Had Kingdom Hearts ended with the release of Kingdom Hearts II in 2005, the franchise naturally wouldn’t be as discussed as it is today; but the story would have wrapped itself up rather neatly nonetheless. Kingdom Hearts I, Chain of Memories, and Kingdom Hearts II form a very cohesive trilogy, one where just about every major thread is resolved by the conclusion of II, leaving little room for a game like Birth by Sleep. Sora is reunited with his friends back home, Donald & Goofy have found King Mickey, and both Ansem, Seeker of Darkness & Xemnas have been stopped, seemingly ending all current major conflicts. Sora, Riku, and Kairi reading Mickey’s letter at the end of KH II– along with the secret ending ‘The Gathering’– promise more, but Kingdom Hearts would have at least ended in a satisfying way had the series for whatever reason concluded with II.
Obviously, this wasn’t the case, but that in itself was something of a problem. Following Kingdom Hearts II, where else was there to go? The sky’s the limit, of course, but it’s hard to deny the sense of finality at play during KH II’s second half. Moving forward, Kingdom Hearts would have to establish new ground, and the franchise would do this with three games: 358/2 Days, Birth by Sleep, and Re:coded. Where Days chronicled the events directly leading into the beginning of Kingdom Hearts II and Re:coded explicitly tied itself to the ending, Birth by Sleep sought to look further back into the series’ history. Before Sora ever left Destiny Islands and Xehanort adopted the name “Ansem,” three young Keyblade wielders retroactively kickstarted a saga that would take nearly two decades to tell in full.
Set a decade prior to the events of the first game, Birth by Sleep recontextualizes Kingdom Hearts’ history through tragedy. Although 358/2 Days had already set a precedent for sad storytelling in the series, Birth by Sleep embraced its tragic qualities on a more extreme scale. Roxas’ depressing arc in the former game at the very least tied into Kingdom Hearts II, a story where he ultimately comes to terms with his fate. At the time of its release, there were no other games to ensure audiences that BbS’ three leads– Terra, Ventus, and Aqua– were going to be alright following the prequels downer of an ending. But tragedy is what Kingdom Hearts needed most if a post-KH II narrative were to thrive.
A common criticism lobbed at prequels as a structure is the notion that the audience already has an idea of what’s to come. The argument here is that prequels lack tension, and in some cases, they can, but Birth by Sleep dressing itself up as a tragedy so explicitly circumvents the issue. BbS knows you know that Terra, Aqua, and Ventus aren’t active during Sora’s journey, so there’s seldom any attempt to act like everything is going to be okay. When the story does do so, it’s only to make the final twists hurt all the more. Through the tragedy of its leads, Birth by Sleep enhances Kingdom Hearts’ lore, rooting it in a rich history that flies in the face of the series’ happy-go-lucky candor. BbS injects some maturity into KH’s story by serving as a reminder that the good guys don’t always win, and big victories are rarely clean.
Both narratively and thematically, Birth by Sleep can be seen as a Kingdom Hearts 0 of sorts, but the combat paints a different picture. Although the story makes frequent reference to pre-established characters & concepts, BbS’ core mechanics are in-line with the rest of the non-numbered entries: unique. Notably, it was Birth by Sleep that introduced the Deck Command system to the series, a simplified but fully customizable version of Kingdom Hearts I and II’s Command Menu. With a final count of ten command slots to fill with whichever commands players want, Birth by Sleep offers a considerable amount of variety while playing similarly to its numbered predecessors.
That said, the nature of the Deck Command system means that Birth by Sleep cannot be designed similarly to I or II when it comes to enemy or boss design. Players no longer have a sub-menu to pick more commands, or MP. Rather, commands recharge on a personal timer once used, only coming back into play once the cooldown has worn off. It’s not too different from KH II’s recharging magic bar fundamentally, but the key difference here is that every command in BbS has cooldown– physical or magic. Essentially anything the player can do besides swinging their Keyblade has to be equipped as a command.
In theory, this practice develops an intimate relationship between player and the Command Menu. How well you succeed depends entirely on how well you build your deck, but experimenting long enough starts to reveal the cracks under the surface. Birth by Sleep is not a well-balanced game, and the Deck Command system is aggressively broken. It’s possible to meld high-tier commands and abilities before finishing the second world. Not just that, some commands are blatantly better than others, guaranteeing a good chunk of a player’s command list will go unused. On the flip side, such a broken system can be incredibly fun to play with, and the bones of BbS’s Deck Command system are quite strong.
There isn’t as much room for personalization as in Chain of Memories or Days, but the deck building process is far more involved in Birth by Sleep thanks to Command Melding and leveling. Simply equipping a command is only half the battle. Players earn CP by defeating enemies, leveling their commands in the process. Once a command is fully leveled, they can be Melded with another command to create a brand new command. Toss on a crystal before synthesizing, and passive abilities will even be attached which become inherent when said new command has been fully leveled.
Command melding and command leveling create a nice sense of progression, especially since abilities are directly tied to them. It’s fun to stop for a bit and try to figure out what can be melded together. More importantly, there are benefits for experimentation as any new command you meld can be purchased at the shop from thenceforth. Simply experimenting with crystals during the melding process results in players equipping abilities they may have otherwise ignored. This can be a very grindy process, however, one that requires trial and error by design. Even then, BbS is short enough where this can be taken as a means of forcing players to prioritize a “build” and only aim for the abilities they need– a reasonable take considering the game’s core gimmick.
For as interesting a mechanic the Deck Command system is, it’s not Birth by Sleep’s main draw. Over the course of the game, audiences play as three different characters, finishing their stories one at a time before moving onto the next. Each lead’s plot takes place at the same time as the others, but these are three distinct characters who spend the majority of their journeys apart. They see different sides of the same worlds, meet different sides of the same people, and see different sides to the same story.
While this approach to storytelling could feel disjointed, it instead comes off dynamic. Each character comes out the ‘hero’ of their own story, developing in solitude while audiences piece together the picture of a larger puzzle. Gameplay-wise, it’s a great way of spreading out content. Each campaign moves at a brisk pace, never missing a beat either narrative or gameplay. More importantly, however, splitting the narrative into distinct acts allows Birth by Sleep to make the most out of its nature as a prequel– using each campaign as an opportunity to recontextualize Kingdom Hearts and set the stage for the story to come.
Making a Villain
Despite allowing players to select their character at the start of the game, Birth by Sleep very much has an “order” in which to best play the game. The tutorial opens with players controlling Ventus, suggesting to some extent he should be the character first played (a notion which makes even more sense considering his connection to Sora,) but there are better reasons to pick Terra first. Chronologically, he’s the first to visit almost every single world, setting up Ven & Aqua’s plot more often than not. Thematically, he represents darkness, making him more novel a protagonist than his peers. Narratively, his story intersects the most with Xehanort, allowing his presence to be better felt in the other plots. Most importantly, Terra is a pain in the ass to play as after Ventus or Aqua.
Terra’s playstyle is heavy. He’s perhaps the slowest main playable character in the series, meaning players cannot approach Terra’s campaign how they would any other game in the series. It’s not unusual for Terra to be interrupted mid-combo, or before he even starts his combo. His sluggish playstyle is out of place with the rest of Kingdom Hearts, but only with the rest. Terra is without a doubt the least fun character to play as in BbS, but he’s still quite fun to control. In large part due to his heaviness, Terra offers a fairly dynamic approach to Birth by Sleep’s combat.
Pairing with Terra’s slow speed is a quick dash that encourages weaving to and from enemies, intentionally breaking combo chains to avoid damage while still dealing damage. Terra likely won’t pull off full combos except against bosses (and even then,) but weightier combat is fresh for Kingdom Hearts. The slowness of Terra’s swings even incentives a bit of timing when it comes to your strikes. It becomes important not to attack too early or too late when playing as Terra. Further making up for his lack of speed, though, is Terra’s rather generous strength stat. Even at the start of his game, he’ll be outdoing both Ventus and Aqua in physical damage for quite a while.
Notably, Terra’s emphasis on strength encourages the use of physical commands. The flip side of Terra being so strong is him having a pitiful magic stat, rendering most of the best magical commands in the game useless for Terra. That said, most physical commands are better suited for Terra’s playstyle anyways, especially since the best ones move him across the screen fairly quickly. Chaos Blade teleports Terra to a locked-on enemy before prompting a series of button presses; Geo Impacts causes Terra to leap at his enemies, spreading damage into the ground as he lands; and the Zantetsuken triggers a single, lethal strike that launches Terra at through his locked-on opponent. He hurts when it comes to speed and magic, but playing as Terra is a joy. So long as he’s the first character you’re playing as.
The fact of the matter is that it simply feels better gameplay-wise to progressively get faster. Playing from Terra, to Ventus, to Aqua generally does just that. Even if it didn’t, however, it just makes sense to begin with Terra when he’s noticeably slower than his peers. Regardless, this is less a matter of Terra being a poorly designed character and more the fact that he prioritizes gameplay philosophies that aren’t grounded in Sora’s playstyle, whereas Ventus and Aqua feel familiar in their own ways– the former more so.
All this said, Command Styles do help with adding some zest not only to Terra’s heftiness but to all playable characters. Kingdom Hearts II introduced Drive Forms, transformations Sora could trigger that would change his playstyle, often at the expense of sacrificing a party member. Birth by Sleep introduces an offshoot of this through Command Styles, different forms of combat that are automatically triggered during battle. Above the Command Menu is a meter that periodically fills whenever the player does damage. Fill it up all the way, and they’ll trigger a Command Style dependant on how they filled the gauge (with a regular attack, a fire command, a thunder command, etc.) Command Styles even level up, unlocking new Finishing Moves that branch out into their own skill trees.
It’s all very involved, perhaps too involved for a game where each campaign clocks out at around 10 hours. Most players aren’t going to see all Command Styles, let alone the Finishing Moves, but it’s still nice that they’re there. They add a very important layer of variety not only to the moment to moment gameplay, but in the grand scheme of replaying Birth by Sleep. Command Styles and Finish Moves allow audiences to truly customize how they’re playing the game. A character like Terra can benefit greatly from his playstyle changing on the fly.
It’s especially worth noting how Terra’s playstyle fits in thematically. He’s inherently a more violent protagonist by nature of needing to physically use his Keyblade more often. Not just that, his personal Keyblades all look very heavy-hitting and dense, like actual weapons compared to Sora’s relatively fantastical set of Keychains. Terra is slower, stronger, and darker than the average Kingdom Hearts protagonist. Fitting as his arc sees him walking down the path of a villain.
Structurally, Terra’s relationship with the Disney worlds sees him in antagonistic roles. He isn’t a bad or evil man, but Terra has a complicated relationship with darkness. Unlike Riku who had King Mickey as a partial guide on his journey of self-discovery, Terra is a victim of emotional manipulation. Beyond the Disney villains manipulating him– Terra trusts Hook because he really doesn’t know better– Xehanort uses common abuse tactics to earn Terra’s truth, only to then break him down at vulnerable moments, severely clouding Terra’s judgment.
Knowing from a previous encounter that Terra has dormant darkness within him, Xehanort reaches out to his best friend, Keyblade Master Eraqus, to suggest both Terra & Aqua undergo the Mark of Mastery exam– an ancient, no longer observed tradition that dictates a new Keyblade Master. While Terra and Aqua should realistically pass, Xehanort uses this as an opportunity to infest darkness into the exam, triggering Terra to briefly succumb to his own darkness. While nothing major comes out of it, Eraqus deems it enough to withhold Terra the rank of Master, making him emotionally vulnerable for manipulation– just as Xehanort intended.
In typical abuser fashion, Xehanort uses this loss as a means to embolden Terra, to make him believe that it’s not his fault he failed. Light and Darkness have a deeper relationship than that. Terra’s arc shows an important side to the balance between Light and Dark. Xehanort is right to an extent, Light and Darkness do have an equal relationship, but his approach to it is unhealthy. He doesn’t want Terra to channel Darkness, he wants Terra to succumb to it and become a victim to his negative emotions– anger and hatred.
When Terra even points out the fact that he very much did not channel the darkness and instead succumbed to it, Xehanort twists what he said about the importance of channeling darkness into it simply being okay to succumb to it. He has the right answer for everything. Everyone misunderstands darkness except for him. In the end, Xehanort breaks Terra physically, mentally, emotionally, and psychologically, rendering him a Lingering Will in a hollow suit of armor.
The tragedy of Terra’s arc is that while he does have this Darkness inside of him, he was on the right path. Riku’s arc in the main canon is proof that one can not only walk away from darkness stronger but embrace its healthier qualities. As Riku’s foil, Terra can walk this path too, but good foils aren’t just 1:1 recreations. Where Riku succeeds, Terra must fail. Xehanort feeds Terra’s negativity with praise to prevent him from reflecting and potentially bettering himself, ultimately resulting in a Terra who doesn’t even second guess turning his blade on the man who raised him. A man who loves him as a son. Terra strikes down Eraqus not with justice in his heart, but darkness. His intentions are pure– protecting Ventus from execution– but Terra is so consumed with anger he doesn’t even give Eraqus the chance to explain. The two fight, Terra overwhelmed his father figure, and Xehanort seals the fate of his “best friend.”
All this to say, Terra is not off the hook. He’s absolutely a victim of manipulation, but his rashness created an opportunity for Xehanort to win all of Terra’s trust over that of his foster father. Terra is single-minded and power-hungry in a way that’s unhealthy while not malicious. In any other context, even within Kingdom Hearts, Terra is a hero. But Terra’s story is about the breaking down of his belief, trust, and safety systems. Terra keeps his two closest friends far apart, fails to consider the consequences of his actions in any of the Disney worlds he visits, and frankly learns nothing. Entering the final battle, Terra gives a passionate speech about how he was manipulated by Xehanort and he’ll make things right… but Eraqus is dead, three close friends are painfully alienated, and Terra is still playing into Xehanort’s plan. Resolve and all. It’s this kind of painful storytelling that makes a good tragedy– and a better villain.
What Xehanort does to Terra is painfully cruel, but it sums up his character perfectly. This is a man whose curiosity will cause him to do anything. He’s evil personified, callous and apathetic– and now in the body of a supremely powerful warrior. Xehanort is a man who can hone in on something as minimal as Terra’s darkness, and feed it into something monstrous. Come to the end of Terra’s story, his identity has been completely stripped away. Xehanort has taken his body and all that’s left of Terra is a suit of armor– a reminder of a man who lost everything for no reason.
Terra’s story puts into clear terms the important beats of Xehanort’s history. Between Ansem, Seeker of Darkness and Xemnas, Xehanort always fit into the story in a very odd way. He was an important character, but one who existed solely in the past. Birth by Sleep shows him long after his prime, an old man already lived. Xehanort’s in-game reports go into his insecurities about aging and no longer being able to see or experience the world. It’s a relatable fear, and jarringly so. Xehanort’s human qualities only make him more unsettling. More importantly, they make him a real character, something more than “his Heartless” or “his Nobody.” Birth by Sleep makes Xehanort into a bonafide villain.
Making a Hero
Every good villain needs a hero, and the heroic center of the Kingdom Hearts universe tends to be Sora more often than not. Even when he isn’t the main character, the narrative always finds some way to connect itself to Sora. Which makes sense as he is the series protagonist. Even when he’s not the main character, he’s still the main character. Enter Ventus, Roxas’ spitting image. Ven’s playstyle is fast-paced and the most traditional of the three main characters. He’s somewhere between Sora and Roxas, control-wise. Although Ventus holds his Keyblade backhand, his playstyle will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played a Kingdom Hearts game before.
Ven’s more balanced stats encourage more balanced command decks, incentivizing greater use of magic than when playing as Terra. He tends to complete combos fairly quickly, making tossing in a few commands in between them fairly easy. Ventus isn’t as easy to stagger as Terra, and will more often than not get through entire chains without needing to break them. Due to his stats, Ven is the character who players will likely experiment with the most. Because he isn’t as physically weak as Aqua or as magically inept as Terra, Ventus can make good use of both physical and magical commands in the same deck. Arc Arcanum is one of Ven’s best physical commands, launching into an aggressive combo, while Faith is an exclusive magic command that does AoE damage while healing Ven.
It goes without saying that Ven serves as the Sora of the game, but this extends to the narrative as well. His story isn’t as immediately dramatic as Terra’s or Aqua’s, with Ventus instead lingering in the background as he searches for his friends. It’s very akin to how Disney worlds are handled in Kingdom Hearts II: Ventus/Sora lands somewhere new looking for friends, finds themselves in the middle of a Disney movie, and then resolves said plot, connecting the world thematically to the rest of the story. He doesn’t develop as extremely as Terra does, but Ventus grows considerably over the course of his journey, and it isn’t as if his story is devoid of meaningful content.
In the tutorial, Ventus is a timid boy who very much is not on equal footing with Terra or Aqua, his closest friends. They all have genuinely close bonds and clearly love one another, but Ventus very much is the “kid brother” of the group and is treated as such. Ven’s arc is about him shedding away that piece of his identity, gaining more agency with each new world he visits. As the plot complicates, Ventus’ arc turns from him searching for his friends, to him wanting to make new friends, only for Ven to realize that friends work things out. It’s an interesting story that puts Ven in direct contrast with Sora. While brief, Ven does lose faith in both Terra and Aqua. He does open his heart to them again, but it’s an important part of his arc– one that forces him to grow independent of them. Sora himself would never waiver in such a way, which makes it good that Ven does. It’s a reminder that these characters aren’t xeroxed. Even if they look it.
This being Birth by Sleep, things don’t work out so smoothly for Ven, and his final fate is intimately tied to that of Vanitas, a mysterious young man serving as Xehanort’s right-hand man. Xehanort’s manipulation not only extends to Ventus, it’s actually rooted in Ventus, with Vanitas living evidence of Xehanort’s abuse. Ventus’ inner darkness, Vanitas was forcefully extracted from Ven’s heart, nearly killing him in the process. Driving the point home further that Vanitas’ existence is “wrong,” he even has Sora’s face– a perversion of the main character’s image.
How Ventus, Vanitas, and Sora connect to one another ends up being one of BbS’ more interesting threads. Following Vanitas’ extraction from Ventus, Xehanort leaves Ven to die on the Destiny Islands, only for a young Sora’s heart to connect with the dying Ventus, saving him. As a result of this connection, Vanitas ends up looking exactly like Sora. It’s mostly just fan service stemming from Sora’s Japanese voice actor wanting to voice a villain, but it makes for a great visual twist, a great performance from Haley Joel Osment, and a compelling arc for Ven that ends in tragedy. Only after asserting himself as his own person does Ventus learn the truth about his connection to Vanitas. The two are destined to fight, something Ventus desperately does not want, but comes to understand he does do. Of Birth by Sleep’s three main characters, no one is forced to grow up as fast as Ven.
Terra and Aqua are constantly seen coddling Ventus whenever they interact with him, treating Ven like a child who needs to be supervised. While Ventus can’t truly make it on his own, he can take care of himself. Which is really what he’s personally fighting for all game. His arc is about proving that he has agency and doesn’t need to live in a prison, emotional or otherwise. Terra and Aqua try to comfort Ventus one last time near the end of the game, complete with cheesy music, only for Ven to sternly brush them aside and assert the seriousness of the situation. When it all comes crashing down, Terra and Aqua try to put on a brave face, but Ventus has reached a point in his development where he doesn’t need Terra or Aqua’s courage. He’s proven himself and found his own resolve.
While they’re not identical by any means, Ventus embodies all of Sora’s best traits one way or another: courage, friendliness, confidence, and eventually just a strong sense of identity. Ventus knows who he is by the end of Birth by Sleep, allowing him to enter Sora’s heart a complete being– even if broken. Ventus sets a thematic stage for Sora to enter upon come Kingdom Hearts I. Ventus roots the spirit of Sora’s character into the history of the narrative, making a case that Sora’s heroism touches all corners of the series.
Making an Ending
Between Terra and Ventus’ story, one might approach Aqua’s with the notion that they already have an understanding of what’s happening in Birth by Sleep. What else is there to show, really? Terra was keeping busy with Xehanort and Ventus with Vanitas, so Aqua must have just been playing clean up. While that sentiment is technically true, there’s far more going on with Aqua than meets the eye. Frankly, Aqua’s one playthrough is just as important as Terra and Ven’s combined when it comes to information conveyed.
At first glance, Aqua seems considerably weaker than either Terra or Ventus. She’s swift, but her three-hit combo leaves a lot to be desired and she essentially does chip damage compared to her counterparts. Her speed is appreciated, but her early game can be enough to make you miss Terra on higher difficulties. This is only in the beginning, however, as Aqua very quickly develops into the most competent playable character in the game. Acrobatic, agile, & with an emphasis on magic, Aqua ends up an absolute powerhouse by the time the credits roll for real. Her unique Keyblades are on a whole stronger than Terra’s or Ven’s, she has access to a double jump, the best block in the game, and the most fluid combo chains once she has a few Combo Plusses under her belt.
In actuality, Aqua is the real main character of Birth by Sleep. Ventus serving as the Sora stand-in is more of a trick than anything. Aqua is the real character at the center of the story. Aqua is the only protagonist who isn’t duped by Xehanort, who actively confronts Vanitas, who has the best understanding of what’s happening at any given time, and she tends to visit the Disney worlds last chronologically, not only wrapping them up both narratively & thematically but coming away with an understanding of what Terra & Ventus did in said worlds.
It’s worth noting that Terra and Ven’s stories push Aqua into the background, resulting in her coming off aloof, distant, and even cold at times, but this is all intentional in order to make her playthrough all the more dynamic. The fact of the matter is that Aqua is far more compassionate than she lets on. She seems cold, but she never loses faith in either Terra or Ventus. Even when she’s critical of Terra’s actions, she firmly believes that he can and will walk away from Xehanort’s dark influence. She is far more confident and in control than her friends, the only character not to struggle with her own identity issues– which isn’t to say she doesn’t struggle. Aqua isn’t flat, but her stoicism can make it difficult to see her arc.
Aqua is representative of the hope at the center of Kingdom Hearts. Birth by Sleep is by far the darkest entry in the series, with Terra and Ventus’ stories coming to rather tragic conclusions, Aqua’s, however, ends on a hopeful note. Even with Terra succumbing to darkness, she fully believes she can bring him back. Even with Ventus in what is essentially a super coma, she is determined to keep him safe. Aqua’s arc is about holding on to your resolutions and your beliefs. Never straying from those you hold dear. Terra and Ventus both doubt their friends at critical points in their journey. Terra doesn’t come back from it while Ventus does, but the point is that Aqua never goes through this falling out on her part. She never blames or rejects her friends the way they do her. And it’s that light that ensures Kingdom Hearts can have a happy ending.
If only it were that simple. When all three campaigns are done (along with some extras depending on difficulty,) the Final Episode is unlocked. Still starring Aqua, the Final Episode wraps up the main plot with a slew of cutscene and one last boss. It’s worth noting that the Final Episode is unlocked by collecting all of Xehanort Reports on Proud mode, basically a signal that the bare minimum of what the audience needs to know heading into the Final Episode is hidden in those documents. Xehanort Reports notably add a great deal of depth to his character, painting him as curious, someone struck with wanderlust. His desires are understandable, and he’s even briefly sympathetic towards Ventus, bringing him to the Destiny Islands so he can at least die in peace.
These Reports set the stage for the finale, giving the audience a full understanding of how far Xehanort’s darkness stretches back. More importantly, it gives Terra-Xehanort greater depth as a character. By the time Aqua confronts him, Xehanort has already won and has taken over Terra. Even as an amnesiac, Terra-Xehanort’s instinct is to fight Aqua. He doesn’t meet her as a friend, which makes the tragedy of the situation all the worse. If the ending of Terra’s story didn’t sell it enough, Aqua is too late and about to fight a losing battle.
A fantastic losing battle if nothing else. Fun, challenging, and a test of skill even if you’ve broken the game with Thunder Surges aplenty, Terra-Xehanort makes for an incredibly energetic final boss. He targets Aqua looking to punish her, even operating similarly to Ansem, Seeker of Darkness at the end of Kingdom Hearts I. Due to the rate at which Aqua’s stats increase, she should theoretically be much stronger than either Terra or Ventus were at the end of their campaigns. More importantly, her emphasis on magic gives her far more creative commands to work with, which makes the final boss a more engaging fight on a whole. Triple Firaga fires off three powerful Firagas in rapid succession, Thundaga Shot does AoE damage spreading from whichever enemy it connects with, and Seeker Mine sets up traps that chase after enemies whenever they get to close.
Aqua’s final battle against Terra-Xehanort is one of the best duels in the series, and it’s this fight that cements the tragedy at the center of Birth by Sleep. For as hard as Aqua fights, Terra is extracted out of Xehanort and Aqua is trapped in the Realm of Darkness with no concept of time, emotionally battered & suicidal by the last scene. When surrounded by complete darkness, so far away from where she started, Aqua allows herself to give up.
It’s an incredibly dark story beat, even if she obviously isn’t going to let herself die. The fact Birth by Sleep would push a character so far through tragedy is a bit jaw-dropping. Kingdom Hearts has always featured a decent bit of emotional maturity, but Aqua losing the will to live drives home how much the events of BbS have broken her down. But even if Birth by Sleep thrives on tragedy, it understands Kingdom Hearts as a franchise doesn’t. Miraculously saved by Terra and Ven’s Keyblades, Aqua is given hope in a hopeless situation. Aqua thinks back to everyone she’s met along her journey, her last thought before marching on none other than Sora’s toothy smile. Aqua is stuck in darkness, Terra belongs to Xehanort, and Ventus is a living corpse, but the silver lining that is Sora promises a bright future not only for these wayward youths, but for all those connected to Sora.
With the credits rolled, Sora welcomes Ventus into his heart, cementing him as something more than a hero: a good person. “I am who I am… because of them,” claims Sora in the secret ending, an affirmation of his role in the series and the importance of the connections he’s made. Sora only met Aqua once in passing, but hearing his name is enough for Aqua to break down into tears, certain that somewhere, someday, Sora will finish what she started and pick up the pieces. The Secret Episode pushes this notion even further, giving players control of Aqua one last time as she descends deeper into the darkness, confronting the Heartless for the first time, and setting the stage for Kingdom Hearts I.
With as many references to the rest of the series as it has, it’s amazing Birth by Sleep feels as standalone as it ultimately does. This is one of the most important entries in the franchise, fleshing out light, darkness, and heart as concepts while also grounding characters in a very specific history. It could come off fan service and pandering, but BbS shows a surprising amount of restraint when it comes to serving as a prequel. It’s more than happy to point a finger at familiar faces, but never without establishing context of its own. More importantly, the tragedy of Terra, Ventus, and Aqua is strong enough to keep the story compelling even for newcomers. This is a lore heavy plot, but it doesn’t demand you understand the lore to appreciate it.
As far as video games go, Birth by Sleep is an unbalanced mess; but an incredibly fun unbalanced mess with an insane amount of gameplay variety, both stemming from the Deck Command system and the mere fact there are three distinct playable characters. Birth by Sleep is more than the sum of its parts, and while one of the most overtly flawed Kingdom Hearts games, it’s nonetheless one of the most fun. As a prequel, Birth by Sleep enriches Kingdom Hearts’ lore with immediately lovable new characters and a villain who’s just as easy to hate as he is easy to be captivated by.
What makes Birth by Sleep’s story so engrossing isn’t its nature as a prequel, however. It’s the fact that it’s both emotionally charged and emotionally mature. Xehanort’s abuse is written with an incredible amount of tact and realism, painting him as a supernatural foe grounded in reality. Terra, Ventus, and Aqua all fail in realistic ways a main character never would, which makes the fact they fail at all the more gut-wrenching. Even in spite of this, Birth by Sleep holds onto a hope characteristic of Kingdom Hearts, allowing the franchise to tell a radically dark story that the audience understands will lead to light. Birth by Sleep marks a new beginning for Kingdom Hearts– one building towards an ending.