After nearly ten years, it still boggles my mind that the Kingdom Hearts series actually exists; that Mickey Mouse wields a keyblade, Hercules is the master of a battle coliseum and Sephiroth can exchange blows with Donald the Duck. It's the kind of game that might be conjured up in a weird alcohol fuelled dream, a dream that seems perfectly plausible while you're in it, but after waking you realise how utterly absurd it all was. It's very real though, and there's a very real army of fans still clamouring for the third game in the series. While spin-off games such as Coded and 358/2 Days have attempted to fill the void, they're certainly no replacement for the PS3 sequel we've all been anxiously waiting for.
Upon hearing about Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, I was distressed to discover that this too would find itself in that strange stop-gap limbo. Set ten years before the events of the original game, we find ourselves following the exploits of Ventus, Aqua and Terra; three wannabe keyblade-wielders who were first introduced in Kingdom Hearts 2. After learning of their plight to track down the missing Master Xenahort and spending some time acclimatising to the battle system, however, it seemed that my stop gap depiction was wholly unjustified. Birth by Sleep could easily be considered an entry in the main canon; its narrative is fundamental to the plot as a whole, there are some excellent additions to combat, and boy oh boy is it good looking. This is the full-on Kingdom Hearts experience streamlined for a handheld console.
This streamlining is mostly achieved through a re-jigged structure. Birth by Sleep funnels the action down three paths, one for each of our three heroes. After a lengthy intro, players are presented with a choice of which character they'd like to continue the game with. Terra is the strong but slow warrior, Aqua the agile but physically weak mage, and Ventus finds himself loitering somewhere between the two. Each character's path is largely the same, and they'll visit the same places in pretty much the same order regardless of your choice. The characters they'll encounter and quests they'll undertake are different, however, and playing through each of the three storylines is the only way to fully understand what's going on.
The first three worlds draw from three of Disney's most iconic princesses: Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Within these worlds you'll play hide and seek with dwarves, collect materials for Cinderella's dress and try to rouse the lazy Sleeping Beauty from her mammoth sleepathon. Later on you'll explore Deep Space from Lilo and Stitch and return to the ever enchanting Neverland. Each world is beautifully realised, with the combined efforts of Tetsuya Nomura and Walt Disney creating a cast of incredibly well designed characters.
The game leads you through each world at quite a pace, relentlessly pushing you forward in your quest to find Xehanort. Consequently, there's not much room for exploration, but this is never much of an issue given the handheld nature of the game. What the game lacks in expedition and discovery it makes up for in combat and progression. The battle system is a glorious blend of all the Kingdom Hearts that have come before it, refined with the addition of several new mechanics. If you're thinking you can mindlessly hammer away on the X button and expect to get anywhere, think again. It takes timing, skill and an in-depth knowledge of each mechanic to get anywhere. Ignore any of these principles and you'll be staring at the Game Over screen quicker than you can say bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.