Keeping the grind going
Just over a year ago the Japanese exclusive Kingdom Hearts browser game Union X (chi) finally saw a western release on the app store as Unchained X. A year on and yet another (and just as needlessly long) name change later the game is still going strong, with the addition of multiplayer and further story content it’s one of the only free to play apps to really sink its teeth into me. With the recent re-branding and significant new update I thought I’d give my thoughts on the game a year in and why I find myself coming back every week.
In terms of narrative Union X is canonically set 100’s of years before the previous prequel Birth by Sleep, showing the events of the fabled age of fairy tales before the key-blade war, a major and mysterious event that is a big driving force behind the events of the series. ….. if most of what I just said went in one ear and came out the other, then Union X’s story probably wont be for you. The story and events that take place in Union X are details that will only matter to hardcore fans of the series, despite being designed for newcomers to the series the amount of effort and time it will take to get said story will only be for the dedicated. This is only regarding the story, anyone can jump into and enjoy the game without any connection to previous games, just expect a lot of “ermm ok” moments.
I also can’t stress the dedicated part enough because X requires some serious grinding to make it through its story mode, you can go for 100’s of levels with little to no cutscenes and relevant story content and some Disney areas can drag for a while (I’m looking at you beasts castle) hell even the games main characters who appear on the games app icon and start upon screen don’t even show up till around mission 350 (and even then its only one of them, the other not till 550) Its a tall order if you’re only going in for the Kingdom Hearts story.
Thankfully there’s a lot more to Union X than just the story and provided the rest of the game has you hooked you’ll fly through the current 600 missions on offer with little cause. The biggest problem with X’s narrative is how uneven it can be, there are genuinely cool and engrossing moments in here (the 540-555 missions are brilliant) but for all the missions that are fun and have a good pace you’ll hit a slog where the game asks you to trudge through the same area for 40+ missions with no cutscenes or progression.
The game also needs better context, while the characters of Ephemer and Skuld are fascinating they’re appearances are far too brief and seeing more of them would give the game’s story some much-needed personality, even just adding them along for quests giving flavour text or advice would help make the game feel more lively. Overall though the story is getting better and the events of X’s narrative manage to have painfully tantalising questions that keep me pushing forward, I just hope the story mode becomes more focused and has more personality in future updates.
Gameplay in Union X almost feels laughably simple when you start out, when I reviewed the game at launch (long before I wrote for Zombiechimp) I described the gameplay as a simple system of tapping on enemies, swiping on groups and dragging to use special attacks mostly on bosses comparing it to the previous spin-off title Chain of Memories (X previously also used cards but switched to medals for its app release) While simple the game still manages to be fun in the totally mindless way a 5 minute phone game usually is.
Union X gameplay itself lacks depth but the equipment and stat management makes up it, and its the depth of which that has kept me grinding medals and upgrades all year. X’s constant stream of upgrades, medal leveling, evolving and guilting means there’s always something to level up or earn and its this feeling of tangibility that makes X so hard to put down. Each time you log in you can expect to make progress, either leveling up medals or pushing further in the story, the game has many layers to its progression system that means once you’ve got the hang of evolving and fusing medals you’ll be moving on to guilting and boosting the special bar to further upgrade and improve. Playing similar games like Brave Exvius and Clash of Clans the roadblocks and speed bumps show up early and you always have the prevailing feels you’re underpowered, this feeling has never shown itself while playing X. Most all free to play games have similar systems however non have managed to make me feel like I’m progressing or empowered the way X has.
As of writing this article I have still yet to spend a penny in the entire year I’ve been playing, the game is so generous with premium currency and doesn’t throw pay walls in progression that I’ve been able to play and have fun with the game without ever feeling like I need to spend money. I almost wish the game priced its micro transactions better because I genuinely want to put money in for the hours spent but in all my time playing it just hasn’t been worth it, jewels are priced ridiculously high with a decent medal pack being around £20, it just doesn’t seem worth it when I can wait a week and get the jewels for free.
In terms of what’s changed in Union X from launch to now the answer is actually a decent amount, though nothing that’s going to drastically change your opinion on the game in the end. The biggest and most recent addition is the new multiplayer mode Union Cross, a new co-op mode that allows parties of six to team up and play missions together. The mode is a lot of fun so far, while the selection and variety of missions currently is pretty low there’s the promise of more down the line and the basics are there, enemies and scenarios are built for team play and while there isn’t any sort of team attacks or major interaction beyond reviving each other I had a lot of fun with it.
Other additions include the previously mentioned guilting, proud mode for the campaign, countless medal packs and other little additions I won’t list here. (I’m not about to start writing patch notes) Like I said before it’s nothing that’s going to change your opinion on the game if you already have one, however for the people hooked (or previously hooked) it’s enough to keep you coming back just when you thought you were done.
X’s launch and subsequent first year draws a lot of parallels to Bungie’s Destiny, both had a number of issues and detractors at launch and both saw a year of repair and updates that only made the game stronger as it went along, both can be accused of having grindy and pallet swap style content and both have people who adore them and an equal amount who don’t. Thankfully what X doesn’t do that Destiny does is force you to sell your soul to pay for said new content. (although admittedly that hasn’t stopped people spending hundreds on X’s content)
I don’t think Union X is a game for everyone, the overall progress loop and hook of the game will be too repetitive for some and it really only appeals to that particular type of midmaxing and incremental upgrading in a gamer. Union X is however far more accessible and less inclined to force pay walls on the player than any other mobile free to play I have played. Yes it is repetitive and getting into the game this late in will require a lot of busy work to catch up and enjoy the good stuff. (unlike Destiny, X hasn’t given new players an option to bypass to the new content) It’s the perfect bus journey or toilet break game, logging in for 5 minutes to do a few missions and level up some medals. If you were unconvinced or simply didn’t give the game a chance back at launch I’d say give it another download, Square’s continued support and the lack of pay walls make X a game I continue to play weekly.