I have a confession to make. When I originally pitched the idea to go back and review a large chunk of Kingdom Hearts games we've never covered before, I really just wanted to play Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. Its been a weird hole in my Kingdom Hearts gaming experience, mostly because I never owned a PlayStation Portable. Now that this entry is available to buy elsewhere, it's finally my time. Is this prequel a dream or a nightmare?
Taking place before the events of the first game, Birth by Sleep sees you taking on the roles of three different main characters. Aqua, Terra, and Ventus each see their own slice of the major story, and only by playing out all three tales can you figure it out. Each of them wants to become a keyblade master, but only Aqua is able to manage it in the beginning. Before long the three find different reasons to leave home. Terra is on an envious quest to prove himself a master, Aqua is given a task to discover the source of new monsters that feed off of people's negativity, when Ventus is just sort of there for the fun of it really. There is a bigger plot at hand, and you'll have to play through the game as each character to see the full picture.
Birth by Sleep is mostly a story about three friends who, over time, drift apart. It's good that's where the focus is, as this thread plays out way better than any other part of the plot. I got a real sense that the main characters were friends and I actually enjoyed watching them interact. Similarly, I could relate to their conflicts and watching them drift apart. Sadly, everything surrounding this isn't nearly as good.
There's the usual convoluted Kingdom Hearts nonsense, most of it involving a guy who is so obviously evil that I have no clue how anyone could even begin to trust him. Several cutscenes saw me lost, as characters scream about stealing darkness out of people so they can fight this physical darkness to create awesome swords. There's also some focus given to members of Organization XIII. For some reason, all that focus narrows in on a throwaway boss from Kingdom Hearts II.
Naturally, you'll be jumping around Disney worlds for this. The early half of the game focuses on early Disney movies, with Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Snow White all getting worlds. This isn't a bad idea and works well with the prequel setting, but the latter half doesn't hold up nearly as well. Locations from Hercules and Peter Pan pop up again and both worlds are okay, if not particularly standout. However, a world focusing on Lilo & Stitch is easily the real loser here. Instead of focusing on the whole absolutely amazing movie, the world just replays the opening 30 minutes and entirely takes place on a space ship. It feels like an absolute waste. Each character will ultimately visit the same worlds, but they have their own unique stories and sections. Birth by Sleep comes off feeling like 3 10-15 hour RPGs rather than one long 40-50 hour one.
When it comes to gameplay, Birth by Sleep goes out of its way to basically overhaul or change many of Kingdom Hearts' mechanics. While it's still smooth, it definitely feels like combat isn't as fast or frantic as the past few entries. Instead, the game rewards changing up abilities thanks to its Command Style system. As you perform combos you'll fill the style meter. Early on filling it will just let you perform a finisher, but as the game advances you'll be able to use it to change combat styles. Use fire abilities in your combos? Then you'll switch to the Firestorm style, and launch fireballs with your basic attacks.
Later in the game, you'll even get style abilities that require you to build off of other styles. The idea is neat, but occasionally these styles can be frustrating and trying to get the exact one you want feels like a total crapshoot. It doesn't make for a fun moment when useless abilities occasionally replace your attacks.
Magic also sees a total overhaul, completely removing the MP bar. Instead, you have the Command Deck, which let you load abilities onto your characters and each of them will have their own individual cooldowns. You can buy more commands as you play, or merge two commands to make something better. This new system quickly proves to be a favorite, as it's a neat way to make combat more active and give the player more control over what their characters do. Thanks to it, I found myself using magic and abilities way more often. If you don't particularly think your commands are up to the task, then you can use a D-Link to swap your commands out for unique ones provided by another character. This temporally lets you use commands from characters like Stitch, Peter Pan, Cinderella, and more, and each of these characters has their own unique abilities.
You'll use these skills to fight a new type of enemy known as the Unversed. Unfortunately, I couldn't help but be disappointed by these new foes initially. While the Heartless and Nobodies felt like distinct enemies, the first batch of Unversed you see feel like Heartless reskins. Thankfully they get more diverse later on, but it doesn't leave a good first impression. While the normal enemies are iffy, at least Birth by Sleep continues the trend of great boss fights. I didn't think anyone could manage to make Snow White's Magic Mirror into a compelling boss. Somehow, Square has managed to do so.
However, as much fun as all this is, there's one part of Birth by Sleep that simply can't be summed up with any line other than "disaster". This game easily has what are, by far, the absolute worst minigames in the series. The main one is a board game that feels like it wants to be Mario Party but forgot to bring the party along. Thankfully, you can completely ignore this without incident. There's an absolutely terrible kart racing minigame that doesn't have nearly the controls necessary for being fun. A volleyball styled minigame, which involves hitting fruit at enemies, is a button mashing mess that's impossible to parse. There's also an ice-cream shooting rhythm minigame, but really that one is just blessedly forgettable.
You know what's not forgettable? The continued excellence of Kingdom Heart's soundtrack. This is another entry with some fantastic tunes to listen to. Each world's themes are unique, like the Cinderella world being set to a version of the ever so famous Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo. There are a few reused tracks from the first two games, but ultimately it's not a huge deal when they're still fantastic. Graphically, Birth by Sleep holds up quite well, which is surprising considering its original place as a portable game. At times I was convinced it even looked better than Kingdom Hearts II, which is impressive.
Much like the other few entries brought to the PlayStation 4, those who haven't played Birth by Sleep since the original release will find some new content. This comes in the form of a new secret chapter, which mostly serves to show what happened to Aqua after the finale. I won't spoil much, but it serves as a lead up for Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage, which you're probably going to want to play if you're hopping into Kingdom Hearts III. There's also some new optional bosses, abilities, D-Links and command styles. Those who played on the PlayStation 3 will just get the usual boost to 60 frames per second.
It doesn't quite manage to hit the heights that Kingdom Hearts II reaches, but Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is still a genuinely fun experience and a worthy entry to the series. The revamped battle system is a ton of fun to use. The main trio of characters is a group I enjoy seeing. While the overall story is still nonsense and the minigames are absolutely terrible, it's not enough to bring this game down too far. I'm glad I finally got a chance to play this one.
TechRaptor reviewed Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep on PlayStation 4 using a copy purchased by the reviewer. It saw release on PlayStation Portable on September 7th, 2010.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep's revamped battle system and fun main cast do a lot to support it even when terrible minigames and a dumb story drag it down.
- Great Main Characters
- Really Fun Combat System
- Awesome Boss Fights
- Fantastic Soundtrack
- Dumb Plot
- Unversed Start Off Boring
- Doesn't Make Great Use of Some Movies
- Terrible Minigames