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Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
Score: 84%
ESRB: Everyone 10+
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Square Enix
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1; 2 - 6 (Ad Hoc)
Genre: Action/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
I'm hesitant to call Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep an RPG. It shares several core elements of the play style, but feels more akin to an action game in execution. This is by no means a bad thing; it's just a little different and shows we might be eeking closer to a "one play style future."

Birth by Sleep retains the same look and feel of previous games. The visuals are easily on par with the PS2 entries, and might look just a little better. Technical praises aside, however, it's the little things that make Birth by Sleep shine. The new worlds dig deep into Disney's past, pulling out classics like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. The translations from 2D aren't perfect (Sleeping Beauty doesn't look quiet as good as I'd hoped), but it's great to see how close the art team was able to get.

While digging around in the options, I noticed the option of switching to a 32-bit color mode, as well as the opportunity to run your system's processor a little faster. Enabling the two is supposed to offer a visual boost at the cost of battery life, though I didn't notice much of a difference. Additionally, you can also choose from three install options, which cut down on load times.

A number of familiar tunes find their way over to Birth by Sleep, including a few remixes. The game also features a solid voice cast, though Disney fans may have trouble adjusting to one or two voices. It's not that characters sound bad, they just sound different from what you're used to hearing.

Set ten years before the original game, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep follows three Keyblade wielders - Ventus, Terra and Aqua - on their individual journeys through Disney worlds. Each has their own story and motivation, offering three opposing views of the story's events. The three will cross paths during their stories, though you'll need to play through all three in order to get the complete story. This, however, is also not a bad thing.

Although gameplay seems incredibly familiar, the inclusion of new worlds adds just enough motivation to keep you going. Aladdin is one of my favorite Disney movies, but I can only go to Agrabah so many times. After countless trips through familiar worlds, the chance to see new characters and worlds feels great. Since this is a prequel, it's also fun to see a few familiar places pop up - but I won't spoil the surprise.

As far as worlds and characters go, I think the only major disappointment is the lack of Square characters. I'm not sure why, but the number of Final Fantasy characters has dropped significantly with each release. Other than Moogles and Crisis Core's Zack, there are no non-Disney cameos. I'm more of a Disney fan than Final Fantasy fan, but I always thought it was neat to see familiar characters pop up in new places.

In addition to the core action/RPG gameplay Birth by Sleep tosses in two other modes. Command Boards are a Monopoly-like board game you can play anytime from the main travel screen. The idea behind the game is twofold - it offers a nice distraction when you need a break from the main game, but also gives you the further opportunity to upgrade characters and abilities. Though not the most entertaining element, it's worth playing for the rewards.

Ad Hoc multiplayer is also available, though as of this writing, I had a hard time finding someone to go head-to-head.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is split into numerous difficulty modes. Unless you decide to play on the easiest setting, the game will offer a challenge. It may feel like an action game, but expect multiple reloads if you decide to button-mash your way through the game. Enemies, particularly bosses, offer a decent challenge.

Some areas will change things up just to keep you off-guard. Escort missions are rare, but do pop up and are every bit as annoying as you'd expect. On the plus side, the character you're escorting will stick to the same path; but the camera doesn't always cooperate. In fact, the camera is a major sticking point and ends up making things much harder. You can adjust the angle, or even focus in on a particular enemy, with the shoulder buttons. However, things happen so quickly it's hard to keep up. Most of the time, I just took my chances and hoped the camera would point me in the right direction (with a few gentle nudges, that is).

Game Mechanics:
Of the various combat schemes introduced in the series, I'd have to rank Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep's as my favorite. Nearly every game in the series has tried something different. Though the various approaches seemed random at the time, the latest system could convince you there was a plan all along. The new system is a near perfect synthesis of every combat style.

The flow of combat feels similar to the original game. The base structure is built on simple button-presses and combos similar to what you would expect to find in an action brawler. You have a few basic swings as well as a few unlockable combos and moves. On top of that is a more strategic layer. All characters have access to "decks," which contain special moves, spells and items.

The system is reminiscent of Kingdom Hearts: 358/ 2 Days, but much faster. Outside combat you can assign moves to each slot, which you then cycle through while in combat using the D-pad. Magic Points are gone and replaced with a cooldown period. The cooldown period isn't incredibly harsh, but just long enough to force you to think about when to use abilities. It's a smart system.

The final component is the D-Link, which allows you to replace your combat abilities with an ally's. As you travel through each world you'll pick up new allies, like Snow White, Prince Phillip and Mickey. D-Link abilities are really just renamed variations of existing abilities, but they pack a little more punch and lead to incredibly powerful finishing moves.

As a fan of the series, it wouldn't take much for me to like Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep and really, Square Enix could have rested on the series' popularity and sold a few copies. Thought it sometimes feels that way, Birth by Sleep takes a few chances and succeeds. It may not feel like an RPG, but it's a great entry into the PSP's already stout RPG library.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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