Looking at it closely, it seems slightly unfair and almost uncouth to refer to Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep as a spin-off. In its size and scope, it offers up a gigantic platter of worlds, tasks and options that matches the two PS2 Kingdom Hearts titles that sealed the series’ long-term future.
It’s so massive, in fact, that the Square Enix representative guiding our play through suggests that the game could’ve been titled Kingdom Hearts 3 and fans wouldn’t have been any the wiser – it’s allegedly that expansive.
While it supposedly could’ve been titled Kingdom Hearts 3, this title actually takes place before the very first Kingdom Hearts title in a world before Sora comes on the scene. The story offers up three different characters to play as Aqua, Terra and Ventus. The trio all wield keyblades, and the story will eventually weave into that of Kingdom Hearts I and II, going back and expanding on character origin stories.
In the interests of saving time on the booth, Square had a number of different save games so we could check out a number of worlds, points in the story and a wide selection of combat powers. The save games saw my visit a number of locations in the game including a world based off the castle from Cinderella.
You can grab a slightly more detailed look at the game’s worlds via the screenshots and trailers for the game that can be found in our Media Vault, but it looks as varied in style as previous Kingdom Hearts games, and having three heroes to play as only increases the feeling that there’s a great number of options at your disposal.
Sometimes actions as one character will have an effect on a world that will then be seen as another character, and the three player characters will cross paths frequently both in and out of cutscenes.
The big new gameplay feature in Birth by Sleep comes in the form of the Command Deck, which adds a bit of flavour that appears to be partially inspired by the card-driven gameplay of Chain of Memories. You’ll choose a deck of ability cards before heading into combat, and then the powers in the deck can be used in battle to help propel you to victory.
Cards can range from simple abilities that’ll allow you to dodge easily or move more quickly to actual attacks, and they can be executed on the fly with a press of a button. It adds a little depth to the simplistic core action RPG combat of KH, which is much the same here as it was on PS2.
The other major change in the combat comes from the Dimension Link ability, which uses the three character setup to add another dimension to the gameplay. It essentially allows you to use the moves of the other two cast members you’re not playing as under certain circumstances with the hit of a button, allowing you to combine the unique abilities of characters for more combat options.
There are other additions in Birth by Sleep aside from these major ones including all-new combat abilities, and the combat in general feels faster and more varied than it ever has in the Kingdom Hearts series.
In many ways, Birth by Sleep feels like the game Kingdom Hearts II should’ve been. It’s less about mashing on the X button and occasionally hitting Triangle and instead offers a wider range of options in combat and a story that becomes more diverse by offering multiple characters and perspectives to play from.
That ‘too much’ feeling that I got off Kingdom Hearts II seems to be gone despite the game being more complex on paper, feeling easier to pick up and play but also seeming to have a greater depth.
There’s a great amount of fan service in here for fans of Disney or Kingdom Hearts, too, but for me the main draw is how vastly improved the combat seems to be. This is definitely one to watch.