When Kingdom Hearts 2 was released in 2005, word immediately broke out 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. However, fans worldwide 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 in any way. In fact, Birth By Sleep is easily on par (and even surpasses in some instances) with its PlayStation 2 predecessors.
Birth By Sleep isn’t a continuation of the series per se. It is a prequel, taking place ten years before the original Kingdom Hearts. Set before the adventures of Sora, the game sets out to provide answers for all the unanswered questions in the games released thus far, even Kingdom Hearts 358/2 days.
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 character's story mode, but in order to get the full scope of the events of the story, a single playthrough with each of the characters is recommended.
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.
Also new is the combination system, which allows you to combine attacks to create powerful 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. In all, Birth by Sleep offers the most substantive character progression system in the series yet.
However, some transitions to the PSP are a little more problematic. The Command selection is still assigned to the D-pad, making your thumb responsible for both running away from danger and casting the spell that could heal you. And Birth by Sleep, even more so than previous games, suffers from an incredibly high difficulty curve. While it’s true that you need difficulty to make beating the game worth your while, it may prove to be a bit daunting for new and old fans alike.
Birth by Sleep is a big game, and each character's story will take you anywhere from 15 to 20 hours to complete. There's definitely replay value here; going back and seeing each campaign through to the end and finding the many hidden collectibles unlocks significant post-game content.
In addition to the single-player mode, Birth by Sleep also includes a robust multiplayer mode. 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. 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.
The visuals are quite impressive, 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, Birth by Sleep includes some amazing environments based on Disney franchises, and represents the individual look of each area almost perfectly. From the haunting woods where you encounter Snow White to the colourful whimsy of Stitch's area, the visuals nail the Disney elements.
While the last few entries certainly didn't live up to expectations, Birth by Sleep steers the Kingdom Hearts series back on-course. While it may not have been the game fans of the series were initially hoping for, that doesn't stop it from being the best entry in the series yet. The cohesive plotline, improved battle system and extremely high production values make this a must-buy for fans of the series. Birth by Sleep works perfectly well and is worth experiencing for fans eagerly anticipating that much-rumoured third entry.