|Platforms||Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Playstation 4 (Reviewed)|
|Release Date||November 13, 2020|
I’m not exaggerating when I say that I grew up with Kingdom Hearts. I was only three years old when the original game came out, and I was five when Kingdom Hearts 2 released. I remember starting Chain of Memories when it was still fairly new and slowly realizing that I had no idea what I was doing. Throughout my childhood, I would eventually play through the entire series, beating KH2 before the more challenging KH1. I got Birth By Sleep brand new, still in the original plastic wrap, when I was ten years old, and have followed that trend ever since. With the hundreds of hours I’ve spent playing and re-playing the series, it’s a given that the story is very near-and-dear to my heart. That makes Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory all the more special for me. Unlike previous games in the series, Melody of Memory is a rhythm game—which was fine by me, because I loved Theatrhythm, the Final Fantasy miniseries that Melody of Memory is largely based on. More importantly, though, Melody of Memory is different in that it’s designed to be nostalgic for fans like me, those who have been there for the series in the long run. However, is the sentiment well-founded? Or does it miss its mark?
Fantasy Violence: Although there is not much to see due to the fact that Melody of Memory is a rhythm game, it presents fantasy violence similar to the rest of the series, with your characters fighting off monsters and other forces of darkness.
Dark Powers: Parallel to the Fantasy Violence warning, dark powers are used against the characters along with other forms of magic. None of this is treated particularly seriously, but discretion is advised
A Far Off Memory That’s Like A Scattered Dream
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory’s story is basically a review of the entire series’ main story points. It’s told through the eyes of Kairi, one of the recurring main characters of the KH series. To summarize without spoiling Kingdom Hearts 3, Kairi is searching through her memories, trying to find something important to her. Those who want to know what happens after the events of Kingdom Hearts 3: ReMind, will have to play the entire game before you get any new story. There isn’t much new story to be told, but it’s worth the journey to get it.
If you would like to read a good summary of the (Pre-KH3) Kingdom Hearts story, you can check out our very own writeup here: Part 1 and Part 2. With that out of the way, let’s get into the gameplay of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory.
Melody of Memory has several different game modes and playstyles. The story mode is essentially a recap of the series, as mentioned before. There is also a quick-play mode, which puts you into a song level nearly instantly, and a museum to view the goodies obtained throughout the game— including a theater and music player. Each battle stage in the story mode has three different missions, and controls vary depending on the type of stage being played.
Playing With the Queen of Hearts
When I first experienced Melody of Memory’s gameplay via its demo on the PS Store, I was a little skeptical of the controls. In battle stages, by far the most common type in the game, there are three different buttons you can press in order to achieve points for the same beat. I was expecting to press square for Donald to attack, Circle for Goofy to attack, and X for Sora to attack. Instead, as long as I pressed L1, R1, or X, any three of them would attack. The controls aren’t locked, nor do they bear any consequence for pressing them when there’s nothing in attack range. This is in contrast to rhythm games like Guitar Hero, where strumming for no reason hurts the player’s score. In addition to the basic attacks, the Circle button allows for the party leader to jump and glide for aerial attacks and floating music notes. Besides that, MoM has a pretty standard formula: you hit a button in response to a visual and audio prompt and you get rewarded a rank for each beat according to how “on time” your button pressing was. The loose controls were a bit much for me at first, but I began to appreciate the genius of the control scheme when I got into more challenging levels. Now, when I really get into a well-practiced, difficult level, my controller is no longer a game controller— it’s an instrument, channeling the music and emotion I am experiencing from the screen to my brain, and back to the screen again. It is an incredible sensation.
There isn’t much to say about memory stages, which I feel may be the reason why most of them aren’t in the Story portion of the game. In a memory stage, your party is gliding on an invisible path while a video is shown in the background. Instead of having three paths and a jumping mechanic, beats in memory stages all appear on one path, and the jumping mechanic is swapped out for joystick tilts. It’s similar to Theatrhythm’s slide mechanic, or Guitar Hero’s tap buttons. While I love the videos in the background, I find them too distracting to have much fun playing them while also focusing on button inputs. Some stages contain bright lights and segments which visually drown out in-game prompts, further adding to their difficulty.
Finally, Boss stages are a mix of Memory and Battle stages. There are no jumping mechanics or gliding; instead, the beats move on a horizontal path and are a mix of holds, taps, and joystick tilts. In the background, your party fights one of several “big bads” from the Kingdom Hearts series.
I’d Like to Walk the Road With You
It seems like a given that Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory would have multiplayer. A lot of Kingdom Hearts side games in the past have had multiplayer, and it feels like a natural fit for many games of this particular genre.
The COM battles are the only branch of multiplayer I’ve played, but I believe I understand the gist of it. Multiplayer battle stages are competitions to get more points in a particular song than an opponent, at times using small cheats called “tricks” to disorient and confuse the opposing player and attempt to claim victory while they are distracted. Tricks have several effects, such as taking away your opponent’s visual aides or decreasing the amount of time they get to respond to a beat. Aside from the tricks, the songs play out just like the single-player battles, so one could theoretically practice a song to perfection and overcome any tricks thrown at them. This is a comforting thought, considering that visual aides can be disabled at the same time as enemies are made invisible. Good luck playing the game blind!
This is our shop, Kupo!
Thankfully, the music stages aren’t all that there is to experience in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory. Item synthesis, a Kingdom Hearts series staple, returns in MoM, allowing for the crafting of items, songs, and other goodies for completionists to sink their teeth into. Different parties can be leveled up and swapped around for some more aesthetic flavor in each song stage, and there are a ton of achievements that can be accomplished for 100% completion. Lastly, there is a rhythm point counter that continually adds together points accumulated after each song, just like in the Final Fantasy Theatrhythm series. However, unlike Theatrhythm, it doesn’t seem that the counter unlocks anything substantial. There aren’t any more characters than the four parties unlocked in the story mode, and the songs are all either similarly unlocked in story mode, or synthesized.
So….When do we get Melody of Memory Re: Mix 2.0?
While I enjoyed the amount of content available in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, I was left wanting for more in several areas. The first is in character adaptability. In Final Fantasy Theatrhythm, characters from different games were all able to cross over and be changed out to make any mix of four-man parties. I think that should also be an option for MoM’s similar three-character paths. As it is, character decisions rarely affect anything, since all they do is go through animations in response to button prompts. What bothers me, in particular, is how the game handles one of my favorite characters, Riku. Fans of the series know him as one of its more serious characters, with arguably one of the best character arcs. One would think he would get party members that match his overall character, but alas, this is not the case. Instead, he gets grouped with some of the most cartoony, and least important, characters in the series. Riku may not be as “edgy” as he was in the early Kingdom Hearts games, but they didn’t have to “do him dirty like that”.
On another note, it would be great to be able to “reskin” the party characters according to different games. Instead of being stuck with Sora’s design from the first Kingdom Hearts, I would love to play with his Kingdom Hearts 2 outfit and abilities, a design that is still my favorite in the series. Same with blindfolded Riku. My poor, massacred boy.
However, I have to say that I am very happy with the music selection in Melody of Memory. There are 150 songs to play from about ten different Kingdom Hearts games, not to mention the bonus Disney and Kingdom Hearts Orchestrated tracks! However, I noticed that there were some tracks that had been skipped over somewhere down the line, and I was disappointed to miss them. A major example is the music for Deep Jungle, a Tarzan-based world from KH1. My best guess is that Square wasn’t able to add certain tracks for copyright reasons. I would assume that would be the same reason why KH 2’s Port Royal and Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance’s “Symphony of Sorcery” music were also omitted. However, I do not understand why there are no playable interpretations of Dearly Beloved (the title menu theme for each Kingdom Hearts game). It’s one of the best pieces of the series, and there is a different version for each title, including Melody of Memory. Speaking of different versions, I am also bummed that tracks such as Hollow Bastion/Radiant Garden have 3 different iterations of the same song, while others, such as KH 2’s superior version of One-Winged Angel, weren’t included. While on the topic of One-Winged Angel, I’d love to see a pack of Final Fantasy DLC added to the game. Leon, Yuffie, and Aerith as playable characters, on select Final Fantasy bonus tracks? Yes, please.
If there is anything I have learned from the end of Kingdom Hearts 3 and Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, it’s that Nomura still knows how to play with my heartstrings. In a commentary on the game, he states that “…I believe music and memories are closely tied together. Looking back on various moments in the games I’m sure you’ll find that they are tied to the music.” If the tears of nostalgia I had to keep fighting back while playing indicates anything, it’s that this statement is absolutely true, and powerfully so.
I am honestly worried for the state of Kingdom Hearts, specifically its future as a series. Nearly all of its beautiful story arcs came to a close in the otherwise-disappointing Kingdom Hearts 3, which doesn’t leave much room for growth. I am worried I won’t get to experience another story akin to Riku’s redemption arc, or the separation of the Birth by Sleep trio. But I continue to hold onto hope that I will, with everything I’ve got. Meanwhile, I will continue to play Melody of Memory, continue to remember how this beloved Final Fantasy-Disney hybrid series started, and continue to discover what it has become and is growing into.
The Bottom Line
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory isn't perfect, but the fanservice is so good, I can almost overlook my disappointment in Kingdom Hearts 3.