Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep [Review]

Square Enix is back again with another chapter of Kingdom Hearts. Does it live up to it's name?

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is the latest installation of the Kingdom Hearts saga.  Birth by Sleep lets you play through the story of three Keyblade wielders (Terra, Aqua, and Ventus) that predate Sora and his adventure.  Each character has their own strengths and weaknesses.  Terra is strong, Ventus is fast, and Aqua has powerful Magic.  While each Keyblade wielder goes on their own path you will find that their fates are all intertwined as you progress through the story.  In Birth by Sleep your main enemy is called the Unversed.  Think of them as a precursor to the Heartless.

Just like in other Kingdom Hearts games you will travel through various Disney worlds interacting and helping characters where you can.  Only difference is in this game you will visit these worlds from three different perspectives.  You will find that the voice overs are all well done as expected.  All the voices are pretty much spot on with the characters from the movies.  So much so that as I was fighting Peter Pan (yes, you have to fight him at one point) I was a little disturbed by his cries of pain as I put a beating on him.  There were a few boss fights in this game that I thought were a lot of fun, such as the fight with the Magic Mirror from Snow White, Zack from Final Fantasy VII, and experiment 221.

There are quite a few additions in terms of features.  The most notable and used is the command deck.  Before you start getting upset, this has absolutely nothing to do with cards.  The command deck replaces the AP (Attribute Point) system in this game.  In previous Kingdom Hearts you had to build up or collect AP so that you can activate commands that would give you access to combos, add to combos, or activate other various moves.  In this game once you obtain a command, whether you buy it or obtain it by other means, you can put it in the command deck and use the D-Pad to switch to it and use it at any time.  The trick is that you only have so many slots open in you command deck.  As you level you will gain more slots and therefore have more commands available to you during battle.

Commands that you use in your command deck have their own level.  As you use them they will level up.  Leveling up commands will make the moves either stronger, hit more enemies, or sometimes both.  You have multiple decks so you can fill each one with a specific build and use them as you see fit.  The command deck is split into three parts.  Battle commands are items like attacks, magic, or other items like potions.  Action commands are things like jumping, sliding, and blocking commands.   Action commands also have sub-commands like counters or other actions that you can do after finishing the initial action command.

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The third part of the deck is the Shotlock command.  Toward the beginning of the game you learn to use Shotlock, which allows you to target multiple enemies at a time and then attack consistently.  Shotlocks come in really handy when you find yourself cornered by a large group of enemies, especially when you play as one of the weaker characters.  When you level these commands up they usually will last for longer and deal out more damage to your enemies.  How much Shotlock you have is determined by the Focus meter.  If you run out of focus meter before you lock on to all targets you will just have to attack what you have already targeted.  Each Shotlock can only lock on to so many enemies.  So on the flipside, if you max out your shotlock before you run out of Focus, you will be given bonus attacks at the end of your Shotlock.

You do need to manage your commands properly though, as they do have recharge times.  So if you quickly blow through your Battle command deck, you may find yourself in a tough spot where you need to use a command but can’t.  There is something to help with that though…  Command melding.  Melding is a great way to consolidate attacks to make room in your Battle deck.  You can meld two commands together to make a new, more powerful command.  You can take fire and combine it with a dash attack to create Fire Dash, or Thunder and a dash attack to make Thunder Surge.  While you’re melding commands you can also add abilities to them by placing synthesis items in the third slot.  There are three types of abilities; Prize, Stat, and Support.  Prizes will increase prize drops and assist in collection, Stats will boost HP, magic, or decrease reload time on commands, and Support will increase combos and give you information on your opponents.  Abilities are only equipped when you have a command in your deck, however, if you level up the command enough the ability will stay active even if the command is not in your deck.

You have a command gauge that will do one of two things when it fills; activate a finish command or a command style.  You will begin with only one finish command, but as you use it and level it up, you will be able to branch your way through multiple trees to different types of finish commands at different power levels.  Some are more useful than others so you can always go back and select previous commands and level up a different tree.  Command style changes the way your basic attack works.  You have command styles that will allow you to hit harder, deal elemental damage, or get more critical hits.  Command styles are chosen by the types of commands you use while filling the command gauge.  If you use fire based commands you will activate something like Firestorm, while if you use dark commands you will activate a style such as Dark Impulse.

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Another major feature of the game is D-Linking.  D-linking allows you to take on another characters attributes, command deck, and Finish command while you’re in battle.  Your current command deck not working for you?  D-Link with someone else.  Not only can you D-Link with the main characters, but also various characters you meet throughout the game.  Even bad ones like Maleficent.   D-Linking also takes you back to full health so it comes in handy in a tight spot.  You also power up D-Links with D-Link symbols.  This will allow you to access more commands and a more powerful finish command though your D-Link.

This game contains some of the fiercest boss fights I’ve ever had.  In the beginning there are quite a few boss fights were you need to figure out the boss pattern and look for your openings to attack.  However, later on the boss fights aren’t only about looking for openings but being able to react in a split second to what your enemy is doing.  Mistakes with them will cost you dearly as many of the bosses have combos that deal massive damage if you get caught in them.  The later bosses don’t give many tells as to what attack they are getting ready to perform.  The voice queues don’t stay the same all the time either.  By the time you get to the end of each characters chapter, you will have to take everything you have learned and put it all together for that one fight.  And it will be difficult, I can assure you that.  Overall, all of the boss fights are unique and entertaining.

There are a few mini games spread throughout the worlds.  In Disney Town you can find two of the most entertaining; racing and Fruit Ball.  Racing is… well racing.  Fruit Ball is a mix of Soccer and Volley Ball.  You need to get the Fruit past your opponents and into their goal, which moves by the way.  You can hit the ball directly in, pop the ball in the air and spike it, or use the ball to hit opponents.  The mini game that I think will be the most popular is Command Board.

Command Board is played with you and the other main characters.  It’s pretty much a modified version of Monopoly.  You set a GP (Game Point) goal in the beginning of the game.  The objective is to reach the goal amount of GP, then make it back across the finish first.  After rolling the dice, your character can move from piece to piece on the board, placing commands as you go along.  To place command costs GP, but when an opponent lands on that piece that belongs to you they have to pay you toll.  You can level up commands so that they charge more tolls.  If you land on an enemy piece you have the option to buy that piece for yourself, but it won’t be cheap.  Besides enemy pieces you need to be careful of pieces that take GP from you.  When your wealth reaches the goal limit, you need to get back across the start before your opponents do.  Wealth equals GP plus value of pieces owned.  When you finish command board, the commands you placed on pieces will level up depending on how much toll was paid on them.

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As was in 358/2, Birth by Sleep also includes multiplayer.  You access the multiplayer through the Mirage Arena.  You can fight hordes of enemies, old bosses, fight each other, play Command Board, or other various mini games.  I think the best thing about the Mirage Arena is that you can also enter it offline.  The arena is a great place to level up when you come across an area that may be a bit too tough at your current level.

I am very happy to say that even on the PSP the game looks great.  The environment is everything you would expect from a Kingdom Hearts game; colorful worlds with unique, detailed enemies, and beautiful cinematics.  The character animations are smooth and fluid.   Each playable character has a different fighting style, and with the animations you can tell the difference between each one.  The lighting and glow effects are fantastic.  If you have played any previous Kingdom Hearts you already know that the glow and lighting effects used on various moves really fit into this magical world that Square Enix has sown together from various Disney worlds.  One thing that really helps with the look is that the frame rate is pretty high for a PSP game.

I’m used to seeing PSP games with lower frame rates, but this game has a nice smooth frame rate that allows you to enjoy the fast action as well as smooth animations.  There is even an option in game to boost the performance of the game, but doing so will shorten the battery life of your PSP while playing.  Nothing too drastic though as I have played for a few hours at a time and haven’t had to recharge while playing.  Speaking of performance, you get the option to install the game on your memory card.  I would HIGHLY recommend doing this as load times are pretty long if you don’t.  You do a lot of loading in this game so do yourself a favor and just install the game.

The game sounds great as well.  I would recommend playing with headphones so you can get the full effect of the sound for the game.  The music is well done and suits each world.  The sound effects compliment the visuals and don’t sound cheap.  Everything from the sound of your Keyblade swiping to the sound of hitting certain enemies sound good.

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For everything that was good, there were a few things that bothered me.  My biggest gripe was with a few disadvantages in the battle command deck.  All of your attack, magic, and item commands have to go on this deck.  The deck automatically rotates as you use moves.  This is good because the next attack will just come right now, but it’s also bad because you can find yourself using commands you don’t mean to use like cure, potions, or elixirs.  Also, you now have to choose between how important an item is verses an attack command due to the limited space on the deck.

You shift through the battle command deck with the D-Pad, so most of the time you will stop moving to sort through your commands to get to the command that you need in a tight spot like cure.  This can leave you wide open for attack.  The targeting system could also be better.  If you don’t attack an enemy for a certain amount of time, targeting will drop from that enemy.  This is a huge pain during boss fights since you’re not constantly attacking.  Some attacks also take a little time to work.  I have had several times where targeting would drop while I was using a command and make the attack miss.  Besides that, I think it takes too long to get back into a fighting stance after using slide and also it really irks me that you cannot jump out of water.

Even with those dislikes, overall, the game is great.  The story is compelling and pretty deep, and can get even deeper if you read Xehanort’s reports to understand the true origins of the Kingdom Hearts story.  The story alone will make you want to keep playing so that you can see what happens.  The game play is smooth and allows for fierce fighting in high speeds.  Square Enix has managed to keep the series fresh by adding new features, new game play elements, and more mini games.  For any Kingdom Hearts fan, this game is a MUST PLAY.  But even if you’re not a fan, this is a great place to start.

*Images taken from RandomNPC

Jarret Redding
Jarret Redding
Jarret Redding

Executive Director

Jarret is Executive Director as well as one of the founding members of Mash Those Buttons. He plays all types of games, but tends to lean more toward FPS, Stealth, and Combat games.

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