The Kingdom Hearts series sure has gone in some weird directions over the years. Even though the core games in the franchise have stuck with a simple action-JRPG formula, the developers over at Square Enix have certainly never shied away from playing with a plethora of different gameplay ideas in their other releases. Series veterans will know we’ve seen a diverse range of mechanics across the games, from deckbuilding and card battling in Chain of Memories to board game minigames in Birth by Sleep and monster catching and training in Dream Drop Distance. All of those have, however, fit within the regular action-RPG paradigm of the franchise; never has the series quite abandoned the way it normally plays so much as in Melody of Memory, a Kingdom Hearts-themed foray into the world of rhythm games.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory (Switch, PC, PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One)
Released Nov 2020 | Developed / Published: Square Enix
Genre: Rhythm | HLTB: 9.5 hours
To say Kingdom Hearts is labyrinthine would be to do it an immense disservice. The franchise has oodles of memes made about its inability to contain its ever-spiraling story; indeed, if you want to experience the narrative you absolutely have to make the effort to play every game. In many long-running series often there are a few ‘main’ games which give you enough of the gist of the plot to keep up or narratives will be built to be standalone but playing the other entries give it more meaning; not so with Kingdom Hearts. It is practically imperative that you play everything Tetsuya Nomura has even looked at if you want to try and understand the vast and twisting complexities of the Kingdom Hearts lore. What this results in is a couple of very different approaches to fandom; some fans of the franchise can take it for what it is and casually play along, but many others get pretty intense about the games. I know this because I’m very much one of the latter! There’s something about the determination the games have to be taken seriously, despite featuring Mickey Mouse hitting things with a giant key, that I find terribly endearing.
Anyway, the point of this waffle is to establish that, for many fans, if you’re into Kingdom Hearts, you’re really into Kingdom Hearts. I’m convinced that Square Enix knows this; they simply must. The adulation which die-hard fans of the series have is hard to ignore. With that in mind, I have to ask: who do Square Enix honestly think Melody of Memory is for? I ask not because I dislike the game (in fact, I think it’s fantastic), but out of genuine bemusement. You see, Melody of Memory’s main function, narratively speaking, is to be a condensed recap of the events of pretty much the entire Kingdom Hearts saga up to the end of Kingdom Hearts III. As you play through the game’s stages you get given little snippets of plot recaps courtesy of Kairi as she covers the events of the franchise. There’s no new information here, until the end as it all leads up to a tiny smidgen of plot that leads into Kingdom Hearts IV – and when I say tiny, I mean that; it’s very much the smallest amount of additional new narrative that you could still reasonably call something extra to the existing lore.
This leads me onto a question that plagued me throughout my time with Melody of Memory: who exactly is this game made for? If you’re new to the series then everything given here will almost certainly be completely incomprehensible, and it is in no way a substitute for just going off and playing the games. If you’ve only played, say, the main numbered trilogy then you’re likely to be fairly out of the loop anyway – I definitely wouldn’t envy the experience of trying to play Kingdom Hearts III without having also played through the side games – and this game won’t help bring you back into the loop that well because while the recaps are short, they’re also dense with concepts and characters from the franchise and simultaneously it also fails to actually explain any of these big worldbuilding concepts that the series relies on you knowing.
The only answer, then, is it’s a game made for fans who, like me, are fully onboard with the games, and if that’s the case then you’ve probably played all the games and I would then suggest you almost certainly don’t need a recap because, like me, you’ve replayed these games more times than is strictly necessary and you’re waiting in a fidgety haze for Kingdom Hearts IV. So, you need the understanding of the franchise to keep up with this game’s recap, but that’s exactly the kind of player that doesn’t need a recap! In theory the game’s conceit should be super accessible and work to bring new players in and up to speed, but in practice the Kingdom Hearts lore is so self-absorbed and complicated that it takes the kind of fans who don’t need a recap to really enjoy the plot content here.
All this might suggest to you that I dislike Melody of Memory, so allow me to clarify that I did, in fact, actually have a whale of a time playing it. It’s great! The plot stuff might be past the deep end and diving into some sort of Mariana Trench of light and darkness and hearts, but the actual gameplay is marvelous. Whereas previous games in the series have been action-RPGs, Melody of Memory is a rhythm game, acting as a showcase of a huge array of musical tracks from across the franchise.
It’s interesting to see what elements of the Kingdom Hearts franchise that Melody of Memory choses to retain in the move from RPG to rhythm game. For one, you still get to pick a party of characters to play through songs. There are 4 set choices of parties, each one representative of a different era or group in the various games of the franchise; for example, you’ve got your classic trio of Sora, Donald, and Goofy, but you can also unlock other troupes of series-favourites to run through the game with. I was expecting or maybe just hoping for some customization options with this, but alas, that is not the case. While each trio earns experience points separately, there’s not a huge amount of role-playing elements left in the game beyond that.
Anyway, once you’ve got your band of heroes, you’re ready to jump into a song. The basic premise is that your party runs down a scrolling highway, along which comes enemies and obstacles. By pressing the attack button, whoever is closest to each enemy will take a swing, and you’re trying to get your hits in time with the music. You’re aided by a lock-on, around which is a circle which closes in as the beat gets closer, and you’re awarded more points depending on how good your timing is. There are 3 attack buttons (a face button and the triggers) but they’re not linked to any specific character; instead, the setup is so you can have simultaneous attacks and especially on harder difficulties and songs, you can find your fingers getting in a twist with one another as you try and move to find which attack input feels right for that moment.
It’s not all smacking stuff with your keyblade though. Some note types require your main character to glide and collect them, and others are attacks which need to be jumped over to the beat. You can also hit ability nodes which let your team leader perform a special attack. Some enemies need to be struck multiple times, some can only be hit in the air, and all of these different input types can occur in rapid succession or even together, requiring some quick dexterity to get to grips with it. The speed at which you need to react can definitely make the songs really tricky when playing on higher difficulties, but it’s a comfortable sense of challenge rather than a frustrating one. I suspect that’s probably the trickiest thing to pull off in these kinds of games, from a development standpoint, but I honestly can say that Melody of Memory never felt onerous; instead it was a game where I always felt ready and happy to pull it together after a failure and keep playing. That’s partly because there’s very little consequence for failing, other than having to start a song over; you never find yourself entirely stuck and unable to progress in the campaign just because one song is kicking your arse.
You also get boss stages, which play a little differently. In these, the inputs are largely the same but the viewpoint switches to a horizontally scrolling note track, and the better timing you have on your inputs means more damage dealt to the boss your team is fighting. Sometimes the boss cues up a special attack of their own, and so you need to time your inputs as accurately as possible once again, but this time it affects how well your team reacts, blocks, or dodges the boss’s desperation move. I love these fights, but I do have a gripe and it’s simply that there aren’t even vaguely anywhere near enough of these stages in the campaign. While some of the final bosses from the main trilogy show up to fight, in most cases you might have a regular stage to play through rather than a dedicated boss stage.
The campaign itself progresses in series order. Most of the worlds from each game are represented, with a few exceptions here and there, and typically you get 2 songs per world to take on: that stage’s more sedate level exploration tune, and then a more fast-paced battle theme. Each song has a set of 3 challenges for you to try and complete. These are reasonably varied, although you will see similar types of requirements crop up from time to time: stuff like hitting a set percentage of notes with the highest accuracy rating, scoring a set amount of points, or doing something in the song like hitting a note or defeating multi-hit enemies a given number of times. Completing these challenges nets you stars, which are used to unlock the gates between sets of worlds, allowing you to continue. The sheer abundance of songs is slightly paralyzing, and because of that wealth of content, the story can actually last a surprisingly lengthy amount of time.
However, one issue I think it’s fair to bring against Melody of Memory relates to the vast soundtrack. It feels a little like the intention behind the game was to jam as many songs in as humanly possible, and the truth is that they simply don’t all work. Kingdom Hearts has had multiple fantastic soundtracks over the years, all of which were provided by the eminently talented Yoko Shimomura, and I don’t think there’s a single great song from the games that’s missed out here – the developers definitely knew what they had to include, and they hit basically all of them. However, many of the songs in the series are, well, level tunes – they’re slower, more sedate, and often with a less strong sense of rhythm than the bounding pulses of the battle music. That makes them less good fits for a rhythm game, which relies on either a strong melody or a clear rhythm, and ideally both. There are plenty of songs where I really struggled to get into a groove because, well, there wasn’t any in the song in the first place.
The game I was most reminded of while playing Melody of Memory was Theatryhthm. Theatrhythm was a trio of 3DS games with a very similar concept to Melody of Memory; in each game you picked a party of characters and guided them down a note highway, while using the 3DS stylus or your buttons to hit a series of rhythm inputs. Those games were also built on using the vast soundtracks of a single franchise; one was a Dragon Quest-themed game, and the other two were both based on Final Fantasy. Curtain Call, which was the second game in the series, used songs from across the vast gamut of the Final Fantasy franchise, and that meant it could safely drop songs that simply weren’t great fits for a fast-paced rhythm game, but because Kingdom Hearts doesn’t quite have the same monumental repertoire, it has to rely on some iconic, slower songs.
I think it would also be remiss of me to come so far and fail to mention the Kingdom Hearts III content in this game, or rather, the lack of it. Melody of Memory is presented with a visual style adapted from the older games in the series – it looks like a high-fidelity version of, say, Kingdom Hearts II. Unfortunately, Kingdom Hearts III used a different visual engine – Unreal 4 versus this game’s Unity – and as a result, the choice was made not to try and recreate it in-game here. What this means is that the content from III is severely lacking in comparison to the earlier games. There are unique stages made for it in which your team leader glides down a track and you guide them into notes, while in the background a music video for a vocal song plays, such as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story, or the entire “Let It Go” sequence, as reprised from Kingdom Hearts III’s Frozen level. It’s hard not to find these a little disappointing; the tracks are far less interactive than the previous stages.
That aside, I can’t be too mad at Melody of Memory. I stand by my assessment that it’s not really made for an audience other than the die-hard fans who’ve played through everything else already; I simply don’t see a way in which this game works well as a catch-up for anyone else, but I’m happy to be proved wrong. The important thing though is that the songs are wonderful and the way in which the franchise has been morphed into a rhythm game is, for the most part, a great success.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.