Release Dates: January 9th, 2010 (Japan); September 7th, 2010 (North America); September 10th, 2010 (Europe)
Platform: Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP)
Ten years before Sora became the Keyblade Master, there were three youths who wielded Keyblades under the supervision and tutelage of Eraqus, a Keyblade Master. Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep follows their story after the disappearance of Eraqus’ friend and fellow Keyblade Master Xehanort and the appearance of the mysterious Unversed.
At the outset of the game, three youths in the Land of Departure – Terra, Aqua, and Ventus (called Ven by his friends) – are preparing to take a test to earn the Mark of Mastery, and thus the title of Keyblade Master. Following the Mark of Mastery test results, Master Eraqus’ friend Master Xehanort disappears, whilst a mysterious type of monster called the Unversed appear across the worlds. Whilst Terra is sent out by Eraqus to deal with the threat of the Unversed, Ven is persuaded by Master Xehanort’s apprentice Vanitas to set out and follow Terra against Eraqus’ wishes. Aqua is later sent out to watch over Terra and simultaneously attempt to return Ven to the Land of Departure.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep allows you to play as all three of the youths in their own independant storylines, and whilst not the first Kingdom Hearts to feature multiple playable storylines that overlap one another (this distinction belongs to the dual Sora/Riku storylines of Chain of Memories), Birth by Sleep is the first one that allows you to choose the order in which you play them. Each story is designed as a single experience, an actual full “mini storyline” of its own, but the three plots are designed to compliment one another and fill in the gaps of what each character does during the course of their own adventure.
Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep was developed by Square Enix’s Fifth Product Development Division (also known as PDD 5 or Dev-5 in some circles) which is based in Osaka, rather than the main Square Enix headquarters in Tokyo. Pre-production on the game started in 2005 before the release of Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix+ and at the time it was intended as a regular title of the series for the Sony PlayStation 2 and featuring Sora as the main character.
Production on the game was halted to allow the Osaka team to develop the PlayStation 2 port of Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories (Re:Chain of Memories), which was to be packaged in with Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix+. By the time development begun again, production of Birth by Sleep moved from being aimed at the PlayStation 2 platform in favour of the PlayStation Portable in light of its multiplayer capabilities. The game runs on the same graphics engine employed by two of Square Enix’s previous titles: Crisis Core -Final Fantasy VII- and Dissidia -Final Fantasy-, albeit very stylised to match the same tone of other Kingdom Hearts games.
Shortly before formally announcing the game at the Tokyo Game Show 2007 (alongside Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days and Kingdom Hearts: coded), director and character designer Tetsuya Nomura had expressed the rather informative desire to design a spinoff game for the Kingdom Hearts series in which gameplay was different to the main series. Whilst all three of the simultaneously-announced games tick that box, Birth by Sleep not only features multiple characters that handle differently in battle, but the base battle system is also designed differently from the main series, based around the new Deck Command feature, allowing Terra, Aqua, and Ven to switch their battle style based on how they use the abilities they have equipped on their Deck. The Deck Command system allows the three characters to have Command Styles, and thus exclusive abilities that focus on their own strengths: Terra’s attack power, Ven’s speed, and Aqua’s magic.
On the core development front of the game, Kingdom Hearts series creator Testuya Nomua once again took over directorial duties, this time aided by Tai Yasue, who also co-directed Re:Chain of Memories. Yoko Shimomura has once again returned to composer the game’s soundtrack, a role she has filled for every Kingdom Hearts game released so far. The game’s scenario is penned by Masaru Oka, his first outing as a scenario writer following his work as an event planner for several other Square Enix games, including Kingdom Hearts II.
The voice team for the English release of Birth by Sleep follows what is seemingly becoming a tradition of featuring a prominent mixture of established voice actors with stars coming in from various other areas of the entertainment industry. The English cast of Birth by Sleep is no exception, featuring a mixture of established and experienced voice actors such as Jennifer Hale (Cinderella, Aurora) and Mark Hamill (Master Eraqus), actors from US “teen programming” such as Willa Holland (Aqua) and Jason Dohring (Terra), talent from Disney’s personal pool of voice actors, and even some returning voices from the Kingdom Hearts series that are just as surprising as their roles.