Kingdom Hearts is a series that has raised eyebrows since its announcement in 2001, so it’s evident that convention has never been a part of its DNA. That said, there isn’t much that is surprising about the existence of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory. Considering how the first Kingdom Hearts saga finally concluded with the long-awaited release of Kingdom Hearts 3, now seems like the perfect time to celebrate nearly two decades of music and lore with a rhythm-based game by the developers of the Theatrhythm games. The fact that it features a canonical story mode that sparsely teases things to come is just a nice bonus.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory’s story is contained in something called World Tour Mode. As its pun-based name might imply, it is a mode where characters travel through different worlds from the different games. Players take control of Sora and begin their journey through the series’ story with a level set on the iconic Destiny Island. Along the way, they encounter mostly familiar cutscenes narrated by Sora’s childhood friend, Kairi. The story is sporadically distributed and serves more like an abridged version of “The Dark Seeker Saga” than a conventional retelling. This isn’t a condemnation, though. There’s a concise quality to the way it all unfolds that’s easy to appreciate. The beats are there and the overarching story can be cobbled together by players who have never played (or barely remember) parts of the series. Diehard fans, meanwhile, will be able to hang their potent memories off the framework that is established. In short, the story is what the “memory” part of Melody of Memory is alluding to. There are also hints about events that occur outside of the known canon, but those rare occurrences are well within spoiler territory.
The real focus of the game is, of course, the music. Favorites like “Simple and Clean,” are accounted for, as are various Disney instrumentals. There are even some surprise recordings like “Destati” from the Kingdom Hearts Orchestra -World Tour- Album. It should be noted, however, that unlike many Final Fantasy songs, where the melody at the heart of a piece is simple to glean, there will be songs in Melody of Memory that, while great, may be harder to appreciate on an initial listen. There will be odd time signatures and complicated arrangements. There will be times when, like the story, a mood is evoked, but the finer details are more elusive. Songs like these became my favorites to play after some repetition, despite a lack of conventional catchiness.
For the most part, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is successful in marrying its gameplay to its soundtrack. Field Battles, which are what the game calls the majority of the tracks encountered in World Tour mode, boil down to three basic inputs. As the player’s team runs along a track, they encounter enemies and obstacles. Most enemies need to be hit with a melee attack, which is executed by pressing L1, R1, or X with the beat. Jumping allows players to dodge specific objects and attack aerial targets. Jumping can also transition into a glide which is used during sections where a player can soar along a note-filled path by tilting the analog stick left and right. Players will also encounter enemies who need to be dispatched with special abilities. By default, this happens by pressing the triangle button near a blue crystal. It sounds simple on its own, but songs might require the player to input these actions at the same time. Unfortunately, this means frustration when visual elements, like the green gliding line, or bouncing enemies pollute the screen and make it difficult to discern what is being asked.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory. has three different difficulty settings for its songs. There’s also a natural difficulty progression to World Tour that results from increasing the difficulty of stage objectives and varying the predictability of enemy movement. Of these two factors, it’s the stage objectives that primarily task the player with improvement. Various sections of World Tour are blocked off with gates and unlocking them often means gathering enough stars from a specific section of the map. The game doesn’t force you to play every single song to progress, and each song offers up to three stars from completing its challenges, so better players have more freedom and won’t need to complete as many stages to progress. The exception to the rule comes in the form of gates that are unlocked using different criteria, such as ones that require the player to beat an adjacent stage.
Occasionally, World Tour’s branching paths will lead to a boss fight. During these fights, the player characters engage a major enemy in a free-roaming arena. It’s visually interesting, because the ensuing battle is reminiscent of the original encounter from the games, but the more important change comes in the form of gameplay. Gliding and jumping are eliminated and replaced with tilt and hold controls. Tilt controls require the player to tilt the analog stick in a specific direction, while hold controls require them to press, hold and release buttons with precise timing. Bosses will utilize special abilities as well. In order to avoid taking damage from these, players will need to successfully clear away any notes that are shrouded in a dark aura. If they’re successful, they execute a dodge.
As players progress through the game, they will acquire items that can be given to a crafty moogle who will use them to synthesize a variety of rewards. Some of the more useful items are consumables, like the Summoning Star which summons King Mickey to assist the characters through a song. Additionally, players can synthesize Memory Dive songs and collectible cards. The cards unlock art, scenes, and other visual treats but also provide benefits like bonus experience points and improved stats as the collection grows.
Memory Dive songs, on the other hand, are special tracks used in the Track Selection mode that play like boss battles, except there isn’t a boss or boss abilities. Instead, there’s just an accompanying music video compiled from the series most memorable moments.
Melody of Memory contains modes beyond just World Tour and Track Selection, too. An online “VS Battles” mode pits players against others in matches filled with “tricks” that players use to impede their opponent’s progress. A co-op mode is a simpler sort of gameplay where two local players take control of one character each and work together to improve their score. They’re welcome additions, but I spent more time in the game’s Museum Mode, viewing art, watching movies, and listening to the jukebox than I did in either of them combined. There are rewards for merely completing VS Battles and Track Selection is a good way to farm items, so it can be well worth your while to spend time away from World Tour.
There’s a sense that Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is a game that wants to repay longtime fans for their commitment. The music and cutscenes draw from a deep well of nostalgia without relying on it. That said, fans looking for a game that advances the story might be disappointed. Within the context of the franchise, Melody of Memory isn’t the next big moment for Sora, Kairi, or any other of the game’s characters. Instead, it’s a celebration of the moments that have already happened for those characters with a very strong focus on Sora.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory will come to the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch on November 13, 2020. A demo is available.