When SquareEnix announced that ‘Kingdom Hearts 3’ was going to end the original story setup to date through the series, which at the time spanned 9 titles across consoles, portable systems and mobile, it was highly expected that we would see the end of Sora and his nemesis Xehanort. Little did we know that Dark Road would be releasing to flesh out the series’ antagonist’s younger days.
Importantly, Dark Road is not a standalone application, it shares data and an app with the pre-existing ‘Kingdom Hearts: Union X’ mobile game that has been out for some time, and though the game is accessed separately from the main menu they do both share premium currency earned and spent across both games. This means that you won’t find an independent application to run, and that you’re in for a larger file size on install than a single new game would usually provide.
Graphically, Dark Road takes all of the assets developed for Union X and applies them directly into the game with new context. This means that the 2D art style is recreated faithfully, and thankfully the lower resolution assets which marred the presentation seem to have been removed entirely. It’s a pretty game to look at, though lacking in originality. New characters and faithful renditions of known characters are well designed and have plenty of charm to them, with young Xehanort being particularly likable as a protagonist and Erauqs having a lot of impulsive Sora-styled mannerisms that make him relatable to players. Sadly card art is recycled promotional assets from earlier Kingdom Hearts games as well, which makes the game feel cheap at times as these cards are a major element of the game. Menus, interfaces and backgrounds are well integrated and work very well when played on smaller devices.
Sound effects are pulled directly from console editions of the bigger Kingdom Hearts titles, and are pleasurable to hear due to the fact that they are so distinctive. Similarly, music is remixed versions of worlds the series has visited in the past, with a slight spin on tracks to have them loop sooner and play to the file size expectations of the mobile format, but without losing any of the charm of the original arrangements. This is very much an authentic Kingdom Hearts package and the sound design goes a long way to making that connection for the player feel very real.
The narrative of Dark Road sees you take on the role of a young Xehanort back in the days when he was training with Erauqs to become a Keymaster. This takes place sometime after the events of Union X but also an undetermined amount of time before Birth By Sleep, in which both characters are adult masters with students of their own. It’s very much the journey of seeing how Xehanort goes from hopeful youth to villain, and the tone is kept slightly tense throughout, stepping around the bright and bubbly atmosphere of the worlds presented to instead focus on impending doom and tragedy. There’s only a handful of cutscenes as of launch, with just two vacant worlds explored and a couple of conversations to forward the plot, which is a shame as the premise is strong and hopefully this can be weaved into a must-experience part of the series.
Gameplay sees the player draw 5 cards from a deck of up to 30 cards randomly and then attempt to make matches of 3 by type or colour to trigger attacks and effects. This will cause Xehanort to act, while his two companions (one of which can be chosen from a small selection of 4 characters, the other is always Erauqs) will act independently outside of player control on an Active Time Battle System with the opposing Heartless. When the deck is emptied the player must tap frantically to restock the deck and continue while passive, meaning the others act but he cannot. Throughout conbat a yellow bar will fill which when triggered provides a limited period where all cards act as if matched, providing their best effects regardless of the combo you make. Enemies attack in waves in the standard mode, and each world you visit is essentially a hub screen where you can grind endlessly or attempt a Mission to progress the story. This offers very little outside of combat, but some missions are topped and tailed with cutscenes to keep the story moving. Events are also presented to the player as limited time challenges that they can attempt to meet against specific waves of monsters, and a selection of targets are given out on a weekly and monthly basis with the opportunity to win premium currency, experience and items that either unlock events or revive a downed party mid-battle for free. Cards are provided through a daily free draw, or through pulling in larger numbers through the use of premium currency, with duplicate cards levelling up the existing card in your inventory and cards past their max level being converted to either experience or shop points at the player’s choice. Enemies are also displayed as cards and killing them in larger numbers levels those cards too. Both card types add bonuses to HP and other attributes for Xehanort, making him more of a power house and enabling you to try larger challenges. It’s a very simple gameplay loop that can be left on auto-battle to grind and even provides experience when away from the app in a manner similar to a clicker/tapper.
Overall, Dark Road is a very light package that reuses almost all the assets from its sister-app and presents far too little content at launch (we were able to clear everything inside of 24 hours as of downloading on the day of launch and there’s been no new content yet!). The card system is a little light and the game basically plays itself once you have a suitable deck setup, but the story shows a lot of promise and should keep fans of the series coming back once a month to see what new events have been added when the production machine gets into full swing. As it stands now however, most will play it for a week and then delete the app from their phone for space alone.