A fascinating game that I had to stop playing because of the PSP
Birth by Sleep takes a very interesting approach to storytelling: Instead of just one story, you get to pick between three different characters with a similar goal, but who perform different actions to reach it. This means that all three characters visit the same worlds, but at different times and locations. One of the characters might start in a castle and tell a person to go into the forest, where another character is waiting to meet up with that person. The overall length of the story has also been cut down to about eight hours, to make it easier for players to play all three characters and get the full picture.
The game turns around three friends; Ventus, Terra and Aqua and takes place about ten years before the events of Kingdom Hearts 1, meaning it's a prequel to the entire franchise. Aside from the player-characters, there is also their teacher and the antagonist Xenahort, accompanied by his loyal minion. The cast is very enjoyable and I especially found Xenahort to be a very entertaining villain, which is because he really knows how to manipulate people. Of course no Kingdom Hearts game is complete without Disney Characters and there are a number of new entries here too. However, I am not going to spoil who they are.
Part of what makes Birth by Sleep so interesting is that it allows the players to see how things were before the story of Sora even started. Not just in terms of how the Hallow Bastion and other locations have changed over the years, but also how the characters looked before we first met them. A good example is in the Radiant Garden where we (SPOILER ALERT) meet Xigbar from before he joined the organization. Same situations apply to Disney characters too, but once again, I won't spoil that.
Because this is a prequel, this installment in the franchise is also accessible to new players. Other installments in the franchise, such as 358/2 Days and Re:coded have had the problem that the plot is very impenetrable to newcomers. However, because nothing has really happened yet, there are no events to reference or characters the player is supposed to know by now. There are some moments that newcomers might find a bit strange, such as a meeting with Sora and Riku, but overall they should have no problem following the story.
So, what is new on the gameplay side? Well nothing really, seeing as how the combat mechanics are directly ported from Re:coded (or vise versa, I don't know really). You simply hit X to hit enemies, Square to dodge or block and Triangle to perform special moves. The smaller assortment of abilities makes it easier to find exactly what you like and since attacks no longer level endlessly, there is no reason to put your precious abilities to the gamble.
What is new however, are a good number of worlds the player will be visiting. Though there are some old familiars in new jackets, the user is treated on a large batch of fresh content. While I would still like to see more modern Disney movies join the list, I can't say that I am disappointed with getting to visit the worlds of the classic Snow-white and Sleeping Beauty movies, just to name a few early examples.
While the PSP was mostly a massive disappointment, it did really impress me with the graphical power it's capable off. Birth by Sleep looks beautiful, almost as if I am watching the best of the Playstation 2 on a small screen. The colors are fantastic too. I am not normally one to praise graphics, but after seeing what this franchise had to make do with on the DS and Gameboy, I think a little praise is appropriate here.
Okay, quick story here: I don't actually own a PSP, but since Birth by Sleep was the only Kingdom Hearts game I haven't played yet, I decided to borrow my cousin's copy of the game with system and all. However, I am not sure if I have to blame the software or the hardware, but KH runs like a brick on this system. The load times are unacceptably long, which was doubly unfair when I had the intention of skipping the cut-scene it was loading. Even something as basic as opening a save-menu takes pretty long. The worst thing however, has to be the battery. Say about the 3DS what you want, but at least that system can hold out for more than two hours without a charger, I lost count of how many times he system would shut off mid-boss, in fact, that's the sole reason I stopped playing it: because the game kept turning off in the middle of the final boss-fight.
More related to the game though, is the structure of the menus and their functions. I had no idea what half the features in this game did, I never once looked through the ability screen or command deck, nor did I ever care for mixing abilities together. The game also lacks the incentive to actually start doing such things, just keep pressing X and you'll get very far in combat.
The difficulty curve is also kind of wonky, for the entire first six or seven levels I would cut through enemies like a machine, but just one level later and I would need multiple combos to take just one lad down. I had no idea (and still don't) what I have been doing wrong, but I can't say it was a lot of fun to spend three minutes on every single monster.
The weird difficulty curve is also aided by the return of the ability-cancellation (as I like to call it). Basically, it means that when you get hit while casting a spell or using a special attack, that ability is instantly stopped and you have to wait for it to recharge again. The last time I saw this was in the very first Kingdom Hearts game (not counting Chain of Memories) and it was annoying there as well. The big issue I have with it, is that if you are in a boss-fight and have to heal, all the boss needs is one lost projectile and you are pretty much screwed. In later installments of the franchise, casting a spell would only leave you open for attack, been hit didn't move you, but that was balanced by the fact you had no means of defending yourself for a crucial moment. In a game where half the enemies can teleport, it seems very cruel to use a system like this.
While been able to play as three characters sounds fun enough, I find it hard to believe that most will be taking this option. The differences are not that great and once you have played it through once, you can actually predict plot-twists in this title. Plus, three eight hour campaigns might be a little too much for a casual player.
Finally, I'd like to end on saying that I rather miss the old inventory screens, the ones where you could micro-manage everything into exactly the right position for you. Re:coded had one, 358/2 Days had one, so why doesn't Birth by Sleep have one? A better questions would be "where are my items to begin with" because I certainly couldn't find them. I went through the entire game without ever using a single item, there was no longer a visible menu for it.
The Bottom Line
Birth by Sleep is a very entertaining entry into the franchise, one with a fun story, decent characters and entertaining gameplay. Also one that deserves a prize for been actually approachable for new fans. However, there are some problems that prevented me from finishing this game, and the biggest one is the fact that the PSP randomly dies during boss-battles and the overall low-quality of gaming on this system. I am also not too fond of some minor details (menu structure, difficulty, etc.).
Both new players and old fans can appreciate this game, but I think the fans would get the most enjoyment out of this. If you are a fan of classic Disney movies or if you want to buy this game for your kiddo, then I can also recommend it. However, if you have no real love for Disney, then this series as a whole might be worth skipping.