Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Hands-On Impressions

We take a spin through this portable prequel to the Kingdom Hearts series.

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TOKYO--The Kingdom Hearts franchise thus far has been a story about the two protagonists, Sora and Riku, who find themselves holding the keyblade and going on an adventure in the Disney Kingdom. The upcoming PSP release, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, will go in a different direction and will be somewhat of a prequel that focuses more on the keyblade itself. The game tells the story of keyblade warriors who existed before Sora and Riku's time, and it will be centered on three keyblade apprentices: Terra, Ventus, and Aqua. If you've beaten Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix, you've probably seen the secret movie that gives a sneak peek at the three characters. The movie was done in a realistic-looking CG sequence that didn't match up with the Kingdom Hearts universe, but for fans who are wondering if Birth by Sleep is going to go in that direction, don't worry. The actual game felt very similar to previous installments in terms of both visual style and gameplay.

At Square Enix's DK Sigma 3173 event, we were given a chance to try out two short demos of Birth by Sleep. One let us play as Terra, and the other let us play as Ventus, also known as Ven. We started off with Terra's demo, which was more or less meant for showing us how the battle is played. As soon as the game began, Terra was surrounded by enemies that were different from the Heartless or Nobodies that we've seen in previous installments. These new enemies are called Anbaasu in Japanese, and the English meaning is something like "Unbirth." Terra's demo starts out in a grassy area, where he gets assaulted by Unbirths of different sizes. After he beats them, he fights against more on his way across a bridge to the castle of the Enchanted Kingdom. Once he makes his way to the castle, a colossal red machine awaits him as the boss. Aside from making huge jumps to stomp on Terra, the boss occasionally shoots out a white string, which captures Terra and pulls him close. Similar to other bosses in previous Kingdom Hearts games, the red machine has multiple attack points.

If you've played a previous Kingdom Hearts game, you'll probably get used to the controls in Birth by Sleep pretty quickly. You use the analog stick for controlling your character. Jumping is done with the X button, attacking is done with the circle button, and the square button lets you guard (or quick-evade, if you're holding on a direction). You use the D pad to pick menu commands, such as magic, special moves, and potion, and you use the triangle button to execute them. You'll have to be careful about using your command moves, though, because once you use one, you'll have to wait a while before you can use it again. The camera movements were pretty good from the demo we played, though if you want to move the camera around manually, you can do so by holding the L button and using the analog stick.

In Birth by Sleep, there's a cool new feature that adds spice to your traditional attacks. When you attack your enemies, you increase a command meter that's located on the top of your command menu. When it fills up, you can go into command-style mode, which is a special mode that gives you some extra firepower for a limited time. There are various modes you can switch to, such as fire blazer, which gives your normal attacks a fire attribute, and thunder bolt, which gives you a lightning attribute.

Another nifty addition to the battle is the shoot-lock system, which makes this new Kingdom Hearts game feel a bit like a shooter. If you hold down the R button, the screen turns into a green first-person-shooter-like mode for a short time. A crosshair appears on the screen, and by controlling it with the analog stick, you can trace it on multiple enemies and then hit the circle button to release a multihit move on them. What's more, if you lock on to a lot of enemies, you can execute an additional special move that hits them even more. The shoot-lock system has its own meter, which drains when you use the system. It doesn't recover automatically over time; instead, you need to beat enemies and collect an item to replenish the meter.

During Ventus' demo, called Castle of Dreams, we got more of a feel for how you'll be venturing in Birth by Sleep. Unlike Terra's demo, which was pretty straightforward but required us to fight (all we had to do was keep beating enemies to keep going), Ven's demo let us avoid combat, but we needed to do some searching through multiple maps to find items required for advancing the storyline. The demo starts off with Ven and Jaq Mouse on an open porch, talking about Cinderella and the spiteful Lady Tremaine. The subject soon changes, and Ven decides to find materials to make a dress for Cinderella so she can make it to the ball. As the camera zooms out, we find out that Ven and Jaq were actually talking on a windowsill and they're extremely small. During the rest of the game, you'll go around jumping on top of books and yarn, and sometimes you'll even hop on a fork that's stuck to the wall and use it as sort of a spring to jump to higher places. We found ourselves using techniques we didn't use in Terra's demo, such as tilting the analog stick just a little so we could walk instead of dash in order not to fall from high locations.

At the end of the demo, we fought against Lucifer the cat, who looked extremely mean, particularly because he was a couple of times larger than Ven. Our normal attacks did only minor damage, while Lucifer would pounce on us from high places, like the top of a closet, and really damage us. We soon learned that he's vulnerable after he lands, and you can ride on him like in a rodeo to make him charge into walls for damage.

The gameplay in Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep felt solid, and we're looking forward to seeing more of the game in the future, particularly since we didn't get to play with the third keyblade apprentice, Aqua. The graphics are just as good as those in the PlayStation 2 releases. The game is slated for release in 2009 in Japan.

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