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Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
Graphics: 7.8
Gameplay: 8.2
Sound: 8.1
Control: 7.7
Replay Value: 8.4
Rating: 8
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix
Number Of Players: 1

Yes, yes, I know; we all want Kingdom Hearts III for the PlayStation 3. But in the meantime, there’s a pretty solid and entertaining installment on the PSP, called Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. Featuring three separate storylines that greatly amp up the longevity and overall appeal, a satisfying and appropriately deep combat mechanic, and that patented flair achieved by combining the worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy, this one is well worth your time. The only disappointing part of the entire production is the fact that Square-Enix can’t seem to shake off past downfalls and mistakes, and I kept thinking our surroundings should’ve exhibited more lush detail. I know the PSP is a bit more limited but I have seen instances of unbelievable detail (‘cough’ God of War ‘cough’) so it isn’t impossible.

This leads me to the graphics, which are loaded with that attractive color and design fans of the franchise adore. To their credit, the developers bring out the highlights and provide us with a truly engaging world, thanks to impressive special effects and cut-scenes. The character modeling is superb, too, so you’ll spend most of your time marveling at the inherent beauty in Birth by Sleep. But there will be times when you can’t help but notice how barren some of the backdrops really are; they lack a certain vibrancy, which sort of shifts the focus to battles. Those are much more appealing from a visual standpoint and while I must reiterate that the Kingdom Hearts world is a treat, I have to remain firm on the lack of environmental depth. Maybe it wouldn’t be so obvious if everything else wasn’t so wonderfully energetic.

Supported by fantastic voice acting – Leonard Nimoy is the man – and sharp, accurate sound effects, the game delivers in the sound category. Past entries in the series have boasted similar pluses; the voiceover cast always consists of a who’s who of Hollywood talent, which helps the dialogue succeed throughout. The effects can be a little repetitive, though, and I wish they had constructed a few more original music compositions for this new adventure. I mean, it’s nice to know that “hey, I’m playing Kingdom Hearts,” but that nostalgic recognition wears off over time. Even so, I shouldn’t take anything away from the soundtrack, which is pretty great from top to bottom. It’s not the most diverse selection in the world but it still fits, and the effects are plenty effective. When we step back and check out the bigger audio picture, we have to be satisfied.

This is actually a prequel so the events in Birth by Sleep take place before the original Kingdom Hearts. From the start, you will choose between Terra, Ventus and Aqua; all three wield a Keyblade and all of them have their own particular story, and as I said in the intro, this is one of the primary reasons to purchase and enjoy the game. Everyone cares about longevity; i.e., bang for their buck, and having three complete and fulfilling plot lines to experience is an immediate bonus. You will move through the mystical world, attempting to take down the Unserved and uncover a number of pressing mysteries. The pacing of this adventure is good, because it really feels exactly like the action/RPG it is: between the micromanagement, exploration, and mastering the in-depth battle system, fans will receive almost exactly what they want, and what they deserve. It all works quite well despite one or two major drawbacks, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Beside the story, which I won’t spoil, the emphasis remains fixed on the fighting. Before heading out, though, that role-playing mentality needs to come into play- you must buy and equip what you need, and make sure you’ve got a healthy assortment of items. When you enter battle, you give orders to your character via the d-pad, which flows into a series of current and already-executed commands. Once selected, that command will move over and you’ll shift to the next on the list. This means the action always remains fast, and you never feel outmatched due to overly intricate and inaccessible control. There is, however, a level of depth that might seem a little overwhelming at first, and this involves the leveling up and combination of certain special commands. It can be complicated but hey, do you want the RPG part or not?

Then you have to toss in abilities called “Shotlocks” and the meter that fills up as you unleash combos on your foes. The latter will let particular characters enter into a battle style that could prove to be immensely effective; the former are best reserved for large groups of enemies. Then there are D-Links, which lets one character adopt the traits/skills of another for a brief period. This is quite the detailed combat setup and if you’re willing to dive in and learn every facet of it, you will be justly rewarded. That being said, the combat trips and stumbles due to an imperfect control setup that includes a problematic camera. This is one of those issues that just never seems to get fixed in KH; when backed into a corner or fighting in a tight spot, the camera wacks out and it’s hard to find your target. And it still wants to target a breakable environmental object rather than an enemy…can’t tell you how frustrating that is.

I’m also not the biggest fan of the mini-games and again, that isn’t anything new. I do admit that these are better designed and more important than in past iterations, but I’m still not sure they need to be in the game. But it’s the adventure itself that matters and in this respect, the gameplay is greater than the sum of its parts. One can get past the iffy camera and lock-on issues because for the majority of the time, fighting and exploring is fun. You always want to keep playing, and that’s an undeniable positive trait. The story unfolds nicely, the voice acting is awesome, the flashy and crazy deep combat mechanic can be immensely rewarding, and the bottom line is if you enjoyed other KH games, you’ll like this one. You might even like the multiplayer, where you fight against other players (or battle oncoming waves of foes) in the Mirage Arena. This can be quite entertaining as well, even if it feels a little bare.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a game that sticks to its roots and expands upon a winning formula. It still can’t quite put long-standing problems to rest (or sleep, whatever) but it presents fans with a cohesive, satisfying adventure and in truth, there are three of them.

The Good: Classic and appreciated KH atmosphere. Super in-depth and fulfilling battle system(s). Solid story pacing and excellent voice acting. Great character modeling. Three separate and complete storylines greatly enhance longevity.

The Bad: Camera can be problematic. Lock-on system fails too often. Lack of environmental luster. Questionable mini-games.

The Ugly: If the camera gets jammed up, the visual and gameplay result ain’t pretty.

10/27/2010   Ben Dutka