Described as "Episode 0," Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is the prequel to the series set 10 years before the events of the first game, which features characters from various Disney animated movies and Final Fantasy games. The sixth game in the series follows three separate protagonists who are apprentices to Master Eraqus: Terra, Ventus, and Aqua. Birth by Sleep has several new features added to the battle system, as well as multiplayer. Game director Tetsuya Nomura answered our questions regarding the game, which is set to be released on September 7.
GameSpot: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is a prequel to the original game. Was this idea already planned from the beginning? What made you decide to go back and make a prequel?
Tetsuya Nomura: There was a possibility that Kingdom Hearts would only have one installment, so Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep was not something that we had planned from the get-go. However, by the time we were working on Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and Kingdom Hearts II, we had already started to piece together Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days [and] coded and Birth by Sleep. Ultimately, we wanted to resolve the mysteries that have been scattered thus far, and to clarify what mysteries lay ahead in the series. Right now, you could say that we've entered the preparation stage, heading toward the conclusion of Xehanort's tale. I hope everyone gets to see the secret ending.
GS: Could you tell us more about the story of Birth by Sleep?
TN: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is set the furthest in the past in the series. You could even call it "Kingdom Hearts 0." Players will unravel mysteries in the Kingdom Hearts storyline by playing through the perspectives of each of the three new characters.
GS: What was the decision behind making it for the PSP? How did this platform change the design approach and how it would play?
TN: The three Kingdom Hearts games currently available for handheld platforms are compressed in terms of the story's volume; crafted so that a single session of gameplay does not consume too much time. Because the Kingdom Hearts I and II were developed for the PlayStation 2, we felt that the PSP platform would be fitting for an entry that is equally compelling, contentwise, to a numbered title. There are fewer buttons on a PSP system, of course, so I think that our efforts to streamline the controls resulted in a more intuitive, fast-paced system overall.
GS: How has the gameplay changed? What was the decision behind the changes?
TN: Playing Kingdom Hearts often turns into a button-mashing session, so we took that tendency into account when designing this new system. The character's actions change continuously leading up to the finishing move, and with command styles, the command deck itself changes to reveal a whole new set of actions. Aside from this, there is a greater selection of moves to choose from during battle, which increases the player's freedom to strategize. The system keeps you constantly engaged in a speedy, satisfying, and flashy battle experience. I think that this is an evolution made possible by the Kingdom Hearts fans who have demonstrated a distinct style of gameplay throughout the years.
GS: How did you decide what locations and Disney and Final Fantasy characters were to be included?
TN: The process of choosing worlds has been the same with every entry. First, we select the worlds that are essential based on the scenario; in this title's case, the three princesses worlds. Then, to add some variety to the locations, we decided to include Deep Space (Lilo & Stitch) and Neverland (Peter Pan). Since Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep takes place before the rest of the games in the series, we decided to include Olympus Coliseum (Hercules) to show the contrast between past and present. We were able to incorporate more locations because of the hardware's capacity and also because this title carries the same weight as a numbered Kingdom Hearts title. Zack makes an appearance in this game because he, himself, is a character from the Final Fantasy series' past, making him a good fit for a title that portrays the Kingdom Hearts series' past.
GS: Could you talk about the multiplayer modes? What was the reasoning behind including multiplayer?
TN: In Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, you could venture to different worlds to accomplish missions, but this time around, players can gather in a world called the Mirage Arena to defeat target enemies. Up to three players can play co-op or against each other three on three. There are also minigame battles that are new to the series; Command Board and Rumble Racing. We utilized the hardware's wireless capabilities and capacity to the fullest to offer minigames that people can jump right in and out of. This way, players can enjoy the variety of battles and worlds that the game has to offer.
GS: What was the inspiration behind the new characters and their designs?
TN: The "master and apprentice" relationship portrayed in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep was inspired by Japanese tradition, so Japanese-inspired designs have been incorporated into Terra, Aqua, and their master Eraqus' outfits. The other designs are all related to the mysteries presented throughout the Kingdom Hearts series, so I will leave it up to the players to figure out the connection.
GS: Will new players be able to enjoy Birth by Sleep without having played any other Kingdom Hearts game before? What will fans be looking forward to?
TN: We, of course, consider first-time players when developing each installment, but the games were always part of a single timeline, and some players couldn't quite get into the games because they felt out of touch with the rest of the story. Because Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is positioned at the very beginning of the storyline and introduces all-new characters, I personally felt a sense of freedom much like when I was developing Kingdom Hearts. I think this is great timing for those who are looking for a way into the series.
No matter which entry you start with, the story is always heading in the same direction. Much like players can choose to complete the three characters' stories in any order in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, no matter which Kingdom Hearts game you pick up first, the overarching story never changes. It's only a matter of finding things out in a different order, and I think it's great that the series can be enjoyed from so many perspectives.
GS: How will the North American version be different from the Japanese version?
TN: There are a variety of new elements, including Critical mode, which takes the difficulty level beyond Proud mode, key blades, abilities, minigame maps and songs. We're also unleashing a mystery enemy for North American fans, so hopefully everyone will enjoy the challenge.
GS: Thank you for your time!