There are many reasons why Kingdom Hearts became a big-time phenomenon to so many people. There are the unforgettable original characters, the injection of Disney worlds into a uniquely Square Enix aesthetic, the massive story (one that I've had a love-hate relationship with for more than 15 years) that teaches lessons of love and friendship. There's also the soundtrack, an epic orchestral score that brings all of these worlds to life and one that has evolved throughout the past decade and a half. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is, above all else, a celebration of the series' past 15 years of music mixed together with a fun, if slightly monotonous, gameplay formula.
Kairi, this is your life!
While Melody of Memory is primarily about Kingdom Hearts' music, there is a narrative device at work. Players run through a majority of the series' songs and are occasionally treated to cutscenes recapping the story to the point. It's supporting character Kairi providing the narration and if anybody has played the Kingdom Hearts 3: Re-Mind DLC, they might be able to guess why. But those looking for another entry into the Kingdom Hearts lore won't get that until the end, so for the moment, let's put a pin in this and come back to it later.
Melody of Memory looks like a rhythm game on the surface, but it plays differently than something like the Theatrhythm series, Square Enix's celebration of the Final Fantasy music catalog. Here, players watch Sora, Donald, and Goofy (or one of three other unlockable teams) run through a musical highway and must beat up incoming Heartless to the beat of the song. However, there's more to it than simply tapping a button to the beat. Some enemies will come simultaneously, requiring more than one button press. Other enemies will be hanging in the air, requiring Sora to jump before striking. Music notes will hang in the air, where Sora needs to use his Glide ability to collect them. Higher difficulties will have enemies come at you while Sora's gliding. The challenge in Melody of Memory is in maintaining the beat, even as there's so much happening on the screen at the same time.
Progression involves completing a trio of challenges in each song. Some are simple enough, like hitting a certain number of targets without missing. There are others that are significantly tougher, especially as some songs will require Proud difficulty runs. If you're a novice hoping to complete every goal, you're going to be disappointed. Other goals require multiple playthroughs, meaning you'll have to hear the same song several times before completing the challenge. Given that the core gameplay can start to feel repetitive after a while, I would have liked to see a better variety of challenges. Likewise, Square attempts to inject RPG elements, like items and leveling, but those ultimately feel tacked-on and don't really impact the overall experience. I would have liked to see the team go farther with the mixture of rhythm gameplay and RPG mechanics, but it's not to be.
The problem with a concept like Melody of Memory, which features nearly every song in the series catalog, is that while there are a lot of highs, there are going to be a lot of lows. There are more than a handful of songs that aren't particularly good fits for the rhythm game concept. The Traverse Town and Twilight Town tracks stand out, especially. They do their job for setting the mood in the core series, but trying to tap to the beat of something so slow feels awkward. Having said that, I had forgotten how many truly great tracks this series has had. It's been a treat to play through some Disney classics, some of the epic orchestral clashes that debuted in Kingdom Hearts II, and even hear the evolution of some of the game's older tracks. The progression of the Kingdom Hearts Hollow Bastion, to the slightly restored Hollow Bastion of Kingdom Hearts II, to the Radiant Garden of Birth By Sleep has been a lot of fun to listen to.
There are a few other level types featured outside of the main Field Battle Music Stages. Players will occasionally run into boss battles against some of the series' most noteworthy villains. The idea is still to hit notes to the beat, but players are doing it on a differently-styled note highway as their party is doing battle with the boss. It's a cool idea and one that's not used nearly enough, as there are roughly three or four boss battles total in the entire game.
There's a different style of level and this one isn't introduced until close to the end. It's the Memory Dive and it plays out more like a full-blown cutscene. Cutscenes from Kingdom Hearts 3 will play out in the background while Sora flies on a skybound highway, where the object is, again, to hit notes to the beat. On the one hand, I can see why Square opted for this idea. How else are they going to shoehorn in the entirety of "Let It Go?" But for as monotonous as the normal Field Battles can be, they at least felt more interesting than these glorified playable cutscenes.
All of these songs and their challenges are worth playing through for more than a few reasons. First and foremost, you'll want to progress to the end, because that's where Melody of Memory moves away from its retrospective path and adds new story elements. It's true that there's nothing added to the story until the very end, so it does take a while to get to the fireworks factory. With that said, get to the fireworks factory this game does. If you're a Kingdom Hearts fan, you absolutely want to know what's happening in Melody of Memory, because from the looks of it, it's directly impacting where the series is going next.
The other incentive to play more is to unlock new songs, including full-blown Disney hits, like "Circle of Life" and "A Whole New World." These are playable Field Battles in the freestyle Track Selection mode, but they can also be played in Melody of Memories' head-to-head multiplayer. Multiplayer plays out similarly to something like Guitar Hero or Rock Band, where players can try and throw each other off with "Tricks" that disrupt the opponent. Some of the Tricks, like one that throws defeated Heartless directly at the screen to obstruct your vision, are creatively designed and add some life to what would otherwise be a tacked-on game mode. Both co-op and competitive multiplayer are both a blast to play and add a refreshing amount of life to this package.
Hitting the right notes
I'll say this much for Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, I didn't truly appreciate just how wonderful the series' music is until I played this game. There are over 100 tracks here and most of what's included is a lot of fun to experience. It's hard not to be disappointed by some noteworthy exclusions (Don't look for anything from Fantasia or Pirates of the Carribean here), but they're trumped by some of the very best of what the series has to offer. And credit to Square Enix and Indies Zero for presenting these songs in such a unique manner. Yes, the Field Battles can feel repetitive after a while and the Memory Dive could be done better, but experiencing the soundtrack more than makes up for that. The addition of new story elements feels like more of a bonus than anything, though it can't be emphasized enough how much these new reveals will matter to the series going forward.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory doesn't always hit the right note. But as somebody who's followed the series for many years, there couldn't be a better tribute to its unforgettable music. It's pure Disney magic.
This review is based on a PlayStation 4 digital code provided by the publisher. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is available now on the PlayStation Store, the Microsoft Store, and Nintendo eShop for $59.99. The game is rated E10+.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory
- More than 100 series tracks featured
- Creative rhythm game design
- Unlockable classic Disney songs
- Boss battles are a cool idea
- New story information is riveting
- Multiplayer is fun
- Not all of those 100+ tracks work in a rhythm game
- Field Battles get dull after a while
- Memory Dives feel like glorified cutscenes
- Limited boss battles
- RPG mechanics feel tacked on
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory review - Fantasmic