Also available on: N/A
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Action RPG
Disney and Square Enix may not be the most likely bedfellows, but the fruit of their combined labour has earned much critical and commercial acclaim. The core entries in the Kingdom Hearts series are widely regarded as a novel take on existing licences with bags of family appeal. However, more recent portable tie-ins have not lived up to the brand's legacy. Last year's Nintendo DS offering 358/2 Days proved to be a watered-down attempt at replicating its home console forebears, rehashing many of their hallmarks. Thankfully, the franchise's PSP debut isn't afraid to innovate.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep serves as a prequel to the original game, taking place ten years earlier. The plot focuses on Master Eraqus's three apprentices Terra, Ventus and Aqua, who embark on a quest to find the missing Master Xehanort. As each character sets off along their own path, the adventure plays out across three interconnected scenarios, which you can undertake in any order. Each campaign last around six hours and there's plenty of incentive to play each of them through to the duration. Viewing proceedings from three different perspectives weaves a complex and layered tale that will supply series veterans with essential background information on the game's universe.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Kingdom Hearts titles, they're essentially action RPGs that throw Square Enix creations and Disney characters into the mix together. Birth By Sleep does not deviate far from this concept. Core mechanics are largely the same no matter which protagonist you choose, yet there are a number of subtle variables that differential the experience. The three characters are loosely based on classic RPG fare. Terra is your brute-force warrior, Aqua a mage and Ventus the obligatory middle ground between the two. Of the three campaigns, Aqua's is the most challenging since she's significantly weaker than the others. Once you've levelled her up and acquired new magical abilities, the odds soon even out, though the learning curve feels slightly askew.
Unlike previous mobile entries in the series, this one doesn't cling to tradition at the expense of innovation. Birth By Sleep introduces several game-changing components to the fold that really add to the experience. For instance, players can now combine special attacks with magic spells and are able to pick and choose which ones to merge. The results vary in terms of tactical advantage, encouraging improvisation and creativity. Another noteable inclusion is the D-link system, which allows the player to borrow special abilities from Disney heroes and villains on a temporary basis. This functions in much the same way as the Summons mechanic for the previous games, with more of an emphasis on strategic implementation than stylish coups de grâce.
Combat on the whole is satisfactory. The fluid animation and well-rendered Disney sprites and backgrounds lends it a lavish, colourful feel and the extravagant special abilities make them even more of a spectacle. However, early encounters have a tendency to grow repetitive due to the amount of time the same enemies crop up, and a little too many of them can be won on button bashing alone. Boss battles suffer from no such problems and remain a series highlight. You'll encounter a range of end-of-stage baddies, from sizeable monstrosities to skilful swordsmen, and be dropped into scenarios that provide a twisted take on iconic Disney set pieces. The only drawbacks to these encounters are the technical issues they expose. The inadequacy of the targeting system and the erratic camera are in full swing during boss fights.
The series is no stranger to technical quirks, and sadly camera and targeting issues aren't the only ones that Birth By Sleep has failed to rectify. Lengthy loading times and frame rate drops are something of a nuisance, but don't impact on the overall experience too heavily. Elsewhere, platforming elements play second fiddle to combat, which is probably why they feel half-baked and in need of fine-tuning. The cumbersome nature of jumping makes such segments fall on the wrong side of fun, so we should probably be thankful that they are few and far between.
The game may have its defects, but they aren't difficult to overlook when we consider how much longevity is on offer here. Playing all three campaigns to the bitter end could easily clock up 25 hours plus, and if the core gameplay segments begin to feel like a grind, there's always minigames such as kart racing and the Mario Party-esque board game to partake in. Moreover, online multiplayer modes allow you to engage in competitive and co-operative matches. Both are enjoyable, particularly when linking up with players at a similar level, but co-op play is the stronger of the two. A rewards system, which grants you access to individual and group abilities, will no doubt see players get plenty of mileage from the online support.
Overall, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is a worthy entry in the franchise and arguably its best handheld incarnation to date. It retains the charm of the previous games and builds on the concept by introducing new combat features. Had it rectified some of the gripes that has plagued the series since its debut - such as camera issues and platforming woes - then this one might have been a great game. Instead, it falls just short of being one of the best action RPGs the PSP has to offer.
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