Saturday, October 18, 2014

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep - An Important Stop

When I first played Kingdom Hearts about a decade ago, I was completely blown away. I was having a really fun time and when it ended, I was excited to learn of another game in the series. Since I didn’t have a Gameboy at the time however, I couldn’t really play Chain of Memories (and wouldn’t be able to until the PS2 remake, Re:Chain of Memories), so I ended up skipping to Kingdom Hearts II on PS2. I later learned that this was a bad idea, but since I’ve played Re:Chain of Memories, the story makes just a little more sense (at least as much sense as you can make out of Kingdom Hearts). As the years went on, more games came out, but on platforms that I had no access to, so I was bummed that my lack of a DS would prevent me from witnessing 358/2 Days (pronounced Three-Five-Eight-Days Over Two), though thankfully 1.5 HD Remix was able to fill me in on the details via redone cutscenes. Flash forward to the announcement of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep for the PSP handheld. The fact that I actually owned a PSP enticed me to play it, so much so that while walking to the bus during my first College semester, I went by the nearest GameStop and picked up a copy. I then proceeded to start playing as soon as I sat down and wouldn’t stop playing for a few weeks during the same semester. I would play during long wait times, particularly the hour or so before Astronomy class, and my sessions went on so long that I had to keep exchanging PSP batteries with my brother just so I could keep going. As I played Birth by Sleep for the first time (and wrote a terrible review of it on DeviantArt once I finished), it became my new favorite game in the series, overtaking Kingdom Hearts II. Having played it years later in anticipation of Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD Remix, with greater knowledge of the inner workings of the game, I can say that this sentiment still rings true.

It began so simply...

In The Land of Departure, the Keyblade wielders Terra, Ventus and Aqua are all close friends. On the night before Terra and Aqua’s Mark of Mastery exam, which will determine who receives the title of Keyblade Master, Ventus decides to help the two practice and hone their skills. Afterwards, the three of them discuss their friendship, at which point Aqua decides to give everyone Wayfinders that she made to symbolize that their bonds of friendship are strong enough that they’ll be able to find each other no matter where they are. The next day, Master Eraqus, with Master Xehanort in attendance as a guest, begins the Mark of Mastery exam with Terra and Aqua, summoning orbs of light for them to destroy. However, something goes wrong and the orbs are imbued with darkness, causing their behavior to become erratic enough to pull Ventus into the fray. Once the crisis is over, Terra and Aqua have a one-on-one match to display their abilities. In the end, Aqua is declared the Keyblade Master by Master Eraqus because Terra let his inner darkness get to him at one point in the match. As Aqua goes to Eraqus to learn a valuable secret, Terra storms off and is confronted by Master Xehanort, who tells him about his inner darkness and convinces him that it isn’t something to be feared, but channeled and that going to different worlds will help him control it. Meanwhile, Ventus is in his room when he is suddenly confronted by a boy in a mask. The boy in the mask informs him that Terra is leaving, possibly forever, and that Ventus has one last chance to see him beforehand. Once the boy departs, Ventus runs off to where Terra is in an attempt to say something to him. However, Terra leaves in a hurry, causing Ventus to chase after him. Aqua, who has just arrived, tries to stop Ventus and tell him something, but she is too late. Once both Terra and Ventus are gone, Eraqus instructs Aqua to go after them, but keep an especially close eye on Terra, as he is worried about his darkness getting out of hand. Aqua complies, flying away from the Land of Departure in pursuit of Terra and Ventus.

Master Xehanort

It’s interesting to note that Birth by Sleep is a prequel of sorts, occurring ten years before the events of the original Kingdom Hearts. In this regard, it does its job well, establishing several key details that add some depth to the mythos and help explain how certain things came to be, including Sora and Riku’s connections with the Keyblade, the origins of Roxas and even the creation of Castle Oblivion. From a narrative standpoint, as in how it functions on its own, Birth by Sleep is written pretty well. It does a pretty good job handling its gimmick, which has you playing as three different characters, Terra, Ventus and Aqua, who travel to the same worlds, but not during the same points in time. Their independent plot threads do intertwine at times, which helps to establish connecting points to separate the story into distinct parts (ex. before and after the battle with Trinity Armor). As with the previous entries, there are some dark themes explored here and they go beyond the struggle between light and darkness in the heart. Because the three characters are effectively soldiers, darker themes are touched upon, including war, genocide, existential crises and feelings of trust and betrayal. These aren’t as explored as extensively as they would be in, say, Metal Gear, but the elements have enough of a presence that the overall narrative is very engaging and elicits good emotive reactions out of the player. Though admittedly the story can be a little confusing at times, what with the discussions of the Keyblade War and the χ-blade (pronounced Kye-blade) and whatnot, Birth by Sleep is an important milestone to hit to at least try and understand the story as it stands now.

Vanitas (left) is very important to the story.

While the story is very interesting to play through, the heroes do make plenty of mistakes. Terra, for the most part, is easily trusting of the people he meets, including Master Xehanort, and this comes back to bite him hard (though I won’t say how). Likewise, Aqua and Ventus’ stories also rely on them making one poor decision after another, which by the endgame seems to have only furthered Xehanort’s plans without them realizing it. Fortunately, they are able to reverse most of the damage that they cause, but it also comes at a great cost, which I will not reveal here for the sake of avoiding spoilers. In any case, I found it interesting how the Disney-inspired worlds were integrated into the plotline, even if the stories don’t quite match up with the source material (though one should expect creative liberties when putting a work from one medium into another, especially when fusing multiple continuities and independent stories together).

Gameplay-wise, Birth by Sleep is the best I’ve ever played in the series. As with Kingdom Hearts II, there is a further emphasis on action, but the twist here is that they’ve done away with the menu system entirely, instead going with a customizable command deck. The way the system works is that you are given a certain amount of slots (which increase over time to a maximum of eight) to insert commands representing certain physical or magical attacks as well as items. The d-pad scrolls through the commands and you press triangle to activate the one you want, after which there is a cool down period that must end before you can use it again. By using commands, a gauge above the list is filled up, which can lead to a unique finishing move or a new command style that enhances regular attacks and can lead to a more powerful finisher.

One of the most powerful styles: Ghost Drive.

These commands can also be melded together, similarly to Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII’s Materia Fusion system, and combined with different crystals to attach various abilities which range from reducing cool down times to buffing or nerfing elemental damage. One of the most essential of these abilities, from my experience, is EXP Walker, which lets you gain 1 EXP for each step you take (for those who wish to know, the most reliable method to obtain it is to combine Blizzard and Aero in conjunction with an Abounding Crystal). In place of summons, the game introduces a D-Link system as well, which lets the player replace their command deck with that of another character that they have formed a bond with (ex. Terra, Ventus, Aqua, Snow White, Experiment 626, etc.). D-Links can be upgraded with a rare star drop that can attach different abilities to the character during usage, making them more powerful for the next activation; when the D-Link gauge isn’t full, it can be replenished with blue D-Link prizes.

The last system introduced is the Shotlock Command, which is activated by holding down L and R and then moving a target over enemies. Pressing X will trigger the Shotlock attack, though pressing the button when the targets are at maximum will not only fire off all the selected shots, but allow an additional barrage of the same attack as well. While these attacks are cool to pull off, the only problem is that the same buttons used to trigger them are also used to rotate the camera, which can be awkward if you’re really not careful.

One of the strongest Shotlock Commands: Ultima Cannon.

I realize that what I’ve written may sound a little confusing, but I think it’s the best system the series has had. Once you get into it it’s very easy and intuitive on top of being incredibly quick and responsive. By taking away a lot of the complexity of previous Kingdom Hearts games, including the already streamlined Kingdom Hearts II, it becomes much easier to manage the player character and figure out exactly what you want. Despite some of the minor flaws in the systems present, I hope that they not only keep the command deck in future Kingdom Hearts titles, but expand and improve on it as well for the best possible experience. It’s a natural evolution of the process and the only logical next step is to move forward with it.

Although Birth by Sleep was developed for the PSP, I’m genuinely impressed by its size and scale. There are several worlds to explore, each with a number of areas and secrets. Each area isn’t always available, in fact limited to how relevant they are to each character’s story, but this doesn’t change that the size of the game could easily rival its console brethren. Birth by Sleep feels as large, and as long, as any Kingdom Hearts game on the PS2 (and now PS3), a feat to be rightfully commended for. There is also a great attention to detail and a fittingly bright color palette with a lot of range. Every one of the Unversed enemies has a unique shape, save the ones that are merely palette swaps, and an easily identifiable color pattern that helps one to figure out exactly how to take them down. On the downside, the graphics aren’t the best, being on PSP and all, since the character models end up a little jagged in places and cloth textures don’t look particularly smooth. Despite this however, Birth by Sleep ends up being one of the best looking games on the handheld and can be seen as a technical marvel.

A Flood, one of the most common Unversed types.

The game also has plenty of challenge, especially on the higher difficulties (I played on Proud Mode), where the bosses can really knock you around like a piñata unless you go into battle fully prepared. No matter what difficulty you play on, you may find the Mandrake Unversed to be particularly annoying, as they attack by firing razor sharp leaves that always seem to match your elevation and they can fire them off in rapid succession to disrupt any combo you might have had going (which can further cause the meter on the Command Deck to start dwindling). The worst part is that not only can they inflict Poison and Confusion if you’re not careful, they don’t appear out of thin air like the other Unversed, rather they are already on the battlefield to begin with and can thus cause you as much pain and suffering as possible; I loathed Mandrakes every time I came across them.

Voice acting and music have always been a strong suit for Kingdom Hearts and this installment is no exception. Since I own the soundtrack, I believe that it contains some of Yoko Shimomura’s best compositions to date, with a grand mix of upbeat world themes and dark and foreboding battle pieces. Voice acting, however, is admittedly kind of a mixed bag. On one hand, we have phenomenal voice work by the recurring Disney characters, who mostly use the official Disney voice actors (for those characters whose voice actors are deceased, they have incredibly convincing sound-alikes). There are also surprise performances from Leonard Nimoy and Mark Hamill, each respectively voicing Master Xehanort and Master Eraqus. They both sound like they really put their heart into their work and their many years of experience have certainly paid off. On the other hand, we have the main trio; Terra, Ventus and Aqua. Terra, due to being voiced by Jason Dohring, sounds a little bored in his delivery, downplaying the emotions he should be feeling in certain scenes. However, when Richard Epcar takes over at some point during the plot (I won’t say how), his lines are overacted, which balances that out perfectly. Ventus is voiced by Jesse McCartney and actually gives a solid performance, mirroring his role as Roxas in Kingdom Hearts II. Lastly, we have Aqua, whose voice actress, Willa Holland, has nearly the same problem as Dohring, but not to the same degree. Should these characters return in the future, I hope that Dohring and Holland have picked up a thing or two to make their characters better rounded out.

Mark Hamill does a good job as Master Eraqus.

Before I end this review, I’d like to share some advice with prospective PSP players. You can play the three stories in any order you wish, but the best order is Terra, Ventus then Aqua. Playing in this specific order will lead to far less confusion than playing it any other way, plus it creates a smooth transition to the Final Story. I also highly recommend unlocking the secret video, Blank Points, as it is a good epilogue to cap off the events of the story. The easiest way to unlock it is to complete all of the campaigns on Proud or Critical mode (I would advise playing on Proud Mode, even if it’s your first time playing, since the difficulty will disappear after playing for a while). Finally, there are some settings that would be very beneficial to manipulate. There is the option to install the game to your memory card, which gives the advantage of reduced load times, and you have the option between 200, 400 or 624 MB, speeding up load times in an increasing number of areas for the game (combat, menus, moving between areas, etc.); I recommend doing a full install for best results. Also, there are two specific settings that you should immediately increase: Color Depth and CPU Speed. Upping the Color Depth to 32-bit will provide the best graphics, but sometimes causes slowdown as a result. Accelerating the CPU Speed prevents slowdown, counteracting the disadvantage of 32-bit Color Depth, but will cause the PSP battery to drain much quicker, so it is further recommended that you have an AC adaptor at all times (I call this combination “drain the battery mode” for a good reason). Follow all of these simple steps and you’ll have the best Birth by Sleep experience possible.

In the end, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is what I would consider the best game in the franchise. The gameplay is streamlined and the controls are tight, all without sacrificing the spirit of earlier games or what made them good in the first place. Admittedly the story can be confusing at times, a given for this franchise, and the voice acting may not be perfect, but the game has a plotline that can, to some degree, operate independently of its brethren (though it does serve as the MGS4 of the group by explaining just about everything (for now…)). On top of that, the game is simply a well-crafted RPG that makes owning a PSP very worthwhile. If you haven’t played it yet, I see no reason to wait; it might also be a good excuse to buy a PSP and a play a good game that isn’t related to God of War.

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