The two main entries in the Kingdom Hearts franchise have been succeeded by a whole horde of portable titles; some of which have been more successful than others. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep promises to live up to the pedigree of the home console outings by emulating the worlds and combat with a surprisingly powerful engine. It acts as a prequel to the existing storyline, following three keyblade wielders on their quest to gain the title of ‘keyblade master’.
Terra, Aqua and Ventus all start off as the best of friends, but quickly find themselves thrown in different directions as the balance of light and dark becomes disrupted. You’ll play as each character one at a time, building up the story as you see events unfold from their different perspectives. I’m currently only eight hours into the campaign of Ventus, but I can already see how many of the interactions will overlap. The cutscenes are beautiful on the system, giving life to the established Square Enix and Disney personalities. Some of the script writing can be a little forced and overly philosophical, but the voice acting is solid and conveys a great deal of tension and emotion. If you’ve played any of the previous titles, you’ll be pleased to know that the quality of presentation hasn’t dipped in Birth By Sleep.
Ventus might wield his keyblade backwards, but his play style closely resembles former protagonists Sora and Roxas. Quick on his feet and stocked with a flurry of combos, it’s easy to hammer the X button and watch him pull off some dazzling moves. However, go for the throat and you’ll quickly suffer on the higher difficulty settings. Reaction commands have been replaced with a customisable deck of skills, which are key to mastering spells, health and blocking skills. Mixing these together produces further devastation known as command styles; for example, use a variety of fire spells and Ventus will borrow the FireStorm style, hitting each opponent with added flame damage. Characters that you meet can also set up Dimension Links, temporarily lending you their deck of commands. Using all of these effectively is essential to taking down the tougher bosses of each world.
The assault of gameplay mechanics can feel a little bewildering at first, but it offers a system both deep and rewarding enough to rival most classic RPGs. Choosing the right spell on the D-Pad can be a little tricky (you’ll be using the same thumb both to run away from the enemy and heal yourself) and the lock-on system could use a little work, but these are limitations of the hardware, not the software.
The Command Board (a Mario Party inspired affair) and various mini games act as additional distractions on your main quest. They’re surprisingly well made and offer fantastic rewards, making them a legitimate alternative to grinding in the field. There’s also a multiplayer mode that I’m excited to try, finally offering players the chance to see who would in a one on one brawl.
I’m enjoying my time with Birth By Sleep. Titles with this level of production are few and far between on the Sony PSP, so it’s always a pleasure to see Square Enix push the system to its limit. Whether the storyline and characters continue to engage is up for debate, but I’m excited about levelling up the trio of heroes and discovering new worlds. When I hit another landmark in Birth By Sleep, you can expect updated opinions.