After ‘Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories’ established the concept that there could be installments into the series around the main entries, and that appearances on handhelds were going to be equally plot-relevant to their main-line kin, Square Enix upped the game by taking advantage of the then-new Sony PlayStation Portable device.
Fans of the series will be quick to point out that much of the Kingdom Hearts creative team for then then highly-anticipated Kingdom Hearts 3 had been shifted onto the ‘Final Fantasy vs XIII’ project announced for PlayStation 3, which would undergo an extended development cycle before finally seeing release a console generation later on the PlayStation 4. This led to an extended period of the Kingdom Hearts brand being kept alive by a series of stand alone handheld releases that continued the narrative, but also re-trod a lot of content. Birth by Sleep is widely considered to be the very best of these, featuring an engrossing story, high stakes and visiting previously unexplored Disney worlds.
Graphically the title looks amazing, pulling on the considerable power of the PSP in comparison to its competitor of the time, the Nintendo DS, to bring a graphical quality to the title that was in line with the PlayStation 2 titles. Locations are naturally smaller in structure, with worlds unfolding into a series of interconnected spaces rather than the more seamless feel of bigger titles, but the design work put into creating realizations of key Disney locations is clearly on show. The new characters fit into the series’ pre-established visual style and our first depiction of the series’ over-arcing villain is very well handled. Scenes are cinematic, using placement of the camera and character reactions both close up and at a distance to good effect, without relying on pre-rendered sequences, managing to keep much of the game in-engine. It’s a very pretty game on native hardware, and HD re-releases since have only made it look even better.
Musically, this game is beautiful to listen to and whilst it does reuse some refrains and pieces of prior scores (notable the intro song and Heartless theme), the new music that it brings to the table makes for a darker, more adult feeling. This is especially impressive when it has to be balanced against locations as jovial as Neverland or stints spent as a mouse sized participant in the Cinderella story. Read talent and attention has been poured into the vocal performances however, with heavy hitters such as Leonard Nimoy and Mark Hamill working alongside solid performances from Willa Holland, Jason Dohring and Jesse McCartney (pulling double duty in the series as Roxas and as Ventus for reasons that make sense for long-time players). When scenes require a level of acting above the normal emotional impact, the whole cast manage to get there and this makes for a really good package.
The narrative of Birth by Sleep is set as a prelude to the original Kingdom Hearts title, separated by a ten year gap. We join Keyblade trainees Terra, Ventus and Aqua on the day of the mark of mastery exam for the elder two of the group, and when the arrival of Master Xehanort begins to subtly distort proceedings the first cracks in the three’s friendship begin to show. Aqua, passing to become a Keymaster. Terra struggling to control a natural leaning into darker powers, and Ventus at the heart of an even grander scheme that could bring about terrible things. All three leave their homeworld to battle a wave of monsters spreading between worlds known as the Unversed, and as the player it’s up to you to guide them each through their own campaign to completion before unlocking a final epic showdown. It’s no spoiler to say that players going into this title even at launch were aware that a massive set piece of the game would hinge on a much-teased showdown at the Keyblade Graveyard that would go on to be a major recurring location for the rest of the series. It’s well written, works seamlessly for players new and old, and sets up several key plot points across the grander Kingdom Hearts mythos that makes this games story one not to skip.
Gameplay sees the player leaping into the shoes of one of the three characters and playing in true Action RPG style. Running, jumping, attacking and blocking as well as spellcasting and light puzzle solving are the name of the game here, with the physics of the series well represented on a handheld. Ventus plays the most similarly to console Sora, and new players will want to play his story first (even if the game tries to lean you into Terra as a default starting point), whilst Terra moves more slowly and has a more powerful physical attack. You will want to save Aqua for last, in part because she is faster but weaker than the other two physically, and in part because with a solid grasp of the games magic crafting system she can be turned into an absolute badass with very little work that will see out the last two portions of the game. special actions exist as a deck of options on the left of the screen with their own cooldown, activated by tapping triangle at any time and the wheel can be manually spun using the D-Pad. Spells and skills are dropped by monsters and found in chests/purchased from shops, but arrive at level 1. Building them up through having them equipped to level 3 or 5 will allow you to start melding them together into more powerful or surprising combinations. Two Cures will make a Cura spell, but there are far more potent and powerful combos that you can craft here. The game also introduces D-Links with other characters to take on aspects of their play styles, allowing Terra to move like Ven for a short time for example, whilst the Shotlock command works off its own Focus gauge and allows for fast and simple removal of multiple enemies at range. Use of the same elemental magic or skill in succession will also activate a specialist mode for each that charges your attacks with that spell for a short time and finishes with an area attack for considerable damage. Alongside the usual gameplay and world-trotting are a number of other diversions. An arena for battles against specific challenge bosses, a cart racer, rhythm mini games and a massive boardgame that can be accessed from the world map or save points that play as monopoly-like contests and dish out masses of spell/skill experience as rewards. Sadly the PVP elements have been removed from the HD versions of the game, but the PSP online play for these was very solid and enjoyable in its day.
Overall, any fan of the Kingdom Hearts series or of Action RPS in general owes it to themselves to play Birth by Sleep. It requires minimal series knowledge to enjoy as a prelude and packs perhaps the best narrative that the series has managed to accomplish to date. Though UMDs are getting harder to find for the native hardware of the PSP (and an install mode is available to the PSP to speed up load times), the game is easily available as part of the HD remaster collection, which is usually found at a stupidly cheap price-tag for the amount of games and content that the package provides on digital stores or physical releases. Go play this game immediately!