Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Birth By Sleep: Show Me Anguish!

Oh, I've been looking forward to this one. By the time Birth By Sleep came out, I had learned how to use the internet, and I had contributed a significant number of views towards all of the trailers on Youtube. I was finding anything to fill my need for Kingdom Hearts for about two weeks before the game actually came out because I was so excited to play it. I had a preorder placed for the game from a site with a tendency to deliver a little early than they should, and they did! Unlike most games I have very high expectations of, Birth By Sleep lived up to almost every one of them. It's my favourite game in the series so far, and easily one of my favourite games of all time. Without further stalling, let's look at Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep!

The game takes place 10 years prior to the start of the first Kingdom Hearts and centers around three keyblade wielders training to become masters: Terra, Aqua and Ventus. The game starts with Terra and Aqua's examination for the Mark of Mastery, held by Master Eraqus and Master Xehanort. Yes, THAT Xehanort. Anyway, Eraqus learns that the princesses of heart are under threat by creatures which feed off emotions, the Unversed. He sends Terra and Aqua out to fight the threat and Ventus decides to chase after them. Meanwhile, Xehanort and his own student Vanitas go around being very obviously evil while few people pick up on it. This all leads towards the final fight in the Keyblade Graveyard - previously portrayed in the secret video of Kingdom Hearts 2.

Of course, we haven't seen Terra, Aqua, Ven or Eraqus in any games which are set after this one, so it's no spoiler to say that none of their stories reach a very happy conclusion. That hardly ruins the experience of the game though. Indeed, I think finding out exactly why they aren't in any of the subsequent games is itself a rewarding experience, particularly as you start getting to understand and empathize with the characters as they desperately try to stick together as Xehanort and Vanitas try to drive them apart.

The three main characters all visit the same worlds in roughly the same order, and thus the plot of all of the Disney movies featured are staggered, and some details are left off screen. In fact, the plot reminds me more of the first game in the sense that the Disney plots take a back seat role to the characters primary motivations rather than ignoring the overall plot like Kingdom Hearts 2 did, and the story feels more urgent because of that. The story does get a little lost after the events in Radiant Garden. For a while, not a lot happens for any of the characters. It's not until Neverland (which actually takes place in Neverland this time) for Aqua and even later for Terra and Ven for the story to pick back up again, which is around 4 worlds of the characters just chasing after each other.

In this game, there are four separate scenarios: one for Terra, Ventus and Aqua, and then the Final Episode. All three characters have very unique styles and variations on the established Kingdom Hearts gameplay. Terra isn't particularly fast or adept in the magical arts, but can hit VERY hard and has access to a extensive collection of brutal attacks. Ventus is the fastest and most agile, he has very swift combo's and can use a variety of wind and light elemental abilities. Aqua isn't particularly strong physically, but her command of magic is second to none. She can deal massive damage and decimate her enemies with her own powerful variations on the traditional spells. Even if you're effectively playing through every world three times, the characters different strengths and weaknesses - in addition to their different abilities - makes each trip a fresh and exciting experience. Most people will have their own favourite character to play as, and mine is Aqua. Her magical talents are so useful and so fun to unleash on unsuspecting mooks, I find making earthquakes with Terra boring by comparison, which says a lot about how fun she is to use. Changing between the characters at the end of each episode can be a little jarring given how differently they control, but it's pretty easy to adapt because the characters aren't so different that you may as well be playing a different game.

It may seem a little odd that I'm heaping praise on the magic-oriented character after I've been fairly indifferent towards magic and MP in the previous reviews. That's because the battle system in Birth By Sleep has been almost completely redone. Throughout the game, you obtain and buy Deck Commands. These include traditional magic attacks such as Firaga and Thunder, other attacks such as Sonic Blade and Ars Arcanum, and a whole host of new physical and magic based abilities. These include Thunder Surge, an attack where the user rushes at opponents while cloaked in electricity and Firaga Burst (pictured above), where Aqua creates a large fireball which rains down lots of smaller ones down on enemies. None of these abilities - magic or otherwise - use MP. Instead, when they are used they just have to recharge for an amount of time which is dependant on the ability in question. I love this system. By getting access to a wider selection of great abilities which I can use consistently, I felt far more empowered on the fields of battle... Like a proper keyblade master. 

You can also merge most deck commands together to create more powerful ones. Fire + Fire = Fira. By attaching crystals during the command meld, you can learn traditional abilities such as Fire Boost and Combo Plus; though unlike previous game you don't need AP to equip them. The command meld system is extremely broken if you know how to make the more powerful commands, but you'll probably need some kind of guide to abuse it effectively.

Aqua's exclusive Spellweaver style.
Another addition to the gameplay are finishers and command styles. When you fill the command gauge above your deck commands by attacking enemies, you can unleash a finisher. These vary between characters and get increasingly powerful over the course of the game as you unlock more of them. If you fill the gauge with certain commands, such a fire type attacks, you'll activate a command style - in the case of fire attacks, this would be the Firestorm style. Going through a style change increases the characters power grants them new weapon combo's, and sometimes have other perks such as a flash step or a glide-like ability.  Building a command deck around activating Command Styles is certainly a practical way of playing, they are really powerful and fun to use.

Finally, there's the shotlock: By holding L&R, you can target a bunch of enemies and then unleash a powerful attack that hits all of the targeted enemies. These attacks drain the Focus Gauge, but it fills up pretty quickly. I felt the shotlocks were a little too abusive given how powerful they are and the fact they give you temporary invulnerability, but I found myself relying on them anyway for some of the harder boss fights!

Speaking of harder boss fights, this game is a lot harder than Kingdom Hearts 2. Particularly at the start of the game when you have fewer useful Deck Commands, regular enemies can completely annihilate you. It eases up when you gain abilities to destroy the battlefield, but even then it's a bad idea to underestimate anything. The bosses in the game are no slouches either, many of the more difficult ones such as Vanitas are brutally strong and fast, and they put Sephiroth to shame. Seriously, if he was in this game as he was in Kingdom Hearts 2, he'd probably be a complete pushover. The block, counter and dodge commands are a necessity to mastering this game, and I like that. It makes the game feel less of a button masher.

The GUMMI SHIP is not in this game. At all. Huzzah! There is an interesting minigame where you race around a circuit on your keyblade, but aside from one easy instance in Terra's episode, it's completely optional (and actually fun).

Speaking of mini-games, we have the Mirage Arena, Disney Town and the Command Board in this game to replace the Olympus Coliseum and 100 Acre Wood. Apart from the aforementioned Keyblade Glider, there's also Fruitball. It's like Volleyball, but with keyblades, fruit and unversed; not a fan, to be honest. And Ice Cream Beat: a rhythm game where you build up a tower of ice cream; Fun, but not really my thing. The Mirage Arena holds a large number of different matches against hoards of unversed, in addition to many of the bosses fought throughout the game and a few exclusive ones as well. The Mirage Arena holds some of the more challenging fights in the game, and I spend a lot of time there.

Despite being a PSP game, the graphics are definitely on par with the PS2 titles, and the game generally goes out of it's way to be ridiculously colourful - the unversed in particular have bright and largely interesting designs. Personally I think they went a little overkill with the brightness in some the areas, but it's mostly in appropriate places like Disney Town. Facial animations are also just as good as the main series titles, and the three main characters in particular make brilliant use of it. Vanitas, who wears a mask... Less so!

Remember in the first Kingdom Hearts review when I mentioned the all star cast? Well this game adds MARK HAMILL and LEONARD NIMOY to the cast, in addition to Willa Holland, Jason Dohring and a returning Jesse McCartney. Oh yes. Maybe it's just me, but a far larger percentage of the cutscenes seem to be voice acted in this game than in previous ones, which is something I can appreciate.

I'd list my favourite tracks from this game, but I'd be here for a very long time.  The music, again by Yoko Shimomura, is probably the best she's contributed to the series yet. I will link "Vanitas's battle theme" though, as every variation of it is on my iPod! Even the world themes have gone from fitting to memorable. I have a particular attachment to Enchanted Dominions sombre field theme and Neverlands battle theme, so I'd suggest checking both of those out.

Yes, with a radically improved combat system, remarkable story and characters, brilliant music and remotely interesting side quests, I have no issues with giving Birth By Sleep a 10/10.

Kingdom Hearts 3D has just arrived in the post, I hope it lives up to this masterpiece!

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