There's a lot that can be said about the Kingdom Hearts series. If you have several hours, we can talk about the story and the dozens of different directions its gone and the myriad of ways in which it's jumped off a cliff. But Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory isn't about the Kingdom Hearts story, at least not entirely. It's about one of the series' more shining elements, that being its music. Shacknews recently had an early opportunity to try out the game's demo.
There are some who look at Melody of Memory and expect it to play similarly to a different Square Enix musical spin-off series: Theatrhythm. The spirit of the two games are similar. Theatrhythm is a rhythm game revolving around Final Fantasy songs, while Melody of Memory compiles the best tracks from Kingdom Hearts. However, the two play quite differently to the point that Melody of Memory could present its own unique challenges.
Rather than follow notes along a highway, Melody of Memory puts Kingdom Hearts characters on the highway. As the characters run straight ahead, they're confronted by different Heartless and other enemies, which they fight by hitting the attack button to the beat of the song. There are three different attack buttons, mapped to X, L1, and R1 on the PS4. One attack button is often enough, but there are times when two or three enemies will strike simultaneously, requiring more than one attack strike at once. While most of the cues are for attacks, there's an occasional special icon where players must hit a special attack button (Triangle on PS4) to cast magic or cue up one of Sora's abilities.
Melody of Memory further distances itself from Theatrhythm by adding in familiar Kingdom Hearts mechanics. There are airborne enemies and sometimes Sora has to jump in order to strike them. Likewise, some enemies will fire off projectiles from a distance, so Sora has to jump to avoid them. Again, all of this is done to the beat. The other main mechanic that can take a lot of getting used to is Glide. This is familiar to Kingdom Hearts players, but using the Glide function to float in mid-air is a strange addition to a rhythm game, even if the idea does appear to be to invoke long chords.
The multitude of buttons can make it easy for players to mix them up and forget what's what, especially when on Standard or Proud difficulty. Higher difficulties will have multiple Heartless show up at once, requiring players to sometimes jump with one character and attack with a different character at the same time. There were multiple instances where I started spamming the wrong button and subsequently failed the song. It's something that likely gets easier with practice, but information overload can be a thing in the heat of the moment.
The other issue that I have with Melody of Memory at the moment is that the demo is a stark reminder that not every Kingdom Hearts song is really meant for this sort of game. Tracks like the Wonderland theme weren't really toe tappers to begin with, but crafting a rhythm game stage around it feels like an odd choice. Fortunately, there are other songs from the franchise that are perfect for this type of game. Wave of Darkness, the theme from Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth By Sleep - A Fragmentary Passage/Kingdom Hearts 3 that accompanies the Demon Tide, is as beautiful as it is epic and was a blast to play in this demo. There's a reason that a Kingdom Hearts orchestra show is a thing. A lot of the music is fantastic and will fit in well with this format.
How the full package takes shape remains to be seen. It could be a collection of larger-than-life orchestral tunes set to some challenging rhythm game mechanics. Or it could be a bunch of tracks that just aren't suited to this type of game. We'll find out what it ends up being when Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory releases on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch on November 13.