WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Kingdom Hearts Birth by Sleep
A few weeks ago, I ranked the Kingdom Hearts series to see which games I considered the best. However, I omitted a couple of entries; one of them being Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep -A fragmentary passage- (dear RPG makers, stop making your titles so damn long). The reason for its omission was because it ultimately wasn’t a full game and was only included on the 2.8 collection as a teaser of sorts for Kingdom Hearts III.
It very nearly was included, though; it actually would’ve been third in the rankings. That’s pretty high up for what’s really just a glorified tech demo, and that’s because, despite its short length, it’s pretty damn good. So, I figured I’d give it it’s own review to make up for it being left out.
Plot-wise, the game centres around Aqua (one of the protagonists from Birth by Sleep) as she wanders through the Realm of Darkness. As far as the series goes, it’s definitely one of the simplest plots – the majority of it is really spent on Aqua and how she copes being stranded in an empty land where her only companions are the shadowy Heartless that just want her dead.
Its simplicity does work in its favour, however. I was never a huge fan of Aqua myself but seeing her so isolated really makes you sympathise with her. Between the oppressive music and the twisted locales from Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the Realm of Darkness does a good job of accentuating not only the direness of Aqua’s own situation but how much of a threat the Heartless pose to the entire universe, since we finally see what became of the worlds that fell to darkness during the first game.
Aqua finds her faith in the light and her friends tested, as she keeps seeing visions of Terra and Ven and is even attacked by a mirror duplicate that seems to parrot all of Aqua’s insecurities. It gets surprisingly dark and the fact that it’s all happening to one of the more mature characters in the series makes it both engrossing and a tad disturbing. Unfortunately, Aqua’s voice acting hasn’t seemed to improve much since her last appearance and, while by no means awful, it can suck you out of the drama with how stilted it sometimes can be.
But what about the actual game? Well, the series has undergone some slight gameplay alterations over the years thanks to all the spin-offs. 0.2 returns to familiar territory by implementing the gameplay style of Kingdom Hearts II. If you loved that game, you’ll be right at home here but it does mean that the popular Command Deck from the last few games is now gone. There’s no Command Melding, no cool moves to unlock, no customisable moveset; just your basic attack and four forms of magic that consume some of your MP gauge. And just like KH II, once your MP gauge empties, it gradually recharges over time, so you don’t have to worry about being too gung-ho with blasting fireballs at the enemy’s face.
Though the removal of the Command Deck might be mildly disappointing for some, certain aspects of Birth by Sleep‘s gameplay have been mixed in rather well. Not only does Aqua keep her Shotlock (an ability that targets multiple enemies and blasts them with magic), she can still use Command Styles. As you hit enemies, you fill up a gauge that temporarily changes Aqua’s combos and increases her strength. These also lead to the new Situation Commands, which activate super-powerful attacks that also change depending on how you fill up the gauge. For example, if you primarily use thunder spells, Aqua will summon a bunch of thunderbolts to strike down surrounding enemies.
It’s actually kind of surprising how much you’ll find yourself using magic in this game. In KH II, I personally never found myself using magic a lot with maybe a few exceptions. It just felt like smacking the enemy with the Keyblade was the most effective means. Here, though, there are a few touches that somehow make it seem more beneficial.
For starters, since Aqua is at the same level as she was at the end of Birth by Sleep (a rather nice touch on continuity, I might add), you have access to high-level magic from the get-go. Secondly, magic affects the environment too. It’s a minor thing but it’s one of those touches that’s appreciated; you can even freeze slopes and slide down them which is cool.
And thirdly, and most importantly, you can move whilst casting magic. In previous games, casting magic forced your character to stop in place. Here, though, you can run round an enemy whilst simultaneously curing yourself. Again, it’s minor but it makes all the difference. Knowing that I could still make some distance between me and a foe meant that I felt more comfortable blasting a fireball at them.
0.2 is easily one of the most fun KH games you’ll play; I wasn’t able to put it down, which is why I was able to beat it in a single evening… yeah, it’s that short. Fortunately, there is stuff to do after completing the main story. There are a tonne of optional challenges for you to do throughout the Realm of Darkness, ranging from stuff like defeating a certain number of enemies with fire magic to winning boss fights without taking damage.
Complete these objectives and you’re rewarded with cosmetic items for Aqua to wear. There’s not a lot of variety, unfortunately, but it’s a nice gimmick (I personally would’ve preferred more Disney-based accessories). They don’t carry over into cutscenes, which is a little disappointing but makes sense – it’d be hard to take scenes seriously if Aqua had a pair of Minnie Mouse ears on. Hopefully, this is something that’ll be a bit more fleshed out in KH III.
In the end, 0.2 is really just a sneak peek of KH III; a taste of things to come as it were and, frankly, it does it’s job well. It’s fun to play, gorgeous to look at and sets up KH III‘s plot almost perfectly. While we still have no idea when the long-awaited finale will actually drop, 0.2 makes the wait just a teeny bit more tolerable. It’s not a complete meal but it’s enough to satiate you until the main course arrives.