Five Things: Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep

The Kingdom Hearts series is on, in the US at least, its fifth iteration (six if you count Re:Chain separately… I don’t) across four systems, with another title scheduled to release in January, a 3DS installment already planned, and…maybe? Kingdom Hearts 3 in the works.  (That last one is just wishful thinking, but a girl can dream.)  Expansive though that is, it doesn’t even approach the plethora of titles in the Final Fantasy series; however, Kingdom Hearts has something they don’t: a consistent, complex mythology.  Aside from X-2, direct sequels aren’t really something Final Fantasy does, and while there are certain features that carry over, echo each other, and/or relate in some way, by and large, when you play a Final Fantasy game, you can be pretty sure that you’re getting a new storyline each time–different characters, different setting, the whole nine.  While this doesn’t necessarily mean that one series is superior to the other, it does draw an important distinction between them, and gives Squenix fans a reason to distinguish one from the other (other than that one has Disney characters, obviously).

1. One, Two, Three- In order to get the full story of Birth By Sleep, you have to play it three times.  At least, that’s what you are led to think.  While it’s true that, if you complete the game, you will end up with four separate save files, the stories that you play are more than different enough that you won’t feel like you’re repeating yourself.  For each playthrough, you select a main character: Terra, Ventus, or Aqua.  That was actually the order I played them in, but you can choose whomever you like in whatever sequence; their storylines intertwine in such a way that one won’t give you any clear advantage, nor will it “spoil” the others if you choose poorly.  I would, however, suggest saving Aqua for last, not because of her story, but because her gameplay style is markedly different from the other two, and takes a bit more finesse to execute correctly.  If I’d started with Aqua, I would have gotten really frustrated, but having the experience of the other two beneath my belt meant that I was better educated in how the combat system functions.  The basics are the same, however; you equip different commands for use in battle, which level up as you carry them around, enabling them to be fused together to create more powerful commands.  As in the other titles of the series, combat is real-time, and you fight with a Keyblade that can also be swapped out for more powerful models as you progress.  The worlds you visit are the same, but the areas within those worlds are not, nor are the events you experience while there or the bosses you fight.  For example, in Cinderella’s Castle of Dreams world, Ventus plays shrunk to the size of a mouse, cooperates with Jaq the mouse in recreating Cinderella’s dress, and fights a huge version of the evil cat Lucifer, while Terra (arriving after Ventus has already left) escorts Cinderella through the forest to the palace, fighting a gigantic music-playing Unversed (as the monsters in this title are known) at the end, and Aqua must clear the way for the glass slipper to make it to Cinderella despite the evil stepsisters and stepmother, who summon a giant cursed pumpkin coach for her to fight.  Each world has this sort of three-part structure, and while playing as any given character, you may sometimes arrive first, sometimes after your other friends have already been there, and sometimes even briefly team up with them, or simply meet in passing.  Overall, I was drawn in completely by how well the stories meshed, and didn’t feel like I was repeating myself at all.

2. Girl Power- Both Elaine and I have talked, both on our own podcast and as guests on others, about female characters in video games, and by the end of Birth By Sleep, I was quite surprised by how Aqua turned out, so I wanted to give her some special attention here.  Aqua is the first playable female main character in the series; previously, female characters were either non-playable or showed up only in “guest” roles (Ariel in KH1, Mulan in KH2, etc.).  In many JRPGs, simply by knowing a character is female, you can often make a few assumptions about her: namely, that she will be a magic-user of some kind (true for Aqua), and that one of her main motivations will be her love for one of the male characters (this one’s where the surprise comes in).  While yes, Aqua is physically weak, instead excelling at magic attacks (and she DOES excel… I believe the phrase “swirling tornado of death” is appropriate here), she ISN’T in love with Terra or Ventus.  Or anyone, actually.  The other two are her friends, and she is incredibly devoted to and protective of them, but it’s as a sibling might be, not a lover.  This, I thought, was an interesting choice to have made when the norm seems to be otherwise, and it’s even more so given that, in Aqua’s storyline, she often seems to be surrounded by moments where the classic “prince meets princess” love prevails (Snow White awakened by her Prince, Cinderella reuniting with hers following the glass slipper fitting, and so forth).  She just doesn’t seem to have romantic love as a priority, which actually leads to some humorous moments such as her total obliviousness upon being hit on by Zack; it’s moments like those, actually, which make me believe that Aqua’s non-romanticism is actually a conscious choice about her character, rather than “she was a guy but we gave her boobs to be different.”  It’s kind of refreshing, in that way.

3. Missing Persons- In most of the other Kingdom Hearts titles, particularly the PS2 numbered entries, Final Fantasy characters such as Cloud and Squall are prominently featured right alongside their Disney counterparts.  The fight considered by many (me very definitely included) to be the hardest in the game is even a Final Fantasy character: Sephiroth.  However, in Birth By Sleep, FF character appearances are limited to one: Zack, who inhabits the Olympus Colosseum.  The way that the game is set up would, admittedly, make it a little difficult to shoehorn in very many of the other characters that have appeared in the series before, but to me it felt like they really half-assed it by including Zack, but no one else.   It’s always been a cool feature of the series that these characters could even legitimately BE in the same universe; I was among the doubters way back when the first Kingdom Hearts came out, because, let’s face it… the idea of Mickey Mouse slapping around baddies next to a dude with a gunblade sounds pretty ridiculous without any context to support it.  Even IN context, it’s a little weird, but it really does work, which makes it all the sadder that that particular element seems to have been forgotten in this title.  Hopefully it’ll return in the future.  Sephiroth and I still have a score to settle, after all.

4. So Very Pretty- If there’s one thing you can say for Square Enix, it’s that they know how to put on a show.  Birth By Sleep is goddamn gorgeous.  Not gorgeous “for a handheld title,” either.  It’s just really, really good-looking.  It’s pretty enough, in fact, to make me wonder why they didn’t target this for a wider console release; I love my PSP, but it’s not exactly the most popular system around, and with a title this high-quality and a series this well-loved, it just seems like they would have gotten a lot better exposure and, ultimately, made a lot more money if they had gone with a different platform.  They also would have been able to avoid issues like the RIDICULOUS LOAD TIMES that come along with a UMD-based game.  There is an install option; in fact, there are three.  I went with the largest one, which was something like 600 megs (over half my meager memory stick, but I figure I can always remove the install and re-do it if I want to play again).  Even with the install, however, there’s loading EVERYWHERE.  You load going into and out of menus, before cutscenes, when going into new screens, and basically every time anything new happens.  The install helped (the half hour before I realized I really needed to do this was very long…), but even so, it was excessive, particularly with Terra; for some reason, he seemed to have issues transitioning into his Command Styles where the others didn’t, but that may have just been something screwy with my copy.  Again, I don’t have a problem per se with Squenix’s platform choice here, it just… well, it makes me wonder.

5. Mythos- I mentioned up above that Kingdom Hearts is a series with a particularly strong story, and that’s where Birth By Sleep really shines.  It and the other titles surrounding the numbered entries (Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days, and the upcoming Re:Coded) really dive into the world that these characters inhabit; it’s vast and complex, and even if you’ve played all of the games, you still might be a little hazy on the details (I know I am).  To get an idea of how intricate the connections between the games and their characters are, look up Blank Points on YouTube and check out the user comments that accompany the secret video from the end of Birth By Sleep (which I, obviously, couldn’t be bothered to unlock myself… hence the YouTubing).  It’s fascinating stuff, and it really made me want to play KH 1 and 2 again to get all of the OH YEAH moments I think the handheld entries will spark in me.  Oh, and spoiler warning, by the way.

I’m modifying how I do Five Things; namely, I’m not writing up EVERYTHING I play, just the interesting stuff.  Look, I’m not reviewing Crafting Mama, okay?  I’m just not.  So next time will be…. whatever I feel like!  HA!

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