While PS3’s HD version of Kingdom Hearts II recently gave me a nostalgic feeling after I’d gone over eight years in between plays, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep has had only half that time, somewhat diminishing the amount of whimsy I have. Nonetheless, I never played its Final Mix version, nor was it in HD when I went through it before (being on the PSP and all), so I wasn’t at all hesitant to try this game out again.
General fan consensus will be hard to nail down in a series like Kingdom Hearts, but my favorite game in the series is without a doubt Birth by Sleep. I love its gameplay the most of any, and find its fan service appeal almost as good as the (un-matchable) original game’s.
I loved the story, but not so much the story itself so much as the way it’s told. Players choose one of three characters: the Sora/Roxas-style Ventus, the magic-powered lady Aqua, or the slower but very strong Tera. The three will visit many overlapping Disney worlds and original Square Enix locales, but rarely at the same time. It’s amazing to see who does what, and at what times, all the while getting more out of the story.
Despite characters overlapping visits to the same locations, no two trips will be the same in either story or gameplay. Yes, you will sometimes see the same story bit from a different perspective, but these times are rare (and even still, to me they were worth seeing again, because I was gaining new story info all the time). But just as importantly, the gameplay doesn’t overlap. There’s the obvious change in controlling a different character, but Aqua, Terra, and Ventus all have very different objectives in each world. Often, they’ll be in completely different parts of it.
The best part about the three-pronged storytelling is that it doesn’t matter which order you play in; the plot is laid out well enough that you can pick whichever character you want to play as first, second, and third. Clear them all to unlock the real ending and the token secret cinema that Kingdom Hearts fans have come to expect.
Some might not like having to play with each character to get an ending that means anything. I didn’t mind — heck, I don’t imagine most people will mind — but you can’t just play through the story with one character and be left with any kind of resolution. The individual character endings give no closure whatsoever, and in my view, anything other than the secret ending falls short of satisfaction.
If you played Suikoden III on the PS2, you’ve seen this approach to storytelling before, but Birth by Sleep does it a little differently. In that game, players could switch lead characters at the end of chapters if they wanted; in Birth by Sleep, each character’s path is that character’s alone. I picked a character finished the game, then pick the next one, but not all players have to. If you want to change in mid play, simply start a new game and pick that character. Don’t worry, it’s cool, the system keeps track with a separate System Data save file. You can even go onto different difficulty levels with the characters, if you want.
I don’t recommend the rapid character changing, however. Maybe you’re a better player than I am, and so your subconscious attachment to a character’s speed and handling and such can change up on the fly, but that’s not for me. I wouldn’t want to adjust from among the three characters and their distinct play styles back and forth, again and again. I was happy going through the game straight, with one, then the next, then the last.
Those who dislike the Gummi Ship will be glad to see that Birth by Sleep doesn’t have one, so there’s no more extra hooplah to get from one world to the next. Navigation is similar, but the characters do it on their own special hoverboard things called Keyblade Gliders. I for one loved the change. I’d honestly forgotten if the game included Gummi Ships or not, so when I left the opening world in this HD version, my gut kind of sank a little bit in anticipation of having to Gummi it up.
There are, however, other forced minigames, which I’m never a fan of. I like options, I love extra stuff, but a lot of times, I wish such distractions were allowed to be just that: distractions, instead of a required part of every playthrough. The one I hated most was a rhythm game that, at the time, took me a while to beat. Fortunately, in recent years, I’ve developed an affinity for the music genre and I’m not living in fear of that minigame anymore (you’re gonna laugh — or cry — when you find out what song it is, though).
My inner Final Fantasy fan is, of course, sad to see there’s only one Final Fantasy face in the entirety of Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep. It’s a good one, and one I’d actually like to see more of, but as I mentioned in the KH2 piece, part of what sold me the original game was Final Fantasy cameos. On the PSP, which housed its own remakes of three FF titles, enhanced ports two others, and two original Final Fantasy games, I hoped for just a little bit more representation of that universe.
Final Fantasy characters it might lack, but I feel a strong FF influence in the magic system. Players equip magic spells which level up and be combined with other spells to form newer, stronger ones. It’s rewarding to see a collection of powerful magic and think, yeah, I made that. Combined with the excellent combat, fighting to level up is less of a “grind” and more of a pleasure in KH:BbS. I didn’t expect to be so joyfully powerless to put this game down, but I found myself addicted all over again once I got through a single world.
If any Kingdom Hearts fans missed out on Birth by Sleep because of its hardware, I can’t recommend the Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX enough. It’s my favorite game in the whole franchise, now with more content and playable on your TV.
The HD port of BbS brings its own host of changes minor and major, especially since it’s the Final Mix version, which is leaving Japan for the first time in this pack. These warrant discussion, but are more fit for the review itself. These retro/introspectives are about the games in question, as we knew them, and how they’ve aged. In the case of Birth by Sleep, as well as with Kingdom Hearts II, they stand the test of time.