At last year's E3, I got a chance to check out Kingdom Hearts' first North American outing on handhelds, 358/2 Days (or, as Google's automatic calculator called it when I just searched to make sure I had the name right, 179 Days). I recall being impressed at how they managed to ape the solid experience the game delivered on PS2 on a portable platform, albeit at the cost of a bit of visual power and general gameplay depth.

To describe Birth By Sleep using these terms would be awfully irresponsible. If 358/2 Days was Square-Enix's attempt to emulate the franchise's previous offerings on a handheld, then Sleep represents the fruits of the studio's developmental labor. It's not just an attempt to squish the core franchise down to a smaller format -- it's a fully realized extension of said franchise.
The demo I played at Square Enix's E3 booth didn't do too much to inform of the game's overarching story, but all the past elements were there. A trio of young, impossibly fresh-faced heroes set out to vanquish the Heartless Unversed, all the while learning about the true value of friendship while dropping soliloquies about the light that resides within us all. The juxtaposition between Squeenix's trademark melodramatic dialogue and Disney's comparatively vapid characters is as entertaining and engaging as it was in the series' initial installment.

The story is divided into three separate scenarios, each of which follows the branching paths of the three protagonists: Aqua, Ventus and Terra. I played as Aqua, the team's speedy female keyblade-wielder, who made her way to the (Cinderella-themed) Castle of Dreams in search of her other two friends. As you might imagine, it wasn't the most perilous of all the game's Disney-inspired worlds. Though, when you really think about it -- glass slippers? Those are dangerous as hell.

The structure of this opening level will be familiar to anyone who's played a Kingdom Hearts game before. You run into a classic Disney character, watch them get somehow beleaguered by the Unversed, and then use your key-shaped sword to provide them with an uncanonical solution to their problems.

Combat remains mostly the same from past Hearts iterations, though a number of functions are now bound to an instantly accessible menu called the Command Deck. Players can set spells and other special attacks to their Deck, which they can switch between at will and activate with the Triangle button. Players can have up to three saved Decks, each of which gain command slots as the player levels up.

These commands are found in treasure chests in the field, purchased in shops, or unlocked during certain events in the story. Players also have access to a neat, Crisis Core-esque fusion mechanic that lets them blend Commands to create new attacks. Special stones the player finds in the field can be thrown into the mix to add special attributes to these fused commands: For instance, I merged Blizzard, an attack power, and a magic stone to create an ice-based melee attack which refreshes faster than most of my other commands.

There seems to be a metric ton of possible command combos, compounded even more by these bonus-granting stones. On top of all that, each command can be leveled up to a certain point to increase its effectiveness -- a feature which smacks familiar of The World Ends With You.

Players can access more powerful Command Decks on the fly using the D-Link ability, which lets your current hero summon the powers of one of the allies you've encountered during your journeys. When activated, your Deck is temporarily filled with extremely powerful attacks, each themed after the summoned hero.

All these features come together to add a dynamic flair to the series' tried-and-true combat -- which becomes especially evident when playing one of the game's ad-hoc multiplayer modes. I ended up in a three-player, co-op arena mode, where my team fought together against wave after increasingly difficult wave of Unversed. Though seeing three characters performing their stylish, customized attacks in unison was impressive, I'm not sure how long the arena mode will stay fresh. Hopefully the other multiplayer modes will offer a tad more variation.

One of the few major problems I noticed during my demo: the game's got load times you could drive a truck through. Time trucks. When going into a new area, before cutscenes, in between segments of cutscenes, and after cutscenes, the game stalls for a good 10 to 15 seconds. I'm hoping these demo units weren't implementing the game's Data Install option, which is supposed to dramatically decrease load times.

This one qualm aside, Birth by Sleep looks like a worthy successor to the franchise's PS2 installments. It's got the same feel, both thematically and in terms of gameplay, as those games. On top of that, it's got some neat little innovations borrowed from Square Enix's other flagship RPG titles. If you're a Kingdom Hearts fan -- a patient Kingdom Hearts fan -- then Birth By Sleep will not disappoint.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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