A Great Game For Fans And Newcomers Alike
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is not only the latest in Square-Enix's fan favorite series, but one of the greatest as well. For fans who may have worried that the series PSP debut might be relegated to spin-off status like the recent KH 358/2, you may rest assured that this is in fact a full featured KH release, complete with some fairly interesting ties to both the first and second installments. This is easily the best portable installment in the franchise. That said, BBS still occasionally suffers from the same issues that have plagued the series since its inception, and introduces a few new ones as well.
In BBS, you will take control of not one but three different characters over the course of the story. Unlike in many games that feature the "multiple-main-characters" gimmick, you won't alternate control between them throughout the story. Instead, you will play through the same events from multiple perspectives, getting access to new information and story threads each time. This approach feels fresh at first, but around the third play-through repetition starts to set in. Because the characters visit the same worlds in generally the same order, meet the same characters, fight the same enemies (with the exception of boss battles,) and gain access to the same skills and the same keyblades, it ends up giving you a serious sense of deja vu by the end. In order to offset some of the repetition, Square-Enix have included a number of mini-games, most of which must be beaten in order to progress. The trouble is that, like in past entries, most of these challenges are frustrating or just plain boring. Luckily, they don't last for too long.
The promise of the multiple characters and new story information with each play through also kind of feels like a missed opportunity. By the time you have beaten the game once, you will know the majority of each character's story, either from the game telling you directly or from inference. It's not that the story is bad; there are definitely some important and intriguing details tucked away inside of each character's story arc, but a lot of it comes off as filler. Speaking of the characters, they aren't exactly the strongest protagonists in the franchise's history. Of the three, Aqua is the most likable and mature of the bunch, Ven is your typical over-enthusiastic KH protagonist (not that there's anything wrong with that, it just feels familiar,) and Terra is just plain dumb.
Although BBS's structuring and plotting may falter at some points, the gameplay stands out as some of the best on the PSP. The combat system functions similarly to the PS2 entries in the series. At first you'll just be mashing on the X button and occasionally throwing some skills in for flair, but as the game progresses the combat system evolves beautifully. Mechanics such as countering, air dashing, and double jumping are mixed in at the perfect pace to keep the combat fresh without seeming overbearing. You can also execute command changes by using your assigned skills to build up a combo bar. These instances result in a number of flashy and ultra powerful attacks that are always rewarding to perform. When you throw in the abilities to chain the command changes together, craft new and unique abilities by mixing several together, and perform even more special moves by holding down the lock on buttons, BBS evolves into something that becomes really satisfying to play. By the final boss fights, the game will really be pushing you to your limits, and victory feels like a hard fought and well earned reward. As with previous KH titles, the lock on system can get a bit finicky at times, but it will hardly detract from your enjoyment of the game.
Like the gameplay, the visuals are some of the best on the PSP. The main characters are beautifully designed and rendered, and showcase some nice animations during combat. The Disney characters are rendered a bit more simply by design, and can sometimes look weird standing astride such intricately detailed protagonists, but it's no big deal. The environments also look quite nice on the PSP's screen, and some of them are surprisingly interactive (mostly during Ven's story, strangely.) This crisp look is likely due to the fact that the environments are split up into different sections, sort of like in Monster Hunter, and you must brave a long loading time when traveling to new areas. In fact, if there is one negative point to the presentation, it's the loading times. This game is loading all the time, whether it's before cutscenes, while opening the pause menu, or even during combat. At first it was a nuisance, but eventually you will get used to it, and the issue can be mostly eliminated by installing the game.
The audio portion of the game is overall quite strong, although there are a few noticeable weak spots. Aqua and Ven have some very solid voice acting, but Terra sounds wooden and uninterested in the events unfolding around him. Most of the music is your typical Square-Enix epic scores, which is to say that it's moving and haunting. They put a few nice spins on some classic and modern themes as well, with one of the standouts being an orchestral cover of Utada Hikaru's "Simple and Clean" that KH fans will surely appreciate. One or two of the Disney themes are repetitive and obnoxious, but they are small blemishes on an otherwise grand score.
Because KH is such a long running franchise, BBS makes a few concessions for newcomers who might not be so familiar with previous entries. The story is set up as a prequel to the PS2 games, so while having knowledge of the other games will enhance your experience, it isn't a necessity. A lot of the more interesting plot points relate back to those older games, but you aren't required to know anything about the story so far. In fact, if you're looking for a jumping off point in the KH franchise, BBS might be the best place to start because it will give you some context for the events happening in the PS2 games.
Despite a number of issues with the structure of the game, BBS stands among the PS2 entries as one of the greatest games in the KH series. Awesome graphics and deep combat make this one of the better PSP games in recent memory. Whether you're a fan of the series or a newcomer, this is a great choice for gamers on the go.