TGS 09: Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep Hands-On
The last time we had a chance to sit down with Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep was at last year's TGS show. Yup, Square is taking its sweet time with this one, but it's also apparently working, as my hands-on with the game at this year's TGS was one of the freshest and most entertaining of any game I've played this week.
No joke. This game is looking really good.
The demo kicks off in the same way as it did last year, but this time around there's a whole lot more to see, and we've snagged some additional specifics for you as well. The game features both a story and arena mode (I didn't have a chance to try arena in multiplayer, but I'd assume that's what it's for) as well as three fighters including Terra, Ventus, and Aquas. Terra returns from the first demo, using a modified keyblade and exploring a huge ravine with heartless attacking everywhere. With Ventus I took a trip into the battle arena (alone) and smacked up on some heartless again, and for Aquas the story carried over into the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Unfortunately the game was again in Japanese, so outside of the core Snow White story no other details on the mission were available.
As for the action though, Kingdom Hearts seriously delivers. The controls are both a bit complex but also impressively mapped on PSP, having player movement on the analog nub, camera on L and R, the d-pad used for swapping skills (via "up" and "down"), X is jump, square is attack, and triangle is used for executing the bigger skill attacks. In addition, a quick double-tap on either L or R centers the camera behind your player, a tap of both L and R together locks onto enemies, and holding L and R together brings up the new focus cursor.
The lock-on system is by far and away the most innovative of the new systems. Players hold L and R, and the camera quickly zooms into first-person, allowing for analog nub control for aiming and manual lock-on. Hover around a specific enemy for long enough and a charge meter starts to fill. Hitting the O button will execute the attack, but wait until it's 100% full and you'll get an amazingly strong attack. With Terra the attack is a multi-projectile blast, Ventus turns into a ball of energy and dashes around the screen dealing damage to everyone, and Aquas is surrounded by a huge rainbow that also breaks up and hits all enemies with a projectile attack. To add to it all, however, 100% full attacks always have a post-attack button tap as well, so as long as you're paying attention as the attack completes you can add in an extra little blast on enemies. The entire mechanic is very cinematic, and hands-down the most rewarding attack I've seen in the game thus far.
Really the entire game feels fresh and entertaining though, as the triangle attacks also make use of their own systems. Hit triangle and you'll do a massive attack or start a stat buffer, and while the attack itself (shown on the bottom left of the screen in a list of skills) becomes unusable again until a small meter fills all the way up again over time, they also turn the game's regular combo meter into a move-specific special attack. With no triangle skill active the meter is a regular combo reward system, filling up with every hit (as long as you keep engaging enemies) until it maxes out and allows players to execute a larger attack. After using a specific piece of magic or player skill, however, that meter morphs into a specific bonus. With Aquas a huge projectile attack is used, but a combo meter titled "Magic Wish" appears in the lower left. Fill it, and she morphs into a tornado that can be controlled with the analog nub as it spins and causes destruction across the level. Square showed a trailer after my gameplay demo that included dozens of different attacks, ranging from huge mid-air projectile hits to timing-based taps for bonuses, music microgames to engage attacks, button combo strings, and of course the classic "mash the X button" finish. Each character has their own combos, their own spells, and in turn their own special combos to work towards.
In the end though it wasn't even the variation in combat that truly won me over with Kingdom Hearts – though it certainly helped – but rather the general polish and feel that convinced me Square's pocket Hearts will be a true winner. The game is amazingly slick, animations are crisp and impactful during combat, and the control mapping is amazingly intuitive for being so complex. When beating on enemies over and over again with a few simple combos is fun to pull off over and over again you know you've nailed the core battle mechanic, and such is the case with Kingdom Hearts PSP. It's just fun to beat up on enemies, and as long as the team continues the tradition of great story and a strong Disney supporting cast Birth by Sleep will be an awesome 2010 PSP offering for RPG fans. I've played maybe two hours of Kingdom Hearts ever, and I'm already sold on this one.