At a glance...

Reviewer Platform Publisher Developer Players
Matt Bailey PSP Square Enix Square Enix 1-6 (WiFi Ad-hoc)
Requirements Buy from Amazon.co.uk
Memory Stick Duo for saving. 1GB space recommended for install. Click here to buy Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep review

Kingdom Hearts is a very curious series; a blend of Disney characters and Square Enix's style of Japanese role-playing games. It came from nowhere back in 2002 to much applause, not least because it portrayed the Disney characters well, but also because it managed to make them blend in so you could forget they were licensed entities. Kingdom Hearts has unexpectedly become one of the best games featuring those characters, and it's pleasing to say that Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, the sixth entry in the series, is also a title worthy of high praise.

Birth By Sleep acts as a prequel to the first game, providing an origin story for the main protagonist Sora and antagonist Xehanort. Already fans of the series have probably had their interest piqued as key elements of the series back story gets filled in. The game focuses on the characters Terra, Aquad and Ventus who had previously appeared in Kingdom Hearts II, and allows you to pursue the quests of each of these heroes, providing multiple insights into the story. That narrative is as expansive as was seen in the first two games, demonstrating that Birth by Sleep is not simply a handheld spin-off. Its nature as a prequel means that not only does it provide fans with the sort of background details that they love, but also that it is more accessible to newcomers who don't need to be aware of the tales of Sora to enjoy this adventure.

Birth by Sleep blends the Disney characters well with Square Enix's own creations

Birth by Sleep blends the Disney characters well with Square Enix's own creations

Birth by Sleep is quite an adventure as it contains an original work of fiction told over a long playtime featuring a large number of cut-scenes, and it’s likely to take you upwards of 20 hours to complete. It really is a true console-like experience, which does lead to a couple of problems. Firstly, the large number of cut-scenes means a significant number of loading screens in the game, and not all them are quick. When your time might be limited on a journey you don't want to spend that time not being able to play. Although that may be negated by the second issue; should you really play such an epic game on the move? That depends how you use your PSP; if you have short 10-15 minute bus journeys to and from work or school, etc. then you'll never be able to fully engage with a title as wonderfully deep as Birth by Sleep, but if you have longer commutes, maybe half an hour, an hour or more, then this game will rid your journey of boredom. Or you could just play in in your spare time....

Right the way through Birth by Sleep is constantly engaging. As you might expect with a Square Enix role-playing game, there's a long story with plenty of dialogue, and pleasingly they've manage to squeeze a big chunk of voice acting on to the UMD. The quality of the English version is excellent, with great voices such as Leonard Nimoy and Mark Hamil on board, alongside some great work on the Disney characters to help bring back memories of classic movies from the American animation giant. Among the films featured in the game are Cinderella and Snow White, recreated with an authentic look and feel.

The game really can look very pretty

The game really can look very pretty

It is quite easy to say that Birth by Sleep is particularly stunning. The PSP hardware is over six years old now, and I thought I had already seen the best of the device in the likes of Gran Turismo and Dissidia: Final Fantasy, but Square Enix appeared to have more tricks up their sleeve. Even on my aging first-generation PSP, with its inferior screen and more limited memory (which doesn't help the load time), Birth by Sleep at least matched the best of what we saw on the PS2. It already looked pretty good on the standard settings, but I then discovered that you could up the visual quality by switching the "color depth" (curiously listed in American English) to 32-bit, at a risk of some slowdown. To make up for this you can up the CPU speed to "accelerated", but of course this will drain the battery more quickly, so if you do this you should probably be playing now a power socket. You can help to reduce the loading and save some battery power by installing parts of the game to your Memory Stick, although you'll always need the UMD in the drive.

Depth in Birth by Sleep comes in two key forms. The first is the storyline, which we've mentioned earlier, which takes place over many, many hours, but it's also split across the three characters, allowing you to pursue each of their adventures in any order, and even swap between them thanks to the ability to have multiple saves. You'll be retreading the same ground a bit, but the quests are different, so the experience still feels mostly fresh, and as an extra incentive completing all three will lead to greater rewards.

There are lots of crazy mini-games you can take part in

There are lots of crazy mini-games you can take part in

The other source of depth is in the battle system. As in a feature in Square Enix RPGs combat is done through a series of menus, but it's actually rather enjoyable. There is a vast array of commands on offer, and the ones available to you in a battle will be a combination of those you've found or bought. You can customise your list and choose which options would be best suited to tackling your opponent. The commands cycle and keep you on your toes, especially because using certain abilities also builds up a bar allowing you to visit more powerful attacks upon your foes. Then there are Shotlocks, a new mode in Birth by Sleep that enables you to go into first-person and lock onto key parts of the enemy, before letting loose another powerful attack. If that wasn't overwhelming enough then there's Dimension Links, or D-Links, which replace the previous ability to summon Disney or even Final Fantasy characters, with a new feature that let's your character take on the powers of another. You can even take advantage of the abilities of a friend playing alongside you on another PSP.

It's certainly a complicated system, and can be a little overwhelming at times. If you don't delve into it then the combat can feel a little repetitive, especially when coming across multiple series of enemies in a row. Give it time and you'll eventually understand the nuances and appreciate the customisability. While you can get caught up in encounters a little too often, they are, like the rest of the game, generally an enjoyable experience.

With three stories that successfully blend the world of Disney and Square Enix's own creations, as part of a campaign that fills many otherwise dull hours with colourful animated fun, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep has demonstrated why you should keep hold of your PSP as the console nears the end of its life. On top of this, those animated visuals are simply stunning on the small screen, and make up for the frequent loading points.

Ratings

Overall Featuring a long campaign, interesting stories, and amazing visuals, Birth by Sleep is a full and worthy new entry in the Kingdom Hearts series that's worth picking up a PSP for. 9/10

Click here to buy Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep from Amazon.co.uk.

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