These three characters live on The Land of Departure; a place where budding Keyblade Masters learn how to master the keyblade, the series' signature weapon. The story opens to Aqua and Terra participating in their Master Adjudication test under the watchful eye of their master: Master Eraqus and another Keyblade Master; Master Xehanort. The game pulls no bones in making this guy (played by Leonard Nimoy) out to be the bad guy. After a tampered-with pre-test warm-up goes awry, Aqua and Terra fight to see if they are worthy enough fighters to become masters. Aqua passes, Terra fails, Ven isn't really relevant to that scene but is there anyway. From here, the three stories split, with Terra taking advice from the obvious antagonist, Aqua being told to keep an eye on Terra and his wayward actions and Ven who... Is just the tag-along.
The story on-the-whole is pretty common fare, the original-side to the story is far more captivating than Disney themed worlds, depends how much you like certain Disney movies. It's brooding, it's melodramatic and at times rather confusing with no explanation present in the game. Most likely leading up to another Kingdom Hearts title to make sense of this one.
Birth By Sleep is a side-step from the normal Kingdom Hearts style of gameplay, much like 358/2 Days. Character abilities revolve around 'decks', decks are a collection of [deck-]commands which contains all the moves the character can perform. There are three types of deck, your command deck, your ability deck and your shooting deck. The shooting deck, as far as I can tell from my 35 hours+ of gametime is completely useless as you only ever get one shooting command the entire game for each character. The ability deck has commands for mobility and defence, for instance you will acquire upgrades for your existing jump (hi-jump) and upgrades which add moves to your character such as the Glide ability which allows characters to essentially fly for a short while and the fairly redundant Dodge Roll technique (redundant because you have a similar move at the start of the game and are already far more used to using this move to bother with the new move).
The real meat of the deck system is the command deck, this gives you just about everything you need on the field (and in battle). Here you can place items such as Potions to restore various aspects of your character's stats or place magic and physical abilities, some of which have appeared in previous Kingdom Hearts games such as Fire, Blizzard and Strike Raid (throw your keyblade at enemies). Commands which go into this deck are either acquired through the shop, by completing an event or found in the field like items. The commands you can find or buy starts off very limited, but gradually expands as the game progresses. Each command has it's own independent level and experience, the more you battle with the command the more experience it gains, once it reaches a pre-defined number of EXP(erience points) it will level up, becoming slightly stronger. Once it reaches it's "Crown" (maximum) level, it can be merged with other commands to create completely new commands, some can only be acquired by merging two commands together. When merging the two commands, you can attach items to them which give certain attributes to the command, this is usually an Ability, which I'll explain a little later.
The deck system is a massive simplification of the old Kingdom Hearts battle system's command menu structure. In the original Kingdom Hearts games on consoles, you had a drop-down-menu-like command menu which you navigated using the d-pad and activated using the X button. This had a lot of problems, mostly that people never wanted to navigate these menus as they were cumbersome and took away your ability to attack without backing out of the menu you were in. Since a great deal of the game's battle functionality was activated using this menu it meant that a lot of players just didn't bother with things like summons or magic-spells they couldn't put on their Shortcut Menu (holding a shoulder button and using any of the face buttons). Birth By Sleep solves this by introducing you to the deck interface, it's a scrolling list of commands you have in your deck, you scroll through them using the d-pad and activate the highlighted command by pressing the Triangle button. This leaves the X button free to be the dedicated attack button at all times, it also does away with needless sub-menus. However, can be difficult later in the game when you have lots of room in your deck in finding the right command you want, especially when under pressure from a hoard of enemies.
As well as the command deck, you also have access to your D-Link deck by pressing the right direction on the d-pad. D-Link or Dimension Link is this game's version of the traditional Kingdom Hearts summon mechanic, only instead of actually summoning a character, you inherit a command deck which temporarily replaces your own deck and a new Finish Command. They are, for the most part, completely useless. They are useful for perhaps the start of the game but their usefulness evaporates completely once you start compiling a healthy collection of deck commands and have found a comfortable deck you will almost always use for the rest of the game. Being in D-Link with another character depletes your D-Link Gauge, once it's empty, the D-Link cancels.
Speaking of Abilities, I mentioned earlier that certain command decks can give you certain abilities. These range from anything from Luck Up abilities which give you a greater chance of enemies dropping items to HP Up abilities which raises your maximum HP. These abilities are only equipped so long as the deck command they are attached to is equipped, that is until that command reaches it's "Crown" level and then that ability becomes persistent to your character and can be turned on or off in the Status Menu. Some commands you find in the wild have certain abilities attached to them, however most of the time you'll only get abilities from commands you've merged together yourself with certain items.
I also previously mentioned the Mirage Arena earlier, the Mirage Arena is essentially the bulk of the game's multiplayer component. The Arena itself acts as an online lobby for you and friends to meet up and play missions. Some of these missions may be against another set of players who have similar objectives to you and will try to prevent the other side from completing the objective before them. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to play this game mode, so I unfortunately cannot comment on it. Just know that the game does have multiplayer if you ever felt Kingdom Hearts was lacking a multiplayer aspect at any point in history.
The game also sounds great, if you like any of Square Enix's soundtracks lately, you'll just love Birth by Sleep's score. It hardly ever seems out of place, is full of very catchy and memorable tracks and most of all, is very experimental. It's a mix of classical-style orchestrated songs, modern-style orchestrated songs and even some techno music infused with some string elements. What more can I say about it other than it being good? The game has a lot of spoken dialogue and it can be heard easily though the PSP speakers and sounds great with headphones (which I would recommend). I foresee some fans will have problems with the less-than-great dubbing the game has received, however this is very much par-for the course. None of the characters seems to have really been cast all that well and we once again have this star-over-substance method of casting that led Kingdom Hearts II's dub down mediocre lane. We have big names like Mark Hamill, Leonard Nimoy and... Willa Holland according to Wikipedia (who is this again?) rather than people who actually fit the characters they're supposed to be playing. Seriously, Square. Look at Final Fantasy XIII, you did a very good job dubbing this game. Please put this much effort into your other games. Little-known voice actors who actually sound like their voice may actually belong to that character. Just saying, it may help with the whole suspension of disbelief thing.
Overall then, regardless of if you've read this review or not, you've probably already made up your mind on Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep and probably the whole Kingdom Hearts series. If you've never played it but hate it with a passion, just give it a go, you never know. And for all the fans out there be-crying Square for not releasing Kingdom Hearts 3 already, just stop. Birth By Sleep is probably as good as this series is going to get. I hope I'm wrong on that one, but the raw simplicity, the story's nature to actually create new characters and actually pull at the audience's heart-strings makes this game's story on-par to the original Kingdom Hearts title, even though I do somewhat dislike how this game essentially re-writes that game's story and I mean it re-writes it a lot. It's a fantastic instalment to the series, embrace it, enjoy it. I'm sure when Square Enix is ready to make a small fortune, they'll come along with Kingdom Hearts 3, until then prepare for more spin-offs and side-stories. So long they're as good as Birth by Sleep, I certainly do not mind this at all.
Oh and one more thing, but spoilers so avert thine eyes from this paragraph if you wish to remain semi-spoiler free: What really gets me about this game is the fact that after spending 30 hours of your life completing three storylines and watching three very lack-lustre endings after toiling yourself half to death trying to finish the final boss of each character, the game doesn't even give you a proper ending until you've completed certain requirements to do with the in-game journal, which I didn't mention in the review at all, much like I glazed over the Command Board mini-game. You can skip this step by completing all these character's stories on Proud Mode but once you do, you're then left to face off against the game's final boss and boy, this boss fight is probably as cheap and near-impossible for someone who sucks at video games as the game's secret bosses (which are insane, by the way). No Square Enix, just no. I want some closure on a game I spent the best part of a week completing without having to bend backwards and defeat a crappy final boss. If this were just for a secret ending, then yeah, sure put all these silly restrictions on them, it's something extra... But we're talking about the actual ending to the game here. Not cool. Oh and if you're playing on Beginner Mode? Can't unlock it, sorry, got to re-play the game again on a harder difficulty. And one last thing, yes, there is a secret ending, it follows the normal ending! Can't begin to tell you how annoying this is.
It's gripping and most definitely not the cheeriest game you'll play this winter. But it's all par for the course if you've played a Kingdom Hearts game before.
A much improved battle system over it's predecessors make this game a delight to play and makes everything far more accessible.
They look amazing. No more needs to be said.
Other than the off-dubbing, a very good sountrack helps this game. Sadly the cutscenes and voice acting takes up a fair bit of your overall game-time so brace yourself for it.
30 HoursAbout 9-10 hours per character. Not bad for a portable game, definately make long travel seem a lot shorter. It's also paced very well as to not get boring.