Yup, yet another Kingdom Hearts review. That’s what happens when you try to review AN ENTIRE SERIES. Luckily, this is one of the good ones. If you felt cheated by the two DS entries, if you were disappointed that Kingdom Hearts 2 didn’t have as good a story as Kingdom Hearts 1, then look no further. Behold, Kingdom Hearts 0 (unofficially), my third favorite game in the series. Since it’s a pretty old game, and a prequel I don’t mind spoiling a few things. Even if you do care about spoilers, there really aren’t any HUGE spoilers that ruin the experience, so don’t sweat it. I’ll label the sections just in case.
EDIT: So I wrote this back in October and forgot to actually put the Banner and images in. At the time, I was going through all of the Kingdom Hearts games systematically, but then life got crazy and I had forgot that I wrote this. I’ll still get through the rest of the games eventually, but this will probably feel just a tad outdated.
The good old Kingdom Hearts
You play Kingdom Hearts because it scratches an itch. It’s a weird, fun game where dudes with spikey hair help King Mickey protect Pinocchio while fighting the darkness and complaining about lost hearts. This is more of that, only the good kind. The Controls are responsive, quick and intuitive. Bosses are hard but fair (if you have the right abilities). Birth By Sleep is what you expect from a Kingdom Hearts game. Specifically, I want to talk about what makes this game different.
Using limitations to your advantage
Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep has three different protagonists and each one has their own campaign. However, trying to shove three entirely separate campaigns into the size of a PSP game is a daunting task. What the game does, however, is it reuses environments and worlds between protagonists in order to save space on the cartridge and on development time. This could turn out badly, however, if the developers were lazy and recycled environments and characters whole sale. With the same plotting, and series of events this wouldn’t have worked well and they would have been better off just making one plot for one character. What the developers did instead was not have every protagonist use every area of the map. They changed the chest locations, the order you go through the rooms, which parts of the level you see during your visit to that world, which bosses you fight and so on. They use only part of the environment available, while still making the entire story for each player feel like it’s a complete package. When I finished Aqua or Terra or Ven’s campaign, I didn’t feel like I had been cheated. I felt like I actually got what I paid for.
Here’s another example, Kingdom Hearts traditionally has a magic system of some kind, navigated by a menu. However, in BBS, rather than attempt to have you navigate a series of menus on a tiny screen, it gives a small set of “commands” that you choose from a larger list on a seperate menu, adds them to a scrolling roulette, and allow you to execute them with the press of a button. Think of it like a scrolling MMO hotbar, you have a lot of available commands but you can only use the ones you put in your command wheel. This system gives you the ability to choose how you want to play each character and choose which attacks you want to use in battle. Both of these ideas was created to use the limitations of the system (in this case the PSP) to their advantage. Rather than force a clunky, complicated system into a game where it wouldn’t work, they reworked and implemented new systems and old pieces into something that did work.
In both cases, the developers of the game saw what they could do with what they had available, and made something work out of something that shouldn’t have. Compliments for developer creativity, and compliments for implementing it well. When I’m able to tell that developers really care about their game and used their limitations as an opportunity to be more creative, it just makes me feel better about their game in general.
A clear, emotional story
After I released my review of Kingdom Hearts 2, I was utterly shocked by the amount of hate that game received. I had always loved that game, how could people hate it that much? But as I took a second look, I realized that, as much as KH2 expanded the lore of the Kingdom Hearts series, the story itself wasn’t nearly as strong as the first entry. Birth by Sleep, has a story that rivals the first game in its simplicity and emotional honesty. I described the story of KH1 as a story about brothers (essentially). A tale told about Riku and Sora and growing up. Birth by Sleep has a very similar theme, the unbreakable bonds of friendship. Despite whatever terrible thing is happening in the world at the time, the focus of the story is on Aqua, Ventus, and Terra.
In the worlds that they go through, the same thing comes up over and over again, you cannot stop Aqua, Ventus, and Terra when they stand together. And when they inevitably are brought down and laid low, you feel bad for them since you spent all this time trying to keep their friendship from falling apart. But at the same time it leaves hope open for their eventual redemption, looking forward to Kingdom Hearts 3. The story in this game was focused, and I could appreciate that.
A prequel that tells its own story
People like to make money. The Entertainment industry has determined that they can create as many different branches of a popular story in order to milk people for the maximum amount of money. One of the ways that they do this is with a prequel. The problem with prequels is that aren’t usually worth telling. They always end just as the real story is getting started, they aren’t usually that interesting, the character development from the previous stories gets erased since you’re going backwards, etc. There are a lot of reasons that prequels just don’t work that well. Birth by Sleep avoids this by going back in time enough that it doesn’t interfere with the original Kingdom Hearts.
Similar to KOTOR, you go back in time furth enough and while you can still see the consequences of your actions on the future of the universe, it’s not so heavy-handed that it becomes a problem. It shows a world that we didn’t really know existed at all, characters that we didn’t know were in play, and tragedy’s that we didn’t know happened. Even if you have an extraordinary handle on the lore, you still can’t see a lot of the plot twists coming. At the same time, it has relevance to the coming chapters of the Kingdom Hearts saga (Dream Drop Distance and KHIII especially), so this isn’t just some throw away chapter without any stakes or importance.
Three unique protagonists
Having multiple, playable characters in a single player game is pretty rare. You usually focus all of your resources into making one character, and one campaign. I touched on how the recycling of content works to its advantage, but in this case I’m referring to the different styles of the different campaigns. Each character has their own individual character arc that really changes their perception of the world. A different worldview is communicated by each character, even though they meet the same people and see the same things happen.
The different worlds they go to are all sculpted to move their character arcs forwards rather than waste playtime or disc space. Each world they visit has a part of them that applies to one of the protagonists, and the writers did a good job of making them all flow together. This applies when you play as them too, they each feel fundamentally different. Each characters block, roll, attacks, command style’s, command deck, attack speed, shot-locks, movement speed, animations, are all different for each character. You can’t just use the same style for each character, you have to adapt to whichever character you use. Being able to balance all these different elements and make them satisfactory is pretty darn impressive.
The old Kingdom Hearts games would slowly unlock abilities (second chance, leaf bracer, combo plus, etc.) based on which skill tree you chose at the beginning (sword, shield or wand). In this game, you unlock these abilities by merging the commands from your command deck into more powerful ones with the addition of a catalyst. Using this method, you can unlock abilities extremely useful abilities much earlier in the game. You also get to choose which other less essential abilities you get like Thunder Boost or Treasure Magnet, therefore giving you great control over your customization options. The problem is that it’s literally impossible to predict what abilities you will unlock. Sometimes you choose randomly from a pool of available abilities based on the crystal you use (even though you don’t know which abilities are in that pool), or recipes will always give you a consistent result when you combine certain abilities and crystals. It was pretty much absolutely necessary to look up a guide because of how complex and uninformative the system is. Here’s the guide I used if you decide to play, just save it on your phone or something.
These aren’t the only combinations to get these abilities, but they’re probably the easiest. You’ll want to get “Second Chance,” “Once More,” “Leaf Bracer” and “EXP walker” (which are all essential if you’re going to play at proud or critical difficulty) as soon as possible. The fact that you get so little information about what you can and can’t unlock is super frustrating. You just kind of go crazy trying to make everything work. Using a guide like this, though unfortunate, is a must. There are items in the game that reveal what command you’ll create when you make your combinations, but you’ll never be able to tell what the extra ability itself is.
So after you beat the game with one character, it suggests that you go back and play the game again with the new character but keep your save file around. For one, you have to replay that first hour three times with each character and it gets old pretty fast. Secondly, depending on what difficulty you chose, there are different requirements to get the secret ending. This is nothing new for Kingdom Hearts games, but in the past you could just YouTube the ending rather than grind for puppy dogs, chests, trinity marks, and whatever else you had to collect to get 100%. In this however, you actually get to play the secret episode in two different parts, which was a tremendous amount of fun.
It has at least two super challenging bosses that test the limits of your familiarity with the mechanics, and a whole new area that you’ve never explored in the Kingdom Hearts universe before. To be clear, just like KHII:FM, this is brand new content to English speakers, so even if you unlocked the secret episode on PSP this is new. So I loved the new content, but you need to do a bunch of mindless boring stuff to unlock it. Thankfully on critical all you have to do is find all the Xehanort reports, just use an online guide to tell you where they are, grab them, save and exit to the main menu. But if you play on an easier difficulty beware, the content is definitely worth it, but you will spend a lot of time trying to unlock it.
Protagonists are Dumb Sometimes
SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER. For all the praise that I heap on the story, there is one little gripe that I have with it. Sometimes the protagonists are really, really dumb when it comes to listening to villains who are manipulating them. At the beginning of the game, Terra walks up to Maleficent and is all like, “Hey what’s up? You seem cool, need any help?” She’s Maleficent, the most obviously evil character in the entire series, you just have to look at her and you can tell. What’s more, this happens to Terra all the time in pretty much every single world. Hook, Jumba, Hades, The Enchantress (Snow White), the only person he doesn’t help in some way is the step-mother from Cinderella. You would think that after a while he would wise up, but he never sees through their obvious trickery until after he’s already betrayed the good guys, or is at the end of the level. Ven and Aqua are no better as they consistently listen to these characters as they feed them misinformation about Terra’s “supposedly evil actions”.
Why would you believe the person whose motives have already been established in opposition to your own? This whole part of the plot feels really contrived and a lot of the game would turn out better if the three protagonists were just a little less gullible. Heck, even Master Eraqus voiced by Mark Hamill fails to immediately see Xehanort’s machinations, despite the fact that the scar he bears is from Xehanort’s initial fascination with darkness that never really went away. And then Eraqus doesn’t explain any of this to anyone until it’s too late. The plot almost entirely relies on ignorance and manipulation. The part that feels earned (Xehanort’s machinations and manipulations) works really well, and the part that doesn’t feel earned (Protagonists naivety, misinformation, etc.) just feels lazy. It’s not as bad I make it sound, but when it shows up, it shows up HARD. An unfortunate blemish on an otherwise great story.
Normally, Kingdom Hearts games are pretty well balanced for the hardest difficulty but have a pretty hard early game as a result. If you play on any of the easier difficulties, you are SUPER OP by the end of the game, so the only way it feels balanced is if you play it on the hardest difficulty. I remember dying so many times in the first hours of Traverse Town in the original Kingdom Hearts because enemies just did so much damage. The same thing happens here with the early levels of Birth By Sleep but to an even greater extent. In those early levels, with half health, no cure magic, very little defense, and stronger enemies, it’s really easy to get killed. I remember, especially, spending a lot of time replaying Aqua’s Castle of Dreams courtyard. Other KH games like KH2:FM, gave characters extra abilities in order to help them through those weaker earlier hours, but would ultimately become useless in the mid/late game. Compared to other Kingdom Hearts games, and even other games in general, BBS definitely has the most poorly balanced “early game” of the series. I did enjoy the mid and late game difficulty, the bosses were a tremendous amount of fun, but that early game balance is just straight bad. There were a couple of other battles that I had issue with, but I can’t say whether that’s because of leveling or because of poor design, but most of them were from Aqua who otherwise controlled and played fabulously. Perhaps I just didn’t appreciate her nuances enough.
They did what they can, but at the end of the day Birth By Sleep was and is a PSP game. Much like Final Fantasy Type-0, there’s only so much you can change in a game without remaking it from the ground up. You can up the resolution, up the texture quality, replace the HUD, and smooth out the controls, but they still feel like pretty versions of the handheld game they came from. It makes me sad, but it’s true. That new coat of paint on a badly sculpted sculpture only goes so far. It doesn’t look bad by the way. It just looks extraordinarily simple for a PS3 game.
I liked the game. It took me a while to finally beat it, but it was a trip to do. Terra, Aqua, and Ven all have really clear character arcs. Leonard Nemoy as Xehanort, and Mark Hamill as Eraqus were awesome. It controlled well, the story was good, and it had good some pretty good pacing for an RPG. I had a lot of fun playing the game, especially with the bosses. I had issues with the Ability system, but that was a relatively minor issue solved with the help of the internet. And even though I knew that it was coming, the Secret Episode was an absolute thrill to both play and experience. The game isn’t quite as slick as my other two favorites in terms of gameplay. I love Kingdom Hearts 2 despite the weaker story, and the Dream Drop Distance combat is a perfect version of Birth By Sleep. But if you’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game, or you love the idea of Kingdom Hearts but can’t get behind some of the other titles then you should give this one a chance. It’s one of the better titles and not even it’s origins on PSP can ruin that. Heck, I’d say it’s probably even better than the PSP version because of the PS3 controller alone + a little bit of extra content.