Note: As of the launch of Kingdom Hearts 3, the KH1-BBS Retrospectives are being “locked down” and will no longer be updated to account for new content that might be relevant to those particular games. For example: if KH3 or an interview explains a KH1 plot hole that I mention in this Retrospective, I won’t be updating the Retrospective to say so, adjusting my opinion, etc. We’re already several KHUX updates out-of-date as-stands. For similar reasons, comments for these games will be closed, though original comments will be preserved. Enjoy your read!
When the original three Kingdom Hearts portable games were announced together 2007, Birth by Sleep was the one that everyone really wanted. Some of the Nintendo faithful may have been holding out on Days, but the PSP had the clear technological lead, and moreover, this was the game following the lead from KH2’s secret videos and new FM+ scenes. The game that would show us the story of the Chasers! A “proper sequel!”
BBS maintains that early enthusiasm to this day. Many fans outright refer to it as “Kingdom Hearts 0” to emphasize its general quality and importance. It’s the best received of the portable threesome, its mechanical ideas went on to be used in the remake of coded and also in DDD, and it’s the only one of the original portable trilogy to have been ported to HD on the PS3 (though that owes more to there being a similar architecture between the PSP and PS3 compared to the DS). It also received a similar release schedule to KH1 and 2: BBS first came out as a Japanese release, then a slightly enhanced International release, then a Japanese-exclusive Final Mix release, which was later ported internationally in 2.5 HD. Frankly, I don’t consider the region-specific Final Mix release schedule to be a positive, but you can see how it adds to the authenticity that this is a “real” Kingdom Hearts game! coded technically also has a remake, but coded needed to be remade for international release, so it doesn’t feel quite the same.
BBS is also going to be the hardest game to address in retrospective format. BBS covers the stories of three separate Keyblade wielders – the once-called “Chasers” of the KH2 secret endings – through three separate journeys on the same set of worlds, taking part in the same Disney stories at different stages. The game even uses three separate save files, though this leads to oddball technological complaints I’ll address as we go along and probably should have been rectified in HD, though none of them ever were. This three-story branches approach leads to our retrospective format problem: how to address the narrative and gameplay? Do we cover the stories separately? Do we mix them together?
I could cover the experience of what I imagine to be the average new player: playing the characters one at a time from start to finish, starting with the game’s suggested Character 1, then Character 2, and finally 3. I also wouldn’t be so wrong if I approached the Retrospective from the way that I myself first played the game, since it would be truer to my own experience: alternating between characters one world at a time (I took character 1 to his world #1, then took character 2 to his world #1, character 3…).
There are other valid approaches as well. There’s the game’s official timeline, for one. We could even approach each world in its internal chronological order (so we’d cover World #1 with all three characters in turn), even though this isn’t technically possible during a playthrough.
But what I’m actually going to do is the default scheme – playing each character to completion – but with a twist. Instead of following the “intended” order (Character 1 -> 2 -> 3), we’ll be following the order of Character 2 -> 1 -> 3. BBS fans have talked about the “ideal” play order for years. How can I address this without spoilers…? Character 1 gets all the basic information up front, and I’m talking really rudimentary information like, “He is the only one who reacts to the minor enemies when they first appear.” That strongly suggests he was supposed to be the default starting character. Unfortunately, he also spoils a lot of the plot for Character 2 and 3, and a little tactlessly, might I add. Not only does Character 1 outright spoil the single biggest twist in Character 2’s story by mid-game, but Character 2’s plot is otherwise about locating Character 1! If you already know where Character 1 is, there’s no tension in Character 2’s story! Few would argue that Character 3 should go anywhere but third, as she was clearly designed to be third and there are no issues with that… but there’s something to be said for a Character 2-first approach. In fact, it’s what I’ve been advocating as the ideal play order for the past few years.
That said, before we get started with Character 2, I’m going to cover the events of the introduction for all three characters at once. Most of the information in the intro is redundant anyways, but if you ask me, the biggest problem with a Character 2-first approach lurks in the introduction, so if we cover all three introductions, we cover a potential plot hole.
One last thing to mention, and that’s the usual credits. Our video source for BBS will be Spazbo4’s longplay of the 2.5 HD version of Birth By Sleep: Final Mix at World of Longplays (YouTube). Our script transcriber is DJ Firewolf once again, who created a very interesting script that attempts to place all the games’ events in chronological order – give it a look!
The game begins on the title screen, with a new version of “Dearly Beloved” as usual. Here, PSP owners will be given the option to install the game to memory, which they should absolutely do if they’re able as load times in this game can be horrendous without it. After you’re done that step and start your game, you’ll be asked to select your difficulty, and if you’ve already got a save folder, you’re given the option to skip the tutorials. I absolutely recommend you skip the tutorial in your second and third folders, because the tutorial does not change in later attempts. You don’t, say, take control of a different character in later tutorials, so just push it aside!
Difficulty in this game ranges from Beginner to Proud in the original Japanese, Beginner to Critical in versions from the International release on. While Critical Mode has a few irregularities compared to Proud (you gain half HP, can use EXP Zero, and start with two more Command Slots – more on that in a moment), the end result isn’t quite the nuanced or do-or-die as the original KH2:FM+ Critical Mode. It’s just a Very Hard difficulty. As in the KH1 and 2, the high difficulties make it easier to unlock the “secret ending,” but be aware: there is far, far more at stake in BBS’ secret ending than the concept trailers of old. You might very well say that this so-called “secret ending” is the game’s real ending. BBS:FM acknowledged this by making the ending available in Beginner for the first time in the series, and the difficulty to unlock it was lowered across the board. Critical doesn’t lower the bar as much as it has in the past, but that’s arguably because Proud was already pretty low! If you’re playing the Vanilla release, I recommend you play on Proud or higher with all three characters: the demands of Standard mode are simply too damn high for something as essential as the game’s proper ending! Take it from someone who took the long road!
Birth by Sleep opens with a unique opening video set to “Simple and Clean”/”Hikari.” It’s not a collage like CoM or Days, and it feels somewhat reminiscent of KH1’s opening… but only somewhat. I feel it’s easily the weakest of the four “custom -built” openings that exist at the time of writing (KH1, KH2, BBS and DDD). Remember how I said in CoM that there are two kinds of openings for the Kingdom Hearts games: the custom openings and the clip shows? Despite having unique elements, BBS’ still feels like a clip show. Several of its visuals are taken from the game just like a clip show, while others are taken from the original “Birth by sleep” teaser ending from KH2:FM+. Actually it… feels a bit like a music video?
You may remember our three Chasers from the teaser videos. The person I’ve been calling “Character 1” is the brown-haired Xehanort-looking young man, whom we’ll soon learn is named Terra, our Earth character in this trio. He’s analogous to Riku in that regard. Character 2 is the Roxas-looking teenager, named Ventus or “Ven.” Those not up on their Latin will want to know that “Ventus” is our air-analogue, similar to Sora. Last is the blue-haired young woman, Aqua, for water.
The introduction makes strong colour associations for the three, though the game itself doesn’t always hold to those colours, as though the associations were something that got gradually forgotten as production wore on (as I’ve said a dozen times: remember that prerendered CG is often ordered early in the development process). Terra is associated with red in the intro, even though in the game he’s more often associated with an earthen brown or yellow, like the Earth Crystal of Final Fantasy. The intro ties Ventus to green, the traditional colour of the Wind Crystal in Final Fantasy, even though Ven is often associated with white, steel or even yellow, just like Terra! Thankfully, Aqua is universally associated with blue, because it’s just as hard to screw up blue water as it is brown earth. “Terra is red.” Pah!
The opening shots of the intro cinematic intercut shots of our new trio with shots from “Birth by sleep,” just to make it clear they’re the same people. We also recount scenes from “Birth by sleep,” just as “Simple and Clean” comes in and sounds absolutely ridiculous as the soundtrack to Terra being thrashed by a pillar of earth. It’s not just a matter of being inappropriate like it might have been in KH1: Simple and Clean seems more tired than ever. I can’t vouch for Hikari at this point, but in Simple and Clean’s case and my opinion, it just adds to the sense of this cutscene as being made up of scraps from old content.
The video cuts to Aqua, standing in front of an ornate stained glass window. It seems she is duelling with Terra and winning. Just then, there is a flash and we see the two duelling again in an abstract, white area.
Next, we cut to Ventus in a white void, where the old gentleman and the masked young man from “Birth by sleep” step through a door. I believe I know which door this is (it’s a big door on the trio’s homeland), but it has no such symbolic purpose in the main game. I presume it’s used here as an analogue for the door from KH1? Many of this intro’s metaphors seem weak or confused, as though the cutscene was ordered not just early in development, but maybe even before they had finished first draft prep work! I guess that dev cycles are like that sometimes! The masked boy holds out his hand to Ven in emulation to Riku in the KH1 opening, and inside the boy’s visor, we see a… reflection?… of Ventus dropping a ball of light into watery void.
The ball of light becomes a star-shaped, stained-glass ornament, which is multiplied into three star ornaments, one for each character in their so-called signature colours. The three stars then transform into Stations of Awakening from KH1, the ones with the princesses on them. The trailer associates Terra with Aurora, Aqua with Cinderella, and Ven with Snow White. While I can see what they were going for here and can’t really argue with any of these hero-princess match-ups, only one of these associations is remotely important to the plot of the game, which just lends further credence to my theory that this cutscene was ordered early in the writing process (and too bad, too, because giving each character a special association with a certain princess would have been an interesting angle!). The three stations transform into links on the Star Seeker Keyblade’s keychain, of all things.
We get a few more shots from the “Birth by sleep” secret ending, (When you walk away, you don’t hear me say, pleeeeeeeease oh baaaaaby, don’t freeze my friend’s head into a solid block of ice…). After this, we cut (pretty seamlessly, might I add) from Aqua in “Birth by sleep” to a new shot of her in white void, where Terra walks her by and she looks profoundly cut or shocked. A few beats later, Terra and Ven are chased through Castle Oblivion by an explosion as visuals from this game are projected onto the walls around them. The intro then implies that this scene of Terra and Ven is a vision that Aqua is having during the moments of “Birth by sleep.”
After this, the cinematic reaches the part of “Birth by sleep” with Terra showing Xehanort’s yellow eyes. Now that we can’t rely on “Birth by sleep”‘s footage any longer, the rest is all new. We see our new trio falling through void as contractually obligated for a Kingdom Hearts opening. You sign up for the role and Tetsuya Nomura personally shows up to shove you off a cliff. They are surrounded by the many Keyblades from the badlands in “Birth by sleep,” as though the entire badlands setting of “Birth by sleep” fell away into this void wholesale! Ven is unconscious (as he was in “Birth by sleep”) and he slams into a Station of Awakening depicting himself. Moments later, the Station is shattered by the Kingdom Key and the Soul Eater before Terra and Aqua can land. Ven falls in slow motion and becomes a shooting star like Sora in KH1, falling past the sky in Destiny Islands, as a young Sora and Riku look on. This ends the intro.
Following the opening cutscene, we return to Destiny Islands at sunset, where a teenager looks out to sea. This character is seen from the back but has hair resembling Xehanort’s. In narration, he says “This world is just too small.” The character is voiced – if only for this one line – by David Gallagher, connecting this silver-haired fellow’s sentiment to Riku’s in KH1. The character would be given a different voice actor in subsequent games.
The sun then sets (at comically high speeds. Wheeeeeee!) and we cut to Destiny Islands at night, where a figure in a Black Cloak is standing in the same place as the young boy, implying that this is the same person from before after a time cut. Now the person is holding what I can only describe as a body bag over their shoulder. To our surprise, this figure is perfectly visible under their cloak, defying all we know about the black cloaks’ ability to hide whoever happens to be under them in a low res blur. Not canon I say! Not canon!
Looking at the figure’s face, we discover this is the old man from the “Birth by sleep” teaser. He heads to the islet with the paopu tree, and sets his burden on the tree’s bent stem. “There, you see?” says the amazing voice of the late Leonard Nimoy, voicing a Myst-like sentiment: “An empty world, like a prison. I imagine you’ll be right at home.”
You probably know Leonard Nimoy, he of Star Trek and its animated series, of Civilization IV (not his most prominent role, but one of the medium’s best… how do I put this… “technical narrations,” a role not usually expanded beyond, “We require additional pylons”), and a Disney connection via Atlantis: The Lost Empire and its video game adaptation.
Sadly both he and the Japanese voice actor of Master Xehanort, Chikao Ohtsuka, died several years later (after DDD), just months apart, costing the franchise two of its best and most experienced actors. I don’t normally cover the Japanese voice actors but just this once: Ohtsuka was Jagi in Fist of the North Star, he was Wario and Doctor Eggman, Big Boss from MGS4 (his son, Akio, was the original voice of the young Big Boss and of Solid Snake, so that’s very clever casting). He voiced Captain Hook in Kingdom Hearts, and also had a Square Enix connection by playing the Cid of FFXII. While I haven’t heard Ohtsuka’s performance, I can say this about Nimoy, written in my notes just prior to his death: he’s the best voice actor in the entire series. It helps that he’s enjoying himself so much, just wait until later. Sadly, he doesn’t have many scenes with a certain other veteran actor, but together they form a strong foundation for the rest of the cast. That’s not to say the voice acting in this product is great across the board, but it is so, so hard for me to go back to KH1’s stilted, awkward voice acting after I’ve play Birth by Sleep.
As the old man sets down the body-bag, we see its occupant: the glassy-eyed figure of Ventus. If you look closely, you may realize that he is not quite dead, as his eyes close as we watch. This prompts a fade to black, where a line of text appears on the screen: “Where am I?” In reply, we hear Jesse McCartney, the voice of both Roxas and Ventus. Ventus sees a bright light and experiences a dive to the heart. He lands on what is presumably a Station of Awakening, except this one is solid white, barely recognizable as a Station except thanks to several games’ of repeating motifs. Here, he continues his conversation with the text voice.
The Voice describes itself as “a brand-new heart,” only for Ven to note, sleepily, that that doesn’t make sense, because they’re inside his heart. The baby Voice says it followed the light here, and Ventus says, “Yeah, that was my light” with a slight emphasis on “was.” We see what he means as the camera pans out: the pure-white Station of Awakening has been cracked, and has lost a whole quarter of its substance. The glowing white light of the Station looks less like someone’s bright inner light to me and more like someone’s screaming pain-response. Ven remains listless and fading.
Taking a grasp of the rough situation, the baby-heart offers to “join your heart with mine.” Ven is nearly gone at this point, so the baby heart acts independently, causing the platform to restore. Though it can’t promise that Ven will regain the parts of his heart that he lost, “Nothing else will slip away. And one day… you’ll be strong enough to win back the part that already did.” The Station takes on the appearance of the Ventus station from the opening cinematic, complete with symbols that make no sense to Ven at this point in the game. Indeed, three of the symbols (the three stained-glass charms from the opening) do not even exist at this point in the story. Sloppyyyyyyy. Thanks to Hirokey123, who points out that this was not a problem in the PSP release, which used generic yellow designs and a slightly different costume for Ventus. The problem was introduced by the HD release re-using a design from later in the game! Later games have confirmed that this is definitely a careless oversight!
The baby-heart says it’s time for them to wake up, and Ven says that he’ll have to “Open the door.” This last line is… distorted? If you’ve got a good ear, you might recognize why, but I won’t spoil that quite yet.
Back in the waking world, Ven, still not quite conscious and cognizant, rolls onto his back and holds an arm up to the sky. The old man is just leaving, but catches this in time and sees a Keyblade appear in Ven’s hand. This is Ven’s default Keyblade, the Wayward Wind, a wooden and strangely angled Keyblade befitting his backhanded fighting style. For some reason, the old man shouts “A Keyblade!” even though we later learn he knows quite well that Ven has a Keyblade. The Keyblade shoots off a beam of light (to no particular effect), and the old man smiles.