Disney characters, Final Fantasy characters, keyblades and a world of wonderment (as in wondering what the hell is going on) – it can only mean one thing – a new Kingdom Hearts game. But not Kingdom Hearts 3, the title that fans are in a fervour for, rather a PSP exclusive prequel to the original Kingdom Hearts game.

That’s right, a prequel. Those games that developers throw out in between major releases to keep the fanbase from self-harming in their despondency. But take heed that Birth By Sleep is no throw-away title – it’s fully featured, has a terrific storyline and what I believe is the best combat system in the series to date despite having less buttons at its disposal.

As it’s a prequel, it’s not essential that you know the specific happenings of the rest of the series – granted, you will definitely have a richer experience if you do, but it should be noted that it’s not that important.

Birth By Sleep follows the stories of three different keyblade brandishing characters: Terra, Ventus and Aqua. You make your choice at the beginning, but eventually (if you want to get your money’s worth) you will work your way through all three. It’s most satisfying to pick a character and play their story out before moving on to the next, but because all three characters exist on a separate save game, you can stop any time and load up another character’s story. Be warned though – it’s easy to get confused if you insist on chopping and changing.

Each of the characters are entrusted with defeating an uprising of enemies (we all know them as the Unversed). You will travel from world to world exploring, collecting, and solving smaller problems that will aid you in your ultimate goal. But the true beauty in Birth By Sleep, apart from the impressive particle effects, is in the intuitive, simple but oh-so-deep combat system.

If you want variety and choices in your combat, then this is the game for you. On top of standard attacks, your hero can earn, purchase, or find special commands that can be assigned to the D-Pad and customised in the main menu. Once chosen, the command is selected with the triangle button and the command deck cycles to the next command with the previous one entering a cool-down period.

Commands can be levelled up and combined with others to create new ones – that makes for an incredible amount of command options at your fingertips. But that’s not all. As you build up combo attacks, a meter fills up. If you utilise special commands to help fill that meter your character can enter ‘command style’ which gives them a generous temporary boost in abilities.

Each character also has access to Shotlocks and D-Links (no, not budget routers given away by Telecom). Shotlocks are a devastating attack designed to deal with large numbers of enemies when you’re surrounded – the equivalent of a ‘ground pound’ if you will. D-Links, or Dimension Links allow for some quality variation to your attacks. As you meet the myriad of other characters on your travels, you form a Dimension Link with them. During battle, you can activate a D-Link and inherit whatever special powers that particular character has. It’s a great idea.

If you wish to take a well-earned break from the main storyline then the mini-games, on a whole, provide some welcome relief. Played out on the Command Board – a Mario Party-type setup – they’ve had some thought put into them since the lacklustre efforts of previous Kingdom Hearts games. Despite being away from the main story, using your commands in this mode allows them to level up, which then carries back over into the story mode.

You can play the Command Board in multiplayer too, with some special multiplayer commands at your disposal. The other multiplayer option is fairly decent too – the Mirage Arena allows you to battle against another human opponent or team up to tackle waves of enemies and bosses. There is some noticeable slowing down in these arena battles, but nothing to ruin the experience too much – and I must admit it was quite satisfying to take on bosses tag-team style.

My biggest gripe with Birth By Sleep is the substandard targeting system and the apparent lack of priority targeting. I swear my PSP almost discovered its value as a Frisbee after pressing the shoulder button to lock onto the giant foe pummelling the crap out of me resulted in the targeting system locking onto an inanimate object for the 99th time. It’s just inexcusable. Luckily this usually happens in the more closed-in areas, in which another problem presents itself – controlling the camera can often be a frustrating affair with it getting caught on things and bouncing off walls – basically it’ll go anywhere it thinks allows you to see the least of the action.

Out in the open areas however, the action is smooth and flawless, even if many of these areas are a tad bland and ‘under-decorated’ so to speak – an issue that rings true with previous Kingdom Hearts games.

Birth By Sleep is an epic PSP title that provides an excellent (if a little belated) entry point for the series. The original Kingdom Hearts was a bit convoluted for the uninitiated (like myself) and Birth By Sleep has piqued my interest in all things Square Enix once again.