Are you a jaded Kingdom Hearts fan? I know I am. When a game has more spin-offs than actual series entries, it's hard not to be, and this is especially true when the facet that made the series so amazing in the first place has been given a backseat to Tetsuya Nomura's increasing hard-to-follow plotline. If you recall, the last entry in the series, 358/2 Days, was not particularly well received by our site. Fear not, Kingdom Hearts fans, because from what I've seen so far, Birth By Sleep is a return to form for the series, restoring the magic of the original.
To be fair, Tetsuya Nomura's storyline still takes a front seat, but like the original game, it's seamlessly meshed with the Disney elements. The Disney worlds no longer seem irrelevant, and in fact become the highlight of the story experience. The story is also much more subdued than previous entries. Gone is the three hour prologue of Kingdom Hearts II, replaced instead with one that reaches a conclusion within an hour. Once that prologue reaches its finale, you're free to select from the three main protagonists, as each one's tale only holds a part of the whole story. To begin, I selected Ventus, the Roxas lookalike whose personality in many ways resembles Sora, Kingdom Hearts original protagonist.
Ventus's story begins as he watches his friends Terra and Aqua attempt to pass an examination to become Keyblade Masters. When Aqua passes and Terra fails, the three wind up on separate paths. Terra takes off on his own, and Ventus chases after him while Aqua stays behind. At this point it's revealed that their keyblades are mysteriously able to clad them in full body armor, and also become space-faring vehicles that they can use for travel. This makes absolutely no sense, of course, but is undeniably awesome.
" Fear not, Kingdom Hearts fans, because from what I've seen so far, Birth By Sleep is a return to form for the series, restoring the magic of the original. "
At this point, the game opens up into familiar Kingdom Hearts territory, providing a map of worlds that Ventus can travel to. Now pay close attention, because this part is important: the first three worlds I visited as Ventus were brand new. While previous Kingdom Hearts titles have retread old ground ceaselessly, so far I have no encountered any repeats.
My first stop was the Dwarven Woodlands, home to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. This trip began with Ventus following the dwarves to their mine and asking them if they'd seen Terra. The dwarves, ever-cautious, accused him of being a diamond thief, and promptly hid themselves away in the mine, sparking a game of hide and seek. After ultimately making no headway with the dwarves, I continued exploring the world until I came upon Snow White in the forest. She was lost and quite frightened, and I had to escort her to the dwarves' home, protecting her from the menacing trees that came to life to attack her.
My second stop was the home of Cinderella, a place in which Ventus found himself roughly the size of a mouse. Here I had to assist the heavily accented Jaq in finding materials to prepare Cinderella's dress for the royal ball, which ultimately culminated in a fight to the death with Lucifer himself! Lucifer, of course, is the family's pet cat.
Finally, I arrived in the Enchanted Dominion, home to Princess Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty), and of course the evil Maleficent, who played a major role in the first two Kingdom Hearts games. Maleficent had stolen Aurora's heart, and I had to storm Maleficent's castle in order to get it back.
To speak briefly on the gameplay, Birth By Sleep has made a number of improvements to the core Kingdom Hearts combat system. The bloated real-time menus of the first two games have been significantly improved. The X button is permanently affixed to the standard combo attack, while the triangle button is used to activate special skills and spells. Rather than using MP, special skills each have a cooldown associated with them, and once you use one, the menu automatically switches down to the next one on the list. You can also use the D-Pad to manually select skills, though this is as awkward as it was in the earlier games.
While the first two Kingdom Hearts games had a wide assortment of relatively useless summon spells, Birth By Sleep replaces them with D-Links, which allow you to connect to the friends you've made and gain access to their special skills. Aqua and Terra were both available to me at the start, but as I completed each world, I gained access to Snow White and Cinderella.
Aside from a few control issues, Birth By Sleep is shaping up to be a really solid PSP title. You can look forward to more when we review the game closer to its release date. For now, be sated that Birth By Sleep is looking more like the first title, and less like the spin-offs.