A time for remembrance
I’m going to begin this review with a confession. Over the past several years, I’ve quietly made fun of KINGDOM HEARTS fans. I couldn’t understand their singular obsession with what appeared to be such a convoluted mish-mash of a series. As such, I marginalized and ignored them. But after playing through KINGDOM HEARTS Melody of Memory, I have to apologize to the fans. Cause after spending several hours transfixed with this amazing collection of music, memory, and mayhem, I think I’m starting to see the appeal.
Although the game doesn’t tell you upfront, the entirety of Melody of Memory takes place in the Kairi’s head. Not knowing much about KINGDOM HEARTS or its characters, that didn’t mean much to me. Thankfully, this game’s plot takes a backseat until the end of the main mode, called World Tour. Beating that took me around 10 hours, though I also spent some time on other modes. At the end of the story, you realize that Kairi wakes up, and the stage is set for another KH game. I won’t spoil anything if you’re a huge fan of the series, but it looks like there’s more to be excited for. But for now, I’m gonna focus on what makes Melody of Memory so much fun.
Dig that catchy earworm!
KINGDOM HEARTS Melody of Memory appeals to me because of how much it reminds me of another Square Enix series – Theatrhythm. I adored both Theatrhythm games, and although there are differences between them and Melody of Memory, there are many more similarities. Both games have you control a team of characters and fight your way through stages set to a musical track. Both games also feature boss fights, though the battles here are a bit less complex. But what’s best about both series is that they have a ton of content to unlock and enjoy. I was constantly unlocking content in Melody of Memory, ranging from useful battle items to artwork to new teams of characters, extra songs, and even new modes. Put simply, there’s a relentless stream of content to unlock here, and I really appreciate that. But none of that would matter if the base experience wasn’t fun. Thankfully, that’s not an issue.
Ready for a magical carpet ride?
There are 3 types of musical stages here. The most common is called Field Battle. They have you control a team of 3 (as well as the occasional guest like Aladdin) and move along a musical staff, hitting enemies to the rhythm and avoiding damage. You can use any of the three primary buttons to react to standard attack prompts – A, L, or R. This took some getting used to, but if you’re worried about messing up, you can use the left and right bumpers to hit left and right notes, respectively, and relegate A to the middle. It’s just not necessary. Besides that, you can also jump over projectiles with B and hold B to fly. And when you come across an ability crystal, you can only hit that with X. If you miss a prompt, you’ll take damage. Take too much, and it’s game over. Once I got the hang of this structure, everything really flowed. This is good since Melody of Memory is also surprisingly challenging. Even on Beginner difficulty, which is the easiest, the game is no cakewalk. Some stages really mix things up with syncopation, and the camera will often twist and turn to make it harder to see what’s coming down the line. I counted myself as talented when I could beat Standard stages with a halfway decent score, but surviving Proud difficulty takes real skill.
Flashy tunes and flashier cinematics
The second type of stage is called Memory Dive. Unlike Field Battle, these have your team floating through midair as cinematics scroll by in the background. The lack of ground can make it harder to gauge when to hit the upcoming notes. In general, these stages are significantly more challenging, especially since they introduce new ways to play. You’ll have to hold notes and even use directional input for others. Though there are no enemies to speak of in Memory Dives, it’s easy to get distracted by the beautiful cinematics. Plus, you’ll still take damage when you miss hitting a note. That said, the increased difficulty is worth the lush artwork. Just don’t expect to play a ton of Memory Dive stages. You’ll only encounter them in World Tour near the very end, though you can unlock them earlier if you grind stages for Synthesis materials (more on that later).
Who’s ready for a fight?
The third type is Boss Battles. These were my favorite overall since they felt like a good mixture of the other two stage types. Instead of moving along the musical staff or floating through midair, the music scrolls by as you fight the boss in the background. You won’t have to worry about jumping or flying here, but you do have to worry about Dark Notes. They’ll scroll by at certain points, and the more you miss, the more damage you sustain in the next battle segment. Much as I enjoyed all the boss battles, there’s only a mere handful of them in the entire game. However, there is one area in World Tour I have yet to unlock, which I suspect might contain a few more.
A vast world to explore
Now, there are plenty more modes in the game, but first, I’m gonna spend more time talking about the World Tour. Each stage has various optional missions you can fulfill. While you can certainly do this for bragging rights, there’s a more practical reason. Beating missions earns you stars, which in turn block your path forward. Some gates take X amount of stars to open, while others require beating a particular world. The farther you get in World Tour, the more stars you’ll need. So it’ll behoove you to collect as many as possible, no matter how difficult. By the time I rolled credits, I had 260 stars, which leaves me about 90 more. In other words, there’s a lot to explore in the main mode.
Another feature of World Tour I rather appreciate is Synthesis. You can pause the screen, and there you’ll find a happy Moogle. By providing him materials, you’ll be able to generate items. The more items he makes for you, the more he levels up. A higher level means he’s capable of making more items using materials. You’ll regularly accumulate most of them by playing through levels, though some are rare materials with set requirements to unlock. Though the majority of the items you can Synthesize are combat items, such as some that heal your team or one that temporarily summons King Mickey, there are some really cool ones. With the right materials, your Moogle friend can even Synthesize new songs! I loved this feature, and it really provides a great incentive to keep grinding through stages for a higher score. The best I could get was A+++ with All Excellent and Full Chain, but that took some doing.
Go full Gangnam Style
Besides World Tour, there’s a mode called VS Battles. Here you can face off against an AI or challenge a friend (or online stranger) to a battle. You’ll play a song like usual, but only the competitor with the highest score wins. You’ll also randomly get some traps to automatically throw at the other player, such as blinding them of attack prompts. Versus is a fun diversion, but it’s mostly there to play with a friend, which is a rarity in this pandemic. The mode I spent much more time with was Track Selection.
Time for the true treasure
In Track Selection, you’re free to play any song you’ve unlocked. You can mark favorites, tackle a song of the day with Today’s Tune, and much more. It’s important to note that some songs only show up here, including most of the Memory Dive stages. This mode is also great to spruce up the Excellent Bar. This bar represents how many Excellent scores you get in each stage, and the info is saved. Ideally, you’re gonna want to max it out, but that’s easier said than done. For one thing, there are two types of Excellent ratings you can receive – standard and rainbow. Obviously, the latter is more desirable, and the difference between them is mere milliseconds. This mode is just great when you want to unwind or challenge yourself to do better. After I’ve maxed out the stars in World Tour, I’ll be spending nearly all my time here.
Better than a trip to the movie theater
The other mode is Museum, and it’s delightful. Not only does it feature artwork you’ve unlocked, including sweet movies, but it also keeps track of all your records. I can’t express enough how much I love that the game keeps track of this sort of information, and frankly, I wish all Switch games did this sort of thing by default. But perhaps best of all is the amazing Jukebox, featuring 140+ songs to listen to. There are classic Disney fare, dynamic remixes, and more.
Visually, KINGDOM HEARTS Melody of Memory is a delight. It’s bursting with color, and everything is vibrant. The various heroes look great, and the cinematic memories are all entrancing. Even though I’m not very familiar with the series, I did love watching snippets that summarized the games’ main strokes. While it got a bit convoluted and cryptic, I still have a much better appreciation for what fans see in the series now. Also, I’m shocked at the variety of enemies here. There are standard Heartless, giant robots, dancing marionettes, demons, pirates, elephants, and much more besides. Best of all, each foe has a different attack animation, so you’ll need to memorize them all to succeed. And though it probably goes without saying, the sound design is on point here. Not only are the cinematics narrated capably, but the sheer variety of songs is incredible. My inner child cheered with glee as I heard Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo while my adult brain sneered at Let It Go. But there’s honestly no stinkers here. There’s a ton of different styles, beats, and speeds. All the songs are fantastic, and they weave a complex tapestry for the ears.
Nearly an A+++ experience
While the vast majority of my time with KINGDOM HEARTS Melody of Memory was very positive, there are still a few small areas it could have improved. One thing I touched upon earlier is how the camera angles can contribute to the difficulty sometimes. There were stages where things turned, and I was totally blind to what was coming for a moment. Or other times, I would be flying, catching green notes, and Sora’s body was in the way of seeing where to go next. Another minor irritant was the lack of a map in World Tour. While you’re able to fly around with the joystick or move from stage to stage with the directional buttons, I would have preferred the ability to warp to areas I’d already been to. Lastly, though the Z and L buttons do work well enough, I wish I could use the ZL / ZR buttons instead. Just cause they’re a bit meatier and being more spaced apart would cause me fewer hand cramps. Other than those minor issues, though, I really enjoyed myself.
An ode to excellence
Considering I wasn’t a fan of KINGDOM HEARTS before I tackled Melody of Memory, I’m shocked by how much fun I had playing it. Not only did it bring back fond memories of Theatrhythm, but it made me more than a bit eager to dive into some other KINGDOM HEARTS games. This mixture of Square Enix and Disney is a novel idea in a world full of pale imitations, if nothing else. While the game isn’t quite perfect, it came pretty darn close. If you’re a fan of music games or just love KINGDOM HEARTS, you really can’t go wrong here.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One; Publisher: SQUARE ENIX; Developer: SQUARE ENIX; Players: 1; Released: November 13, 2020; MSRP: $59.99
Review copy was purchased by author