Oh, how I want Donald Duck back.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by SleepPublisher: Square Enix
Rated: Everyone 10+
Platforms: Playstation Portable
Developer: Square Enix
Release date: 2010-09-07
You know who my favorite Kingdom Hearts character is? Donald Duck.
Not for his brainless slapstick characterization in Kingdom Hearts 2, but his prickly, cynical depiction in the very first game, something that we never, ever saw again. In a series full of one-dimensionality and bad haircuts, Donald actually had a character arc in the first game, something which managed to be simple and yet very powerful.
Oh, how I want Donald Duck back.
It isn't simply that the series's evolution seems to be progressively crowding out its Disney aspects like the wisdom teeth from its mouth (making consumption rather painful for everyone), it's also that what it replaces those parts with is so meaningless, so morally reductive, so incomprehensible that I have a hard time defending the series anymore.
What exactly is the overriding message of these games? That normal, sympathetic characters like the Nobodies are not people because of how they're made? Okay, racism. Or that dark thoughts (Heartless) and ambiguous thoughts (Unversed) are unerringly destructive? All right, so moral absolutism. What about perpetual and increasingly laughable retcons being treated the same as plot development? Well, it certainly sustains Marvel, but we'd never call it good writing. While I applaud the likes of Christopher Lee and, here, Leonard Nimoy for trying their damnedest with this material, the writing here is so impossibly awkward that even a rant composed on a drunken bender could not be more tedious.
Even leaving aside themes, the structure that Birth by Sleep uses is not as much in service to its story as one would hope. Segmenting its narrative into three perspectives (a Riku stand-in, a Kairi stand-in, and a Roxas doppleganger) only allows the game to make the most out of limited environments and models. Never have such small stages seemed so vastly unpopulated. The game promises, Rashomon style, to use the three stories to arrive at a greater "truth," but "truth" implies there was ever any mystery not carefully explicated to the player by the next cutscene.
Next, comes the problem of allowing the player to choose. Somehow, based on the very limited initial cutscenes, we're supposed to be able to predict which character we'll be most drawn to and how our play experience will differ, which is to say, barely at all. It would actually make better sense if you chose a character as the inciting incident unfolds and the three go their separate ways at that cataclysmic moment, but the writing lacks that particular foresight.
Then, of course, comes the issue that player choice is not always in service to player experience. Imagine if Heavy Rain, which also relies on multiple protagonists, offered players the option of picking one character and sticking with them exclusively to the end of the game, then starting over from the top with one of the others. Oh, and on top of that, filled out those characters' narratives with repetition, poorly constructed interaction, and a bunch of meaningless detours that serve no purpose but to force your protagonists out of character for a few minutes.
Just to focus on Terra (the Riku stand-in) here for a moment, the boy is marked from very early on as "the dark one" whose arc will chronicle his descent, but what we see in most of his chapters is a remarkable ease in doing the right thing, being the soppy sentimentalist to certain Disney characters, and generally failing to be bad or in any way that is consistent until very near the end. This is not how you construct a sympathetic villain. It's not even how you construct a coherent character.
Despite all that, as a colleague of mine is fond of putting it, the Kingdom Hearts series has an uncanny knack for juxtaposing the banal and the utterly brilliant. There are some scenes, and especially the final act, that almost provide the story with enough unity and emotional power to be worth the trouble. What is at play here isn't an uncovering of "truth" as the prologue foregrounds but rather an exploration of a classical tragedy. Without going into great detail, there are reasons that these characters have not come up by name in the other games. Their plights are sorrowful, the overall tone of the story is highly nihilistic, but so much of the middle chapters (the Disney sections, as the narrative makes very little attempt to synthesize) are so disparate, irrelevant, and poorly written that the final shape of the narrative is an inconsistent mess.
Gameplay-wise, sadly, this installment probably is the most fine tuned of any Kingdom Hearts battle system so far, which means that it's merely frustrating, not borderline unmanageable. The game employs a command deck that players can fill with their preference of physical attacks and magic. There is no MP, just chargeable slots. Consequently, though, the early arrival of Cure and Esuna spells in the game means that items are essentially obsolete. I honestly found it way more useful to fill my deck with the hardest hitting attacks and spells available and rush my opponents, instead of taking the time racing away from a toxic enemy while also using my mutant third thumb to browse for an antidote.
The greatest thing that Kingdom Hearts has going for it on the PSP is its visuals, which are usually bright, colorful, and employ plenty of close ups. Graphically, it's on par with its PS2 predecessors and makes good use of the small screen, although you certainly put your time in waiting through the frequent loading screens. Somehow despite a maximum install, the game continued to have long load times and lag during battles. Watching the game hang whenever I loaded a menu or tried to save was also beyond frustrating.
All in all, Birth by Sleep has the aspirations of a full-length RPG cut down into three not-quite-satisfying smaller games. If you are a dedicated fan of the series with an investment in the story world, the game is at least satisfying as a filling out of some backstory and mythology. The battle system is an improvement on previous iterations of the series and somewhere inside the whole muddle of the story is the epic threefold tale that Sora, Riku and Kairi should have had but never got. As a proper reboot or a new entry point for the uninitiated, I feel it falls short. However, as a legitimate installment into the canon, it at least matches its brethren and stands up as a unique chapter in the Kingdom Hearts universe.
I just wish any of the characters were as well written as a duck.