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My Top 100's Lost but Not Forgotten: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

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I mentioned this in my Chain of Memories entry for my Top 100 List, but Kingdom Hearts and I have a really awkward history with each other. This is a franchise that has always been more of a guilty pleasure for me than something I actively love. Funny enough, itís not even the basic premise that bothers me. While Final Fantasy meets Disney mash-up sounds contrived, KH has always managed to make it work since this has always been a series about hitting those nostalgia buttons hard for me. I may bitch to high heavens about KH1ís awful camera and platforming sections, but I still get as giddy as a schoolboy when Iím exploring Agrabah with Aladdin, or visiting Halloween Town to beat down Oogie Boogie. So the cutesy nature of the franchise has never bothered me and I honestly find it really endearing, assuming I have some nostalgia love for the worlds I visit. My major gripes have always been a two-fold issue of the series gameplay and story always undermining a lot of the entries. Which is why itís interesting for me to be discussing Birth by Sleep, because in a lot of ways, I feel BbS embodies everything I love and hate about the series in one fell swoop. I sometimes worry when I do these blog entries that I may have been too hasty with my Top 100 List and forgot a real gem. Thatís at least how I felt about Demonís Souls, but having replayed BbS recently, I feel a bit vindicated for leaving it off the list. Thatís not to say itís a bad game, but rather it has enough nagging issues for me to make it difficult to justify here.
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BbS is set about ten years prior to KH1 and follows the story of three keyblade wielders who all dream of becoming Keyblade Masters. Terra suffers a bit of an inferiority complex that he tries to hide behind a shaky sense of bravado and thirst for power. Aqua is the most level headed of the three but has a difficult time balancing her feelings versus her sense of duty. Ventus is the youngest and most naÔve of the three who has a bit of a mysterious past that only got more complicated with Union X, as well as an older idol brother complex with Terra. The game begins with Master Xehanort delivering a dying Ventus to Destiny Island to live out his final moments. Ventus undergoes the Dive to the Heart sequence where he speaks to a new heart that helps Ven fill the void of his missing heart. As Master Xehanort begins to leave, he sees Ventus summon his keyblade.

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Years later, we find that Ventus is living with Master Erauqs along with his new masterís two apprentices, Aqua and Terra. The three have grown close since the days Master Xehanort brought the comatose Ven to the Lands of Departure. The trio all dream of becoming Keyblade Masters and the game begins the night before the Mark of Mastery Exam. Here, the player has the option to choose which of the three they will play as. The following day the exam takes place, and to mark this occasion, Master Erauqs has invited his old but estranged friend Master Xehanort to witness the test and help past judgment. Xehanort manipulates the exam a bit to witness all three of the characters abilities. During the final duel, Terra begins to lose heart as Aqua fights him back and he summons a bit of darkness before suppressing it, which catches Xehanortís interest. At the end, Aqua is granted the rights of being a Master, while Terra fails. From here, the gameís plot slightly diverges depending on which of the three youíre playing as. Terra is distraught about failing, but Xehanort comforts him and tells Terra that just because he summoned some darkness, doesnít make him less worthy of the title of master, of anything, his old friend Master Erauqs is simply too bias from his purist mindset against darkness to not see that. Terra and Aqua learn of a new scourge afflicting the worlds called the Unversed a well as Master Xehanortís disappearance. Master Erauqs tasks the two with investigating the new threat. Terra is the most gung-ho after Master Erauqs proposes that this could be a second attempt for him to become a Master himself. Meanwhile, Ventus is feeling bad for Terra but meets a mysterious masked boy who tells Ventus that the Terra he knows will soon be gone. Worried, Ventus goes to see Terra, but not knowing about the Unversed issue, Ven is shocked to find Terra leaving their world in a hurry. He blindly goes after him which forces Master Erauqs to task Aqua with trying to bring Ven home, though he also secretly tasks her with observing Terra to see if the darkness is actually taking hold of him as he fears.

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From this point, the Disney Worlds open up, and we witness an amusing formula that plays out for all three characters. Terra usually shows up on the world first and usually gets mixed up with the villains and causes problems in the world. Ventus usually comes to the world second and has an adventure with one of the comic relief characters of that world that sometimes exasperates the conflict as well, though usually unaware of his part in it. While Aqua always seems to appear last and ends up cleaning up the mess the other two causes, usually with the aid of whichever character represents law and order in that particular worldís setting. Terraís story follows a theme about accepting who he is, weaknesses and all, and being manipulated by Master Xehanort for his dark purposes. Venís story follows a theme of achieving ones dream but then begins to change into one about friendship and self-discovery that leads him to a very dark place for a game that has Mickey Mouse and the Fairy Godmother in it. Aqua also follows a theme of friendship and learning to trust people. As a prequel story featuring new characters no one had ever heard of until this point in the franchise, itís obvious to say that BbSís story does not end well for any of the characters involved.

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Yet BbS has at its core a very powerful and emotional story. It can be tough to really see this only playing through one characterís story, but as you make your way through all three journeys and unlock the final chapter; youíll really grow to feel for these characters. The Final Chapter, unlocked by finishing all three character chapters and obtaining all of Xehanortís secret reports is especially grueling, but has quite a few nice callbacks to earlier games including Chain of Memories that Iím sure no one was expecting. The three main characters are likable though the fans tend to blow out of proportion some of their faults. Terra really only gets duped maybe twice in the entire game by a Disney villain, while Venís only real gullible moment comes at the beginning from Vanitas; and yet the game establishes that Vanitas and Ventus have a bond that goes beyond words that makes the contrived nature of the plot work a bit better. Aqua is the standout of the three due to not really feeling like an expy of another character and for also being a strong female character in a series that is terrible with under performing female characters. On the other hand though, I do also feel that Aquaís situation as a strong female character that stays relevant beyond her initial game has birthed a disproportionate love of her that is in stark contrast to how engaging she really is. I donít think Iíd rank her that high if I was ranking strong and awesome female characters in gaming as she can be rather dull in places, but compared to the few choices in KH, sheís a welcomed outlier for sure within her own series. Part of the issue here may also be the VA work and dialogue. Of the three main characters, Jesse McCartney performs the best since heís the veteran of the trio, but he also has a hard time really working out some of the gameís cringy dialogue. Contrast this to Mark Hamillís Master Erauqs or Leonard Nimoyís Xehanort, who both really steal the scene whenever there characters show up. Hell, Haley Joel Osment delivers a pretty stand out performance as Vanitas and I honestly hope he gets a chance to play villains more often in the future because I feel you can tell he had a blast doing it. These three pretty much show off their acting chops by really showing how good acting can save even the direst of shlock writing.

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This kind of brings me to the plot. In broad strokes, BbS has a pretty solid and somber story going for it about the breakdown of a group of friends who find themselves manipulated and dragged into darker and more surreal circumstances than they were trained for. Yet the devil is in the details and when you start to really take closer looks here is where the story starts to feel more narm than charm. KH fans often joke about the series overuse of its key terms like hearts, darkness, and light; but BbS is really where I feel this conceit within the writing truly begins to run thin. Part of why Jesse McCartneyís performance feels underwhelming here probably lies solely on the fact that Ventus, like Sora, tends to drop all those stock phrases about light and hearts into every conversation. Unlike his character Roxas who oddly stays clear of these issues in the games he appears in outside of the whole Nobody nonsense, so he sounds like a real human being whereas Ventus sounds like a tool to convey the series message. The dialogue in this game can be really rough and difficult to take serious. While the core story of the trios friendship is a pretty good one and the real tragic endings for each character leaves a powerful mark, I canít help but feel the villains plan and motives just feel off. One of my biggest issues with the franchise is how it keeps changing the goal line. The nature of Kingdom Hearts keeps changing and the rules for finding it get even more contrived as the series sputters on. BbS introduces a third method to ďobtain/reachĒ Kingdom Hearts and this one comes with the silly notion of the χ-blade and the conflict of forging one that sits at the heart of Venís plotline. While I like the dynamic of Ven and Vanitas, it also raises too many questions for me. Iím also just annoyed we now have a third method to get to the true Kingdom Hearts, and even more annoyed when 3D retcons how the χ-blade needs to be forged despite appearing in this game before Venís sacrifice destroys it. That becomes a major issue of the gameís writing is how later entries kind of make a lot of things that happen in this game meaningless in both just changing the rules arbitrarily or simply making a downer ending into an even more downer ending by relegating everything the characters do as meaningless. While the main plot can be hokey, itís the series inconsistent planning on the overall story that ultimately hurts this game in hindsight.

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On the gameplay side of things, BbS is a title filled with good ideas that seem marred by a combination of technology limitations, and the series usual inconsistency for difficulty. I honestly love all of the gameplay elements of this game, and thatís what largely saves this game from other KH titles, but my issue stems from these systems never performing as well as I would like them to. While I have a lot of issues with KHII, I can at least agree with the fans of its combat that KHII plays incredibly smoothly. It was a bit jarring coming off of KHII Final Mix and jumping into BbS Final Mix and feel how wonky the characters control. While Iím not as bothered by this as the games detractors are, I do feel that elements like the Command Styles could have had more variety and flow to their move sets had BbS remained a PS2 title instead of being switched over to the inferior PSP. Same deal with the Command Deck, which is a great idea and fun to customize your characters, but there is a real sense of disconnect with all of the game mechanics. The core fighting feels basic, the Command Styles are powerful but feel self-contained, and the Command Deck feel like their own thing. There is little synergy between the systems and in that way, the game feels closer to KH1 where basic combat, magic, and special moves never felt like they worked together well. It gets annoying how I would try to combo these elements together only for them to kind of buckle under each other. I blame the hardware more than anything as I felt the mechanics were all too intricate for the PSP to handle, but part of me feels had this game been built for PS2, as originally intended, these mechanics may have had a better flow to them. I still like all the system as Style Command kept battles feeling electric, and the Command deck offered deep customization. Of anything, I have to give the devs props for making all three characters play differently enough to be noticeable. Aqua as a squishy mage has a hell of a time in the early game, but by endgame sheís can wipe out hordes of Unversed in a heartbeat. Terra is more slow and powerful, with a skill set tailored for boss encounters, while Ventus strikes a fair balance as a speed based character who can switch back and forth between crowd control and dueling on the fly. Their unique Command Styles are also just fun to witness as well. Shotlocks are also a neat idea that tends to get underplayed in the main campaign but at least sees a lot of use in the Mirage Arena where the tough as nail bosses can be trivialized by them. The D-Links are an interesting way to handle summons, which I appreciate, though I can agree with most players that its execution leads much to be desired. They are super useful in the early game, and the Mickey D-Link is super useful for leveling for the optional challenges, but the system feels underwhelming considering all the other options you have.
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I feel the biggest problem with BbSís combat is how inconsistent the difficulty is. The main campaign is insultingly easy, while the optional content is difficult due to its obtuse nature. The main game difficulty doesnít feel quite as brain dead as KHIIís combat gets, but it really doesnít take long before your character gets their hands on some room clearing commands. Part of the issue is the low enemy count of areas, which again, being made on a stronger system could have rectified; but also just how overpowered everything feels in this game even on higher difficulty modes. I wish the enemy types had more options to stop you, such as the Balloon type Unversed who only take real damage from being struck from behind, or some of the teleporting or flying enemies that make locking on or using combos ineffective. I donít think this bothered me as much the first time through the game since I felt it was narratively justified in how we were finally playing as trained users instead of watching Sora derp his way through the games. Yet it canít really stop making victories in this game feel a bit hollow. This gets exacerbated with the optional combat. KH has always seemed to have this issue of creating optional bosses that require a different play style than the one the main game allows you to use which can be really annoying. It wasnít even until this last playthrough that I learned the Imprisoned Unversed in the Mirage Arena can be stun locked if you use Firaga on them. Likewise, bosses like Vanitas Remnant completely wreck Terraís play style while Ven has the biggest advantage against him. The Unknown is notorious for being so bulltrout in his A.I. and hit detection that the least frustrating way to beat him involves exploiting the invincibility frames found in two Command abilities. I havenít even tackled the two new bosses added in the Final Mix version, but I can already tell they are equally bulltrout in their own ways from just watching videos of them.

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As for the other side content, I enjoy the Command Board mini-game. Itís a slow in some ways but I like the variety of elements they give with each board having their own gimmick and some of the AI elements involved. The racing mini-game is also fairly decent. I could live without the Fruitball or Ice cream rhythm mini-games though. The Mirage Arena itself is interesting but feels too disconnected from the rest of the game for my taste. I also donít appreciate having to play through so many of the other mini-games multiple times to complete it. Did we really need to have to make the command board and rumble race part of the deal? Not to mention that the prices for getting all of the stuff in there is steep. The whole thing just feels like an exercise in time killing as opposed to a real challenge, and itís a shame so many good items and a few superbosses are stuck behind this thing.
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As for the world selection and level design, BbS does a fairly good job in this department. I know some fans werenít excited to go through the Fairy Tale Disney worlds but I feel BbS delivered in these sections the best with all three characters having really distinct paths to explore in each world. I was also happy to see Lilo and Stitch get some love and despite having a strong dislike for Peter Pan, BbS has my favorite incarnation of the setting within the series. While the original worlds donít get as much love as I would have liked, I enjoy the aesthetics of the Land of Departure and Keyblade Graveyard. The real treat was Radiant Garden and being able to explore this setting before the fall. About the only world besides the Mirage Arena I wish had been dropped for something else would likely be Hercules world, which just never felt like it added anything besides fanfic fuel for the FF character subplot for Cloud X Sephiroth that never went anywhere. I really feel the missed opportunity here would have been to have Sword in the Stone. Especially considering the crippling insecurity of the main trio would have been a perfect fit for the setting. I commend the devs for constructing the worlds with enough differences to make them feel unique for each character, but I do feel the nature of the game still causes a bit of burnout after a while. Perhaps this could have been remedied by only having a few of the worlds visited by each character and letting some of the characters visit a unique world or two. Again, not likely on the PSP, but Iím still impressed with what we got here.

Iím sure most of this article may give off the impression I hated this game, but I honestly still had a lot of fun playing through it, I just feel it has too many flaws to simply be ignored for what I feel it does right. Of all the KH games, I feel this game and 358/2 are the most deserving of having a proper full remake because the ideas were sound, the tech just didnít feel like it was there for the gameplay front. The story has its cringy moments, but the characters and their struggles shine through despite the silly dialogue and crazy silver age comic book plot. I feel the fact the game can still be so endearing to me despite all the problems is kind of a testament to how good the game is.

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  1. Fynn's Avatar
    BbS is definitely one of the strongest entries in the series and I agree with a lot of what you said. I really loved the command deck Iím quite happy that it got more attention both with 3D and re:coded. And I do appreciate that it is by far the bleakest entry in the series.