Kingdom Hearts is a series that many hold dear, bringing about splendid memories of their favorite Disney films mixed with a Final Fantasy flavor. While one chapter closed last year, another opened in its place, leaving room for the series to continue. Of course, being the Kingdom Hearts series, this means at least one spin-off title before getting there. In this case, that falls on Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, a rhythm game from indieszero. Similar to the Theatrhythm series, this spin-off takes fans on a nostalgic trip down memory lane to the music of Yoko Shimomura. While it definitely brings back good memories, this spin-off doesn’t bring them back untarnished.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory takes place immediately after Kingdom Hearts III: Re Mind. Playing the World Tour mode will take you to dozens of worlds, each with songs to complete. Even though the plot follows the last game, roughly 90% of the story is just a recap of the entire series narrated by Kairi. You’ll have to play through hours of rhythm stages just to get to the new plot points. We don’t want to spoil the revelation, but it does at least get the gears turning again for the series. Despite this crucial information, it might not be worth the investment of playing through 118 music stages. It especially feels this way when the new content is only about 25 minutes in the grand scheme of things.
The story aside, Melody of Memory shines in its rhythmic gameplay. Playing as one of four teams from the Kingdom Hearts series, you’ll have three types of stages: Field Battles, Memory Dives, and Boss Battles. Each one plays slightly different, but you’ll mostly experience Field Battles for the majority of songs. Field Battles will have your team running along a musical staff as enemies approach you to the rhythm of the music. You’ll have to attack using one of three buttons, jump to dodge projectiles or strike airborne enemies, and glide along a path of musical notes as you make your way to the end of the song. If you miss a note, an enemy will usually deal some damage to your health bar. Lose all your health and that means you failed the song.
Memory Dives take a different approach, putting players over a cinematic utilizing multiple clips with a central theme. Your team will fly along and similarly strike notes like you would in field battles, though with the addition of joystick actions. It also switches out the gliding for holding down a note, with the possibility of needing to do multiple notes during the hold. Finally, Boss Battles will be like a mix of Field Battles and Memory Dives. These put players in a battle arena where they fight against a major boss. The notes will work similarly to Memory Dives, but there will be the addition of dark notes. Manage to hit these notes and you’ll dodge the attacks from the boss. These stages are all fairly unique, though it would’ve been nice to get a few more Boss Battles.
Honestly, that’s where Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory drops the ball. There’s a lot of glaring omissions from the game, and it makes one wonder if any attempt was made to maintain these missing elements. First of all, likely due to licensing, there’s a lot of missing music. Songs like “He’s a Pirate” or “Night on Bald Mountain” are completely gone here. To make matters worse, those specific worlds are completely absent. The Caribbean, Symphony of Sorcery, Deep Jungle, and even the Hundred Acre Wood get a snub here. I can understand why certain songs might not make it in, but I don’t get why the non-licensed music couldn’t have been used with a different setting.
Missing worlds and songs are one thing, but then there’s the guest characters. While mostly a fun feature, some worlds feature a guest character to temporarily join your team. Characters like Aladdin, Stitch, Mulan and more will spice up a stage. Despite having several guests, again, some end up being a no-show. This includes Jack Skellington, who despite being attached to two worlds in the game (Halloweentown and Christmas Town), doesn’t make an appearance. This is also the case for any of the Kingdom Hearts III guests, mainly due to those worlds all being Memory Dives. Probably the most disappointing for me was that Auron doesn’t join you for Kingdom Hearts II’s Underworld. It really makes one wonder what’s preventing these features from happening.
To make things even more confusing, the game includes songs that have never been in the series before. Songs like “Circle of Life” and “A Whole New World” are unlockable by synthesizing with a Moogle. While these classic Disney songs are certainly welcome, it ultimately brings things into question. Of course, there’s also the classic Disney songs that do appear in the games, like Frozen’s “Let it Go”. You even have one Final Fantasy track, though it’s a missed opportunity for The World Ends With You music. With such a large tracklist, at least there’s still plenty of quality songs to choose from. It also provides an excellent mix of Shimomura’s composition range.
Another thing worth mentioning is the strange game design choices during World Tour. Each song has three missions to complete, earning stars to unlock gates to new stages. While most of these missions are pretty normal, some are real head scratchers. Some missions will have you rack up a total number through multiple attempts, meaning some stages have to be replayed three or four times to complete the mission. Other missions require changing to certain difficulties. While the higher difficulty missions make sense, some require playing on the lower Beginner difficulty. It’s just a strange design choice, and it even affects the achievements, both in-game and the PlayStation trophies/Xbox achievements. For those that want to complete everything, you’ll have to play over 140 songs on three different difficulties. This also includes getting a “Full Chain” score on 50 songs on each difficulty.
While I certainly have my qualms, most of these are merely as a fan of the series. I’m personally disappointed at these omissions and oversights. If I take my personal feelings out of the equation, then this is a mostly stellar Kingdom Hearts rhythm game. Of course, that doesn’t mean it gets a free pass at everything. There are still some issues at hand that most players will likely run into, fan or not. Some of them continue the trend of strange design choices while others take issue with the presentation.
Graphically, the game uses models from the remastered Kingdom Hearts games. This means no Unreal Engine like with Kingdom Hearts III. While this helps to release on a system like the Nintendo Switch, it does make the game feel a little dated. Despite the lower graphical detail, the game also has performance problems, specifically during Memory Dives. Not only are the cutscenes in the background distracting, but it seems that they cause frame rate drops as well. This creates a problem when you’re trying to precisely hit a note during a song, only for it to jump a few frames suddenly. Luckily, the rhythm of the music helps. It’s sort of a testament to the developers for how well the notes are synced to the music. Some of the Memory Dives even have special synchronization with visuals as well.
While World Tour is the main attraction, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory also has multiplayer. Two players can compete online in a rhythm face-off, playing identically to the Field Battles. To spice things up, doing well earns “tricks” for players to use against their opponent. Tricks come in a variety of flavors, like turning enemies invisible, removing rhythm markers, or even shrinking enemies. While tricks on their own are a minor nuisance, the real issue is when they come in pairs. This is where the multiplayer comes off unbalanced, as you can literally have a good few seconds where your notes are completely invisible. This means that unless you memorize the song pattern, you’re not going to do well.
While the competitive multiplayer can become a nightmare, the co-op multiplayer can still be enjoyable. Again, it takes Field Battles into the multiplayer realm as a friend joins alongside you for the ride. Playing as Sora and Riku, you’ll hit notes like normal, though now, there’s a healing mechanic. If your teammate is struggling, you can save them with some magical medical care by hitting ability crystals. It doesn’t change things up too much, but it at least provides some local co-op fun with a buddy. The Nintendo Switch version also adds a local eight player battle royale mode, allowing players to compete for the highest score. Of course, as long as every player has a Switch and a copy of the game.
Again, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is a pretty great rhythm game, providing solid and challenging gameplay as well as a stellar tracklist. It may be missing a lot of fan favorite elements, but if you overlook it, it’s still an impressive recap of the series. If you’re a casual fan and you want to experience the music, it’s a fun enough time. For those that are the die-hard fans, you’ll mostly be playing this for the new clues at the end. It’s assuredly going to be a big piece of the puzzle that is this series, but it might not be a big enough reward for some. Either way, it was great to revisit these games in a new way.
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