Birth by Sleep, which originally saw release on PSP, and would begin to set up the next big arc for the series. For this entry, the story jumps ten years into the past, to focus on a group of Keyblade wielders that had only appeared in hints and cameos during Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix+.
A loyal soldier to a fault, Terra’s propensity for taking whatever he’s told as the absolute truth leads to him being strung along by one villain after another. Bears a close resemblance to the guy who turned into both Ansem, Seeker of Darkness, and Xemnas.
Ven is the naïve child of the group, with a portrayal that honestly seems to range younger than he looks. In spite of his childishness, he’s far less easily fooled than his big buddy, Terra. Also, this is clearly just Roxas. Except that’s impossible… right?
If Terra’s the one who obeys the first person to talk to him, Aqua’s the one who obeys her principles no matter who talks to her. Unlike Terra’s storyline, this isn’t a precipice to disaster, but it is something she has to work on, hopefully before everything else falls to pieces.
Terra, Aqua and Ven’s samurai-esque master, a hardliner and the clearest to blame for Terra and Aqua’s hyperactive sense of obedience. Still, he loves his students like his own children. Whether one tendency can overcome the other, well, that’s where the drama happens. Yes, his name is just a scrambled “Square”.
“The Masked Boy,” whose mask looks more like a motorcycle helmet. Clearly at the center of all this, but the extent of his involvement, is more than you might initially imagine, and might very well reach beyond Kingdom Hearts 3!
Despite sharing a name with Ansem and Xemnas’ original self, he’s too old to be that future villain. Still, he’s clearly evil. He’s interested in learning how the world came to be the way it is today, even if it means destroying it first, but how he fits into the larger story is yet another of Birth by Sleep‘s many prologue mysteries.
Despite all the complexity of previous narratives, Birth by Sleep returns to a relatively simple story structure: monsters called the Unversed are attacking the worlds, and this time, we get three separate playable characters to stop them. After the opening tutorial, the player is allowed to start with any character. The game saves your progress in separate save files for each storyline. Each character ends up visiting the exact same Disney worlds, but at different points in their story (and via a timeline that doesn’t bear much scrutiny), which results in them visiting different locations on the world. While you are free to play the story in any order you wish, most fans will suggest you save Aqua for last, if only because she gets the conclusions for all but one of the Disney stories!
Birth by Sleep‘s basic combat has barely changed from previous entries. In terms of speed, we’re about in the middle between the first Kingdom Hearts and its sequel, and each character has their own, unique standard attacks and stats. By filling a bar by landing blows, you can also use a special Finish attack, which starts simple but evolves into more and more complex forms via a special tree on the main menu. But that’s just the basics. Even compared to Kingdom Hearts II, this gets busy!
Birth by Sleep is the first of three titles in the Kingdom Hearts series to use the Command Deck system, and a lot of what we’re going to discuss here applies to later games as well. Instead of having a confounding library of standard attacks, abilities, and a separate magic system, Birth by Sleep has a confounding library of attacks and magic combined, each of which are arranged into a customizable “deck”. Each “Command” suffers from cooldown after use. Spells resemble the attacks from previous entries, while special attacks can move the character around with dashes and overhead strikes. There are also large, screen-clearing displays of pyrotechnics with larger cooldowns to match.
The Command Deck is simple enough, but comes with a number of riders that mark most of the differences between Birth by Sleep and later titles. In Birth by Sleep, each Command can be merged with the others to create a new one, as dictated by complex, behind-the-scenes charts. Throw in a special synthesis material, and the new Command will get an Ability that the player can use as long as the Command is equipped. You can even keep the ability if you “train” the Command to by fighting enemies, reminiscent of Final Fantasy IX.
Actually grabbing the most important abilities can be quite the hazard without the game’s charts in front of you! Youll either leaving key survival skills like Second Chance, Once More and Leaf Bracer to the hands of fate and meticulous note-taking, or, more likely, you’ll break the game’s whole difficulty curve by checking online. This can have a drastic effect on one’s final impression of the game as a whole, since “cheating” with a walkthrough can throw the game’s difficulty curve out with the bathwater.
But Birth by Sleep didn’t stop at just the Command Deck, oh no. Next up are the Shotlocks, a special attack you can use by holding L and R, going into first person view and rapidly racking up “locks” on one or more enemies before bombarding them with projectiles or dash attacks. Then there are the D-Links, which actually play an important role in the narrative. These allow you to “link” with friends your character has made during the story to use alternate Command Decks related to them, sometimes with rare commands and always with special, albeit tedious, Finish attacks. In the original PSP releases, you can even link up with a friend and use their deck as a bonus D-Link!
But the last and most complicated are the Command Styles. By using Commands with specific elements, you can activate an alternate attack style for a brief period, with its own Finish attack. Later in the game, you can even use a second set of elements while already under the influence of a Command Style to activate an even more powerful Command Style. If all that’s too complicated for you, you can do some dull grinding to unlock Disney park-styled ice cream cones that activate Command Styles automatically, including one exclusive to the ice cream.
With all this combat going on, maybe it’s no surprise that Birth by Sleep‘s level design is just as flat or flatter than Kingdom Hearts II‘s, trying to make nearly every room an arena, and nothing else. The most memorable worlds tend to be the ones that eschew this design, like Ventus’ trip to the world of Cinderella, where he (inexplicably) ends up the size of her mouse friends and scours the giant house to make her dress. The decision to set the Lilo and Stitch world entirely within the spaceship from the film leads to some neat low-gravity segments, and even an exterior where you control your character’s “Keyblade glider,” though the interiors are a little same-y.
Once again, we’ve also got a minigame world, including a rhythm game featuring dreaded Disney song “It’s a Small World”, a weird volleyball game, and even a half-baked kart racer, Rumble Racing, which isn’t great, but is still better than it has any right to be. But the biggest minigame in the collection is Command Board. While not addressed as such in-game, Command Board is actually a simplified version of Enix’s long-running Fortune Street series, and has the depth to match, even as a simplification.
The game also features an arena world, but this one is completely divorced from the main storyline. Here, the player unlocks new tournaments by earning “Arena Ranks” by clearing tournaments, and even completing challenges in Rumble Racing and Command Board. The big draw for these tournaments are the exclusive bonus bosses, and if you want, you can even fight them with a friend or three on PSP. To help tell your characters apart, you even get to dye their armor. Unfortunately, it might be more correct to say that you’re expected to fight the bosses with a friend or three, and fighting them solo is an exercise in frustration. The arena also features a deathmatch mode, and allows multiplayer in Rumble Racing and Command Board. Sadly, Command Board doesn’t offer hotseat multiplayer even though, as a digital board game, there was really nothing stopping them!
Once the player has finally completed all three storylines and found all four missing parts of an in-game report, the game offers you the chance to create a “Final Episode” save by combining your three previous saves, after a fashion. Here, the player fights the true final boss (well, “final” at the time) and gets the true ending. This time, Birth by Sleep didn’t include concept trailer, but actually included a secret, extended ending instead. In fact, most fans feel the abrupt, standard ending barely even counts, so you’ll really want to shoot for this “bonus”! Unfortunately, only players playing on Proud (Hard) or above have any real chance of getting it: Standard (Normal) wants some absolutely massive requirements across all three folders, including an insulting demand that you 100% Command Board and the rhythm minigame for each character, despite this taking hours upon hours and including no changes between characters!
Like previous console games, Birth by Sleep went through the Japanese original > International > Japanese Final Mix release schedule, the last game to do the full, three-step dance. Once again, the Final Mix release recolored the enemies, which actually serves a purpose this time around: in the Vanilla game, the Unversed shared a unifying blue color, but the Final Mix versions, they have different colors, making them easily identified at a glance. Unfortunately, the Unversed are also the first minor enemy race in the series that isn’t given much narrative grounding, so the new color scheme undermines their visual identity, which hurts them more than it did the Heartless. It’s a mixed bag. New superbosses were added, often considered the nastiest and least fair in the series.
Most of the other additions to Final Mix are in the arena, including several post-game bosses, but also a novel fight that takes place both against and inside of Monstro the whale, from Pinocchio (who first appeared as a “world” in the first Kingdom Hearts). Unfortunately, all of Birth by Sleep‘s post-game superbosses have a poor reputation, requiring exact movements over sustained periods of time, often punishing you with instant death if you miss your mark. It’s a design pattern that hasn’t continued into later entries.
But the biggest addition to Final Mix is an entire new Secret Episode set after the so-called Final Episode. This one sends Aqua to a new, final world, complete with the fifth so-called “final boss” in one game, after which the player really does get a concept trailer this time. Unfortunately, it’s a concept trailer for “Birth by Sleep vol 2,” a game that was never created, even though some of its elements made their way into future games.
Birth by Sleep was eventually converted to HD in the Kingdom Hearts II.5 HD collection. This port brings back right analog stick camera controls, but didn’t downscale the UI, making it look oversized. Unfortunately, all of its multiplayer features went out the window (which makes the lack of Command Board hotseat even more frustrating), since Square wasn’t about to front for the servers. Since multiplayer was gone from the arena, the arena’s bosses were put through multiple nerfs. Whether or not those changes were adequate to make the multiplayer bosses playable is a matter of opinion, but the experience is undeniably better than the original.
Unfortunately, just like Kingdom Hearts II, the seventh-generation ports suffer from awful load times, chiefly when activating Command Styles and D-Links. This is yet another reason to buy the second collection in eighth-generation form.