Sunday, August 19, 2018

Worldly Weekend: Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep (PSP)

And so along comes the second title in Kingdom Hearts' never-ending flood of side-games, this time on a console I have absolutely no interest in owning. As mentioned in an earlier review, I was only able to play Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep on a PSP lent by a buddy at college, and have since purchased the remaster contained within PS3's Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX. There are, I am certain, other good games on the system. Great games. Amazing games. But for the life of me, I cannot bring myself to care about it, and so I suspect this will be the one and only PSP review we'll see on here for some time. Perhaps my other Worldly Weekend retrospectives will eventually lead me to cross paths with Sony's handheld once more, but for now, I'm afraid you'll have to make do with this one article.

Regardless, I dub Birth by Sleep as a side-game with some mighty hesitation there, and that's for two reasons: a) Birth by Sleep is absolutely essential in comprehending the Kingdom Hearts story from here on out, and b) it's easily the series' best since Chain of Memories; actually, that probably remains the case. Not that it doesn't fumble in that typical Kingdom Hearts manner -- that, and while I hate to keep dragging the PSP, I heavily question its existence on the platform -- but we'll get to those problems when they come. For now, let's get into the good stuff.

Birth by Sleep, for the uninitiated, is a prequel set ten years before the original Kingdom Hearts, featuring three youths training in the ways of the Keyblade: Terra, Aqua, and Ven. The game follows each of the three's stories through their own respective campaigns, all with their respective strengths and weaknesses: Terra's the big brute emphasizing power, Ven is lithe and nimble, and Aqua's the magical acrobat. While all three scenarios involve the same world paths and whatnot, it's their respective gameplay traits that render each playthrough fresh -- while much of that can be owed to their physicality, there's also the Command Deck to thank: much like Chain of Memories, you customize your characters with whatever attacks and abilities you see fit, be it magical mine fields or spewing poison. Taking Terra's prowess into consideration, for instance, you may consider avoiding offensive spells, but instead imbuing magic via physical attacks in Dashes and Strikes.

There are many who hail the Final Mix edition of Kingdom Hearts II as the finest of Kingdom Hearts combat -- and perhaps they're correct -- but I find myself preferring Birth by Sleep's system. While it's true past Kingdom Hearts utilized customization, I'm rather fond of how your customized decks feed into the Command Style -- for instance, unleash enough Fire attacks, and your Keyblade will engulf itself in flames thanks to Firestorm; from there, you can tap into other Command Styles, such as elongated energy blades in Bladecharge or spawn spinning twisters in Cyclone. Some consider this process game-breaking -- particularly in regards to the Surge commands, which are cheap -- but with each character possessing unique Command Styles, all three protagonists appropriately sustain an organic leveling growth that I find compelling to build.

Moreover, I find myself drawn to Birth by Sleep's return to cutthroat boss duels as opposed to Kingdom Hearts II's swarms of Heartless armies and whatnot. Yes, crowd-clearing tools via Shotlock FPS maneuvers and overpowered Command Styles is great fun, but it's these tense stand-offs I especially relish: having played through the game twice on Proud Mode, pattern reads and attack timing are life-and-death matters, with one mistimed Surge or Raid attack potentially spelling doom for your character. It's here the D-Link System -- wherein "links" with other characters can unlock a set list of commands/Finish Commands -- can act as an optional lifeline with their exclusive supports, and even those require crucial timing in utilization, for they run on a timer. 

While the game's host of Disney worlds remain distractedly empty, it wouldn't do to expect a handheld game to fix this -- and yet, while it goes without saying it's a significant improvement over the mediocrity that was 358/2 Days, I found myself enjoying actual traversal over Kingdom Hearts II and perhaps even the original. Not nearly as featured but possessing none of its clunkiness, Birth by Sleep is mindful of its handheld identity in both world navigation and presentation, be it ease of movement or reverting the camera behind our protagonists (as opposed to Kingdom Hearts II's wider perspective). The Peter Pan, Lilo and Stitch, and Cinderella scenarios are especially interesting in how they mine from the original films -- while I confess my affinity for Peter Pan renders Neverland my favorite, Cinderella's a particular stunner in how the original source material was relatively sparse in physical conflict, and so creativity ensues -- for instance, a Cinderella adaption simply won't do without those squeaky mice and Lucifer the cat, so why not have Ven be subject to Disney magic and shrink in size? Aqua also engages in similar antics, but Ven's scenario is the star, with him rolling on yarn balls and squishing Unversed, sneaking through mouse holes and engaging in a climatic fight with Lucifer all for the sake of finishing Cinderella's dress. I'm also never not stunned at how the Lilo and Stitch scenario mines three unique narratives out of the movie's first ten minutes (albeit with some help from the DTV sequels).

(If I must elaborate on one detail from Peter Pan, however, let us reflect on the ingenious way Square-Enix handled the ever-controversial Indian tribe; which is to say, they left the entire Indian campground deserted in typical Kingdom Hearts fashion and only left it host for a surprise boss fight. Oh, those mooks!)

Enough charm to counterbalance the story's purpose as a tragedy, you understand. Much like how the maligned Star Wars prequel trilogy must elaborate on how most of its key players end up dead, evil or secluded, our Keyblade apprentices are inevitably subject to absence, be it through hubris (Terra, who hungers for power), naivete (Ven, who follows Terra in spite of his bad choices) and even following one's moral compass (Aqua, left to clean up after her friends' messes), all dancing to the puppet strings of one power-hungry man. Knowing that a supposed spin-off was decided to introduce the series main villain in Master Xehanort speaks to Kingdom Hearts' sloppiness, but again, it's how he's executed here that matters, especially factoring in the depths of his sinister plans coupled with Leonard Nimoy's vocals: yes, the villains involved may ultimately be vanquished, but everyone still loses. While there are certainly other narrative-driven games that enforce similar themes, I can hardly think of a Disney-related one that's this grim.

This is not to say every scenario is a success: Disney Town is perhaps being the only stinker, each scenario being largely insipid, childish drivel ending with patented Afterschool Special lessons and even retconning Pete's "banishment" for the dumbest reason ever (not to mention it probably hosts Kingdom Hearts' largest violation in suspension of disbelief: exactly how are Louie, Dewey, and Huey still the same size and age ten years prior?). Other scenarios fail within their respective selves: Aqua's visit to Snow White, for instance, reeks of the developers not having any idea how to properly conclude the world other than jamming the movie's end into it (namely in how it reuses the same exact boss battle from Terra's scenario, clever as it is).

There are other imperfections -- the time tables between all three characters don't always match up (particularly the beginning, and while I commend the developers for wanting players to get out the door quickly -- a philosophy perhaps birthed by complaints to Kingdom Hearts II's three-hour prologue, and one further paved along in future entries -- it sets up the stakes a little too quickly for my tastes), and while Terra's interaction with various Disney villains is sensible given his thematic purpose, that's hardly an excuse for him to be this gullible. Sadly, that alongside his poor voicework renders him the weakest of the trio, but Ventus's infectious optimism and Aqua's resolute ethics are enough to carry the story. True to Kingdom Hearts fashion, they are not necessarily deep characters, but they are certainly one prone to affection, and that is certainly all that we need in a tragic fable such as this.

A fable helped along by the score, and I think it is no false claim to state this is the best the series' music has ever been since the original. Series composer Yoko Shimomura is joined by newcomers Tsuyoshi Sekito and Takeharu Ishimoto -- hardly new musicians in themselves, but would join Shimomura in any and all future efforts -- hammer out winner after winner, masterfully echoing the game's delicate balance of light-hearted Disney fantasy and melancholic fluidity. There is no better example than The Worlds map theme -- the provided hypnosis is nebulous and airy, but it evokes something far more ominous than what the innocuous A Twinkle in the Sky provided for Sora's adventures: while not necessarily gloomy, the moody piano's enough to signal fun times aren't always ahead.

If I must point to any element as being the series' strongest, it surely lies within the event themes. Whereas the previous games achieved success in character themes (Roxas's Theme, Namine's Theme) and miscellaneous emotional tunes (Friends in My Heart, Missing You), not everything was strong across the board (the original game's only musical flaw were several instance of short, repetitive "danger" tracks, for instance) --  here, every last song perfectly conveys Birth by Sleep's themes, be they longing, destiny and lost friendship: Terra's Theme is the honest valor he aspires to achieve, Shaded Truths is a heart-pumping dark conspiracy, Tears of the Light is genuine despair, and Destiny's Union is a heartfelt finale. Just like Xion's themes in 358/2 Days, the music's what maintains the semblance of a functioning story.

Of course, we can't forget that jovial pleasantness whenever it rears its head, and what better area to analyze than the Disney world themes? While many hail the Sleeping Beauty themes as the game's pinnacle -- and make no mistake, they are great -- I hold the innate Shimomura whimsy in Peter Pan and Lilo and Stitch in higher regard. They are what ultimately channel our Disney nostalgia, be it the  mischievous waltzes and ballads of Daydream upon Neverland and Neverland's Scherzo or the instant dreamy reveries that are Hau'oli, Hau'oli and Makaukau?. While I'm quick to recognize the Peter Pan songs as the superior of the two, Hau'oli, Hau'oli is perhaps my favorite not merely for echoing Super Mario RPG in its concluding xylophones, but for its utterly scrumptious blend of pianos and techno effects composing a world of gentle sci-fi never before heard in Kingdom Hearts (a theme complemented in the battle theme Makaukau?, but I prefer the light-hearted playfulness to Makukau's trance).

While Shimomura does the heavy lifting, however, that doesn't mean that Sekito and Ishimoto's efforts should be dismissed -- Takeharu Ishimoto handled the aforementioned Shaded Truths alongside the tremendous Black Powder, which functions as both a thrilling boss tune and a cinematic battle setpiece. As for Sekito, his orchestral majesties in Radiant Garden/Black Garden reflect the halcyon days of Hollow Bastion, the latter being a particularly enthralling march surpassing Kingdom Hearts II's iteration on the motif. (And much as I ragged on Disney Town earlier, I was surprised to learn they handled much of the mini-game music for that, as they totally mimic Shimomura's style to a T.)

Meanwhile, the voice acting continues the typical Kingdom Hearts performance streak: most are solid, a few are standouts, and there's a misfire here and there. With the Peter Pan/princess worlds being are what they are with recasts and the more modern scenarios (Lilo & Stitch, Hercules) attracting most of the original cast, it's imperative focus on the original least, until two imperative subjects are out the way: a) It's an absolute treasure to hear Alan Young in his one and only Kingdom Hearts appearance as Scrooge McDuck, and b) This is the first time Bret Iwan played Mickey following Wayne Allwine's death, and with circumstances being what they were, I wish not to judge him too harshly, but it simply comes across as someone performing as a falsetto as opposed to actually being Mickey. (And alas, it'll be some time before he fully integrates into the role.)

Anyway, moving on to the main cast: Mark Hamill's Master Eraqus and Leonard Nimoy's Master Xehanort naturally headline the game, with the latter's gravelly malevolence being the showstopper (rendering his performance all the more tragic in that he, alongside Japanese seiyuu Chikao Otsuka, didn't live long enough to witness his character's conclusion next year). Haley Joel Osment's Sora is largely absent, but he gets to successfully flex his villainous muscles in Vanitas, Xehanort's mysterious subordinate who functions as Ventus's sinister foil. And speaking of Ventus, his being Roxas's doppelganger means Jesse McCartney continues to defy any and all notions of stunt casting; Lance Bass's Sephiroth, he is not.

As for the negatives, many harp on Willa Holland's Aqua, but I've never been particularly bothered by it: she comes across as subdued, yes, but it's not as if she's not a more reserved, tempered character, and she's more than able to raise the emotional stakes when it matters. On the other hand, you have Jason Dohring's Terra, whose pervasive flat reading is far more damaging than any narrative missteps. It's difficult to parse what the localization team wants to convey through Dohring's performance: is he an apathetic warrior blind to his poor choices, or an arrogant youth who's lost his way?

Regardless, there is plenty else I enjoy: the Command Board, the optional board game utilizing various world motifs and involves some surprising strategy and depth; the Mirage Arena, featuring addictive missions involving bosses, consecutive enemy hordes, mini-games, and prizes (not to mention it's the only area featuring exclusive use of the characters' criminally unused, super cool Keyblade Armor); the Sticker Album, a seemingly pointless feature that grants rewards upon proper placement. With all three campaigns approaching these in individualized ways, there's a wealth of content to enjoy that hardly wears on the senses.

...and yet, I find myself wanting more, and that leads me to my ultimate question: should this really have been on PSP? Yes, it's easy to guess why Birth by Sleep was released there rather than PS3 -- the handheld was simply making more money at the time -- but much as I hate contributing to the whole "home consoles are superior" shtick, everything from Master Xehanort to the fates of our three heroes is simply far too important to market as a side entry on a handheld. We could, perhaps, make the argument its rotation between three characters is something far more digestible on the pick and play handheld -- each character's world scenario is bite-sized as it is, and I imagine that aforementioned weariness would be present on a console edition -- but let's put it this way: is this game Kingdom Hearts III? No, but Birth by Sleep is every bit as important as Kingdom Hearts III, and it falling to the stigma of handheld spin-offs grants it nothing but a massive disservice.

This is hardly enough to diminish my enjoyment of Birth by Sleep; if anything, that I demand more speaks to the success of its design, and I shan't dismiss it for circumstances beyond its control. And yet, it's said circumstances that prevent it from being as good as it could be, be it Tetsuya Nomura's flaky whims or Square-Enix chasing the dollar, and I consider that far more tragic than Disney anime people falling to darkness. While perhaps there's nothing truer to the stumbling identity of Kingdom Hearts -- it certainly won't be the last time this happens -- let us cherish the gem emerging from it all.

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