Portable games are often ports of titles that have already been popular on home consoles. They are often glitchy, and obviously dumbed down to fit onto the smaller format. Favourite characters are sometimes missing, graphics butchered, control schemes don’t work and the game feels like the soul has been cruelly removed. However, every now and again a game like Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is released to redefine the boundaries.
So is the latest Kingdom Hearts a portable cash cow, or is it a uniquely portable game that can hold its own in a much loved franchise? I won’t hold you in suspense. The answer is immediate when you power up your PSP. Right from the get-go you are treated to a dramatic, lovingly crafted cutscene, which captures everything we love about Square Enix. Hell, just looking at the case before opening it up to a new game smell and juicy instruction manual shows you how much love was digitally poured into this title.
Presentation values in Birth by Sleep are incredibly high. This is one of those games that you never thought would be possible on a portable just a couple of years ago. Characters have full voice dialogue, the massive worlds are well varied and the game is packed full of beautiful cutscenes.
Headphones are essential. The music sounds good through the PSP speaker, but a good set of headphones will immerse you much deeper into the game and let you appreciate every note in the beautiful score. The sound effects are pretty well done but the only chink in the audio’s armour is the voice acting. For the most part it's not bad, but the odd character, such as Snow White, just sounds somehow... off.
Graphically the game looks on par with the PlayStation 2 original. The worlds are rich with colour and beg to be explored. Animation is smooth and the character design is great. Some characters are a little low-poly but, for the most part, everything looks super vibrant and clear on the PSP’s screen. Your eyes will thank you for letting them gaze upon something so perfect.
Ok; those're the superficial aspects out of the way. How does Kingdom Hearts actually play on the small screen? Pretty well, I must say. I have yet to encounter slow-down, and while the fighting seems button-mashy to start with, the combat system is surprisingly deep and satisfying. This is good, since Kingdom Hearts has always been more on the action/adventure side of the RPG genre. It’s not perfect; there are a couple of camera issues in the heat of combat, but these can be largely forgiven and aren’t a huge negative.
And what is an adventure without a story? Birth by Sleep follows three characters throughout their adventure. Each character has an ending, but you will have to play each character's story to get the full picture and really appreciate the scale of this little gem. Each character's quest alone is the length of some other full adventure titles I have played, so there are as many hours of game play here as the latest Final Fantasy offering. There are sprinklings of minigames and such to break things up, but the game play is largely too similar to play all three quests back to back. Once you have finished the game there isn’t much reason to replay the whole thing as cinematics and battles (the best bits) become unlocked permanently. That said, if you play each character with a slight break between each, you’ll still be enjoying this game months down the track.
If you are new to the Kingdom Hearts series, worry not. As has been the trend for a while, this game is actually a prequel, which means you require no knowledge of what happens in previous titles. Oh, and don’t let the Disney characters put you off. Sure the game can be a little ‘happy’, but it’s got some very dramatic and dark set-pieces in there as well. If you pass this game over for being too ‘twee’, then you are doing yourself a huge injustice.
Existing fans of the franchise will be head over heels for Birth by Sleep. Everything you love is here with new twists and turns, and this is ironically the longest game in the series. It may even be the best game in the series so far, but time will tell on that one.