Having bailed on Kingdom Hearts 2 after reaching the Steamboat Willy stage, I may have finally found the KH game to bring me back. It was available to preview last week in Tokyo.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is, according to the wonderfully pithy Square-Enix TGS press kit, a game that lets us "Turn back the pages of time and join three all-new characters in this earliest chapter of the Kingdom Hearts saga."
This new Kingdom Hearts is on the PSP, which could have introduced all sorts of control disappointments and limit what I had found most appealing about Kingdom Hearts 2: The series' looks.
Some background, so you can tell where I'm coming from: I had found the PS2 game to be gaming junk food, something with a lot of pop, color and flavor, but which lacked any substance I found fulfilling. The Steamboat Willy and other Disney-inspired levels looked great, as did the many extraordinary attacks I could execute in real-time with simple efforts on my controller. But I found nothing engaging in the game's controls and no magic in the level design. The game, for me, was a lot of tap-tap-tap-see-something-cool.
Birth By Sleep, which I walked away from Tokyo liking, turns out to offer a lot of tap-tap-tap-see-something-cool as well. The difference is that I now think that formula might be perfect for Sony's platform. The PSP has fewer buttons than a console controller does, so the simplistic inputs for the game don't bother me as much on the portable. And with the PSP powerful enough to show some lovely graphical flourishes, the feeling that Kingdom Hearts on the go might provide a sugary junk food experience suits me right.
Three levels of the game were available in Tokyo, each featuring a different character. I chose to play as the dark-haired warrior man Terra who would be fighting his way to Sleeping Beauty's castle, her Enchanted Dominion. We first fought in what I guess were the forest outskirts. Circle button was attack. X was jump. Square was dash.
Enemies were always popping up, encouraging a fast playing speed: Chop at this guy, dash to the next, chop at him, etc. Taps of the shoulder buttons locked onto enemies, ensuring that I could keep on offense and turn to the next target without wasting much time. Holding the shoulder buttons produced a targeting reticule and enabled some magical shooting.
The main things to manage in combat were the meter and move menu on the screen's lower left corner. You trigger these attacks with the triangle button. Filling the meter by successfully executing attacks produced a special status condition, like Fire Blazer or Fatal Mode. Tapping up and down on the d-pad flicked through possible power moves listed in that menu, offering a thick quiver of ways to assault. All menu attacks, once used, required recharging. And using them in the right combination altered both the status effects in the game and the nature of Terra's basic attack.
That all might sound a little overwhelming, but I think that's the idea: To provide a great deal of moves that can be stacked and executed without ever pausing the game, with the guarantee that the player won't have to repeat themselves that much and will know that what they're doing will always look cool. As I said before, it's like junk food. Maybe like munching a variety of jelly beans.
The approach to Sleeping Beauty's castle was fun in the gameplay sense, if not brilliant in its level design. I fought enemies on a long bridge, then in some castle rooms. I button-mashed against a big red Tinker-Toy-looking boss and got hit with a screen informing me the demo was over.
Our resident Kingdom Hearts fan, AJ Glasser, suggests that I play the first Kingdom Hearts to better appreciate what the series is all about. If, however, my opinion of it is going to be what it is today, then getting what Kingdom Hearts seems capable of delivering on the PSP is alright by me.