Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts series is known for many things: complicated plots, titles that don't make a whole lot of sense, epic multi-stage boss fights, and characters whose designs involve a lot of belts and zippers. But one element of the Japanese role-playing game franchise which generally received praise from fans and critics alike is its music. From foreboding boss tracks to remixes of classic Disney songs to catchy opening things sung in both Japanese and English by vocal legend Utada Hikaru, the Kingdom Hearts soundtracks have been touching minds (and, of course, hearts) for years.
With sister franchise Final Fantasy receiving multiple rhythm games in the form of the oddly-spelled THEATRHYTHM sub-series, it seemed practically inevitable that Kingdom Hearts would get one of its own - and now, it has. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory was officially announced earlier this year before releasing in mid-November for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Melody of Memory Lane
The primary gameplay of Melody of Memory is "World Tour Mode," a recap of the events of all previous games in the series narrated by the character Kairi. Players re-visit classic worlds including both Kingdom Hearts originals - Destiny Islands, Radiant Garden, and the World that Never Was - and the settings of beloved Disney movies - Agrabah, Olympus Coliseum, Arendelle, and many more. Most levels involve running along a musical staff-inspired track while defeating Heartless and other enemies using timed attacks. Each level is completed using a party of three, with four set parties from across the Kingdom Hearts timeline to choose from. Some Disney characters, including Peter Pan, Simba, and Hercules, appear as guest characters in their homeworlds.
This recap is extremely well done, especially given the notoriously complex nature of Kingdom Hearts' plot. World Tour Mode's straightforward summary of each game (presented in order of release, not chronology) could actually be a much-needed refresher for fans of the series who have difficulty keeping track of what's going on. After playing, I was able to sit down and explain the series lore to a confused friend and was actually surprised at myself how much sense it makes now. I think World Tour is truly something that the Kingdom Hearts series desperately needed right now, especially following the twists and turns of Kingdom Hearts 3.
Once World Tour mode is completed, players can unlock an additional scenario starring Kairi and Riku. This scenario takes place after the end of Kingdom Hearts 3 and sets up a potential fourth main installment of the series. There is also material for future spinoffs featuring characters such as King Mickey, who is shown setting off on his own journey. Unlike the straightforward World Tour, this new plot does feature some of the complexity and difficult terminology for which Kingdom Hearts is known. However, fans of the series will love getting to see what Riku and Kairi are up to, especially the latter, who has not previously been given the chance to take a leading role in any game. Casual Kingdom Hearts players may not enjoy this new scenario, but World Tour provides enough content to make a satisfying game experience regardless.
There is an absolutely staggering number of tracks from throughout the Kingdom Hearts series appearing in Melody of Memory. The majority hail from the three main series titles, although two spinoffs, Birth By Sleep and Dream Drop Distance, are also well-represented. Fans of Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days, and especially Re:coded will likely be disappointed, as these games, unfortunately, receive only minimal presence. Square Enix was able to fit well over one hundred and fifty songs into the game, but somehow only two from Re: coded were included? This was by far my biggest disappointment when it came to the tracklist. While I was also bummed by the lack of Fantasia or Pirates of the Caribbean music, I understood that that was likely the result of complicated rights and ownership issues.
Regarding the songs that are present, there's a number of stand-out tracks. I especially support the game's decision to include a number of Kingdom Hearts' classic boss battle songs. In the article I wrote prior to this game's release, "more villain songs" was my number one wish, and it was definitely fulfilled. I was also happily surprised to see so many Disney songs represented. While we did get a lot of background music from the various worlds, which is mostly original to the series, some popular Disney favorites appearing in the game include "Circle of Life" "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" and "Let it Go". Some even get vocal versions as an extra treat!
Another disappointment is the almost complete lack of new songs or even new versions/remixes of existing songs created for the game. I believe the only new track is the end credits sequence, although I did quite enjoy that one. I understand that composing and creating a new song isn't an easy process, especially with the game development timeline itself altered due to COVID-19, but it was a little frustrating not to see some new music content in a game so heavily focused on music.
Chain of Button Mashing
Most levels are played by having your team of three (for example Sora, Donald and Goofy or Roxas, Axel and Xion) run along a staff through a representation of the world in question while defeating enemies from whichever game in the series you are currently playing through. The designs of the worlds themselves are really unique and interesting, as they feature a lot of familiar locations from earlier games and enhance the overall sense of nostalgia that playing Melody of Memory provides. I do wish that more characters had appeared other than just the small handful of guest characters; it might have been interesting to see them going about in the background, or even standing and cheering like the "audiences" on certain Super Smash Bros. stages.
The gameplay of these levels is probably where Melody of Memory hits its weakest point. Unfortunately, it is rather repetitive, requiring the same few button presses to perform the same actions no matter which track or world you are playing through. As someone who is new to rhythm games, the style took me quite a while to get used to, but to veterans of the genre, it is probably nothing special. One thing that does save the gameplay somewhat is that each stage features multiple difficulty levels for additional challenges. Players who want to experience the story without getting bogged down with combos and complicated sequences can switch to "One Button" mode which, as its name suggests, only requires pressing a single button.
The only true downside of this game is simply how visually busy most stages are. You've got the landscape constantly moving past you, the ground beneath your feet moving as well, the different types of Heartless / Nobodies / Unversed, etc. attacking you from all directions, the button press commands popping up, the attack motions your characters are performing, and even the (usually shouted) voice lines of your leader whenever they activated a special ability. There was so much going on that many times I felt overwhelmed and had difficulty concentrating on the most crucial elements (the song and the buttons). While One Button mode helped with this, there were definitely times when I just felt like there was way too much happening, especially when visiting brightly-colored worlds such as Atlantica or Christmas Town.
The other gameplay element which I found frustrating was the item crafting system. Some items could be collected by completing stages and clearing worlds, while others had to be fused (via a Moogle character from Final Fantasy) out of parts that were also gathered during World Tour. This clunky RPG mechanic felt like an unnecessary extra step which the game didn't really need. It was especially annoying that in-game items such as Potions and collectibles like character cards required the same crafting materials as additional stages and songs. I found myself hoarding materials and avoiding crafting until I gathered the huge amount of resources required for each new song, as some of the game's stand out tracks - including a number of character themes and vocal versions of Disney hits - are locked behind the barrier of crafting.
Melody of Memory features additional nostalgic treats for fans of the series in the form of collectible items. These included character cards, pieces of key art, cards showing the various Keyblades the protagonists have wielded, and (my personal favorite) recaps of important story scenes. I especially liked that the game gave players a practical reason to gather these items, as having more pieces in your collection conferred various in-game buffs such as more powerful attacks or boosted experience points. A Museum mode allows you to browse your collection at any time, providing a trip down memory lane for series devotees. If you're the kind of gamer with a "gotta catch 'em all" mentality and a love of 100% completion, the collectible cards and items will definitely scratch that itch.
Dream Memory Dive Distance
In addition to the Field Battles - standard songs where you attack opponents to the beat while running along a winding path - Melody of Memory features one other type of level, in the form of unlockable Memory Dives. Some Memory Dives can be obtained simply by clearing sections of World Tour mode, while others must be unlocked via the Item Crafting mechanic with the help of a friendly Moogle.
A number of the series' most dearly beloved (pun fully intended) tracks are found as Memory Dives, including the Utada Hikaru-sung theme songs ("Simple and Clean," "Sanctuary," and "Don't Think Twice,") and character themes for Sora, Riku, Roxas, and others. Memory Dives feature your main character falling endlessly downwards while a series of CGI clips from various Kingdom Hearts games play in the background. They are longer than Field Battles, but, as a result, buttons required are also slightly simpler. You will mostly be pressing X and moving the left and right joysticks.
Personally, I found the Memory Dives to be a complete triumph. These are some of the games' best songs, and it is extremely satisfying to see them get the treatment they deserve. The simpler and cleaner (again, pun intended!) gameplay allows you to devote more focus to listening to the song and watching the clips in the background. They're also extremely relaxing and generally calming, especially when compared to the frantic pace of some Field Battles. I found playing these stages to be extremely relaxing, and often went to go play one for fun after every few levels. I definitely wish that there had been more Memory Dives in the game, as they were one of it's greatest strengths.
Melody of Memory is a generally pleasant game which Kingdom Hearts fans will enjoy, especially for the sense of nostalgia and new story content. The musical tracks are well done, minus a few unfortunate omissions. Its sole major drawback is an incredibly busy level design which can make completing certain stages significantly less enjoyable.
Techraptor reviewed Melody of Memory on PlayStation 4 with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
- 150+ Tracks from Throughout Series History
- New Plot Content Hinting at the Future of the Series
- Relaxing Memory Dives Pay Tribute to Iconic Songs
- Some Overcrowded Level Designs Make Certain Stages Frustrating to Play
- Lack of Songs from Side Games
- Certain Popular Tracks Locked Behind Crafting System