Reviewed on both the Xbox Series S & X
After Kingdom Hearts 3 was released in 2019, and its DLC released in early 2020, Kingdom Hearts fans expected a long drought between then and the next entry in the series. Sneaky Tetsuya Nomura, the creator and Director of the series, surprised us all in one of his famed notes around the time of ReMinds release saying we should be expecting the next release sooner rather than later. Melody of Memory was revealed to the world in June, 2020 with a rather quick turn around release date of November the same year. Well, here we are in November, and all I can say is, Wow. There are many different entries in the Kingdom Hearts series, each with their own quirks and special mechanics, but nothing like a complete reframe of the game. Let me tell you (please disregard the pun), this game sings.
While there isn’t much story to the game, Melody of Memory serves as a great recap for lapsed fans and those who want to get into the series but feel overwhelmed just by the sheer amount of games required to “get” the story. There is only one level out of the many MANY worlds that is “new content” but that's OK. This isn’t the point of Melody of Memory. Throughout the eight-ish hours of playtime, you are playing as one of four different teams of three running through a memory dive which is a 2 minute course featuring a specific song from the world you’re visiting. So what is the driving force, the overarching narrative of this adventure? Kairi uses a special machine to search through her memories to find a secret that could lead her and Riku to Sora’s whereabouts.
**Spoilers ahead for the ending of Kingdom Hearts 3 and part of the ending of Melody of Memory**
In the Kingdom Hearts timeline, Melody of Memory picks up shortly after the final ending of Kingdom Hearts III. Sora has disappeared into the unknown after using his own power of waking to save Kairi after her untimely demise during their ultimate battle with Xehanort and his own Organization XIII. What’s weird though is the premise doesn’t get explained until the final battle. So after beating certain worlds, you are treated with a quick recap of the major events voiced over by Kairi that seem to come from nowhere. Honestly if you didn’t watch the trailers before playing, you may not even know the premise to begin with and would think this is just a fun rhythm spin-off game. Without spoiling too much, the new story beats set up a LOT and have a lot of implications that I cannot wait to see come to fruition.
Even then, this game was promised as Kairi's story. She's on the cover, she's the one who speaks to you and gives you recaps of key moments of the game, and the main goal of the story is about her lost memories. With the promise of a game that finally will give Kairi to shine, it falls very flat and almost robs her of her moment. Hopefully soon, she will finally get the respect she deserves, at least with a game or two devoted to her training and eventual rise to hopefully be a Keyblade master.
**End of spoilers**
So how did Nomura-San interpret the fast paced action of Kingdom Hearts into a rhythm game? Well this is honestly where the magic is. Combat takes place on a ever winding music staff that runs through several rooms of a world as the backdrop. Enemies run at your trio in time with the beat of different musical instruments played during one of the many songs composed by Yoko Shimomura. Attacks are done with one of three buttons ( A, LB, and RB) that can be pressed in any order to do a single attack against an enemy. Other actions include doing a jump attack, jumping over attacks, doing a simultaneous attack when two or more enemies line up, magic spells, and gliding through notes create a melodious tune that lines up near perfectly with the song. What’s amazing is how well choreographed this wacky mix is. When the screen looks busy, every single action is distinct enough for you to complete every action when they’re called for.
That’s not the only mode however. At several different occasions the game changes how you play through the music. The first is an interpretation of a boss battle where the trio you chose is fighting a boss in the background while the music notes sweep around the screen to you noted with a specific line denoting when you press the corresponding button. Another involves the chosen trio flying along the screen over a music staff as cutscenes play in the background. This mostly happens with the Kingdom Hearts 3 games and cutscenes that show off a specific characters journey as their theme plays. The latter mode is really cool, but can be weird when upbeat music like the world music from the Kingdom of Corona play as you see Flynn Rider get stabbed by Mother Gothel in the final scenes of said world. Each have their own distinct gameplay elements that still work for what they’re trying to convey.
Like most rhythm games, there is a fail state. In this one, that is your health. As you miss notes, or in the boss fight mode fail to hit notes well enough during specific segments, your trio takes damage. Take enough damage and it’s game over. There are items and other ways to make sure you don’t fail as fast. Synthesis is back where you can make items with ingredients obtained at the end of a level, or you can naturally find potions and mega potions while beating songs as well. These automatically go off after your health crosses a specific threshold which is nice in the high difficulty levels so it doesn’t feel like an extra button press takes you away from the action. Also, your teams level up. Each level up gives your team more health and a higher defense making those more difficult levels that much more bearable and slightly less tense.
The game isn’t just a song list you choose from though. There are three distinct modes you can switch between at any time. The first is a song list that has every song you’ve unlocked listed and can be sorted in any order that is convenient for you, from songs of each game, each world, and difficulty. Then there is the world map. Like past kingdom hearts games, you fly around this in the Gummi Ship and select a world. Each world tends to have 1-2 songs that are the world exploration music and the battle music. Another key feature about what can be described as the “story mode” is each song has 3 missions you can complete to get stars. Get enough stars and you unlock the next batch of worlds. These missions can be difficult but will be completed naturally as long as you strive for getting an A or higher on each song. I never felt like I was overburdened with missions and had to backtrack to complete more to progress the game, and most can be completed on any difficulty making it accessible to all. The final mode is a versus mode. You can play against bots or other players online in a 1 v 1 highest score wins match in any song. As you both play, you play tricks on each other after reaching a point threshold and each trick is random. These can range from smaller enemies and notes, invisible enemies, invisible note markers, and mistimed fake notes. What’s nice is the first and last modes described are just fun optional things to do if you want to get more out of this game (and for those that want to get every achievement too).
I honestly have very little complaints for this latest entry (beyond the one about Kairi's lack of involvement mentioned above). On occasion the screen can get too busy but that is mostly for the higher difficulty songs. Thankfully every song has three difficulties so you can play them at the difficulty you want. Along those line, some songs actually feel more difficult on lower difficulties because the notes may be too slow to match with the beat of the song, or the beats happen on a different note than you’re anticipating, while higher difficulty songs tend to have a bear for every note in the song.
What I found humorous though is the game being too tied to the previous engine used for the Kingdom Hearts series. You do see the new looks of certain Kingdom Hearts characters at certain points in the game, but they are Re-rendered in the old engine to match the aesthetic. This is why I consider this game to be the final swan song for the old engine that many fans cherish and appreciate. This could be the final time we see these characters as their older models while all future games will be made similarly to Kingdom Hearts 3 in the Unreal Engine. The only positive though is I hope this is the last time we see KH1 Sora be used. I’m tired of him being over used for many of the side-quels and can’t wait to embrace the newer look of everyone.
Finally, the song choice is near perfect. Most worlds have the orchestral remix of known Disney properties that fit their exploration and battle themes. Sometimes, there are straight songs used, like when you play through the opening cinematics of some games; and that makes sense. There are four songs that stand out like a sore thumb. The first being Let It Go from the hit movie, Frozen. I love the song and will unabashedly rock out to it when I work out. I also found it really funny when in Kingdom Hearts 3, the team remade the song nearly shot-for-shot with Sora, Donald, and Goofy just being there during it. I hope you can see where I'm going with this. As mentioned above, the Kingdom Hearts III worlds are a cutscene that shows off the events of that world with their main theme playing. That wasn't the case for Arendelle. They redid Let It Go and had Sora, Donald, and Goofy fly over Sora, Donald, and Goofy finding Elsa as she let it go and embraced her ice powers while singing. The other three instances are fine because they are unlockable classic Disney songs, like Circle of Life from Lion King, A Whole New World from 1992s Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast from 1991s movie of the same name. There are other songs that don't fit the mold like the rest of the games soundtrack, but those are amazing revisions that are known from the Kingdom Hearts piano collection and the Orchestra World Tour performances and I found playing those to be a real treat as well as a nice reprieve. Again, it's an odd mix that somehow works beautifully to create just an all-star line-up of music that shows one of the best sides of the Kingdom Hearts series splendidly.
While it doesn't add much to the grand story of Kingdom Hearts, Melody of Memory still feels like a fantastic addition that finds a way to make the future of the series feel ripe with possibilities. Nomura and the team have found a way to make a new take on the rhythm game genre feel fun without getting stale unless you want to keep replaying songs to get a higher score. Also, this is just an amazing way to say "thank you" to Kingdom Hearts long time composer, Yoko Shimomura, what with showing off their best work for all to enjoy in a fun and digestible form. While I cannot recommend this game enough to old fans and new, this game may not be the best entry point for people trying to find a way to jump in to the series because of how abridged the recaps can be. It also fails to be Kairi's time to shine that we all believed it would be. Even so, this game is all about appreciation and celebration of the amazing work the different Square teams have done for the series, as well as looking forward to what the future will bring. And for that, it sings marvelously.