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Saturday, 11 October 2014

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

So, since in these past few months there's been a bit of talk here and elsewhere about how Square-Enix, or at least every part of it within dragging-down range of Tetsuya Nomura, seems to be dying a torturously slow death, I thought I should talk about one of their best selling IPs which has, like Final Fantasy XV, suffered the Duke Nukem Forever Treatment. 

Obviously, I'm talking about Kingdom Hearts, Square's wacky Final Fantasy-Disney crossover series in which a boy with a giant key travels through the lands of Disney films and hits shadow monsters a lot. Some Final Fantasy characters appear too. Sometimes.

Kingdom Hearts II came out nearly ten years ago now, and since then the only thing seen of Kingdom Hearts III are some vague promises and some obviously-not-even-alpha pieces of footage involving Chernabog and a rollercoaster. Unlike with Final Fantasy, there haven't even been any console sequels to explain the bizarre lack of response. It's just been a blank, null space filled only with some rather lacklustre spin-offs.

One such spin-off is Birth by Sleep, a prequel focusing on three Keybladers of the same Inevitably Evil Earth-Spiky Haired Wind-Ineffectually Obsessed With Friendship Water lineage as Riku, Sora and Kairi. Tasked by their stern master, Eraqus, with discovering the source of monsters called 'the Unversed' (or 'Unbirthed', either one), the three set out on different paths that will inevitably bring them into conflict with one another, and result in doom and death and hopelessness for all.

There is a direct correlation between friendship charms and misery.

You get to play as all three, with some very slight gameplay differences - and I do mean very slight. Terra, your muscular young earth keyblader, is slightly slower and stronger with a slightly higher defence, and can access slightly higher levels of fire and earth magic. Ventus, your Sora clone, is slightly faster and can access slightly higher levels of wind magic. Aqua, your earnest young water keyblader, is also slightly faster than Terra, has slightly better magic, and can access slightly higher levels of water and ice magic. That's really about it.

But, hey, variation between characters isn't everything, right? Kingdom Hearts II only had one playable character, and it was great. Well, actually, Kingdom Hearts II is part of what makes this so baffling. It rather expertly laid the framework for how you'd do a Kingdom Hearts with multiple playable characters, because Sora's various Drive forms each have an interesting, different way of fighting: Valor and Anti had frenetic, powerful strikes that would have been perfect for a wind based keyblader, while Wisdom had an amazingly fun glide-and-shoot mechanic where you could skim around the field firing energy bolts, which would have fit a magic-oriented water keyblader perfectly. That'd leave you with slow, powerful single keyblade strikes for an earth keyblader, and you'd have been all set.

Here, kid, have my powerful magical weapon. There's no risk, I'm sure.

The lack of variation would be less glaringly obvious if you weren't travelling through the exact same worlds as each character. The same worlds, with the same areas, with mostly the same enemies and, a lot of the time, with the same bosses. The reason for that, at least, is obvious: There are only so many worlds you can model and program in the time allowed, only so many voice actors you can hire on the funds you have, only so many different files you can fit on a game cartridge. I get that. I really do. In which case, make the game shorter. Have each world visited twice instead of three times. If funds allow and the stars align right, maybe use the time and cartridge space saved by that to add in another world - or not, if you can't. But so help me, if I have to go gliding through Neverland one more time, I will -

Actually, let's talk about Neverland. Once Upon A Time and Disney in general, come over here, I want you here for this. 

J.M. Barrie bequeathed the rights to Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital, an NHS children's hospital in London. When the copyright expired, the UK government granted GOSH perpetual right to royalties from the work: That includes any and all adaptations, sequels, pastiches, etc. It did this not for commercial gain - remember, this is a hospital - but because it was Barrie's sincere wish that GOSH and its patients should benefit from his work. These rights were also extended throughout the EU by a decision by the European Union.

But not for Disney. Specifically Disney, really: As a US company, they have made multiple legal disputes regarding the copyright status of Peter Pan in the US, saying that it's under public domain there. Which it is: The UK does not have the power to dictate to the US the copyright status of a book within the US. But, oh, the ethics of it: That a massive company might throw a tantrum over the legal status of a book in direct defiance of the author's explicit wishes, the decision of his home country, and the requirements of a hospital that tends to sick children. I'd like to say no other company in the US would do this, but who knows, Disney has a monopoly on it.

What I'm getting at is: Stop using Peter Pan, Disney. Stop milking it. That Square-Enix would go in for such a thing is stunning to me.

Where was I. Birth by Sleep. Total lack of variation.

Lack of variation.

(Dream Drop Distance, another spin-off released during this period, also has this exact same problem, just with two characters instead of three. The exact same problem. If I ever review that, I will copy and paste this section in and just edit 'three' into 'two', I kid you not, I will provide a link so that you can check.) 

I grew bored of this game very quickly. Quicker than I grew bored of Kingdom Hearts II, because that at least made an attempt at variation. In Birth by Sleep, you are performing the same tasks again, and again, and again. You will do everything at least three times. It will never be different. Which would be fine if it had a good storyline, but you know what?

It doesn't. Not really. I'm playing Bravely Default right now, which up to the point I'm at (not even the end of chapter three) has a very simple story. I'm hooked. I'm invested in the characters, I'm interested by the villains, and while the story of crystals being purified might not be the newest thing around, especially for a Final Fantasy-esque game, I'm invested in seeing it done. It's a well-written story. 

I couldn't even tell you what the story of Birth by Sleep is. Unversed are attacking. Meandering aimlessly through whatever Disney properties Nomura hasn't drained like a vampire yet. Ventus has an evil clone brother who taunts him. The letter X is evil. Giant heart moon. Who even knows: Everything is swamped in long, nonsensical ramblings that seem to only be there to provide gigantic gaps between the stretches of dull gameplay. 

You mean the bald man in black with yellow eyes is evil?
I'm shocked.

Can anyone tell me what's actually going on in Birth by Sleep? Anyone? Let's play a game, if anyone can give me a short (less than three hundred words) plot synopsis of Birth by Sleep or, even better, the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise, send me an e-mail at, and if I get enough and they're funny enough, I will make a post to compare them all. Maybe. 

Overall? A really poor game. What kind of name even is Birth by Sleep? Stop being pretentious, Nomura. Learn to write a plot that doesn't turn into a tangled skein of confusion and misery.

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