Kingdom Hearts is a truly beloved series that, on paper, really shouldn't work as well as it does. The franchise started to spawn handheld spinoffs after the runaway success of the original... and by offering fast, slick and deep gameplay, Birth By Sleep is probably the best of the bunch.
Birth By sleep tells the intertwined stories of three Keyblade masters: the youthful Ventus, stoic Terra and female mage Aqua. In terms of gameplay, you'll still visit various Disney-themed worlds to rid them of an infestation of monsters and meet classic characters along the way. However, the typically-strict mechanics have been replaced by a fast and fluid system that takes KH2's framework and improves upon it exponentially. Proceedings seem disarmingly simple at the start of the game. When attacked, hammering X allows attack combos to be slung together, but a Command Deck allows abilities to be stored and used on the fly. This system seems a little restrictive at first, it'll soon expand enough to contain a range of battlefield styles. As players use combat abilities (which include the standard range of melee skills, magic spells and items), they'll occasionally enter a combat stance that provides increased attack damage and status effects. The stance depends on the type and order of special attacks used- and brings a massive amount of experimentation and depth to the combat.
Each of the characters focus on a different combat style and have access to a special moveset. Terra simply concentrates on brute force, but Ventus can use a blinding speed and Aqua has a ranged Panzer Dragoon-style lockon mechanic. The three characters therefore feel very unique... but thanks to an innovative new game mechanic, each of these skills are freely available to everyone.
Known as Dimension Linking (or D-Link for short), each protagonist can borrow an ability from each other as well as most of the major characters (both good and evil) you'll meet along the way. Being able to tap into Aqua's ranged Shotlock skill or Maleficent's magic can get the melee-centric Terra out of a tight spot, and the sheer number of possible permutations is absolutely staggering. Unfortunately this system is a little too deep- and inadequate text tutorials for all of the combat systems will force most players to experiment through trial and error.
BBS takes a unique approach to telling its story. Rather than taking your party through a truly linear narrative, each character has their own concurrent story arcs that fill in the details on the overarching plot. You'll play through these three campaigns in any order- and trust me, each one takes around 10 to 12 hours to complete in their own right. Discovering how one character's actions affect a story that you've already played through is a constant source of revelation and genuine surprise... but unfortunately the satisfying ending is hidden in a mysterious cutscene that may or may not be unlocked depending on your difficulty level. Accessing it is practically down to pure chance and massive grind- and is a seriously cynical way of bolstering otherwise weak replayability.
I'm an advocate of giving as little away as possible (since I personally hate spoilers of any kind), but suffice to say that Birth By Sleep i's a sequel to the series that strongly ties into the existing canon- and will likely set up a number of key plot points for the inevitable Kingdom Hearts III. The grinding exposition takes some time to get going, but once it does, it's difficult to put the PSP down. The story is intricate, cerebral and the surprisingly mature characters don't provide the annoyance factor that traditional JRPG protagonists tend to inspire.
The PSP may be rumoured to be on its last legs, but it'll be going out with a bang. Birth By Sleep is one of the best looking games on the platform, with truly breathtaking particle effects elevating the already impressive texturing. It's as attractive as most top-end PS2 titles (including Kingdom Hearts 2), which is no mean feat for a handheld outing. Outstanding.
Unfortunately this graphical grunt comes at a severe cost. Load times are absolutely staggering even by PSP RPG standards- even after a hefty amount of the data is stored on the memory stick via the installation feature. There's also a fair bit of Slowdown. Thankfully the epic visuals are just about worth this irritation, but it's important that you know what there's a catch down the line.
- Stupendous handheld graphics
- Three intertwined storylines
- Slick, deep battle mechanics
- Text-heavy tutorials make for a steep learning curve
- Long loading times are almost a dealbreaker
- Hidden cutscene is a last-ditch effort to improve replayability
The Short Version: Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is an excellent action-RPG that delivers an engrossing blend of action, stats and a little Disney magic. The new concurrent storylines and fluid fighting mechanics make for (arguably) the best Kingdom Hearts spinoff yet... if you can surpass the learning curve. A fitting swan song for the PSP.