The Japanese release of Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep seems to have snuck under the radar of many Square Enix followers. As part of a three pronged portable assault (the others being Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days and Kingdom Hearts: Coded) this is no doubt the biggest and most highly anticipated sequel in the Disney/Square hybrid series. The visuals, control scheme and elaborate plot closely mimic its PlayStation 2 brethren, with many critics proclaiming it to the be the only ‘true’ next instalment.
The storyline and characters were hinted dramatically in the secret ending of Kingdom Hearts 2, causing a predictable uproar in fan speculation. But with very little in the way of trailers and cut scene footage, it’s been some time since we’ve been able to judge the progress of Birth By Sleep. Yesterday’s Japan release has been the catalyst for a wealth of opening shots and gameplay previews, some of which we can divulge in below;
The opening cinematic instantly releases some of Birth By Sleep’s best kept narrative secrets. The three armoured knights now have faces and names; a tall, brown haired male by the name of Terra; a slim, blue haired girl called Aqua and a short, blond haired boy named Ventus. Players will no doubt recognise the familiarity between Ventus and the angsty Organisation nobody Roxas. There seems to be a directorial purpose for this, linking to the title theme of giving ‘birth’ to the protagonist Sora.
At 0.25, Terra and Aqua rush at one another, facing off with two recognisable keyblades. All three of them are no doubt wielders and from my deduction, one of them will fall into darkness in a similar fashion to Riku, hence causing the conflict between friends. Master Xehanort appears as a balding and sunken man, with great power and a masked apprentice by the name of Vanitas. Evidently, the ‘one true keyblade master’ ethos from the original title seems to have fallen by the wayside.
At the climax of the opening cinematic, Ventus falls into the ocean of Destiny Islands. A very young Sora and Kairi sit in the sand, pointing to the early chronological setting. How Ventus relates to Sora and Roxas’ keyblade abilities is yet to be explained.
From the video above we can see that the gameplay mechanics are very similar to previous instalments. Battles are action heavy, with light RPG elements for equipping accessories and keyblades. The card based system from RE:COM and the panel system from 358/2 Days has thankfully been dropped. Not that these systems were weak, but I feel that Birth By Sleep will prosper from the button-heavy combos that we all know and love. Reaction commands and special abilities seem to have returned, but with the absence of following companions. The limitations of the Sony PSP has no doubt forced a few understandable cutbacks in design.
I’m pleased with the media being released from Birth By Sleep and hope that its success in Japan will cross over into an early European release. The characters and plot seem to have appropriate amounts of scope and drama, adding a fresh dimension to the universe of Sora and his friends.