‘Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road’ review: less of a game, more a simulation of one

It plays itself… which is helpful, as you won’t want to

Walt Disney World reopened recently, with a slightly unsettling advert showing the park workers going about their day while wearing surgical masks. This, in essence, is what playing Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road is like. It looks like Kingdom Hearts, it sounds like Kingdom Hearts, but it’s all too hollow. It’s all Disney with none of the magic.

The free-to-play deck builder has been attached to Kingdom Hearts: Union χ (previously known as Kingdom Hearts: Unchained χ), but aside from the Kingdom Hearts branding, the pair have nothing in common. Where Union/Unchained is a nifty little mobile version of the console Kingdom Hearts games, Dark Road feels lazy, lifeless and designed to frustrate you into paying up for a smoother gameplay experience. The worst part? It’s not even very good at that.

You start off each round of combat with a hand of five cards and choose three to attack. If all chosen cards are of the same colour, it nets you an attack bonus. At first, it feels like the colour system is adding more agency for the player, but you quickly realise that most opponents are so weak it’s never that important. Also, while you can tap the cards to select them, flicking is the default and this often causes the app to close, adding to the frustration.

Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road
Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road. Credit: Stacey Henley

Even the decks themselves are a bit limp. There’s nowhere near enough of a range of cards for you to build tactically, even if you stump up the money for the cash-only cards. You can even just select the ‘Auto’ button by your deck of cards and the game will literally play itself. It tends to make the right choices and it’s about as quick as a player might be, so there’s zero benefits to not letting the game beat itself then hand you the rewards.

If you actually want to play the game though, you just tap tap tap until your brain begins to rot. And believe me, your brain will rot. Even without the brain dead autoplay feature, it never really feels like you’re playing the game.

Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road
Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road. Credit: Stacey Henley

There are two types of missions: story and world. Story missions will see you fight a set of enemies (something like three to six), often with a slightly stronger one at the end. There’s not much to these, but at least they feel like there’s actual progress being made. World missions are deliberately dropped in to stop the progression, forcing meaningless grinding to slow down the story.

These wood shavings in the meatloaf are endless battles, where you’ll face the same set of enemies from the story mission, except once you sweep them they’ll loop back around. The biggest issue here is the difficulty, as rather than constantly increasing to test your skills, the enemies cycle back around to low level fodder after you take out the toughest one. Thanks to squadmate heals and healing cards, you’ll be back to full health by the time you face the hardest enemy, and so the cycle continues endlessly.

Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road
Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road. Credit: Stacey Henley

I think I reached about 90 enemies when, at full health, I’d had enough and just stopped playing until I was defeated. On another mission, I let the autoplay reach 200 then simply couldn’t take it anymore and disabled autoplay and awaited defeat. On other missions, there’s a massive difficulty spike, forcing you to buy revives to have a chance of winning.

The enemies themselves have interesting enough designs, but the repetitive nature of the gameplay makes them feel very shallow very quickly. Ditto the card designs, which could have made themselves much more interesting by leaning into the Disney or Kingdom Hearts aesthetic. The music is probably the most fun thing here, and that’s not dreadfully ambitious either.

Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road
Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road. Credit: Stacey Henley

It’s taken a while to get to the story part of this review, but that’s only because the narrative is, if anything, even less fun than the gameplay. The missions are occasionally punctuated by long, bland cutscenes where the characters nod at each other, display next to no personality, then move on. Aside from Xehanort and Eraqus, you’re given four other squadmates, but I’ve no idea what they think, stand for or believe in.

The Kingdom Hearts series is traditionally very over the top with its character design and rich dialogue, so to throw that out the window when trying to tell Xehanort’s story feels like a very strange choice. The only explanation is that this is less of a game and more a simulation of one, where the gameplay, characters and cutscenes are just pretending, and the only thing that’s real is the money they expect you to fork over in the microtransactions menu.

If it wasn’t for the Kingdom Hearts branding, this wouldn’t be worth looking at twice. As it stands, it tries to offer a new perspective on an old favourite, but that perspective is hidden behind empty gameplay, repetitive grinding and poor storytelling. “It’s free” is the best thing I can say about it, and I think that speaks for itself.

‘Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road’ is available now on iOS and Android.

Our Verdict

Kingdom Hearts: Dark Road barely feels like a game, and the bits which do aren’t really worth playing. There’s potential here, both in deck building and in the Xehanort storyline, but the game never feels interested in exploring them.

Pros

  • Free
  • Enjoyable music
  • Adds backstory to Xehanort

Cons

  • Repetitive gameplay
  • Lifeless characters
  • Wastes its potential
  • So much grinding
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