Thursday, December 2, 2010

Kingdom Hearts Outing on PSP is Right on Par

Back in 2000 I wasn't much of a gamer. I watched my brothers play Golden Eye on Nintendo 64 or watched my best friend Chris Firgens play Final Fantasy VIII and IX on the original Playstation, but I never delved too deep. After Chris moved away I felt I had no choice but to start playing myself and picked up IX. Instantly I fell in love. From the game play to the characters to the story, I just ate every bit of the game up. When I was through I picked up Final Fantasy VII right away. I became obsessed, avidly eating away at every game I came across that Square Enix (Squaresoft at the time) released. While thumbing through a Playstation Magazine I came across the company's latest outing: Kingdom Hearts. I was appalled. How could some company that created such fantastic games that spoke volumes to me create a game with Disney?! I refused to play it, even after critics every where praised it. Years later, while sifting through a used games bin I came across the game. For ten dollars, it was mine. So I said "screw it," and bought the game. Needless to say I am now an avid fan of Kingdom Hearts and gobble up every title that is released. When I heard about Birth By Sleep, I immediately went to the nearest game retailer and pre-ordered it, picking the game up the day it came out. What I got out of the game wasn't quite what I went in for, but not in a disappointing way.

For those of you who have never played a Kingdom Hearts ( )  game, they are essentially a conglomeration of Disney and Final Fantasy, playing as original main characters to travel through Disney worlds meeting various characters using traditionally a keyblade as your main weapon.

Birth By Sleep is a prequal to the rest of the series, making it a great title to start with, even if you don't know anything about the series or it's history. The story follows three friends and fellow keyblade apprentices Terra, Ventus and Aqua. Terra and Aqua take their master's exam at the beginning of the game and after a quick battle, Aqua is made a master leaving Terra behind due to his lack of control over the Darkness within him. Angered and looking for answers, Terra takes off to travel the worlds searching for another master, Master Xehanhort, to answer questions about the Darkness within him, Ventus takes off after him to follow him and Aqua follows suite to bring the two of them back to their own master, Master Eraqus. Throughout the game you play as each of the three friends, one at a time, following their storyline through the end and picking back up from the beginning of another until all three are played through to unlock a final chapter where you face off with the final boss.

The Slight Changes to Combat fit the PSP and add a sense of change from the Console Combat.

As is the tradition of Kingdom Hearts games, you the player travels between different worlds, both Disney and original creations, meeting characters and uncovering more of the storyline. A quick note, Birth By Sleep has the least amount of Final Fantasy characters than any other Kingdom Hearts game. This doesn't make the game weaker than the others, but it is an interesting fact to note seeing as how this game is such a strong and important entry in the series. Each character visits these worlds in mostly the same order, but unlocks different parts of each world. This is probably the weakest part of the entire game because by the time you get to the third characters story, visiting the same world for a third time feel very repetitive, even with a small portion being selective to the character you're playing. The repetitiveness may bot have been so bad had you been able to play as each character as you come to the worlds, but that would also affect the story time line.

As you progress through each world you battle through wave after wave of Unversed, this game's version of the Heartless. Though there are the typical minion enemies and tank enemies, this game in particular has the greatest variety of enemies than any other Kingdom Hearts game, adding variety and urgency to which enemies the player fights. At the end of almost every world there is a boss battle, but these battles don't seem to carry the same variety as the general enemies, with maybe an exception to the final battles for each character and the over all final boss battle. A majority of the bosses you can just hack at, jump or dodge an attack, and go back to slashing away, which is a little disappointing considering how much I personally expect from boss battles.

Terra, Ventus and Aqua, the new Playable Characters of the Prequel.

The real meat and potatoes of the game is battle, and the battle system takes on many layers to give players some nice control over how they battle, tayloring to their own style. Battles are in real time and just like the main series, the player picks commands through a menu at the bottom left of the screen. Outside of battle, the player sets commands to this menu as well as set their auto-abilities, abilities and shot-lock commands .

These commands are a large part of the battle system. They are used once in battle and then require a cool down time. The stronger the command, the longer the cool down time. Commands range from physical, keyblade attacks to magic attacks to items. As you gain commands, you can start melding commands together. Melding requires two specific commands that are fused together to create a new, more powerful attack. While melding, you may also add an item to the attack that adds different auto-abilities. These abilities range from adding an extra attack on your combo to decreasing the cool down times of abilities to boosting the power of healing abilities. As you use commands in battle, they level up, reaching a max level that ranges from level 3 to level 6 depending on the power of the attack. In order to keep an auto-ability, you must max out the command it is attached to. This melding is great, allowing you to create powerful abilities and level up with some interesting abilities to your own content. Also, each character has some specific commands that are specific to that character alone that creates some variety while playing as each character. You also feel this desire to constantly level up and meld commands, almost with a pokemon like fever or 'gotta catch em all' which keeps you constantly leveling up your commands.

On top of the battle commands the player has access to abilities. These include jumping, dodging, blocking, ect. . These are useful in both battle and platforming (which there is more of thank goodness) and level up as well, but leveling them up seemed less urgent, especially since melding these abilities with each other or commands happens less common.

To add another layer to combat, characters also have shot-lock commands. These commands are used like in a first person mode, allowing the player to target as many enemies as they can look at before the clock runs out. These attacks are great for wittling down large groups of enemies, but if you are hit you the targeting stops and you must start over again. Shot-lock commands require focus, which is gained by attacking enemies or taking damage from enemies.

The final layer on top of the battle system is the D-link. D-link, short for dimension link, allows you to use abilities that other characters you come across use. You start out with your two fellow apprentices (the two characters you aren't currently playing as), but as you progress through the game you obtain more, sometimes through the story and sometimes through mini games. Using the D-link completely heals your character on top of giving you access to other commands, so using D-link requires some strategy to make sure it isn't wasted. As you use a D-link and battle enemies, random starts (shaped like star-fruit) appear. Obtaining a star can level up your D-link, giving you even more powerful abilities for that character. Each character can be leveled up twice to a final form, obtaining some passive abilities that are active while you use that specific character.

With such a robust battle system, the battles still require skill. Having played every other game in the series, I can easily say that this is the toughest, requiring constant timing with blocking and dodging, particularly during the final confrontation. This difficulty also makes it that much more rewarding. It has been a long time since I've jumped up at the end of the of a games' final battle and screamed with excitement for finally beating it, and that's exactly what happened when I finally beat the game.

Besides the story line, there are many mini games. Some are fun, such as the Rumble Racing, which is a mini racing sim. Others are annoying, such as the Ice Cream mini game that is a rhythm based mini game. The largest mini game is definitely the Command Board. This game is one large board game that the player plays against other characters. The characters you play against depends on the board and each board is different, requiring a different strategy to win. During these games the player can place down commands, using them to damage the opponents and leveling up the commands. You can also take over other commands, obtaining them for use in battle later if you can keep them in your control throughout the mini game.

Over all, Birth By Sleep is a great game. The battles are challenging and engaging. There is a lot of meat in this game, ranging from 35 to 45 hours of play. The story, though important, is a bit weak, essentially in the presentation of the story. If you are a Kingdom Hearts fan, don't pass this one up. There is some great fan service here for you. If you are a fan of action RPG's and don't care so much about the story, definitely grab this game. Overall, I give it a  

9 out of 10

Here are a few more links for those interested in Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep


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