Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep key art

Retrospective

13 years ago, Square Enix released the riskiest video game prequel ever

The key to success.

Square Enix

Over 20 years filled with three mainline games (with a fourth on the way) and multiple spinoffs, the Kingdom Hearts franchise has become one of the most beloved series in gaming. The strange but successful merging of Square Enix JRPG extravagance and Disney properties feels special compared to any medium. With so many high points amongst its twisting narrative, one piece of the Kingdom hearts puzzle may have been overlooked by many fans: the 2010 PSP game Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep. 13 years later, this spinoff still stands up to scrutiny as one of the best games in the entire series.

New faces, new places — Start a new Kingdom Hearts game as a main character other than Sora with zero explanation once, shame on me. Start a new Kingdom hearts game as a main character other than Sora with zero explanation twice, shame on you. Yet even though Birth by Sleep begins in a similar way to Kingdom Hearts II by dropping players into the station without any context, it doesn’t take long to get attached to the new world.

Aqua, Terra, and Ventus are fascinating characters that are able to stand beside the mainline game’s iconic trio.Square Enix

Taking place before the events of the first Kingdom Hearts, Birth by Sleep follows three friends in their journey to become Keyblade Masters. Terra, Aqua, and Ventus have a rapport with each other that immediately feels akin to that of Sora, Kairi, and Riku. Their friendship feels real and even with the requisite complexity that comes with being a Kingdom Hearts game, this central trio brings the story down to Earth.

Releasing after Kingdom Hearts II — whose secret ending was called birth by sleep and starred Terra, Aqua, and Ventus — Birth by Sleep is the most substantial Kingdom Hearts game to come out until the third mainline entry.

Focusing on a previously untold era of the franchise’s timeline, Birth by Sleep meaningfully helps connects many loose plot threads left dangling for half a year and explains the motivations and identities of many characters that greatly impact the fate of Sora and his friends in the main series.

Beyond helping connect the mess of lore that is Kingdom Hearts, the game also feels great to play.

Switching up the formula — Even when Kingdom Hearts II put players in the role of Roxas during the game’s prologue, combat felt nearly identical to playing as Sora. Birth by Sleep changes this formula by offering not one, not two, but three different player characters and combat styles to enjoy.

Each protagonist’s combat has a unique style that makes replaying the story feel fresh every time.Square Enix

Terra, Aqua, and Ventus have to separate following a somewhat brief opening sequence. The player then must choose one of the three to play for the entire game. Each path unfolds differently through the many locations of Birth by Sleep and each character has their own style of combat.

Ventus is the most traditional, clearly staying similar to Sora and Roxas to give the player something familiar, albeit with a peculiar backhanded fighting style. Terra is a damage-dealing beast who relies mostly on just wailing against the enemy with heavy attacks. Aqua specializes in magic with fast, lighter attacks. These three styles not only give something new for the player to dig into and learn but they are informed by who each character is and reflect how they choose to interact with the world narratively.

In order to unlock Birth by Sleep’s final chapter and witness the ending, players are required to play through each character's scenario. The varied gameplay helps combat any monotony the player may experience in retreading different versions of the game’s plot three times over. In this way, Birth by Sleep is a precursor to the style of multi-perspective storytelling in games like NieR: Automata required in pursuit of unraveling the full narrative.

13 years ago, Birth by Sleep was a triumph of combat and storytelling packed inside a PSP game. Today it stands strong as one of the best Kingdom Hearts games to ever be released and is still worth your time.

Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep is included in Kingdom Hearts HD I.5 + II.5 ReMIX and is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

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