The lights are on
Confusing story; solid gameplay:
We’ve been waiting nearly five years for a console based Kingdom Hearts game to come out while Square-Enix just keeps on teasing us with prequels, interquels, and side-stories. Among these games is the console version of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, the DS’s 365/2 Days and the upcoming Coded and 3D. Perhaps the most anticipated of these games is Birth by Sleep, a prequel that sheds light on the entire Kingdom Hearts universe.
If I may be so bold, the story focuses on three young Keyblade wielders; Terra, Aqua, and Ventus. These three train under Master Eraqus who focuses their training under the influence of light. Terra and Aqua both take an exam to earn the Mark of Mastery under the guest scrutiny of Master Xehanort (a fishy looking dude to begin with). Master Eraqus determined that only Aqua was worthy enough to pass as Terra could not contain the darkness within himself. Not soon after creatures known as the Unversed arrive and wreak havoc upon their world. When Master Xehanort is nowhere to be found, Master Eraqus suspects that perhaps his collegue may have something to do with the chaos occurring. Eraqus sends Terra and Aqua (Ventus tags along) to the many Disney themed worlds to track down Master Xehanort and contain the threat of the Unversed.
Overall, I enjoyed the story but I admit that it confused me on more than one occasion. Most of the time it flows well but as you attempt to tie together Birth by Sleep with the rest of the Kingdom Hearts universe, things will start to get cluttered. BBS leaves you with even more questions than you had before and a yearning to finally get the story straight.
In Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, visiting each world was exciting not to mention vital to the story. In BBS, it seemed more like an obligation. It felt as if they wanted to tell the main story but were forced to inject Disney worlds simply because that was how all of the other games did it. The worlds were fun but seemed unimportant and generic. If I wanted to know how the stories of these Disney worlds turn out, I’ll just plop my niece’s collection of Disney movies into my old VHS player. Giving each world a significance to the story would have added emotion and some sort of depth but instead the game is left with worlds like Lilo & Stitch themed Deep Space which could have been left out with no overall affect to the rest of the story.
As with previous installments, Birth by Sleep brings an all-star cast to the table. Although Willa Holland’s Aqua sounded rather monotone, Mark Hamill and Leonard Nimoy gave exceptional performances as Master Eraqus and Master Xehanort respectively. Of course, it’s always delightful to hear classic Disney voices portrayed again.
The music is of caliber to the rest of Yoko Shimomura’s catalogue. It sounds great and interacts well with the constantly changing tone of the game. The only problem is that the music to the majority of the Disney Worlds doesn’t have anything to do with the franchise they are trying to represent. There could have been more worlds like the Castle of Dreams or KH1’s Halloween Town that made use of the movie’s own musical scores. It would have added much needed depth and attachment to these worlds.
The game looks just as good as it sounds. If you’ve seen any screenshots of Birth by Sleep then it is needless to say that the graphics are gorgeous. The character models and the environments look just as good as Kingdom Hearts II did on the PS2. The effects of transforming commands and clashing Keyblades are eye candy. Graphics have never been a weak point for Square-Enix and Birth by Sleep continues their streak with a shine.
The area where Birth by Sleep succeeds the most at is the gameplay. Gameplay consists of attacking enemies with your Keyblade (x button), dodging or blocking (square button) or performing magic/technique attacks with the triangle button. As you plow through Unversed you slowly fill up your Command Gauge.The trick with the Command Gauge is using different types of attacks to fill it up. If you simply hack ‘n slash you will be rewarded with a simple finishing maneuver. However, if you fill up your Command Gauge with certain combination of magic/technique attacks you will change your command style and shroud your keyblade in elements such as fire (if you use fire based attacks), ice, thunder, light, and darkness.
New to the series are D-Links and Shot Locks. D-Links allow you to connect with allies you’ve met along the journey in order to change your move set and grant you certain abilities in battle such as Regen (if you connect with Cinderella) or Shell (if you connect with Donald). By holding down the L and R buttons you can lock on to your enemies and do a series of attacks called Shot Locks. Shot Locks will not only attack your enemies but also keep you invulnerable to their attacks.
The gameplay is what truly makes Birth by Sleep shine. I enjoyed filling up the Command Gauge and using different magic/technique attacks to murder my enemies. Using magic or techniques are a lot easier to perform in BBS than in previous installments. In the first two Kingdom Hearts, you had to scroll through a menu and select the move you wanted, all during the heat of battle. Because it took so long to cast any magic in Kingdom Hearts 1 & 2 I rarely bother with it at all. I mainly hacked and slashed my way through the game. The way BBS utilizes these techniques is quick, effective, and enjoyable. I have no complaints about the D-Links or the Shot Locks either. They both add variety to the battle system and let you play in your own unique style.
The only terrible thing about the gameplay is the lock-on system. First of all, it is very picky about who it locks onto. I could be staring an enemy in the face and lock-on to another one on the other side of the field.Even if I try to switch my target, it takes forever to scroll to the enemy I want. By that time the enemy has pounded me half way to oblivion. When locked on to a boss, I would wait in place for him to do an attack so I can successfully time a counter to it. Unfortunately, the game decides that the target no longer needs to be locked onto. This changes the camera, loses the focus of my counter and ultimately ends the battle for me. It’s definitely a game changer and the most damaging of Birth by Sleeps’ flaws.
Speaking of flaws, the loading times are unbearable. You might as well take a nap when waiting for a cutscene or a new area to load. The first time I endured a loading screen I thought the game had froze only to find when I turned it back on that it was actually this slow. The loading times greatly affect the flow of battle. You could be battling, but as soon as you charge up your Command Gauge and transform you’ll be waiting a good 10 to 15 seconds before the action starts back up again. Yes, you can install the game but even after you do so, the load times remain lengthy.
Overall Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a good game. It has an addictive gameplay style and spectacular graphics to keep your eyes glued to the screen. If you’re a Kingdom Hearts fan, the flaws that come along with it won't be major enough to deter you. However, if you’re new to the series, BBS may not be the perfect game to bring you into the realm of Kingdom Hearts. Birth by Sleep is a good filler that will satisfy your KH craving until Kingdom Hearts 3 decides to rear its pretty head.
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