Square Enix’s latest is a strong rhythm action game and stellar trip down memory lane.
A rhythm game using Kingdom Hearts series’ most iconic songs is a no-brainer. There’s a rich catalog of vocal tracks, background music and battle music to draw from, especially given the series’ history. So even if it had to happen on the cusp of a new generation, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is here and pretty good overall. As with many of its titles over the past few years though, there are a few nags here and there, starting with the story.
Yes, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory isn’t just a rhythmic action game. It recollects key moments in the Dark Seeker Saga, like a trip down memory lane with the music softening some of the more inane plot twists (and I mean that in the best possible way).
"Kairi’s story serves as an epilogue and ultimately a transition to whatever the next game has to offer. Nothing more, nothing less."
However, it’s also a sequel to Kingdom Hearts 3: ReMind with Kairi searching through her memories to ultimately lead her to Sora. The overall coalescing of these two themes isn’t as jumbled as you might think but this isn’t a climactic finale on the level of the mainline games. Kairi’s story serves as an epilogue and ultimately a transition to whatever the next game has to offer. Nothing more, nothing less.
And that’s perfectly fine because it keeps the focus on the rhythmic gameplay. Melody of Memory sees you choosing a team and venturing to different locations in World Tour mode, each having their own stages and objectives. The majority of them consist of Field Battles where your team runs down a track, battling various Heartless, Nobodies and so on to the beat. You can equip different items to restore health at key moments, increase item drop rate and XP gain, and even summon King Mickey to act as a fourth party member. Teams can be leveled up for increased stats while leveling the item merchant will unlock new recipes.
"The design of each beat map is also incredibly pinpoint, matching the song’s rhythm while providing some unique challenges."
Attacking a singular enemy is easy enough – simply press X on the PS4 controller, for example – but there are moments where two or three enemies must be attacked simultaneously. At this point, you default to pressing L1 and R1 or L1, R1 and X together. Jumping over enemy projectiles with Circle, which is also used to eliminate mid-air threats, or hitting Triangle to unleash magic against larger foes are also a thing. Some Disney-based stages also throw in a guest character like Hercules, Beast or Mulan, and while they don’t really add much in terms of unique abilities, they do provide bonuses when hitting certain beats in the tracks.
World Tour kicks off in very modest fashion but as you progress, it starts throwing tougher beat maps at you. This is where the game shines though – from Destiny Islands to Olympus Coliseum or the upbeat tones of The Promised Beginning to the somber End of the World, Kingdom Hearts still offers some of the absolute best music in gaming. The selection here is top-notch, deftly evoking the emotion and nostalgia of key story arcs.
Utada Hikaru’s tracks, namely Simple and Clean, Sanctuary and Don’t Think Twice, are also included along with classic Disney riffs like Under the Sea and Let It Go. The design of each beat map is also incredibly pinpoint, matching the song’s rhythm while providing some unique challenges. Perhaps the only real criticism of the stages is their backgrounds – they can be fairly repetitive. Some, like the Steamboat Willie stage, are the exception rather than the rule.
"The graphics quality throughout can also be uneven. While the general art direction for the series’ various titles is good, several environmental aspects and cutscene characters look a bit rough."
Boss Battles are also here, though they work in slightly different fashion. You’re essentially dealing damage and guarding against enemy attacks, both determined by the precision of your inputs. There’s more variety to be had though, with long presses and directional presses with the joysticks on top of the usual controls. Overall, they’re fine but don’t really capture some of the more climactic moments from certain fights. Remember when Sora and Riku deflected the dome of lasers created by Xemnas in Kingdom Hearts 2? Or the flying shoot ’em up section? Neither are here. While Square Enix and indieszero didn’t have to bring these kinds of set pieces into all of the stages, a few mix-ups in the boss fights – which are few enough as is – would have been great.
The graphics quality throughout can also be uneven. While the general art direction for the series’ various titles is good, several environmental aspects and cutscene characters look a bit rough. Also, oddly enough, certain cutscenes (like from 358/2 Days) look slightly worse than expected, either due to compression or some other issue. Some may also take issue with many finer plot points of the saga – – like the interactions between the main cast and Disney characters – but the various cutscenes do their job well enough. But it goes without saying that this is a mere substitute for experiencing the series first-hand and the complete omission of any Final Fantasy characters feels wrong, especially given how significantly they contributed to earlier titles.
Each stage offers different objectives to complete, which can range from defeating a certain number of enemies to hitting every barrel and box available. Some require completing different conditions in Proud Mode (which ups the number of inputs and damage received) or defeating a cumulative number of foes. Completing objectives contributes to unlocking stars to progress forward but you don’t need to do everything to finish the main story. They do add to the replay value though, especially when dropping materials for crafting different items like Concept Art, Profile Icons and additional Memory Dives.
"It might be niche in many aspects but serves as a stellar recap of the saga’s most iconic moments."
Speaking of Memory Dives, they’ll pop up at certain stages in World Tour, capturing key moments from worlds like Monsters Inc. or Big Hero 6 (and looking incredibly sharp in the process). But it’s the crafted Memory Dives for specific characters which are especially nice as they take you on a tour of their memories. Brief as these various snippets may be, it’s peak nostalgia.
But that’s not all. There’s also Performer Style, which adds L2, R2 and Square as additional “bonus” beats. These beats aren’t mandatory to press but can increase one’s score further, and also add a nice challenging layer to songs along with Proud Mode. While online play couldn’t really be tested, I had a blast competing in offline ranked battles with AI opponents. It’s a lot more fun than you’d think especially with Tricks coming into play.
These are debuffs, like invisible indicators or fake targets, that can be cast on your opponent when successfully chaining together beats, though the same can also be applied on you. Far from being a nuisance, I loved the additional challenge and gameplay variety they provided. Hopefully, a future update adds them to World Tour mode as well, if only as an optional modifier.
With over 140 songs, excellently designed beat maps, a variety of different modes and difficulties, solid gameplay mechanics and the raw appeal of reliving the entire Dark Seeker Saga, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is a fun experience. Despite its imperfections, there’s a lot to sink one’s teeth into, whether they love rhythm games or the franchise. It might be niche in many aspects but serves as a stellar recap of the saga’s most iconic moments.
This game was reviewed on PS4.
Excellent music that encompasses over 140 tracks from the series. Well-executed mechanics and beat maps. Good amount of variety between Field Battles, Boss Battles, Memory Dives and more. Objectives and additional difficulties provide strong replay value with lots of stuff to unlock. Versus mode, even offline, provides some fun unique hooks.
Some stage backgrounds tend to get repetitive. Presentation looks a bit shabby especially in some cutscenes and environmental assets. Not enough boss battles, and present ones lack key iconic moments. The Epilogue and Kairi's story feels pretty inconsequential.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory has been long time coming. Even with its faults, Square Enix and indieszero deliver a rhythmic fantasia that captures the series' music at its very best.