Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep ReviewGreg Knoll
Kingdom Hearts has always been a series routed in mystery. From the original title and Sora's strange ability to traverse different worlds to the infamous Roxas incident. But each instance in the strange was completely dwarfed by the cryptic, twisted secret movie played at the end of part two. Those of you who have not seen it, I greatly suggest that before even considering Birth By Sleep.
For those who of you who did, if you're anything like me, you were left in wonder and anticipation for what would come next. KH II became far more captivating and powerful than the original, all based on that moment. We waited feverishly for answers. Birth By Sleep gives them to us.
It begins in a world much like that which Sora and Rikku came from and introduces two close friends-Aqua and Terra-on their journey to becoming keyblade masters and their younger prodigy Ventus. During Terra and Aqua's final examination, things take a turn for the worst and their once docile practice targets take on a vindictive form, and all three are forced into a fight they never expected. When the smoke clears and calm resumes- no matter how the fight goes-Aqua is granted a promotion to keyblade master while Terra is asked to wait, due to a darkness that resides in him of which he can't control.
Frustrated and defeated, Terra decides to set out alone, cast his own world off to search for answers and hopefully solace.
It's here where gamers will notice the first of many changes implemented for Birth By Sleep. Instead of playing with one main character and two sidekicks, the game is split into three parts. At the beginning you're given a choice between Terra, Aqua and Ventus. Each has their own story and different experiences in the same worlds. Their paths cross from time to time but for the most part Birth By Sleep is played with only one character at a time.
Though it seems strange, I thought-for the most part-it was a stroke of genius. With only one character at a time, you get a much better idea of who they are. The impact of their struggles seems that more focused. Terra's self-doubts seem more real, Ventus innocence more charming and Aqua's steel resolve more noble. It's written beautifully and intelligently, so that you'll see something entirely different with each character and very rarely does it overlap-causing you to sit through the same countless scenes.
When I discovered this was the idea behind Birth By Sleep I found myself wondering how it would work and what would I lose. Donald was always the magician and complimented Sora's swordplay. Goofy was the one to protect us when things got too intense. Possibly to counteract potential issues, Square introduced The Deck-a completely customizable command interface with access to everything from special attacks, magic, items and abilities. Though there are a few specific to each character, each has access to most of the techniques present-and believe me, there are a lot. You don't have a friend by your side to case blizzard for you, but it's no longer needed. If you have it, you can use it. You're even able to create more by combining ones you already own.
This plays in to actually building your character. When you go up a level, you gain very little in terms of a stat boost. Your strength, magic or defense may increase, but for the most part that's all you see. Stats are instead raised by attaching items when you meld a command. For example, in order to get the magic Fira you must start by melding two fire spells together. However, if you add a crystal to the mixture, your new command will have a boost attached to it-one you can use freely once you reach the maximum level on the technique. Each crystal has a different affect and can range anywhere from a boost to your HP, resistance to spells or how quickly your techniques recharge after being used. It seems tedious at first and even overwhelming. Finding the perfect combination to earn that one increase you're looking for can be difficult, but in that it becomes involved and entertaining. You're no longer mindlessly grinding to make your character stronger. You're building them, and choosing their path. To me, that is far better. I feel like I've earned it.
In addition to regular techniques, you also have Finishers and the D-Link to help you in battles that may seem too much for you to handle by yourself. Finishers are far more powerful abilities that are charged up by meeting specific requirements like using only attacks or casting only fire spells. Once fully activated-depending on the finish-you unleash spells and attacks unlike those not included in the deck, from powerful, spinning air combos, slinging fire directly from your sword or slashing the ground and causing the earth to erupt underneath an enemy.
The D-Link allows you to call upon the help of your friends-and even enemies-to assist you in battle. You start out with only the two main characters you're not playing, but as you progress and help the different worlds you build bonds with others like Peter Pan, Stitch and-oddly enough-Maleficent. Each have their own abilities, most of them for what made them famous, like Peter Pan flying about and striking enemies or Maleficent's dark and frightening magic. Activating these at the right time can mean the difference between moving on to the next battle or starting that one over.
Square-Enix has obviously put a lot of thought into the new system, making sure that the lack of sub-party members didn't mean an increase in difficulty. They took their time with it, so that it was easy to understand and a seemless transition. It's one thing I've always appreciated about them and the Kingdom Hearts series-consistency. Birth By Sleep looks just as good as any of its predecessors, cutscenes are sharp, facial expressions and attention to detail spot-on and as usual the wonderful Disney characters are rendered perfectly. Most of the talent used to voice the original KH have returned, including James Woods, Christopher Steele and Haley Joel Osment. Birth By Sleep is made up of everything that made the series famous in the first place.
And while I appreciate their attention to the finer details, Square-Enix failed-in my eyes-on one aspect: repetitiveness. Allowing you to play all three characters and to see each side of the story, only to have it culminate at the end into a complicated and beautifully woven tapestry, is something I wouldn't change. However, I wish when you beat the game as one character, you had the option of starting the second or third with a NewGame+. It's frustrating to spend hours upon hours building your characters up, earning different stat boots and items, money, leveling up skills only to have it taken away. Grinding is a blast in Birth By Sleep don't get me wrong, but part of that enjoyment derives from discovering something new, not re-earning what you've already seen prior.
And with so many twists and NPCs, it's hard to keep everything straight at times but that complaint is minor, as Square has kept the journal option, allowing you to go back and research a character or event that you may have forgotten about.
Those issues aside, it's hard to ignore how wonderful Birth Of Sleep truly is. It strays from the original concept, yes, but in the best way possible. It's a unique and engaging experience, complimented by a wonderful structure, ingenious design and hard work. I'm still eagerly awaiting Kingdom Hearts III as I miss the characters I've grown to love, but I now have something to tide me over until that day comes.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.
May I have the strength to lead with compassion. May I have a resolve strong enough to inspire it in others. May my heart be true, my motives virtuous, my spirit valiant. And whether I fail or succeed, may I at least be brave in the attempt.
About the Author: Greg Knoll
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