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A Solid Core Riddled with Crippling Flaws
Birth By Sleep has some great concepts and an intriguing story that are both unfortunately rendered nearly unplayable by several glaring flaws. Let's get those flaws out of the way first:

Fake Difficulty: My biggest gripe with the game. The bosses of this game shouldn't be that hard; they all have fairly straightforward mechanics that any player can figure out after two or three trials. Unfortunately, the designers seemed to think that it would be fun if characters died in 2-3 hits. Aqua was my first character, and she literally randomly died in a time frame of less than 2 seconds on every boss fight; a lot of this damage is unavoidable, given the fact that bosses tend to be so big that you can't fully see them even when you have them targeted. You can block attacks with square- except when you arbitrarily can't, something you figure out only with trial and error. Even the blockable attacks can feel impossible to block due to the lag; you press square and you still die because your shield didn't activate yet. Bosses are extremely frustrating when in all honesty, they'd be average on a console. Even the average mook can and will kill you in 2 hits, and with Cure on a long cooldown, be prepared to die often.

Loading Times: Frankly, the PSP is a bad system. Even with all data downloaded, it still takes a few seconds to load while you activate a Finisher mode. This completely kills any fluidity in a fight.

The Command Board: To be honest, this idea is completely silly and out of place. It's a Monopoly style game that you use to level up your commands and get new commands. It's not mandatory, but it does net you some nice commands to use. Unfortunately, it's time consuming and completely out of place with the rest of the game.

Despite these flaws, Birth By Sleep is a solid game. The Command Deck is an interesting way of getting and building your abilities, and the three parallel stories are a new and refreshing narrative. The story is just as deep as other Kingdom Hearts games, and it's nice finally getting to visit some previously unseen worlds, such as Snow White, Cinderella, Lilo and Stitch, and Sleeping Beauty. Unfortunately, these features won't make you feel better when you snap your PSP in half in frustration after your 30th death.

All in all, it's a great game overshadowed by a few crippling flaws that ruin the experience.
  # comments: 10
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A Mix of the Divine and the Base
Story and Characters

This game is definitely a story-driven rather than character-driven piece, unfortunately to a degree that is detrimental to the overall story. Characterization is rushed through or ignored in favor of pushing the pace, and character development is similarly rushed or nonexistent. A player may have difficulty learning who the characters are, let alone caring about their fates.

The story, however, is surprisingly straightforward for a series with as much Kudzu Plot as Kingdom Hearts. Very little in the way of new questions are raised compared to how many are answered or given implied answers, a relief to many who feared the game would complicate an already over-complicated 'verse.

Gameplay

Gameplay is where this game really shines. Interchangeable and numerous commands insure you can customize to your playstyle. The action is quick-paced, challenging, and fun. Bosses require both strategy and quick thinking and reactions to beat. Simple hack-and-slash gameplay is sometimes broken up by Escort Missions, scavenger hunts, or platforming elements.

The Command Board minigame is decently executed and has benefits that extend to the main game, replacing grinding to a degree. However, the Disney Town minigames are uninspired and uninteresting.

Level design is very good. Although this game does not match the interactivity and platforming of the first game, it comes closer than 2 and CoM. Levels are fun and encourage full exploration.

Value

While this game is gorgeous to look at and fun to play it does suffer from one other flaw. The levels are well-designed, but sadly are mostly re-used between the three characters' scenarios. With a few exceptions, all characters will play on the same maps. Additionally, much of the story for each character is learned by playing through Ven or Terra's story. This means that, unless you played as Aqua first, after the first playthrough very little of what you encounter will be new in any sense.

This reduces what should be ~45 hours of new experience to closer to ~20-25 hours. One has to wonder what the developers thought justified the full price tag for this game, given the amount of reuse. Depending on what you look for in an RPG, you may want to consider buying this one used.
  # comments: 9
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Level design and combat system make the game
Although I personally like the original Kingdom Hearts the best, I think it's good that Square-Enix is trying different things with each game. The battle system has gone through slight changes from game to game, such as having magic refill upon depletion (KH2), be treated as finite items (358/2 Days), or use a World Of Warcraft-esque cooldown system (Birth by Sleep).

The level design has also changed from game to game. I still think the first game did it best, with levels that had a good amount of platforming, and a lot of hidden out-of-the-way items that have to be searched for, and sometimes can't be reached until you return later with new abilities such as jumping higher or gliding. KH2 tossed just about all of that.

After 358/2 Days heavily emphasized the platforming and hidden items, even rearranging things with each mission, Birth by Sleep is somewhere between the first two games in terms of level design. But it's handled a little unusually.

Which character you choose determines which part of each level you visit. Terra's levels are by far the most linear, and I was very disappointed with them, as well as his lower-than-expected level of interaction with the Disney characters who are a large part of what makes Kingdom Hearts so charming.

But Ven and Aqua visit totally different parts of the levels, which tend to be more platforming oriented, and they also end up performing more diverse tasks, and meeting more Disney characters. When Ven visits Cinderella's world, for example, he is tasked with finding 5 things needed to make a dress, which turns out to be a fun exploration and platforming challenge that added a nice change of pace. Terra has nothing of the sort occur in his quest.

Breaking up the levels so each character experiences it a different way means that the levels don't feel as big as in KH1, even though they probably are. Rather, Terra visits the queen's castle in the Snow White world, but can't enter the dwarven mines, and vice versa for Ven. While this means that you get to see new areas with each character, it means the experience is divided. It also means each character's story feels short.

But I appreciate the experimentation Square-Enix is doing, and overall, I enjoy this game a lot.
  # comments: 17
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