Saturday, January 17, 2015

Impressions #21: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep HD Final Mix

Since I finished Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix, via the Kingdom Hearts 2.5 HD ReMIX, it is only natural that I go on to the other playable game in the collection. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep came out during an interesting period in the history of the franchise. During this phase, there was no sign whatsoever of the appearance of another main-series game. In order to serve the duel purposes of expanding on the franchise lore, and to capitalize on its popularity, Square-Enix kept releasing side games. Despite their status as side stories, many of these games tied quite strongly into the main plotline seen in the numbered entries. Games like Birth by Sleep on the PSP and Dream Drop Distance on the 3DS, among others, are some of the games I am referring to.

Though originally a mere PSP game, Birth by Sleep is still considered to be a very important game in the franchise. So important that, combined with its status as a prequel, gives it the common nickname of “Kingdom Hearts 0”. Not it only does it give context to what Sora and company need to do in the eventual Kingdom Hearts 3, but it explains many of the plot elements from previous games, and how they are woven together. Questions like “How did Kairi make it to the Destiny Islands?” and “Why was Riku the keyblade's chosen one?” are answered in the narrative of Birth by Sleep.
And on that subject, the narrative is also interesting for how it compares to other stories in the Kingdom Hearts franchise. It is told from the perspective of three different characters: Terra, Ventus, and Aqua. The three of them begin the narrative as close friends, training in the Land of Departure to become Keyblade Masters. Through circumstances out of their control, they each find themselves investigating the appearance of a mysterious new group of monsters, collectively referred to as the Unversed. Each of them set out separately to look into the phenomena, and each of them have their own perspective on the events at hand. The only way to fully understand the plot is by playing each character's campaign from start to finish, then the Final Episode afterward.
Which transitions nicely into one of my biggest problems with the story. Though I really like the way the story is told, and I find the concept of playing the same story from multiple perspectives interesting, the plot strongly hinges on the fact that the three main characters do not speak to each other. Without spoiling the events of Birth by Sleep, the villain's grand master plan relies heavily on the characters simply not telling each other about dangers they are already aware of. If at any point in the game where the characters meet up with each other, they just said “Let's stop to review what we've learned so far,” the villain would not be able to gain any headway whatsoever. Had they simply compared notes, none of them would have been caught off guard by what occurs in the finale. Even when the group realizes what is coming, they still opt to let it happen.

That aside, having three different playable characters is an overall boon for the game. Since each character has a different playstyle, the game naturally varies the gameplay just by forcing the player to play through each campaign to get the full story. Terra, while slow, is the heaviest hitter in terms of physical damage. His exclusive moves tend to lean towards the Earth and Darkness elements and powerful physical strikes. On the other hand, Ventus takes a more balanced approach with regards to physical and magical attacks, with a larger focus on speed. Lastly, Aqua is in the middle of the guys in terms of speed, but she is easily the best at magic. Though the campaigns can be technically played in any order, it is most recommended that Terra goes first, followed be Ventus, leaving Aqua for last. This is because Terra's lack of defensive/evasive options makes him significantly less fun to play than the others. Furthermore, the plot seems written with this order in mind, as they seem to visit the various Disney worlds in this order.
One of the more clever things they did was have each character visit the same worlds as the other characters. However, they all visit the same world at different times. As a result, each world's plot, like the plot of the overall game, can only be fully completed by going through it with each character. Generally speaking, Terra tends to visit worlds first. As the dark-hero of the three, he often gets hoodwinked into working with/for the villain of a given world. Ventus tends to follow after him, helping to clean up the resulting mess. Aqua then shows up last to tie-up loose ends. Some worlds follow a slightly different pattern, but that order is true for most of them. This gives off a very natural sense of progression with each world's writing. And each scenario tends to more naturally tie into the themes of the main story and/or the friendship between the three leads, which fixes a major problem I had with Kingdom Hearts 2.
On top of that, when there will occasionally be scenes where multiple playable characters are present. However, the player will only witness the part of the scene that the character they are playing as saw. Meaning that even when re-watching a scene from a new character's point-of-view, there will be a new take on it, which is a very nice touch that can be easy to overlook. Each campaign is also only about 10 to 15 hours long, so combined the game will last about 30 to 45 hours for story completion, depending on what difficulty it is being played on. This is about the length of a typical Kingdom Hearts game, so the developers managed to avoid the common trap of allowing multiple campaigns to artificially lengthen the game. On top of that, the three characters develop separately, so what one does with one character will have no effect on the other two. Overall, the presentation is excellent, and the game is very well paced as a result of splitting up the plot between three heroes.

The game also plays very well. Despite originally being on the PSP, it feels like a full-fledged Kingdom Hearts title. As one would expect, fights occur in real-time. The big twist with Birth by Sleep is that skills and spells do not cost MP to perform. Due to the memory limitations of the PSP, the game utilized a Command Deck system. Players could set up to 8 commands in their deck to be used at will. After using a command, there is a cooldown period before it can be used again. New commands can be acquired as enemy drops and in treasure chests. Old commands can also be fused into new ones. This allows players to better customize their character's layout and skillset.
The other new addition is the Shotlock system. Along with the commands, each character can also equip one of many possible “Shotlocks”. Then can then use this command to lock-on many targets at once, and shoot a volley of projectiles at all of them. The player character is also invincible during a Shotlock's execution, so it has defensive purposes as well. Though many of the bonus bosses have moves to reduce their effectiveness, shotlocks are a mechanic I found frequent use for across my entire run of the game.

Now that that 2.5 HD ReMIX has placed it on the PS3, the game controls better than it ever has. Since a PS3 controller, unlike a PSP, actually has a right analog stick, direct control of the camera is now possible beyond simply locking-on to targets. Another addition to the controls is that the L2 and R2 buttons, which are again not present on a PSP, can be used as an alternative to the directional buttons for scrolling through commands, making it easier to scroll through the Command Deck while moving. Furthermore, all of the Final Mix content, like the Secret Episode unlocked after playing through all three campaigns and beating the Final Episode, is included as well. Along, with the Secret Episode, the addition of Critical Mode, the equivalent of Super Hard mode in other games, allows skilled players to replay the game with a new challenge.

The other well-known pieces of new bonus content are contained within the aspect of the game that was significantly worsened by the HD ReMIX. One of the biggest feature touted in the PSP release of Birth by Sleep was the Mirage Arena. In this location, players could join up with others, via Ad-Hoc connection, and either work together to complete arena missions, or compete against one another in combat or one of the minigames. The bonus bosses, Armor of the Master, Monstro, and No Heart, are additional co-op missions that were included in the Final Mix.
The PS3 version of Birth by Sleep: Final Mix made some changes to Mirage Arena. Because the designers wanted to divert more resources towards developing Kingdom Hearts 3, they opted to not even try to get online multiplayer working in the 2.5 ReMIX. In fact, there is no multiplayer included whatsoever. Mirage Arena is now a 100% Single Player experience. As a consumer who purchased the collection, along with a friend, partially in order to play Birth by Sleep online with other players, this came as a supreme disappointment. In fact, it pretty much erased any desire I had to fight the bonus bosses. I understand the reasoning behind the decision, but I cannot deny that what once felt like a major feature being reduced to an afterthought really hurts the game in a big way, especially since much of the game was structured around its presence.

Despite this glaring omission, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep HD Final Mix is a wonderful addition to the 2.5 ReMIX. Though I would recommend purchase of the 1.5 HD ReMIX first, Birth by Sleep does serve as a pretty good entry point for the franchise, as it takes place before any other game in the series. Along with Kingdom Hearts 2 Final Mix, and the ability to watch Re: Coded without actually having to play that terrible game, the $40 price tag is easily justified for series fans. The two collections combined contain every single game released in the franchise aside from Dream Drop Distance. As a result, they are a great way for people trying to play catch-up to get the most bang out of their buck.

No comments: