If there was any doubt about the graphical prowess of the PlayStation Portable, or the ability of the Square Enix dev team to pull off some of the more amazing visual treats on any system, then the recently released "Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep" lays those to rest. Sure, the intro is all cinematic, featuring some of the iconic characters of the S-E stable, but get into the game itself and even as you are traversing through some of Disney's more familiar animated film settings, you can't help but be majorly impressed.
The story is deep, with surface texturing that seems trivial, but shade over the more substantial themes. Couple it with a deep battle system, and some Disney magic and this is a game that elicits smiles even when the overly long cut scenes are playing. "Birth by Sleep" is the precursor to the original "Kingdom Hearts" story and centers on three young keyblade warriors. There are three storylines, each of which have to be played through individually and reveal part of the bigger picture as players combine the information from those tales. The three characters can be categorized easily with Terra as the warrior, Ventus as a rogue class and Aqua (the only girl) as the mage-type. The game begins with Terra and Aqua taking their test to become keyblade masters when Terra lets a bit of the inner darkness he carries inside reveal itself. It seems as though he has failed the test when the guest master, on hand to witness the exams, simply disappears.
The game does not make any secret of the fact that the missing master is one bad dude. His actions set the characters on the path that is central to the game. While each of the stories shares similarities with each other, how they are played out is quite different. Terra, for example, begins by portalling to the castle of Sleeping Beauty, meeting (and bing manipulated by) Maleficent into stealing the first heart of light that he encounters.
Fans of the popular franchise will be heartened to know there are Disney settings aplenty in this installment, all of which give the game a solid visual charm.
The combat system is where the game departs a bit from the traditional target and mash style of gameplay. There is an element of that, but players earn combos called "Commands" and the user interface can be manipulated to allow the combo meter to fill so that deadlier attacks can be discharged. As players travel on their quests, the characters can establish D-Links with other characters inhabiting the same world. When the time is right, activation of the D-Link temporarily allows the central character being played to draw on the abilities of the linked character.
The more the difficulty setting is amped up, the more frenetic the action and the more involved the player must be. In addition to the main story elements, there are mini-games that play into the overall plot as well as various arena-based multiplayer scenarios.
Not without its issues - the targeting system could have been better, and unless the game is partially installed on the PSP, the load times are horrendous - "Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep" still is a remarkably fun PSP fantasy RPG adventure.
Square Enix scores again with a robust and richly told fantasy game that combines iconic S-E and Disney characters in a manner that is at once delightful and still challenging. Don't think that because Mickey Mouse or Cinderella show up that this is a game for the kiddies. The story has an undercurrent of darkness and the battle system can be involved and tough.