Be honest, when you think Japanese role playing games, one of the names that springs to mind is Square Enix, their Final Fantasy series now practically synonymous with the genre. Whilst Final Fantasy XIII represented some positive moves forward for the series, it’s Kingdom Hearts that has always found most favour with me personally: perhaps it’s the Disney characters, perhaps it’s the real time battles, perhaps it’s the consistent story. Birth by Sleep is the latest, released in Japan at the turn of the year and due out here next month, and exclusive to PSP.
We’ve been lucky to have had the Western version of the game for the last couple of weeks, a near complete ‘preview’ version that shows off a fine translation, decent (albeit slightly twee) voice acting and the same solid gameplay that made the Asian release such a hit – it grabbed 10/9/9/9 in Famitsu, for example. Whilst the game starts off typically slowly, it doesn’t take long to get into the swing of things, and the story’s main attraction – a mixture of cartoon favourites and your normal spiky haired Square inhabitants meshing together – works brilliantly and never feels forced.
Action is swift and decisive, if not a little complex at first. Simple attacks make way for those pulled from a deck (and requiring a brief charge before re-using) but the options fan out from there, with finishing moves available to those that fight fluidly, and multiple command styles opening up for those that fulfill the required battle elements.
We’ll perhaps go over the battle system in more depth at a later date as it warrants a decent explanation – suffice to say it’s adapatable and as powerful as you’d want in an action RPG, and that’s not even mentioning the ability to call on friends and use their moves too.
Although cut-scenes lead the way for most of the game’s opener, there’s a solid story in there that needs be to told (this is essentially a prequel to the first Kingdom Hearts, and has been dubbed KH0 by its director, Tetsuya Nomura) and so the player must endure some lengthy load times as the game darts about from one area to the next, with the playable sections kept to a minimum until the story starts proper. In the game’s defence, it looks absolutely stunning – probably the best looking PSP game ever made – and there are options to install the game onto a memory card to ease the loading pauses if you’ve got the room.
There’s also a few other PC-like tweaks hidden in the menus, the option to reduce the colour palette is unexplained but essentially smooths out the frame rate, which is normally pretty good anyway.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a hugely attractive game – it’s visually gorgeous but also offers a deep combat system, plenty of action, some of your favourite Disney characters (but Winnie the Pooh and his Hundred Acre Wood is sadly left aside, seen only in the game’s board game subquest) and what amounts to three games in one given that you can select one of the three principal characters at the game’s outset, each following their own story arc seperate from the other two. I’m impressed, and can’t wait to get back into the story just to see where it all pans out.