I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Kingdom Hearts right now.
While I was initially hot on 2019’s Kingdom Hearts III, the Disney-Square Enix crossover series’ latest mainline entry, and still maintain that it’s an excellent game, I’ve come to look back on its story far less favourably over time. At this point, it’s no secret that the franchise has a ridiculously convoluted overarching narrative, and that was made only more complicated by KH3‘s maddeningly obtuse secret ending and epilogue add-on ReMind.
That’s why Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory (MoM) is so intriguing. Although it’s set after the events of KH3, MoM gives the series a much-needed narrative breather by primarily focusing on revisiting previous games’ events from the perspective of longtime Kingdom Hearts tritagonist Kairi through the framework of a rhythm game.
And thankfully, it’s mostly successful in doing so. While its story leaves much to be desired, MoM‘s rock-solid gameplay mechanics centred around the series’ magnificent music make it an overall worthwhile experience.
Kairi continues to be underwhelming
Spoilers below for Kingdom Hearts 3:
With longtime KH series hero Sora having vanished after rescuing Kairi at the end of KH3, it’s now up to the plucky young heroine to save him. To do that, she enters a deep sleep to relive her memories in an effort to find clues as to Sora’s whereabouts.
From there, the campaign puts you on a surprisingly lengthy guided tour through dozens of stages inspired by all of the previous games in the series’ nearly 20-year history, starting with Kingdom Hearts and leading up to KH3. This makes MoM unwieldy for series newcomers, especially as the game does a poor job of retelling what came before it. That’s because you’ll only occasionally get brief flashbacks from the previous games consisting of woefully uncharismatic narration from Kairi.
These older scenes make up the bulk of MoM‘s campaign, with virtually no new story developments to be found until the final 30-odd minutes, resulting in awkward pacing overall. While the finale does tease some promising developments for the series’ future, it’s not enough to make up for how little Kairi is actually given to do here.
To be sure, the flashback conceit at least serves as a fun way for fans to wax nostalgic about previous games. As someone who grew up with the franchise, I was consistently smiling over the fond memories. Unfortunately, this also means that the story’s spotlight is placed on other characters like Sora and his friend Riku reliving their most heroic moments, making Kairi — an already thinly-written character — feel ever the more sidelined.
Come for the music, stay for the gameplay
Thankfully, while MoM‘s story is both lacklustre and impenetrable to anyone but the most stalwart of KH fans, the game more than redeems itself with everything else. Above all, MoM serves as a showcase of the series’ absolutely fantastic soundtracks, largely composed by the wonderful Yoko Shimomura. This is what makes the game great for fans and newcomers alike, not the retelling of old story beats.
All told, Shimomura’s music is transcendent, featuring an eclectic assortment of tracks (many of which make impressive use of violins) to create some of gaming’s greatest tunes.
While the series has several hundred compositions at this point, MoM features a well-rounded lineup of more than 140, including standouts like ‘Dearly Beloved,’ ‘Fragments of Sorrow,’ ‘Monstrous Monstro,’ ‘Darkness of the Unknown,’ ‘Rage Awakened,’ and ‘Vector to the Heavens.’ In keeping with past KH games, MoM also features a handful of iconic Disney/Pixar movie songs, such as ‘Under the Sea’ (The Little Mermaid), ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ (Toy Story) and ‘Let It Go’ (Frozen).
These are all used to considerable effect in the appreciably diverse roster of original worlds and those hailing from Disney/Pixar films. It’s in these worlds that it becomes evident just how well indieszero (the developer of Square Enix’s Theatrhythm Final Fantasy rhythm games) MoM translates the KH series’ signature action-RPG combat to a rhythm game. Impressively, almost all of Sora’s core moveset from previous games make an appearance here.
In practice, each level has Sora and two friends — usually Donald and Goofy, with the occasional substitute of world-specific guest characters like Aladdin or Simba — as they fight signature Kingdom Hearts monsters. As the characters run through the stage, you have to attack the enemies by successfully hitting all of the notes. Missing notes will result in the party taking damage — lose too much and you fail the stage.
Essentially, hitting basic notes in time will have Sora and his friends strike standard enemies, like the ‘Shadow’ Heartless. More advanced maneuvers come in the form of jumping to avoid incoming attacks, gliding to hit a chain of notes or pressing a face button to execute a classic powerful Sora finisher on larger enemies (like Thunder or Ars Arcanum).
Sometimes, you’ll also need to press multiple buttons at once to allow Sora and his friends to attack groups of enemies simultaneously. Altogether, these mechanics are a smart way of keeping stages dynamic while remaining faithful to the series’ core mechanics. Most levels are standard ‘Field Battles,’ although more variety is available through the occasional ‘Memory Dive’ (with oh-so nostalgic cinematics from certain parts of older games as the backdrop) and frenetic, challenging Boss Battles — all of which require their own different button inputs.
Even better, there are three difficulty options per world alongside optional challenges like achieving a particular combo. Further, you can equip items to help you mid-battle, like healing Potions or a summoning charm to have King Mickey hit some notes and restore your health. All of these options offer a remarkable amount of flexibility to let you fine-tune difficulty and maximize your enjoyment of the game, especially if you’re someone like me who’s not all that good at rhythm games.
The only downside to MoM‘s core gameplay is that some of the RPG elements feel superficial. While you can level up your characters, this never really has a tangible impact on your performance in levels. Likewise, the guest characters and ability to unlock other playable teams from the series (like ‘Team BBS’ featuring Birth By Sleep‘s Terra, Aqua and Ven) make for some welcome fan service, but they unfortunately only function as skins with a few unique animations, as the core gameplay isn’t changed at all when you swap to them.
Outside of the campaign, I consistently found myself coming back to the game to earn more materials, which I could turn into the Moogles’ shop. Doing so unlocks all kinds of goodies, including new items, new music stages and collectible artwork. Meanwhile, being able to play tracks at will outside of the campaign (and even add new modifiers to make them easier or harder) is an especially nice touch. For even more replay value, there’s also some welcome local co-op and online versus multiplayer modes, although MoM‘s competitive modes are bafflingly limited to random matchmaking — private matches with friends aren’t supported.
All for fun and fun for all
As games continue to get larger and denser, it’s refreshing to be able to pick up a game like Melody of Memory that offers a simple, laidback experience. For that reason, it’s easy to recommend. Despite a poor, unwelcoming story and some inconsequential RPG elements, MoM offers a relaxing, charming experience filled with incredible music, compelling rhythm mechanics and a solid amount of content.
At this point, it’s hard to care anymore about the series’ larger story, but unique and engaging experiences like MoM show that Kingdom Hearts still has a lot left to offer.
Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory is available on PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
Image credit: Disney/Square Enix