Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep Hands-On

We go back to the beginning in this prequel to the original Kingdom Hearts.

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Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep
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Before Roxas and even Sora, there was Ventus, a young boy with spiky blonde hair who looked--let's face it--just like Roxas. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep takes place 10 years before the events of the original Kingdom Hearts, where Sora was chosen by his keyblade to rid the world of darkness. Birth by Sleep tells the story of three characters, Aqua, Terra and Ventus, who are a trio of friends training to become keyblade masters of their own. While fans have been eagerly waiting for word on Kingdom Hearts 3, it looks like for now, we're going to have to go back in history to see how it all began.

Because it is a prequel, it shouldn't matter whether or not you've played a Kingdom Hearts game before. But if you have, you'll find that the controls are fairly similar, with the exception that you now lack an analog stick and need to rely on the shoulder buttons to move the camera. Like its predecessors, Birth by Sleep is an action role-playing game, and depending on who you choose to play as, each character will be controlled in a slightly different way. There are four difficulties to choose from, and you can't change your difficulty once you've started the game.

The story is told through the eyes of the character you play as, and while the paths of the characters do intersect, how you progress through the game will vary. You'll travel through the same worlds and visit the same locations, but to get the full story from all perspectives, you'll want to play through them all. The game starts off with Aqua and Terra preparing for their exam to become keyblade masters. Without revealing too much, the events that follow involve the three of them taking off into other worlds to track down one of their masters by the name of Xehanort. You'll visit many Disney-themed lands like the Enchanted Dominion where Sleeping Beauty rests or the Dwarf Woodlands where the seven dwarves and Snow White have made a home. By helping the locals of that world, you'll slowly begin to unravel the bigger mystery at hand.

The gameplay still feels familiar, but now there are some new combat features that have been added. You can customize your skills in a command deck, as well as meld them to create new ones. Depending on the order of how you execute these commands--and if your command gauge is full--you can automatically enter a particular command style to unleash much more powerful attacks on the enemies, which are known as the Unversed. Certain special abilities are tied to commands, which you can level and then swap for another. Once you've learned a specific ability, you can remove that command and still have the skill available to you.

Bad kitty!
Bad kitty!

When there's a swarm of Unversed around you, the shotlock ability lets you home in on multiple enemies by holding down both shoulder buttons to get a lock on everyone and fire with the X button. This drains the focus gauge, so you'll have to keep an eye on it. Another gauge to watch out for is the D-Link gauge, which stands for Dimension Link. This lets you borrow powers from other characters that you meet along the way. So, for example, you can D-Link with Snow White and use the powers of the dwarves (like Doc and Sleepy) to heal you or put enemies to sleep temporarily.

If you want to take a break from the Unversed, there's a mirage arena where you can play with friends in various multiplayer modes. There's Versus mode, Arena mode, Rumble Racing, and the Command Board, which can be played with up to three or six friends depending on the game. Versus mode is self explanatory and has you and up to five other people duke it out in an arena. The Arena mode is a cooperative game where up to three people have to band together and survive against waves of enemies until you can't handle it anymore. Rumble Racing is also for six players, while the Command Board is for three, which can also be played from any save point in the game.

The Command Board is a minigame where you take turns rolling a die to move across the panels on the board. The goal is to earn game points, and you use your deck commands as your game pieces. Part of the strategy also involves acquiring the most amount of space; you'll want to land on unclaimed panels and buy them so that if someone else lands on it, he or she has to pay you a fee. There's definitely no shortage of things to do if you get tired of hopping around from one area to another, so if you've got some friends, you should take advantage of the multiplayer modes.

She's waiting for her prince of course!
She's waiting for her prince of course!

Another thing you really need to take advantage of is a big enough memory stick to install the game. The load times are incredibly long, and depending on how much of the game you want to install (you get three options: 200MB, 400MB, and 624MB), the load times will decrease. Another thing to point out is that the camera isn't always in the most convenient place, and you'll have to rotate and lock on manually to get the best viewpoint. Other than that, Birth by Sleep is incredibly beautiful on the PSP, and the music will whisk you back to the world of Kingdom Hearts in no time. Find out how this unique world of Square Enix heroes and Disney characters collide when Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep is released on September 7.

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