Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep
Kingdom Hearts has long offered one of the most interesting mash-ups in gaming, with the hyper-stylised melodrama and teen angst of Square Enix colliding head on with the family friendly charm of the Disney universe. For the latest instalment, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, the series arrives on the PlayStation Portable for the first time and having been in the making for over five years (it was originally conceived for the PlayStation 2), it’s not unfair to expect great things from two such giants of the entertainment industry; but, is Birth By Sleep a Beauty or a Beast?
Billed as a prequel to the first Kingdom Hearts game, Birth by Sleep focuses on the adventures of three young upstarts – Ventus (or Ven to his mates!), Aqua and Terra, all of whom share the same dream – to become a Keyblade Master. The plot opens with the latter two heroes taking an exam to obtain the Mark of Mastery, a test that is only passed by the blue-haired Aqua with the broody Terra failing on account of the darkness that lies in his heart. Following the test, the Keyblade Master Xehanort goes missing, and Terra departs to hunt him down and to fight against the appearance of a horde of creatures known only as ‘the Unversed’. What follows is a fairly typical Square Enix tale of friendship and self-discovery that, in fairness, manages to just about transcend the standard clichés and remain reasonably engaging. A large contributing factor is undoubtedly the series’ unique selling point – we are of course talking about the blending of worlds, as our heroes come face to face with many of Disney’s most iconic characters.
While Birth by Sleep does have a stab at playing the role of an origin story and exploring the reasons for the coming together of these two very different worlds, newcomers to the series will be able to just accept that it has happened and enjoy the fruits that this concept enables; though there are narrative depths to be plumbed, for many the hows, whys and wherefores won’t be that significant.
Structurally, the game is broken down into three stories (which can be played in any order), as we follow the adventures of Ven, Terra and Aqua that sees the characters enter and explore an impressive variety of famous Disney settings, surfing through space on your keyblade from one to another. In each of these themed worlds, you often have to assume a role within that particular movie’s plot-line; from playing a part in the events that led to Stitch (of Lilo and Stitch) crashing to Earth, hunting for the Seven Dwarves in the woodlands from Snow White or helping Hercules train to be hero. When Ven enters the abode of Cinderella, he is set the task of aiding Jaq the mouse in his efforts to create the hapless housemaid’s ball gown – this particular example (which comes fairly near the game’s opening should you choose Ven’s adventure first) marks one of the game’s low-points, and typifies an opening section that generally underwhelms.
The main problem is that mindless fetch quests are the antithesis of fun – and Ven’s story (which seems like the natural place to start, bearing in mind that he is the game’s poster-boy) starts with two of them; hunting Dwarve’s and searching for buttons/cotton-reels in reasonably indistinct environments could test the patience of even the hardiest of action-RPG fans. If you manage to fight through this drudgery however, there is a rather nice game waiting on the other side that blossoms by blending some genuinely lovely visuals and character art with a combat and character system that can be tweaked to within an inch of its life. It is these two strands – the combat and the visuals – that prove to be Birth By Sleep’s most compelling elements.
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