Kingdom Hearts is no stranger to the mobile scene, having had ‘Kingdom Hearts: Coded’ and ‘Kingdom Hearts: Mobile’ lay the groundwork for what does and doesn’t work on a touchscreen. Kingdom Hearts Unchained is the latest canonical entry into the ever-growing lore of the series that blends Disney and Square properties in a near-seamless manner.
Square Enix has had a bumpy history with the mobile market. Initially targeting updated ports of older, complete titles at premium prices drew the ire of long-time gamers in a market predominated by cheap transactions. Then releasing games in cheaper, episodic instalments was greeted unfavourably by those used to getting a full experience from a Square title. They seemed to have found a niche with the ‘Chaos Rings’ series, delivering high quality and lengthy RPGs for a premium price but with no IAP to worry about and a high seal of quality, but with the rise of the Social RPG the company has been hard pressed to make a product that appeals to the ‘Puzzle and Dragons’ crowd. With Kingdom Hearts they have a large fan base to call upon of all ages and heavy brand recognition, as well as the promise that the games narrative will amount to something in the larger tapestry that is the Kingdom Hearts franchise.
Graphically the game uses a western cartoon style similar to that of newspaper strips or early Disney, featuring character designs that are quite mild by the ‘mad-hair’ standards of manga. The visual design is similar in many ways to that of ‘Kingdom Hearts: Mobile’ but with a significantly higher level of polish. Great care has been taken to keep the title visually distinctive, as well as animate fluidly and retain the high level of detail that is distinctive to the Kingdom Hearts series. Stained glass windows, Keyblades and the Heartless all look like perfect cartoon equivalents of their 3D counterparts and even the games menus are perfect recreations of those seen in bigger titles. The Disney worlds you travel through have all been recreated in a similar style and rather than mirror the individual artistic look of different projects it’s all been brought into the one style, allowing for some nice area and character redesigns that are still in-keeping with their source material. Everything has a child-friendly vibe that may annoy those who like to embrace the darker side of the KH source material, but ultimately it works best for this property.
In terms of music the game manages to pull on the already extensive and recognisable library of tracks original to the series and from Disney features. Whilst the quality isn’t as orchestral as the larger instalments into the series, the remixed versions found in this game are gentle and easy on the ears, encouraging you to play with the sound on. Effects are of a very high standard and match the PlayStation 2 instalments and their re-releases for the PlayStation 3 perfectly. Moogles and ringing tones are recognisable and clear, allowing for a greater sense of connection with the franchise.
Narrative for this title is something of a pro and con. On the one hand you take on the role of a Keyblade wielder in a period before the great ‘Keyblade War’ that seems to have wiped out all but a few by the time ‘Birth by Sleep’ and ‘Kingdom Hearts’ roll around, travelling between worlds that each have their own internal stories on a journey to better yourself and protect the World Order from monsters known as the Heartless that seek to corrupt all that is good in the universe. This is a pretty straight distillation of the essence of Kingdom Hearts as a series and works well in collaboration with the Social RPG and MMORPG aspirations of the game as a whole. The problem stems from the fact that it leads the players that have been with the series long-term through worlds they’ve already visited at least three times before with nothing new to say, having neutered many of the story elements explored in the films set there in order to better fit the series canon. You can’t have Aqua rescue Prince Philip from Maleficent in one game and then see it done again by somebody else in a prequel game, which means that many of the exciting story beats have already been taken. Hopefully continued updates on the part of Square will reach into Disney’s untapped catalogue of B or C list titles (the ones unlikely to make it into the main-line KH games for consoles) to provide new content.
Gameplay is direct and uncluttered, making Kingdom Hearts: Unchained X stand out from the Social RPG scene somewhat by not overcomplicating system on top of system from the games outset. You create a character from the resources available freely at the games start and choose a mentor figure from one of 5 characters on a council who all wear animal masks based on star signs. This acts in a similar manner to a server, allowing you to buddy up to and partner with others of the same type. From here the game is a linear series of missions that are represented as a straight chronological line from start to (possible) finish, with you as the player able to double back to re-play missions to farm currency, items and experience as well as attempt to get a 3 star rating for bonus rewards. There’s a solid (though weak as described above) story experience here that is unconfusing and pretty fun to delve into for short sessions. Problems arise over longer play periods however as aside from plot reasons and locations, the basic premise of every mission is the same. This amounts to exploring a set area (some quite large, spanning multiple screens, others only a single room) and finding a target monster to kill. You can grab items, fight other monsters and locate chests as a bonus but that’s pretty much the experience as a whole. It’s brilliant in small bursts but playing up to 10 missions in a row feels repetitive. Occasionally a group boss will arrive to bar progress on the timeline, and this has persistent health allowing for your friends and you to hammer it communally over a set period to remove it and journey onward. All of the Heartless from the original KH game are present with a splattering of those seen in its first sequel on offer too, and completion of each ‘world’ offers you a new keyblade to take into battle. Keyblades play heavily into the battle system, which sees you levelling them to open up to 5 ‘slots’ and add passive stat boosts to them, into which you socket ‘medals’ which you draw using in-game currency or earn on quests. These have a ranked system of what’s stronger with gold being the best and bronze being pretty much worthless for everything except fusion to level other medals. In combat you tap to use the current medal as a straight attack on a single target, swipe left to attack all enemies in the same manner for lesser damage or pull the medal out of its socket to the right to trigger its special effect should you have built up enough points on a gauge that fills throughout combat. The wheel will then spin to give you the next medal in order until you’ve used all of your medals and the enemy attacks. In order to make up for the multiple actions you can take before they move, Heartless attack for higher damage than usual and wasting turns can lead to a quick death later in the game. Aside from buffing your keyblade and medals, you also spend ‘Hero Coins’ to unlock points on a skill-tree to buff your avatar’s base stats and unlock new costumes with which to edit your appearance. Regardless of the gender of the equipment, I strongly advise you unlock them all to become as powerful as possible and buffer that damage with larger supplies of HP. There are special events on offer aside from the main campaign, but largely the focus is squarely on levelling your one character and driving the narrative forward.
Overall, the experience on offer in this game is quite unique in the way it’s presented and its tight focus in the field of Social RPGs. It’s enjoyable in short bursts and though it uses a few different monetary systems it doesn’t force IAP upon you to overcome a pay-wall at any point. Collecting medals is interesting and works well alongside the skill tree system and the various items for crafting and money systems in place don’t seem to overcomplicate the simplicity of the core game. It’s not a narrative powerhouse sadly, though ‘Kingdom Hearts 2.8 edition’ will include an animated movie to make the lore introduced here more essential to the series as a whole, but if Square Enix continues to update the game with new content it could be a big hit for them in a way their ‘Final Fantasy’ based Social RPGs haven’t. We advise you download and test the game out for yourself to see if it suits your tastes.