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The Backlog Files: Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Review

by on August 28, 2013

For every gamer, there is a pile of games we swear we get to. They get put on our shelves, only to sit there for a duration of time until we notice them again. These are known as games in the backlog or on the backburner. While waiting for new releases, we’ve decided we’ll play those games. These are the “Backlog Files”.

Another solid entry into the franchise that has the same issues as its predecessors.

Developer: Square Enix     Publisher: Square Enix        Release Date: September 7, 2010
Platform: Playstation Portable       Rating: E for Everyone          MSRP: $19.99

By Terry Randolph

Whenever a new Kingdom Hearts game releases, it is easy to compare to its predecessors. The games have a tendency to fall back on the things most familiar to fans of the franchise; the same story elements, combat system and overall gameplay come to mind. By melding the gameplay mechanics of Final Fantasy with venturing to various worlds under the Disney label, it is easy to see why sticking to the formula has been successful for them.   Yet, Square Enix does a great job of adding subtle tweaks to the formula to keep combat from getting stale.  With every story exploring the strength of friendship, inner growth and the eternal struggle of good and evil, the games tell great standalone entries that serve the overall storyline. It also allows newcomers to jump into the fray with any of the new releases .  Birth By Sleep is a great starting point for anyone new to the series, and is a solid investment for fans of the franchise.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep (dubbed by many as Kingdom Hearts 0) is a tale any fan is familiar with, but tells it through new characters and environments. The new main characters Terra, Aqua and Ventus each fit their respective tropes needed to propel the story forward. The gameplay is shaped to match each character’s personality, making combat much more strategic since you have to adjust your play style to the characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Players can choose to play as Terra, Aqua or Ventus. Terra is your standard strong melee fighter who lacks speed. Aqua is light on her feet, and is weak in strength but strong in magic. Ventus is the all-around fighter; fast, but does not excel in either melee or magic.

From left to right: Aqua, Ventus and Terra  (C) Square Enix 2010

Instead of having the four basic commands you would see on a typical RPG fight menu, players are given a menu known as a command deck. The command deck is a list of commands of your choosing you can edit to match your fighting style. However, in order to ensure the gamer does not rely on the command deck too much, commands enter a cool down phase after one use. Birth By Sleep’s combat system adds a new tweak to the formula with the D-Link. Similar to summoning, players can borrow abilities from certain characters they meet over the course of the game in combat to change up the scenario. Overall, these subtle tweaks make the combat in Birth By Sleep to be the strongest, addictive combat since the series began.

The mini-games placed in several worlds of Birth By Sleep can be fun and serve as fun breaks away from the combat. One of them, a rhythm based game involving famous Disney songs and ice cream, had me playing for a good half hour just for the fun of it. Another mini-game that is not only addictive but very rewarding for the game were the command boards; strategy board games that offer some valuable rewards should you win. Instead of being thrown in there for the sake of being in there these mini games serve as a nice addition to the game.

What it looks like playing on a command board. Reminiscent of Mario Party
(c) Square Enix 2010

If there is anything holding gameplay back, it is the camera. The camera has always been a problem with any Kingdom Hearts games, and Birth By Sleep continues the trend. What makes it a little more frustrating is the how the controls for camera movement are mapped. The Playstation Portable (PSP for short) was notorious during its run for only having one thumbstick; this meant the camera was either tied to the movement of the character or to the shoulder buttons. In Birth By Sleep, it is mapped to the shoulder button and the little delay for it to adjust. The camera can also impact the direction of an attack and block, resulting in unncecessary deaths. This does not take away too much from the game, but it did have me stepping away for brief periods of time.

The storyline is something you would expect from Kingdom Hearts; an overarching tale of saving the many worlds from an evil enemy while exploring the depths of self-discovery. It is interesting to watch Terra, Aqua and Ventus grow into themselves while also growing from the strength in their friendships. The themes are explored with just enough lightheartedness and depth that it feels balanced. Square Enix does a good job with the delivery of the story that allows both kids and adults to get into. Also, being chronologically the first game of the Kingdom Hearts series story, newcomers can jump into Birth By Sleep to get a taste of what the other games are like.

One of the many forms you can take one depending on the hits you land and commands you use. (C) Square Enix 2010

Now, one of the biggest problems I have with Kingdom Hearts games is the supporting cast taking the backseat to only fill the role they need to. While it can be attributed to the limitations of the PSP hardware, Birth By Sleep can feel so hollow and lifeless at times because of this.  Some of the most iconic Disney characters seem to only fit the major characteristics most people will remember and come off as mere caricatures of their characters. Worlds are small but vast with a lot of empty space having pockets of hidden enemies. Overall, the worlds can come across as dull. It feels similar with my experience in Dead Space 3; sometimes adding more content for the sake of playability takes away from an experience. It comes off as misdirected thinking; gaming is more about the quality of the experience than the length of it. For me, I would rather have a shorter game with that has a high quality experience to it than a long game with mediocre gameplay.

(c) Square Enix 2010

This has been a recent trend in games I find troubling; the idea having to extend a campaign or storyline through more content justifies the price tag. Some games tend to break up some story elements and split it between two separate campaigns that still put the player through the same motions. It becomes a question of whether or not it is worth replaying the same worlds for some new cutscenes or gameplay. It becomes a personal preference thing, but I think it paints a picture of studios having problem with pacing stories to extend the gameplay. Gameplay should be built contextually with the story in mind, and if it is not this creates a disjointed experience. That was the problem with Dead Space 3; promises of a captivating story with gripping characters that turned out to be a thin storyline and unremarkable characters.

Birth By Sleep left me feeling torn a bit in regards to its length; having three separate campaigns to tell different stories exploring the same worlds was not something I looked forward to. While Kingdom Hearts has a soft spot in my gaming heart, I could not get myself excited for starting another campaign. Personally, I was ready to take a long break from the game, hoping that would give me a chance to really enjoy the game again.

If SquareEnix had focused taken time to develop fewer worlds and the characters that have huge impacts on Terra, Ventus and Aqua it might have dramatically improved the experience. In many key moments I knew I was supposed to react to I felt detached from them. It was odd because I knew what emotions were meant to be elicited, but nothing. It had me feeling weird in the end.

Fruitball, another one of the fun mini-games (c) Square Enix 2010

Also, while the series has had its ups and downs in the voice acting, I found that Birth By Sleep’s voice acting was more disappointing than on par. Terra’s acting, for example, felt like I was hearing him reading the lines for the first time off the paper. It came off as lifeless sometimes, and in many of the key moments for his character it lacked the conviction it needed. Xehanort and Aqua, two other major characters in the game, were solid in their performances. The rest of the supporting cast did well with what they could.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is still a solid investment overall, and especially with it being 3 years after the launch date the price is more than justified. Like any of its predecessors, the game is a great starting point for anyone looking into checking out the series and further develops the story for fans. Gameplay is solid minus the camera’s needing to be constantly adjusted. The voice acting can be cringeworthy, and the setting sometimes lifeless, but there is something about the product as a whole that is endearing. The mini games are fun and are a great way to take a break from the story. Overall, it is a game I would say to look into if you still have a PSP.

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