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I’ve given the PSP more than my fair share of grief, but I’m starting to realize its biggest drawback is, strangely, its biggest strength in cases like this. Neither Sony nor the gaming press saw that the future of portable gaming would take shape more towards the direction of touch screens and micro challenges, so the PSP’s ability to play full-fledged PS2 games would turn out to be a bit of a double-edged sword in 2010…. HOWEVER! I found the PSP to be the perfect platform for a continuation of Kingdom Hearts, a game that set the bar sky high on PS2. While Birth by Sleep might be a prequel to the main series, fans will probably agree that it’s never looked better and it’s improved enough to be a truly worthy addition to the series.
With no PS3 version by which to compare, it truly succeeds in feeling like a substantial Kingdom Hearts evolution, especially within the context of what every other portable KH has done. No more generic “Jungles” and blah castles, even the Keybladery sheds the simplistic hack-and-slash button mashing of KHII and cobbles together one of the deepest and most rewarding combat systems you’re likely to find on a handheld. HOWEVER! It still the largely a PS2 game; the camera still sucks, the platforming is dated, and it can’t help but feel antiquated within the scope of everything you’ve been playing for the last half a decade.
Although, personally, I find it difficult to fault a game celebrating a legacy that dates back the 1920s for feeling “dated”, mainly because I’m a Disney nerd and Square has given me essentially everything I wanted as a KH fan. I cringe when I recollect on Pinnochio’s Monstro level, and how little it looked less like the belly of a whale and more like an unlit Price is Right set. That’s been addressed, and the worlds you enter have never looked closer to their cartoon counterparts.
Above: You’ll interact with Disney characters in ways you may not expect
Scoff not, gentlemen! Because even the three princess worlds vary so much visually and thematically, you might end up as floored as this animation dork. Sleeping Beauty’s angular characters and cliff faces distinguish themselves from the rounded, colorful woodlands of Snow White, which distinguishes itself from radiantly posh royal goings-on in Cinderella’s world.
If that weren’t enough, you’re given three different characters to play through the game as. The hard headed Terra, Roxas-clone Ventus, and the, uh, ever-female Aqua! Each has their own separate storyline and unique ways to tackle each world. Their story arcs occasionally overlap, yet all three character’s missions tend to differ drastically.
Yes, they’re the people seen in the ending of KHII, and no, I’m still not sure why that’s important. Maybe you can tell me after you finish the game with all three characters and unlock the grand finale that reveals more insight (which I haven’t done yet) and at 20 hours per character, that makes for one helluva replay value. That kind of gameplay variety is certainly to be commended… even if there’s nothing particularly special about any of these new characters.
All three are little more than stand-ins for your typical triangle-haied Final Fantasy/JRPG archetypes. And the only way I’d imagine you’d consider that truly worthwhile is once you learn that, outside of a single speaking appearance, FF characters continue to take a diminished role in the Kingdom Hearts series. Whatever, I’ve always considered their appearances pretty expendable, and often times wasted. It’s hard to argue that even while Kingdom Hearts is basically a FF shell universe, the actual characters from those games are far better served in stuff like Dissidia anyway. And this is Disney’s game after all. Plus, Birth by Sleep has far bigger problems to deal with.
Above: Although I didn’t get to play it, Ad-hoc multiplayer allows up to six people to fight in death matches, survival mode, and play more of the optional minigames I thought were terrible
But getting back to the good, the combat system has been wonderfully overhauled into something the series can be proud of. Even if you don’t want to play as all of the other characters you can still call upon them and their abilities at almost any point using the D-Link system (as well as several other cartoon icons you encounter throughout the course of the game which I won’t spoil.) You’ve got an absolutely staggering number of customizable skills and magic that you can slot out in any order you see fit.
Deepening the melee further, just about every offensive and defensive skill can be leveled up to become more powerful, earn finishing bonuses, and then even melded together to create a seemingly infinite combination of altogether new commands and ranged lock-ons. Really cool shit, can’t say that enough.
Above: Spoiler… loading
Using the D-pad to cycle through them is hardly optimal while using the analog nub during the more chaotic fights, but at least it’s something you can sort of get used to. Other PSP failings won’t be as easy to ignore. Each hit charges a command meter that’ll transform your primary attack into an elemental whirlwind of pain, that is…
after it loads. Yes, even the chargable moves have a MID-BATTLE load time on the PSP. Don’t bother swapping it out either, because they all do it and…
get to the menu…
LOOOADING. And nearly a minute of it, every time, if you’re playing off the UMD. Criminal.
You’d better clear 700MBs of memory because anything other than a full install will result in some of the most heinous load times I’ve ever encountered on any system. Having not played a lot of Square games on the PSP, I certainly wasn’t prepared and I know I had to struggle and hastily delete stuff to make room once I could no longer tolerate the load time of a partial, 400MB install!
If you know the KH formula, you should be able to see the problem coming. Here’s a typical five to ten minutes: Enter world, cutscene, battle, cutscene, explore area, move to next area, cutscene, battle. Now imagine each comma in that sentence represents almost a minute of load time, and consider how poorly that suits portable play.
That said, I had a blast with Kingdom Hearts… but then, all I demanded was an improved combat system and a deeper plunge into the realm of King Mickey, thus I can overlook the fact that Square seems to have by and large ignored how games have advanced since 2005. So while series fans who’ve been waiting to play the first full-featured Kingdom Hearts in almost five years may find their loved returned tenfold, PSP owners who simply desire to play an A+ exclusive might not get what all the fuss is about.
Sep 8, 2010