Square Enix has made a valiant effort at squeezing a cutting-edge platform action RPG into the aging hardware of the PSP. A mash-up of Square's videogame story-telling with the characters and situations of Disney's myriad pantheons, Birth By Sleep is defined by its limitations, and manages to burn through hours of cut-scenes while communicating very little. Great care has been lavished on sculpting the visual panache of the main characters, right down to their ridiculous belt buckles and product-drenched hair, but they never escape the shadow of Uncle Walt's creations.
The threadbare plot is leavened with mystery; we are given little clue as to where our heroes live, their past careers or future dreams, or even who or what they actually are. Birth By Sleep doesn't go quite as far as Dissidia Final Fantasy, which literally flung some established characters into a formless void. But you'll be able to play for hours without really getting a grip on what's going on. On top of that, there are three alternate story-lines to play through; one for each of the main characters. Each tells a different side of the story, so presumably by the time you reach 100% completion you'll have a vague idea as to what you were trying to accomplish.
Once you escape the impenetrable secession of drawn out cut-scenes, the actual game takes the form of a third-person action beat-em-up. The character models are detailed, but the environments are small, and sparse. In an attempt to make the action look more dynamic, the camera angle has been kept low; this amplifies the sense of perspective, and makes the action look as edgy as the hardware will allow.
In a disorienting move, basic attacks are mapped to X, while the Circle button jumps. Landing a string of combos will charge up an energy bar; once it’s full, a special attack can be unleashed. You can assign special attacks you've collected to a quick launch menu scrollable via the up and down D-Pad buttons, but since each has a significant cool-down time, in practice you’ll be cycling through them in turn.
Melee skirmishes are more battles of attrition than of tactics. Spectral baddies coalesce out of thin air and home in on your position, and while different animations accompany your attacks, there is little functional difference between them — you hit things until they die. Specific attacks are leveled up the more you use them, but again, this is the sort of arbitrary leveling that's often implemented to distract you from the fact you're not really learning or achieving anything.
Many of your random tasks won't even make sense. Upon meeting the Seven Dwarfs, they immediately mistake you for a diamond thief, and run into the depths of their mine to hide in packing crates. But hunting down and smashing open these crates is a taxing ordeal, since they run around randomly, allowing you to get in only one or two hits at a time. Weirder still, the act of tracking down the dwarfs and beating them into submission is enough to convince them you're one of the good guys, but even then they're still unable to actually help you; the whole exercise is thus exposed as a meaningless encounter to link one bland chapter to the next.
The Latest Kingdom Hearts offers simplistic combat, lavish cut scenes, and substantial play-time, and there is a hard-core of Square fans that will lap all this up. If you are not a member of this fanatical hard core, then only emptiness and repetition await.