Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (PSP) Review

As promised from yesterday's VGMs, here's the first of two PlayStation Portable video game reviews. It's Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep from Square-Enix. They're really working this franchise for all its worth, aren't they? Regardless, here we go with the second review of the month.

Someone Wake Me Up

Kingdom Hearts was an odd duckling when it originally premiered as a series on the PlayStation 2. It combined the magical and whimsical world of Disney and the angst-filled heroes and heroines of one of gaming's most storied franchises, Final Fantasy. The mix was off-putting at first, but once you got used to it, it meshed well. However, since the release of Kingdom Hearts II, there's been spinoff after spinoff with no hint of a third installment in sight. There's been a card game, two DS games, and now there's the first to hit Sony's PlayStation Portable, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. Is this adventure worth waking up for?

Three friends who all yearn to be great Keyblade Masters, Terra, Ventus (Ven for short), and Aqua are thrown into the middle of a plan to separate and destroy them. Voiced by Spock, Leonard Nimoy, Master Xehanort plans to reignite the fabled Keyblade Wars and wreak heck upon the worlds of Disney. Only by reuniting together can these trio of friends overcome Xehanort and his sinister plans. Ever since Kingdom Hearts II, the franchise has had a convoluted story, and this entry to the series is no different. Be prepared to scratch your head at multiple times attempting to figure out which plot elements are actually important and what's actually rubbish. Be well aware though that the knot that ties all this together is that of friendship. D'aww...

Against Yen Sid's wishes, King Mickey is out and about.

After a brief tutorial world, you're given the choice between playing as either of the three friends. Each character has their own storyline, worlds they visit like Cinderella's kingdom, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hercules, among others), and each takes anywhere between ten to fifteen hours to complete. Then there's the final story once Terra, Ventus, and Aqua reunite to stand up to Master Xehanort and his evil apprentice. Don't forget all of the post-game content, too. Rest assured, there's plenty of content to be had in Birth by Sleep, but will you want to play that long?

The gameplay of Birth by Sleep isn't very far-fetched from previous installments. You travel from world-to-world, room-to-room accessing treasure chests, battling monsters and bosses alike, and meeting new Disney and Final Fantasy heroes and villains. New to the series is the EX Link. As you meet and greet and form bonds with new characters, you can use the EX Link to access a sampling of that character's abilities in battle. For example, with Aqua's powers you can use magic like Fira, Blizzaga, and Thundara. It's an interesting system that opens up possibilities and strategies severalfold. It's just a shame, however, that most of the battles come down to simple button-mashing.

Press the triangle button to unleash skills.

That's not to say all encounters are mash X. Far from it, actually. As you progress through the game, your characters earn new spells and abilities like the glide, high jump, and counterattack skills to maximize combat and travel efficiency. The problems with battles is that: 1) the lock-on is ineffective and it's impossible to track the correct foe most of the time, 2) trying to adjust the twitchy camera to the correct position is an effort in frustration, and 3) attempting to do 1 and 2 while cycling through your move-set with the d-pad is just impossible. Throw in bosses that are superior in battle and dole out huge difficulty spikes, and you have a game you can rage to. A boss should not be able to one hit kill my hero even if it's the final boss of Ventus's campaign. And, Square-Enix, three supremely difficult boss encounters in a row without the opportunity to save is just balls. That's all there is to it.

Some boss battles get ridiculously tough.

Of course, treasure-hunting and battles are but a majority of the equation. There's a handful of fun mini-games to play in Disney Town like fruitball, a rhythm-action game involving ice cream, and multiple races and arena battles to conquer. There's even a Mario Party-esque board game to play on several different boards. Winning earns rare items and prizes, but heck if I know how to actually play it. I sort of skimmed the rules, so that part's my fault.

Rock out with Experiment 626 (aka Lilo).

Fans of Disney will love all of the fanservice Square-Enix has bestowed on this game. From the worlds of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty to the characters like Queen Minnie, King Mickey, Donald Duck, Goofy, Huey, Dewey, and Lewie, Chip and Dale, Pete, and many more, Disney-lovers will swoon with delight. Even Final Fantasy fans have characters, items, spells, and references to the series that they will find interesting.

Guest appearances abound in Birth by Sleep.

Visually, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a graphical powerhouse on Sony's portable-that-could. The characters are highly-detailed and are animated wonderfully. The backgrounds and worlds are all astonishing, and the draw distance is quite good, if not great. Yoko Shimomura astounds once again with exquisite compositions. Some are retreads from past Kingdom Hearts games, but most of the musical material is brand-new. The voice acting, too, is very good though you cannot help but root for the annoying brat, Ventus, to get his butt handed to him. All-in-all Square-Enix spared no expense with the presentation on Birth by Sleep.

It's a conundrum to try and recommend Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. It's certainly an above-average game, but I cannot help but feel disappointed. The button-mashing combat on scrub enemies does not teach good combat skills, and once you reach that steep difficulty curve, you're bound to become frustrated. The lock-on is heavily flawed, the camera is crazy, and the game is just all over the place in difficulty. Wake me up when Kingdom Hearts III is announced.

[SuperPhillip Says: 7.0/10]

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