It's the... KEY... to the past! HA! Get it?
Let's face it: The storyline of every Kingdom Hearts game is a little corny and twisty. In this one, a young man named Ventus shows up on the proverbial doorstep of the Keyblade masters with amnesia and finds a couple of friends training o become Keyblade Masters: the strong-willed, hard-headed Terra and the mystical neo-punk chick Aqua.
[image1]All three of them are available for play at the very beginning, each telling basically the same story from their perspective. Playing through one story will give you all of the main points; playing through as all three gives a full understanding of just what all happened to and between the three friends. The characters are pretty standard fare, though, sadly enough... big buff fella, magical chick, depressed kid. It's about what you expect from Square: spiky hair, sad people, and a story with amnesia.
I might be the only one, but the controls have always been a little wonky to me. Maybe it's just being raised in the NES/SNES era where the 'B' and 'Y' were the jump and attack buttons, or if it's just the design of the PSP with the square button so close to the edge of the unit, but it took some time to get the standard fighting down pat and not accidentally dashing away from everybody when I mean to shove my key into their gut. The problem isn't just that it – once again – takes time to get adjusted to, but that there's really no way to change it, apart from the shoulder buttons.
On top of the standard campaign, there are mini-games throughout and even a multiplayer mode. There are actually four ways to go about it: The first two are the Versus and Arena modes, where a player can take on either a batch of baddies with a handful of friends, or – even better – each other to find out who is the best of the bunch. I wasn't actually able to find anyone online to play with, so I can't say if there's any substantial slowdown over the connection to speak of (with such a fast-fighting game, slowdown would be a real pain in the petoot). The third mode, a racing game, would be similarly messed up if a connection drops out or just isn't stable and fast enough.
[image2]The fourth one makes me really curious, as I have no idea how they would have come up with it in the KH universe. Similar in connection-to-source-material as Chess Kombat in the Mortal Kombat franchise, Square-Enix found a way to work a board game in: the Command Boards. At its core, it's a bland Mario Party game without any of the “fun” bits, like fishing for other players or jumping hurdles while running away from a rampaging Bomb-omb.
Each world visited and worked through unlocks a new board to play on. The basic play is just to run around the board, hit every checkpoint, collect GP (the currency of the game) by “buying” open spaces and level up those spaces with collected attacks from the game. That's the big upside to playing the game: you can upgrade your individual attacks quickly and easily, especially if you want to take advantage of the melding system (the very basic blending of bought or collected attacks to create new, more powerful ones). Leveling up is about all it's good for, though, but still, it's a quick way to level up a little bit of everything, all at once.
Overall, Birth by Sleep is right up the same visual alley as Crisis Core, putting it among the best graphics on the system. It really gave me some serious flashbacks to the PS2 incarnations of KH, and in the best way possible. Each environment feels nice and large, open to exploration for chests and the new system of stickers that can enhance a player's abilities and attacks. From the music to the small details, the Disney worlds with various princesses (dubbed “The Princesses of Heart”) set the scene for each world your character of choice travels to. For as pretty as it is, though, there are still some problems with just how large some of the spaces are, like how a chest can only be seen as a clumping of, say, four pixels on the screen, and you have to run and fight three batches of baddies just for a fourth copy of Blizzard.
The only notable downside to Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is the constant loading times. The worlds are large and beautiful, but every time you reach a new point that needs a disc spin – which seems to be VERY often – it can break some of the flow of the game. It's not a real deal-breaker... just an annoyance while you're getting your fix. And with three characters, three campaigns, a little bit of board game action, and enough worlds to explore for all their little nooks and crannies, you'll be busy for quite a while.