Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Review for PlayStation Portable (PSP)

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Review for PlayStation Portable (PSP)

Kingdom Hearts Moves Forward…by Going Back!

When Kingdom Hearts II was released in 2005, tongues immediately started wagging about its successor, Kingdom Hearts 3. An impressive cutscene following the final battle convinced fans that the third game, in what was assumed would be a trilogy, wouldn’t be far behind.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep screenshot

However, fans the world over were disappointed to learn this cutscene was part of a prequel destined for the PSP handheld. While it is easy to approach this title with some trepidation considering its history, if you skip this title, you are missing out. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep may be presented on a small screen, but that doesn’t hinder it from a sprawling scope that is on par (and even surpasses in some instances) with its PlayStation 2 predecessor.

The game starts off simply by introducing the player to the battle system and the game’s three main heroes: Terra, Ventus, and Aqua. However, after some plot points, the player is able to pick which character they want to play through the story as. Although each character’s story takes you to the same worlds, the events change and your interactions and dialog will be considerably different. You could get a basic grasp of the story by just playing through a single’s character’s story mode, but in order to get the full grasp and scope of the events of the story, a single playthrough with each of the characters is recommended.

The basic storyline in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep revolves around three up-and-coming Keyblade wielders who begin as the best of friends, but become embattled as one realizes there is true darkness within him. The story is simple and can stand alone, but there are some nice continuity areas that tie the prequel nicely to Kingdom Hearts II as well as Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days. If you are holding out hope for a proper Kingdom Hearts sequel, I would pay attention to the game’s secret ending as there are some not-so-subtle hints about the franchise’s future dropped in the ending.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep screenshot

Although the game’s story does make allusions to events from other games, the core plot revolves around the three main characters as they search for each other across the game’s universe. Although you will see familiar areas like Hercules’ Olympus Coliseum and Sleeping Beauty’s world, there are plenty of new areas to explore, including the Enchanted Forest from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and my personal favorite, Deep Space from Lilo and Stitch.

The story and the new worlds are enough to give any Kingdom Hearts fan enough incentive to dive into Birth by Sleep, but what clinched the deal for me was the improved battle system. While subtle changes and improvements have been made to Kingdom Hearts’ battle system over the years, Birth by Sleep represents the biggest leap forward for the series yet. The game uses the same core menu-based system that has been the hallmark of the series, but there have been several new elements that have streamlined the gameplay substantially. Chief among these is the new combo system, which rewards players for favoring a certain “style” in their attacks. This style can come from a preference for physical or elemental attacks, and, when used, will induce a heightened state (based on your style preferences) in which attacks are more powerful and chained combos culminate in devastating finishing moves. This system rewards extensive combos, and helps solidify the action element of the game’s action RPG battle system.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep screenshot

Also new is the combination system, which allows you to combine attacks to create all-powerful (or not) attacks that play to your individual strengths. Each character has their own unique battle attributes (Aqua is magic-heavy, Terra is the physical character, and Ventus is the well-rounded balanced fighter), but you can use the attack combination system to create attacks that fit your own personal fighting style as well as the overarching character-based fighting elements.

Both of these new elements make the battle system in Birth by Sleep feel completely new, and I hope if a Kingdom Hearts III comes to fruition in the near future that they will incorporate these elements. The customization elements encourage experimentation, and finding out what works for you with each character is a rewarding experience. I often found myself tinkering with the battle system several times per level just to try out new attacks and build up different style-based combos and finishing moves.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep screenshot

In addition to the single-player mode, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep also includes a robust multiplayer mode. However, the downside here is the multiplayer modes can only be accessed using the PSP’s Ad-Hoc connection mode, which means you’ll need a friend with the game and their own PSP in range in order to check these modes out. If you do fit these criteria, you’ll be able to battle friends in a standard Versus mode, battle against a common enemy in Arena mode, and even go kart-racing in Rumble Racing. Though none of the multiplayer modes are particularly memorable, they can be fun in small bursts if you have a friend around.

As far as production values go, Birth by Sleep is yet another solid portable title from Square Enix. The background music features the same orchestral mix of original tunes and Disney themes we’ve come to expect, and the game’s voiceover features standout performances by plenty of famous names including Leonard Nimoy, Mark Hamill, and Jesse McCartney.

The visuals are also quite the standout, and look absolutely stunning on the PSP. Cutscenes look amazing, and the animations, both in these scenes and in regular gameplay, are seamless and nicely executed. Like its predecessors, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep includes some amazing environments based on Disney franchises, and represents the individual look of each area almost perfectly. From the colorful whimsy of Stitch’s area to the dark and haunting woods where you encounter Snow White, the visuals nail the Disney elements. Of course, there are some unique areas to explore as well, and those are also brought to life with an amazing amount of care and detail.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep may not have been the game fans of the series were initially hoping for, but that doesn’t stop it from being the best entry in the series yet. The cohesive plotline (which ties together threads from all the other Kingdom Hearts game, but most notably Kingdom Hearts II and 358/2 Days), the improvements to the battle system, and extremely high production values make this a must-buy for fans of the series. Would I have preferred this game on a home console? Sure, but as a handheld title and a “missing piece” of sorts in the Kingdom Hearts mythos, Birth by Sleep works perfectly well and is worth experiencing for fans eagerly anticipating that much-rumored third entry.

This is one of the best-looking PSP games to date. The cutscenes are wonderfully animated, and each level features gorgeous design. 3.8 Control
The controls feel familiar to any Kingdom Hearts veteran, but there are some new elements that take some time to learn. 4.6 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The soundtrack is a great mixture of original tunes and themes based on Disney animated features. 4.0 Play Value
Although each of the game’s three different story modes features a similar storyline, there are enough new elements to warrant the extra playthroughs. 4.4 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.

Game Features:

  • Discover the Untold Story: Discover unknown origins to the storyline of the KINGDOM HEARTS series. Immerse yourself in the epic story, and discover all-new mysteries and secrets in a compelling new adventure from Disney and SQUARE ENIX!
  • A Magical, Interwoven Storyline: Play as any of the three heroes – Terra, Ventus, or Aqua – as you embark on a unique journey for each of them, exploring amazing new worlds and unleashing their incredible new abilities. Complete all three adventures to learn the whole story!
  • Breathtaking Visuals: Awe-inspiring graphics make this one of the most dazzling games ever made for the PlayStation Portable.

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