Developer: Square Enix, Indieszero | Publisher: Square Enix | Genre: Rhythm | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One| Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
The Kingdom Hearts series is sort of like the little engine that could. As if making a Disney/Final Fantasy hybrid work to begin with wasn’t enough, the series has since grown and been spun off to include all manner of mini-games, genres, and play styles. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is the latest in the ever-growing franchise and, despite initial skepticism, has come out surprisingly well.
I only say “surprisingly” for two reasons. The first being the notoriously fickle (yet loyal) nature of the Kingdom Hearts fanbase. Opinions can be very intense when it comes to this series but, for the most part, Melody of Memory seems to be faring pretty well. The second reason is Kingdom Hearts’ penchant for treading water as a series. In case it wasn’t obvious from the most recent DLC, this franchise has a tendency toward navel-gazing exposition and a series of never-ending recaps that… well, never seem to end.
That last bit is certainly Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory’s greatest weakness. As much of this game revolves around retelling (or replaying) different aspects, moments and beats from the 10 previous Kingdom Hearts games, less patient or story-centric fans will be quickly frustrated at the lack of new content. To access any of the new cutscenes, which advance the story further, players will have to go through at least 5-10 hours of gameplay.
Of course, this would only be seen as a negative if you’re just here for the new stuff. Though it seems unlikely that many would purchase a full-priced game just for that, with this franchise we need to be explicitly clear. The amount of brand new story only adds up to roughly 20-30 minutes in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory. So, if you’re a hardcore fan, basing your purchase on that particular benchmark, this game may not be for you.
If, however, you just happen to love this series to death, the latest Kingdom Hearts game will be much more likely to satisfy. Essentially just a series of rhythm-based stages that remind (or educate) players on the back story of the previous games, Melody of Memory would be an empty vessel without its fun factor.
Luckily Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory has an addictive gameplay loop that outdoes much of its competition in the rhythm genre. Even if the structure of the game is very simple, Melody of Memory transcends its basic design through the strength of its look, feel and sound.
Like most rhythm games Melody of Memory is mainly comprised of tapping buttons to the beat. The closer the button-tapping is to the exact moment of the beat determines how well you do. How this entry changes things up, though, makes it unique. Like how Kingdom Hearts was once adapted to a card game for Chain of Memories, this exceedingly versatile franchise grafts itself amazingly well to a rhythm game.
All of the Kingdom Hearts staples are here in Melody of Memory. Players will battle heartless, unversed, dream-eaters and nobodies as they make their way through one toe-tapping, head-bobbing stage after another. You swing keyblades, you cast spells, you jump and glide and soar. It’s all here, and it’s very impressive to be honest.
The stages of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory are split up into three basic types. The first, and most common, sees players running through iconic locations, playing the songs that would accompany those areas, and matching their moves and attacks to the beat. The second sees players simply floating through a series of cutscenes while the matching music plays, mapping more diverse button presses to make up for the lack of movement.
Finally, the third type is a boss fight. These stages are rare but they’re far more challenging than the other two types. The button presses are as diverse as the cutscene or memory stages but they come much faster. Further complicating things, players must also try and dodge attacks to the beat, and without the indicator that usually accompanies them. These stages can be very intense and are by far the toughest part of the game.
Speaking of difficulty, there are three levels here. Players will start in Beginner mode but can change to Standard or Proud at any time. What mode you’re most comfortable with will depend on your skill and patience with the game but I found Standard to be the best all-around mode. It’s challenging enough to keep you on your toes but not as punishing as Proud mode.
Completionists will have to play across all three difficulties in order to do everything in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory. The structure of the game is actually fairly similar to that of a mobile game in some ways. You battle through level after level, selecting them from an open world. While beating the level is sometimes enough, players can also earn up to three stars per level for accomplishing certain feats or meeting specific criteria.
This gives the game a ton of replay value. Though the amount of stars needed to complete Melody of Memory is pretty easily managed (players don’t even need to complete every stage to beat the game) more hardcore and challenge-oriented gamers will find the need to scratch the itch of besting every level the same way they might in an addictive platformer.
All of this to say that yes, against all odds, Kingdom Hearts has yet another successful spin-off. Though Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory does share the other series spin-offs’ penchant for retreading story beats, since that’s pretty much the point here it comes across as much less egregious.
Of course, Yoko Shimomura’s gorgeous music helps matters greatly. A rhythm game is nothing without great music, and Shimomura’s work is unmatched by any other Square-Enix composer save Nobuo Uematsu and Yoshinori Kitase. From her takes on iconic Disney themes to her original scores for the Kingdom Hearts series, Shimomura is a force of emotional resonance and her music is often the most evocative element of conveying that emotion in the series.
This adds a lot of value to Melody of Memory, since many fans will be happy to just listen to this music again. The fact that there’s a pretty solid rhythm game underneath the surface genuinely feels like the cherry on top sometimes. Shimomura’s work is just that good.
Still, at the end of the day, despite these strengths, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is really for the die-hard fans of the series. If you’re a casual fan or don’t like rhythm games, this probably isn’t for you. However, if you’re one of the legions of Kingdom Hearts fans that eats up every new title like their Skittles, Melody of Memory will be just the hit of Kingdom Hearts sweetness that you’ve been waiting for.