After how rubbish previous Kingdom Hearts spinoff games have proven to be over the years, it probably seemed a safe assumption that Birth by Sleep would end up the same way. Well, the old adage about assuming has never rang more true than it does here, as Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep turns out to be actually quite excellent, trumping all other spinoffs and actually in some ways bettering main title Kingdom Hearts 2.
Taking the unusual approach of giving you the option from the start of playing through the story as one of three different characters whose individual tales intertwine and run concurrent to each other, but at it's core, the game is a prequel to KH1, taking place years before and centred around 'main' character Ventus, a dead ringer for central KH2 figure Roxas who lives on a world called "Land of Departure" with his two best friends Terra and Aqua, and all three are Keyblade wielders who become embroiled in a plot by the slimy Master Xehanort(Same name, but appears a different character from the bad guy in KH2) to manipulate both Terra and Ventus into seperate plots that are part of some sinister scheme that only unfolds fully when you play through all three character stories. To say more would spoil it, but at it's heart, the story returns to the basics of KH1 with a story of friendship and bonds overcoming all while providing some really enjoyable groundwork laying for the two main KH games in some clever(If convoluted at times) ways. What BBS does right where games like 358/2 Days went wrong is that it manages to balance it's central character work with the Disney angle perfectly, as the stories of Cinderella, Snow White, Peter Pan, etc are retrodden in a pretty decent manner, incorporating Ventus and co into their tales and tying them into the main story nicely and also providing some really amusing little in jokes that work well if you're a long time KH fan(eg. the Hercules story has Hercules as a weedy kid who teams up with Ventus and Zack from Final Fantasy VII against Hades, contrasting Hercules later being a muscular hero in KH1 who teams with Cloud from FFVII, etc) and also has some genuinely touching little plot points in there that had their groundwork laid in last year's DS title 358/2 days, like scenes where younger, human versions of the members of bad guys Organisation XIII appear, in particular the scenes centred on Axel. It's a great story that mostly foregoes the stupidly complex plot twists that have ruined most of the KH titles but doesn't dodge them completely.
Gameplay is identical to KH2, but with several tweaks and additions that make it a lot more quickly paced to play than any KH title before it, with the addition of the "command" based combat system allowing you to wield some hefty battlefield clearing powers that are visually spectacular and give a great sense of power when fighting against hordes of enemies at once. The combat system is really superb, which is just as well, as the game is about 70-80 percent combat based, so if that isn't your thing, don't bother here. Like KH2 there is little in the way of platforming or exploration on offer here, and the combat can get repetitive if you don't take to it I can imagine, but as a whole this is good stuff and is likely the longest KH title to date as well(Took me close to 40 hours to run through the entire game). There is also an arena based multiplayer mode that allows you to team up with other players to tackle increasingly larger and more difficult waves of enemies to earn rare prizes and bonuses for your main game which seemed to work very well, but isn't something I could see myself spending much time on in future.
Graphically, this game is a stunner. With visuals that are very very close to being on par with Kingdom Hearts 2 on PS2, with only the scale of the larger enemies being significantly downsized. It looks just incredible, but there are some minor drawbacks like an iffy framerate throughout that can thankfully be stabilised completely by switching on the optional full 333mhz mode in the options screen that sadly has the side effect of increasing the drain on the PSP's battery life.
Soundwise, the game is likewise superb, with top class voice work by veterans of the KH series with only a couple of newcomers(In particular Aqua's voice actress sadly) letting the show down. Turns such as Leonard Nimoy in full panto villain mode as Xehanort and James Woods again appearing as Hades are both a joy to listen to it must be said. In addition the soundtrack is the usual ace turn which perhaps isn't quite as memorable as the main games as there are a lot of tracks reused from them(Most notably the theme song is the same one as KH1).
The main drawback with the game are the afforementioned framerate issues and some fairly extreme loading times, but as said, both of these have options to lessen their effect in the options screen, with the full 333mhz mode draining the battery life and for the loads, there is an optional data install of up to 700mb that seriously shortens load times, but you need obviously a lot of space on your memory stick. In addition to this, the game's camera is(As with most PSP games) atrocious, but better than most PSP games in that it functions like the camera in KH1, using the L and R buttons to rotate the camera, with little to no need to have to move the camera up and down(Which is awful to try to do anyways).
The camera issues alone were almost enough to make me want to mark the game down, but considering this is otherwise a truly superb game in a series which looked as though it had long since peaked and it launched at a budget sub £20 and offers dozens of hours of action heavy gameplay, I honestly think this game represents a genuine 5/5 piece of value for money gaming that is well worth anyone's time.
Definitely worth purchasing.