Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep will likely be new to many fans who purchase 2.5, as it was formerly exclusive to the PSP. And, while its portable-only origins might lead one to expect a simplified and more basic experience, that’s far from the case. In fact, Birth by Sleep may be the meatiest Kingdom Hearts game in some ways, and considering that it establishes a lot of new plot elements that have been called back to in more recent entries, it’s a game that series diehards shouldn’t ignore.
Taking place several years before the original Kingdom Hearts, Birth by Sleep is actually split into three campaigns, with its trio of protagonists, Aqua, Terra, and Ventus being the focus of each one. All three are training to be Keyblade warriors and help keep the peace, but things get more complicated for them when a nefarious force called the Unversed starts invading different worlds, and Xehanort, a senior Keyblade master, starts figuring into the conflict.
While players obviously won’t get the full story unless they play through all three campaigns, it’s worth it. Though the main trio visit the same levels, they all sport unique subplots and character encounters, which helps to avoid stagnation.
Battles generally control the same as the first two numbered games, but a major change comes in how magic and special moves are handled. Instead of depleting an MP gauge and having to refill it manually with items, each move has an individual loading period, and once used, players must briefly wait for the move to recharge before using it again. It’s a clever change that gets rid of the fear of using up the finite MP gauge in earlier games. Not only that, but moves can be leveled up through use, and then manually combined to create even more powerful attacks.
The large variety of moves and enemies does a great job of keeping combat fun through the lengthy experience, but if there’s a downside, I’d say it’s the Command Board, a feature exclusive to Birth by Sleep. It’s a rather dull board game-like mode that you can use as an alternative outside of battle to level up your moves, and possibly gain some new ones in the progress. I would say it should be skipped entirely, but it can also be an easy way to obtain hard-to-find commands.
Also, Birth by Sleep‘s handheld roots show not in its gameplay and scope, but even in some parts of its presentation. When converted to HD and compared to the main numbered titles, many of the environments and backgrounds can look a bit basic, with less varied lighting to boot. Thankfully, the character models and animations are more in line with what Kingdom Hearts fans expect.
Finally, we have a remastered compilation of cutscenes from Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, one of the less popular and essential spinoff games. Taking place after Kingdom Hearts II, the plot kicks off with Mickey digitizing the data written in Jiminy Cricket’s journal that chronicled the first game’s events, after discovering a mysterious new message in it and hoping to find the source. As a result, we don’t actually follow the real Sora, but a digital replica, as he attempts to get rid of the mysterious “bugs” that are infecting the data.
While I complained about Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days‘ similar compilation in the 1.5 collection both having horrible pacing and almost no Disney presence, this fares a bit better in some ways. Mickey and company play a much larger role, three of the original games’ levels are revisited, and for a spinoff title that honestly doesn’t play a gigantic role in the series’ mythology, there are some interesting moments. Still, there are several points where things slow to a crawl, and when the story reached a point that I felt would be a natural place to wrap up, a new plot thread abruptly appeared and I got another half-hour of mostly drawn-out cutscenes.
Worse yet is the presentation. Rather than render each scene in real-time, the cutscenes appear to be pre-rendered video files (at least, I’m guessing they are based on the lack of load times that appear in the other games), but anti-aliasing on characters and objects is nonexistent, ironically making everything look like an upscaled PS2 game. I also got the impression that, although there’s full English dialogue, Square Enix didn’t bother changing the mouth animations from the Japanese original, resulting in a lot of distracting moments where the lip sync doesn’t match what’s being said at all.
All in all, not only is Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX an overall improvement over the previous remastered collection, but at $40, it’s one of the best deals out there for fans of the series, especially those who have never played Kingdom Hearts II or Birth by Sleep (or, at least, not in ages). Those eager for an excuse to swing a Keyblade while waiting for Kingdom Hearts III will have a blast with the dozens of hours of great gameplay here. I know I did.
This review is based on the PlayStation 3 exclusive, which was provided to us.
Packing in tons of entertainment and two of the best entries in the series, Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 ReMIX is a must-own for fans and newcomers alike.