Kingdom Hearts Dark Road Review – Sacrificial Descent

    Title: Kingdom Hearts Dark Road
    Developer: Square Enix
    Release Date: August 26, 2022
    Reviewed On: Android
    Publisher: Square Enix
    Genre: Idle Game

Kingdom Hearts Dark Road should quite honestly not exist in this day and age. For those unaware, this title is a followup to Kingdom Hearts Union χ [Cross], following the origins of the series’ former overarching primary antagonist, Xehanort. Soon after its launch and a few updates comprising three episodes, the title was deemed unsuccessful and conventional support ceased.

However, there were plans to provide the rest of the story in a future update that would also remove all in-game purchase systems and make the experience completely offline. And after several delays, we have finally received this long-awaited update for Kingdom Hearts Dark Road. Firstly, I believe it’s worth acknowledging and reiterating how utterly baffling it is that we have received a mobile game in 2022 void of gacha and microtransactions, especially as a free-to-play experience from Square Enix. It’s unheard of, so I have to extend my gratitude to Square and the two animators for making this sheer impossibility a reality.

As for how the final product turned out, there’s an obvious elephant in the room here: the gameplay. Despite Dark Road now being fully offline, the core gameplay loop hasn’t altered as it is still an idler. Combat is entirely mindless, with players needing to let the title play itself in endless waves of battles to accumulate experience and a currency called BP. Cards arise from the bottom of the screen, each being one of three colors and using three cards of the same color in a row provides an attack with enhanced damage. Unfortunately, that’s about all the strategy there is.

An auto-battle mode is present, but the speed at which the characters act is relatively leisurely compared to someone’s swiping speed. To be blunt, it’s not enjoyable in the slightest, so I am legitimately surprised that the team chose to let Dark Road retain this gameplay instead of just releasing the new story cutscenes. I appreciate the thought of making a fully offline title with no tethers to real-life finance. Still, I sincerely doubt anyone would’ve batted an eye if they chose to forego the combat altogether.

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At the very least, there are semblances of progression if one wishes to pursue the gameplay. BP is utilized to purchase new cards in the Shop, of which there are many, and they are all neatly organized into an Album. Said Album also houses the number of each enemy players have defeated, with specific amounts granting stat bonuses. These inclusions aren’t enough to make the paltry combat worthwhile to engage in, but hey, it’s something.

The real meat of Dark Road is its story, which it excels at. Before the title received this final update, there were three episodes, totaling around an hour and 13 minutes of cutscenes. Now with the last update, we received several more episodes, resulting in around 2 hours and 40 minutes worth of new cutscenes. So with almost four hours of solely story footage, there’s a decent chunk of content here for dedicated fans to embrace.

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Kingdom Hearts Dark Road takes place long after the events of Kingdom Hearts Union χ [Cross], focusing on the beginnings of how Xehanort ended up pursuing his actions as an antagonist later in the series. Well, kind of. Xehanort and his classmates are taught by an elderly Keyblade Master known as Odin in the world of Scala ad Caelum.

However, during their studies, their upper classmates end up facing some sort of plight while exploring other worlds as training for their Mark of Mastery exam. This dilemma causes Xehanort and his peers to prematurely leave Scala ad Caelum in search of these other wielders. The narrative is difficult to summate for those who aren’t fans of the series because a vast variety of the subject matter and implications heavily rely on one being familiar with the rest of the franchise.

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Still, the story manages to be genuinely engaging with a well-executed contained narrative. Every facet of the experience seems meticulously crafted, and it all mostly pays off because of that. A few scenes directly aid in further contextualizing other parts of the series and overarching plot points, too.

It’s a cathartic ride-through, and through that, any fan interested in the franchise’s story will wholeheartedly enjoy. Additionally, the Disney world incorporation this time around is among the best in the series, easily rivaling the likes of Kingdom Hearts I and Kingdom Hearts III. Not only are they meaningfully succinct, but they thematically and directly tie into the game’s goals stellarly.

Now, while the myriad of classmates don’t receive much focus, certainly because of how this update was made to complete the game in one go, the vast majority of them have identifiable personality traits and standout interactions. In all honesty, it’s pretty impressive how so many characters manage to remain distinct across a meager four-hour story.

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The writing is also excellent and will undoubtedly capture fans who have stuck with the franchise. It’s challenging to say how without discussing the particulars of plot progression, but it’s definitely fair to say that just because this game has faced struggling development doesn’t mean that its writing suffered because of it. If anything, this quality has me thrilled for what the upcoming Missing-Link will bring to the table.

However, one critique I have with Dark Road’s story has to do with how the game’s original vision of discovering how Young Xehanort became a Seeker of Darkness isn’t fully explored. The beginnings of his path down the “Dark Road” are illustrated but not fully capitalized on. Director Tetsuya Nomura even acknowledges this lack of fulfillment in his latest Q&A.

 

Of course, the heavily altered plans to release the rest of the game in one final update and the complexities that resulted from that strenuous task must have been unimaginably frustrating to contend with. I’m just glad we managed to receive Dark Road at all and in such a praiseworthy state regarding the story. It’s far from perfect, but I’ll take what I can get.

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Kingdom Hearts Dark Road is an aberration of a 2022 free mobile title that has somehow managed to survive with no gacha or other microtransactions in a market that practically demands it. There are easily discernible faults with its finalized storytelling pacing that must have resulted from its expedited development, and the combat is simply unfun.

Still, the narrative is absolutely worth experiencing from beginning to end as it provides an exceptional core coupled with impressively satisfying connective tissue to the franchise’s past and future. Truthfully speaking, writing this review was quite a challenging process given its nature, but I’m glad I gave this game the limelight it deserves.

Score:
6/10
A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Orpheus Joshua

Random gamer equally confused by the mainstream and the unusual. Fan of JRPGs, Action, Platformers, Rhythm, and Adventure titles.