs on the Double Jump technique.
It’s kind of interesting to note which of Sora’s abilities got doled to whom, just like guessing how and where the stories in each of the Disney worlds will be split according to the different characters. It’s possible to play through the three routes in any order you wish, but Nomura has suggested the order of Terra, followed by Ventus, and then Aqua.
Despite the tweaks made to the North American version of Birth by Sleep, this order actually makes sense.
Birth by Sleep is harder than its predecessors. Enemies deal a lot of damage and the protagonists just … don’t. The only exception was Terra, easily making him the most user-friendly character. Ventus has the defense to back his offensive style, so he’s next easiest even if he takes a long time to use. However, having started with Aqua first, I had a lot of trouble getting a handle of her weak spells and low defense. Additionally, unlike Terra and Ventus’ X-button spamming style, Aqua requires an intimate knowledge of the various Commands, as well as dodging and blocking.
My first hour of the game was spent thusly: enter area, fight enemies, die, continue, enter area, fight enemies, gain level, die, repeat. However, with Terra, whether it was because I’d already familiarized myself with the system by playing as Aqua (my playing order was Aqua, Terra, Ventus), I never died once.
Personally, however, I found it more interesting to play as Aqua first because of her “observer” role. It allowed me to get a general picture of the story and build up suspense (of what little there is to build) before finding out what actually happened.
As for the story, the game provides a very nice Timeline option in the title menu once you complete one route once, but put simply, the game goes something like this: Terra goes after Xehanort, Ventus goes after Terra, and Aqua goes after the both of them. As such, the three of them end up circling the ten worlds (give or take one or two, depending on what you count as a world or not), sometimes just passing by each other and at other times actually meeting for a few seconds before saying a quick goodbye.
The complete story of each world is split up into three perspectives, so the amount of time you spend at each world is actually incredibly short. Usually, one person views the setup, another the unfolding of the scenario, and the last the climax. All three characters are allowed each perspective at some point.
Despite this slightly trite way of splitting up the plot, I do feel that the maps were broken up nicely. Different areas are open to different characters, so even though the maps all take place in one world, it feels like you’re visiting new areas. There are, of course, several areas that are exactly the same, but different events take place depending on who you’re playing as, and, really, it doesn’t take much time to run from one already-explored area to the next screen. The switch up was nice enough to make revisiting each world thrice a new experience every single time.
For example, in Cinderella’s world, Ventus travels into “Cinderelly’s” house at the size of a mouse and can wander through the mouseholes, while Terra explores the castle and its courtyard. Aqua takes a happy middle and transforms briefly into mini-size while still visiting the castle, although Terra gets to visit a backdoor that is locked to Aqua. In Neverland, Terra visits Skull Island, while Aqua can make her way up the Rainbow Chasm, which basically consists of a whole bunch of jumping platforms. Ventus is the one this time that explores through both areas, as he travels close to both of them. On the other hand, while Ventus doesn’t visit any new places, he does get a pretty fun duel on with Captain Hook.
I had no overall problem with the story — after all, it’s Kingdom Hearts. You take everything with a grain of salt…that is, until you look back at the entire series as a whole and try to make sense of it. Granted, this is difficult, to put it nicely.
Ultimately, however, Birth by Sleep’s story still suffers from the same issues as that of its predecessors.
The main difference between Birth by Sleep and the previous installments is not that the game is split into three, but that two of the main characters could easily be considered in their near-twenties. At the very least, Terra looks to be in his mid-twenties. By this account, the game feels slightly more “grown up,” for lack of a better term. There’s mention of a war where countless people were killed, with Keyblades stuck into the ground like tombstones. A character even dies during the course of the present-day events.
And yet, Terra still runs around like Riku, looking for acceptance, and ends up being manipulated by nearly every single person he runs across. Ventus is approximately Sora and Riku’s age, so don’t expect that he act any different than those two either. In comparison, Aqua’s route was fairly tame, but her role in the story is more of that of an “observer,” which makes her come off as the most believable and mature character.
The story straddles an awkward “let’s tell the tragic happenings of these three characters” and “let’s still make this game for kids.” At some points, it’s expected that the characters (mostly Terra) would do something different from Sora and Riku — the only two real yardsticks for comparison we have in this story — simply because they’re older, and they’re soldiers. They’re trained and they’re disciplined.
Or at least, they should be, but somewhere along the line, Sora and Riku’s flaws are all reflected in these three characters as well. It’s almost as if someone is deliberately preventing Kingdom Hearts from being believable or being allowed to grow.
I admit, though, it is amusing to see which characteristics the characters are supposed to embody and seeing how they react to different situations. I didn’t get particularly attached to any single character, but it was amusing to see Ventus be so fun-loving that, in one of his worlds, there’s the option of jumping on a ball and rolling it into all the Unversed (the enemies in this game) and killing them that way, like a circus act gone violent.
You’d never see such delightful abandon in the case of Aqua or Terra. These amusing details, along with the completely different fighting styles, are probably the greatest differences between the three routes.
All said and done, the three at least do pull off the “balance” aspect quite well with everyone complementing each other, and that’s where Birth by Sleep’s strengths are: in its variety.
Food For Thought:
1. Shotlock Commands are powerful no matter who uses them, and they deal a lot of damage. It makes all the routes a lot easier, especially against the difficult boss fights where they prefer close combat. I like to stay back, target with Shotlock, and “let ‘er rip,” taking out entire HP bars.
2. Another gripe I had with the story was that there were absolutely no Final Fantasy characters, barring Zack. I love Zack to bits, but this being the past, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to include the ex-Final Fantasy worlds before they got destroyed and everyone had to move to Twilight Town, would it? Seeing the un-Nobody-fied Organization members was amusing, though.
3. In relation to the balance aspect of the game, each character has a different role in the dynamic of the group, which actually relates to their names pretty well. Terra is the solid support that is stable and holds them together, Aqua is the calming influence, and Ventus is the “let’s do something fun and crazy!” force. Hey, look! The naming convention isn’t entirely random!