Being a longtime Kingdom Hearts fan, I was more than pleased when I heard that Square Enix was going to release a prequel to the first Kingdom Hearts game. Not having a Nintendo DS, I missed out on 358/2 Days, so I was more than pleased when they announced that Birth by Sleep was going to be a PSP exclusive. However, when I heard that the game was going to be using an advanced version of the awful cards system from Chain of Memories, I became pretty worried that this seemingly good game would end up a flop. I am ecstatic to announce that I was extremely wrong, and that Birth by Sleep takes full advantage of the new battle system and elevates the game series to new heights.


 As most of you probably know, the story follows three young and aspiring Keyblade Wielders: Terra, Aqua, and Ventus. After a mysterious race of creatures begin appearing in other worlds, creatures known as the Unversed, the three get separated and must unravel the mystery behind the Unversed, a strange masked boy named Vanitas, and a dark, brooding Keyblade Master named Xehanort.


In the game, you get to play as the three protagonists. You do this by starting a new game saving in separate save slots. You can either choose to play them one at a time, or play a little bit of each at once. Whichever character you choose first, second, and third does not affect the story, and the end result will always be the same, but the story might confuse you if you choose the characters out of order. The best way to play the game is to choose Terra first, then Ventus, and third Aqua.


The gameplay is too good to describe. The advanced, card, combat system is outstanding, and will have you coming back for months at a time. It's a very fluid method of fighting, and it never feels clunky or awkward. The camera control could have been better. It's as if after Square Enix fixed the camera to perfection in the second game, they decided they preferred the old, clunky camera from the first game and implemented that. Of course, it would have been next to impossible to import any other type of camera onto the PSP, seeing as how the system lacks a second analog stick. Running, walking, jumping, and dodging are all the same, and a couple of the characters even have cool new counters and evasive maneuvers.


The story is mind-blowing. After playing Kingdom Hearts, Chain of Memories, and Kingdom Hearts II, there are more than enough moments in the game that have you saying "Ahhhhh!!" or "NO FRICKING WAY!” It has the classic prequel vibe; explaining the origins of the series and making you rethink everything in the other games. Voice acting is almost perfect. Terra & Aqua give spot on performances. Leonard Nimoy & Mark Hamill do a stunning job as Xehanort and Master Eraqus, while Haley Joel Osment does a pretty good job as Vanitas. The only problem was Ventus' voice work. Jesse McCartney did an awesome job voicing Roxas in KHII, but in BBS he seems like he doesn't put his whole heart into it. He does say some great lines, but after the crazy good job he did in KHII, his performance is kind of disappointing.


The Kingdom Hearts series is famous for its numerous mini-games, and Birth by Sleep is by far no exception. From rhythm games, to monopoly rip-offs, to arena battles, Birth by Sleep has a ton. While some of the mini-games are boring and will only have you playing them for the sweet prize at the end, most of them are really fun and some extremely challenging. There's the arena mode, which is the classic "can you survive a 10 round onslaught of enemies" game, the Command Board, which is sort of a mix between Monopoly and Sorry!, Ice Cream Beat, a rhythm game where you have to see how many balls of ice cream you can stack on three cones, and numerous more. Coming in first place in mini-games rewards you with powerful new magic, attacks, abilities, and even a new Keyblade!


There's so much that in this game that I haven't even talked about yet, and if I did I would more than likely bore you to death, so I'll end with this: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep stands right up there with Kingdom Hearts II in terms of graphics, gameplay, story, and hearts. It's a heart-warming, action-packed, beautiful game, and even PSP owners who aren't fans of the series would be crazy to pass up one of the best PSP titles in years.