Hands-On Preview: Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep (PSP)

2002 saw Square Enix release a rather audacious action RPG upon its gaming audience: a crossover game titled Kingdom Hearts, which would merge the broody, action-packed realm of Final Fantasy with, of all things, the rosy, cartoon world of Disney. Not only did this bizarre combination effortlessly break the world record for most orphans ever assembled, it also wound up channelling a daft-sounding premise into a pretty wonderful game. After a worthwhile sequel, the franchise has since lingered, churning out a few handheld spin-offs that – while entertaining – didn’t quite capture the same spirit of the core games. It looks like that’s about to change though, as Square Enix are due to release Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep for the PSP in less than a month’s time. Having played through a significant portion of the game, it certainly captures the magic that evaded the previous spin-offs, defying the restrictions of its handheld platform to deliver what promises to be the first real Kingdom Hearts game since the PS2 outings.

The game picks up 10 years before the first Kingdom Hearts, following close-knit trio Terra, Ventus and Aqua, who’re training to be Jedi Keyblade Masters. They’re soon off in search of a missing Master Xehanort, vanquishing evil monsters named The Unversed along the way, each taking their own path through the same worlds. You’ll choose to play through as one of the trio to begin with, but the game is comprised of three individual, intersecting stories, each with their own save slots. You can play these stories in any order you chose, but each character encounters their own completely unique experiences and adventures throughout, with the larger story only coming together clearly once you’ve tackled all three perspectives.

The game seems to slightly hint that you should play through Terra’s story first, followed by Ventus, then Aqua. Ever the rebel, I opted to play Aqua’s story, since judging from the opening scenes, she boasted the most impressive and appealing voice acting. She’s also played by Willa Holland (The OC’s Kaitlin Cooper) and since she was one of the few things in season four of that show that didn’t make me want to gnaw out my own brain, I felt she deserved better than being picked last in gym class, so to speak. It’s a choice I’ll defend heartily until at least the end of this paragraph.

The first world you jet to in your search for the missing Master is the Castle of Dreams – home of Cinderella. Moments after arriving, you’ll briefly bump into Terra, who mentions meeting the enslaved kitchen-scrubber and asks Aqua to pass along his thanks should you see her. Apparently the Disney Princess taught him to believe in the light within himself, which cryptically offers up a glimpse of the parallel adventures Terra encounters in his story and gives an idea of how the three plots intersect. Soon you’ll meet Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother who’ll shrink you to minuscule size to help you sneak into the castle. There you’ll protect Jaq the mouse as you battle your way across a giant room, freeing the imprisoned Princess before facing off against the world’s boss – a giant demonic pumpkin carriage summoned by Cinderella’s evil bitchmonster stepmother.

The battle system itself has received a significant upgrade since the original games. As well as the standard ‘X’ button Keyblade attack, you’ll also have the use of the Command Deck – a versatile menu through which you can organise and select your magical attacks and special moves, or combine them to forge new powers. You can carry as many as you like, from charging slice attacks to magical elemental spells, but you’re given up to 8 slots for the ones you wish you use in battle. Once you’ve chosen a line-up you’re happy with, during battle you’ll see a command wheel on the left of the screen that lists your special attacks. Hitting the triangle button in combat will trigger each attack, then scroll to the next while the last recharges. If you need to trigger a specific magic attack, or cure yourself, you can quickly scroll to it by pressing up or down on the D-pad, or set a shortcut to your favourite command.

You’ll also be able to pick and choose your Action Commands, which allow you better dexterity in combat and out. Aqua, for example, has the Jump and Cartwheel commands, which are handy for exploring, alongside Barrier (which forms a protective shell around her to block attacks), which evolve and upgrade with use. Characters also get their own unique Shotlock Command – a ranged cannon attack which you can use to hit enemies from a distance. If there are some evil birds swooping around in the sky, you can hold the L and R buttons to bring up a scope-style reticle, which will quickly paint an enemy with targets as you hold them in your sights. Once maxed, it’ll unleash a barrage of cannon fire (Aqua gets the cutesy but powerful Bubble Blaster Shotlock). You’ll also get a new Keyblade at the end of every world, too, each with its own distinct look and stat boosts.

There’s more battle system fun to be had though. The Commands gauge above your special attacks list fills gradually with each successful blow. Fill it using normal attacks and you’ll be able to land a powerful, extravagant finishing move. Fill it with special attacks and, depending on the combo of commands you used, you’ll temporarily power up with an added magical force. Use primarily fire attacks, for instance, and when the gauge fills, you’ll charge into Firestorm mode, landing devastating flaming blows for as long as the power lasts. There’s a range of different Commands gauge powers that vary with your attack combos, so it pays to change up your style.

During the core Kingdom Hearts games, players took a party of three characters into battle with them, catering for all their combat needs. Birth By Sleep’s trisected story means you’ll be going it alone, though Square Enix have offered a handy workaround to diversify your powers in the form of the Dimensional Link (or D-Link). Forge a bond with a character and you’ll gain a D-Link connection with them, which will allow you to channel their powers and abilities in battle temporarily. Come up against a fast adversary, for example, and you might want to borrow Ventus’ more speedy skills to quickly pummel your foe like a caffeinated jackrabbit. You’ll start out with Ventus and Terra’s D-Links (gaining added speed and strength, respectively), but with each world you complete, you’ll forge a link with a character from that story, each with their own unique powers and Commands gauge style for you to borrow.

Despite playing as only one character at a time, during your adventures you might temporarily team up with someone during battle, offering special combo moves; early in the game you’ll take on Prince Philip as a sidekick to escape Maleficent’s dungeon, where during battle you can shield him with your barrier skill, or he can give you a super-boost onto higher ledges. Later you’ll team up with Experiment 626 (Stitch from Lilo & Stitch) in the Deep Space world, where you can hurl the little imp at enemies with little regard for his safety (it’s an effective attack though). It might seem like an overwhelmingly daunting array of battle techniques, but it’s impressive just how easy and quick the learning curve is and how diverse and versatile the system is.

The game’s not all about attacking things with giant cutlery and tossing mutants around though. True to the series’ roots, there’s a massive variety of worlds to explore, both new and familiar, each with its own distinct Disney movie theme. The first three worlds cultivate a Disney Princess mini-theme, as after meeting the previously-mentioned Cinderella in the opening world, you’ll venture to the Dwarf Woodlands to meet Snow White before heading to Sleeping Beauty in Enchanted Dominion. More familiar lands pop up in the form of Radiant Garden and Olympus Coliseum (marking the return of the fantastic James Woods as Hades, along with an appearance from a certain fella from Crisis Core who’s fond of doing squats) with tonnes more to find. There’s plenty to discover in each land, too, with potions and skills available in shops and hidden treasures everywhere. The colourful variety of worlds and characters only highlights the most impressive element of Birth By Sleep: you’d be forgiven for forgetting it’s on a handheld console considering just how crisp and gorgeous the visuals are.

Condensing a faithful Kingdom Hearts experience into a handheld game is an impressive acheivement, but Square Enix have managed to cram in a handful of fun varied minigames, too. Making it to Disney Town, the first task is to lay waste to some pesky Unversed who are causing havoc. Like a group of unruly chavs on the local park,
they’re loitering on the local fruitball court causing trouble for the locals. Bounding in, you’ll kick their ugly butts through the noble art of volleyball. Only with giant fruit. And without the shirtless volleyball homoerotics of Top Gun. It’s a fun little tennis-style minigame that you can go back and play later if you choose.

Further exploration of Disney Town finds Chip and Dale acting as attendants at the Disney Town Speedway, where you can take part in Rumble Racing – a WipeOut-style racing game where you’ll jet around the track in a hoverpod, hitting speed ramps, sliding through short cuts and blasting overtaking opponents. An even more fun addition is that if you beat the minigame here, you’ll unlock it at the Mirage Arena – a self-contained world on the World Map exclusively for minigames where you can play online with friends or offline against the computer. Also found at the Mirage Arena are a Versus Mode to simply fight people one-on-one online, and an Arena Mode where you can fight through a tournament of foes alone or teamed up with a friend.

Most fun though is the Command Board – a lovely little board game that plays like a pared-down Mario Party. Rolling dice to traverse a board made up of cubes, you’ll start with a handful of cards, each of which mirrors a skill you have in your normal game. Some of the spaces on the board are Common Spaces – empty spaces that, once you land on them, you can claim and lay down one of your skill cards (say, for instance, Ice Barrage). Whenever an opponent lands on it, they’ll have to pay you a toll, but whenever you land on it, you can pay to upgrade the space, increasing the toll. At the end of the game, the skills you’ve used to claim spaces will be levelled up in the main game depending on their upgraded value and your final rank in the minigame.

There’s also the usual wide array of board game extras and bonuses on the Command Board. I opted to play the Hunny Pot board, playing against Tigger in a Winnie The Pooh-themed game. One of the map’s bonus squares triggers a little cut scene where Rabbit’s stack of honey pots is knocked over, causing them to drop onto certain game squares. Land on one and you’ll collect a hefty GP bonus, but land on the few bee-covered ones and you’ll lose a chunk of change. You can trade in cards for extra dice rolls, too, alongside other varied addtions. There’s a diverse array of game boards, too, with a new board to be found hidden in each world of the main game, all offering their own unique layout, theme, characters and bonuses.

After playing through much of Aqua’s story, Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is already shaping up to be an impressive and surprisingly meaty game for any entry in the series, let alone a portable one, and that’s even before considering there’s another two storylines to delve into. It remains to be seen whether the game’s plot will come together cohesively to form a satisfying whole, but so far Birth By Sleep is proving to be exactly what fans should want: a new Kingdom Hearts game that entirely captures the spirit, magic and gameplay of the first two games they played and loved. We’ll have a full review of the game for you in the coming weeks.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is released in the UK exclusively for Sony PSP on September 10th 2010.

Click here to pre-order it from Amazon.co.uk.

Or alternatively, click here to pre-order the fancy Special Edition.