When it comes to the enduring appeal of Square Enix’s and Disney’s Kingdom Hearts video game franchise, you either get it, or you don’t. Last year’s highly-anticipated, long overdue mainline sequel, Kingdom Hearts III divided critics and pundits in terms of its reception, particularly toward the supposed climax of the series’ increasingly convoluted storytelling. This was perhaps the most logical crescendo for a series that’s genuinely well-produced and fun to play, but also has spectacularly dense narrative development that only gets more perplexing with each passing entry in the franchise. Apparently, this mash-up between Disney characters and Final Fantasy characters that revolves around smacking through weirdly adorable shadow creatures with giant, key-shaped swords has a lot to say!
As weird and head-scratching as Kingdom Hearts has proudly been over the past decade especially though, there’s no denying that the series has already amassed a hell of a legacy, especially among its devoutly loyal fans. We may be a couple of years shy of the franchise’s 20th anniversary in 2022, but there’s already more than enough material for an anniversary special in 2020, which seems to be the central conceit behind Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory. Despite Kingdom Hearts III and its DLC expansion, Re:Mind supposedly wrapping up the ‘Dark Seeker Saga’ (encompassing all of the franchise’s currently-released games, from the original Kingdom Hearts to Kingdom Hearts III and Re:Mind), the series is already thinking about its next major phase, with Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory aiming to both celebrate what’s come before, while subtly teasing the foundation of what will come next.
Thus, it’s pretty evident that Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is a game made expressly for avid Kingdom Hearts fans, even by the standards of a series that seems largely content to keep doubling down on its existing following with every new offering. It is admittedly a pretty enjoyable riff on a formula that was started with Square Enix’s Theatrhythm Final Fantasy games as well, re-tooling its series’ RPG trappings for a short burst rhythm-action game. For developer, indieszero and their Theatrhythm formula, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory also provides a slick multiplatform console makeover, on top of finally bringing the Kingdom Hearts series to Nintendo Switch for the first time, a platform that it’s inexplicably neglected until now.
If any of that previous paragraph excites you, then you’re bound to enjoy what Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory has to offer. If not, then this game probably isn’t for you.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory primarily re-purposes visual assets that were made for the most recent HD remasters of Kingdom Hearts on PS4 (and later Xbox One), which were in turn bumped up from assets made for the original Kingdom Hearts HD remasters for PS3, which were in turn HD-capable upgrades of graphics that were first designed for PS2. That’s a lot of asset recycling. The bad news on this note is that Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory isn’t pushing the series forward visually, something that’s rather rare for a game coming from Square Enix’s Japanese arm. In fact, compared to the visually robust Kingdom Hearts III, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory feels like a noticeable downgrade, going back to re-purposed, retro-style graphical effects and character models, rather than crafting new visuals from the ground up, or even bringing back the upgraded modern graphics from Kingdom Hearts III.
This is no doubt a compromise due to Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory being developed on the smaller-scale Unity Engine, rather than Kingdom Hearts III’s more powerful Unreal Engine 4. This does however bring me to the good news about Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory’s more modest graphical suite, and that’s the fact that the engine concessions mean that Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory can now run effortlessly at a consistent 60fps performance clip, even on the lesser-powered Nintendo Switch! This is paramount for a rhythm game, obviously, one that’s highly dependent on players’ button inputs being registered 1:1 with the sound and imagery on screen. Framerate disturbances are very rare to non-existent in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, even during online competition, and regardless of your platform of choice. That’s great to see!
It’s also likely that devout Kingdom Hearts fans, the main target audience for Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, are going to feel a sense of warmth and nostalgia from the old-school visual style, rather than contempt. A small handful of pre-rendered cutscenes at least add some decent beauty to the endgame, but beyond that, seeing the same characters as they formerly existed on PS2 (albeit now rendered at 1080p resolution), does feel like another love letter to Kingdom Hearts’ legacy, even if it’s not technically exemplary. Non-fans however definitely won’t be impressed with the visuals, which feel well below par on a PS4 Pro or Xbox One X especially, let alone the new next-gen consoles’ backwards-compatibility! If you’ve loved Kingdom Hearts since its earliest days on the PS2 though, you’re nonetheless bound to smile at this game’s wholesome revisiting of its classic style.
Finally, if you’re curious about potential graphical differences between Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory’s three available versions, there really aren’t any notable ones to speak of. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory doesn’t support enhanced graphical or performance upgrades on PS4 Pro or Xbox One X (nor does it get a boost from backwards compatibility on PS5 or Xbox Series X|S), with both premium last-gen consoles presenting the game identically to how a base PS4 or Xbox One console would, namely at 1080p/60fps. The same is true of the Nintendo Switch version when it’s docked, with the resolution dropping to 720p while the Switch is undocked, but nonetheless remaining at a smooth 60fps performance clip either way. Beyond an exclusive multiplayer mode and the option of portability on Nintendo Switch, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is more or less exactly the same on all three platforms, so you can’t go wrong regardless of your preference.
The recycled visuals in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory may not be impressive (even if they will tickle fans all the same), but it’s much tougher to complain about this game’s revisited soundtrack, especially since that’s largely the whole point of the experience. Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory brings a selection of music taken from almost all of the series’ previous entries to date, framing its various stages and challenges around tapping along with the beat to compositions from everything between Kingdom Hearts to Kingdom Hearts III. You’ll find significantly less Kingdom Hearts III music on offer, likely due to the Unity Engine not being able to properly accommodate Kingdom Hearts III’s graphical assets, but everything before that presents a great selection of major stage themes and battle themes, and yes, they specifically use the touched-up songs from Kingdom Hearts’ HD remasters, naturally.
The focus on stage themes and battle themes ultimately means that only a selection of highlight compositions are taken from the series’ former games, but Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory still stands as a fantastic testament to the charming magic behind its franchise’s legacy soundtracks. Kingdom Hearts has amassed an impressive, catchy and lovable catalogue of music between all of its current games, all of which lends itself effortlessly to an equally catchy and lovable rhythm-action game here. If you love Kingdom Hearts, you’ll quickly find yourself humming and bopping along to Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory’s recognizable tunes, even during your less successful runs. It’s tough not to love this series’ music during any occasion, after all, so an entire game centered around it is immediately a recipe for joy!
The sound effects throughout Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory also sound largely familiar, from menu prompts to keyblade strikes to magic bursts. The signature audio cues of Kingdom Hearts are represented in full here, and true to form, they continue to blend effortlessly with the music on offer. Voice clips from former games’ battles are also recycled between Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory’s usable heroes, though there are some all-new voice recordings presented when the game’s ultimate tease is revealed in the endgame. I obviously can’t discuss that without significant spoilers though.
Unsurprisingly, the legacy music throughout Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is the real star of the game’s audio. Fans will of course get the most out of it, but the music is great to the point of likely impressing non-fans as well, even if the imagery and nostalgic Kingdom Hearts story recounts on display probably won’t matter a lick to them.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory ventures further off the beaten path than any previous Kingdom Hearts game, to the point of changing the genre entirely. While there are still a pinch of recognizable RPG elements, most notably between teams you frequently use leveling up and attaining items with successful music runs, it would be much more accurate to classify Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory as a rhythm-action game than a rhythm-RPG. This may disappoint some fans that enjoy the RPG elements behind former Kingdom Hearts games, but Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory manages to present the same degree of chipper excitement as those previous titles, albeit repackaged in a different format.
The bulk of gameplay spans a series of familiar worlds from the previous Kingdom Hearts games, each of which contains one or two songs, most often its default theme and battle theme. Players choose from one of four teams, starting with the usual Sora, Donald and Goofy (the other three must be unlocked through gameplay progression), and from there, the trio of heroes run along a musical track, having to take out enemies, accrue items, and chain together the rhythms of their attacks for greater points and rewards. Movement is automatic, and three buttons are primarily used, specifically the two front shoulder buttons, and the bottom face button. Players must tap any of these buttons along with circles that diminish over targets (read: enemies and obstacles), and if they keep proper rhythm, they’ll destroy the obstacle and keep moving without damage. Missing or mis-timing button presses will result in hits that will deplete your team’s health, and should players lose all of their health, they’ll be booted from the current song.
This is similar to Square Enix’s and Indiezeros’ two previous Theatrhythm Final Fantasy games for Nintendo 3DS, only now with a fully three-dimensional scope that re-frames the action from around the protagonists’ view. The classic Theatrhythm 2D character style can be glimpsed briefly during loading screens, but otherwise, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory resembles many of its older cousins in terms of its gameplay presentation. This 3D revamp now allows music tracks to curve, twist and loop upwards and downwards in a way that just wasn’t possible on Nintendo 3DS, creating an especially engaging and exciting array of rhythm-themed challenges, something that should be very satisfying for veterans of the Theatrhythm Final Fantasy games.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is very easy to learn, but like any good rhythm game, it’s quite difficult to master! Each available song comes with three difficulty options, ranging from the more laid-back and simple Beginner (where it’s practically impossible to fail), the more balanced Standard (providing an engaging challenge, but not really straining your fingers), and the relentless Proud (which demands a maestro’s dexterity and focus!). You can choose your difficulty every time you attempt a song as well, and are never locked into just one play mode. Thus, if you’re struggling to complete a song to your satisfaction on Standard, there’s no real penalty for subsequently playing through it on Beginner, beyond a lower point threshold. In fact, playing on Beginner is often the easiest way to earn stars, which are necessary to collect in order to open certain gates that block your progress to some worlds and songs. Don’t expect to cheese the entire star count that way though! There are still quite a few stars that can’t be earned without playing songs on Standard and/or Proud.
Balancing bonus star ‘missions’ with maintaining chains (i.e. not making a mistake when tapping through targets) can be quite tough on Standard, and is truly a Herculean endeavour on Proud. Fortunately, you’re incentivized to replay and gradually master songs, and you never have to take on every objective all at once in any given song, which is very much appreciated. You can focus on stars in one song attempt, and then prioritize chains in the next one, for example, since stars aren’t lost after you’ve earned them once. Chains meanwhile can contribute to higher point counts, which often grants you higher EXP for your characters, making them stronger and better able to stay in a song when they take damage. Leveling up your teams through EXP gains also allows them to defeat enemies more efficiently with your button taps, something that’s especially useful in the later stages, when you’re more likely to encounter enemies that require multiple strikes to fully destroy.
Some enemy varieties can also trip you up by demanding simultaneous strikes, necessitating that you press two or three of the attack buttons at the same time to defeat them, or abilities, which are used by pressing the top face button in time with ‘Ability Crystals’ that pop up on the track. There are also times where your central character has to glide through musical targets by holding the right face button, sometimes while the other characters must still attack foes with the usual three rhythm buttons! These obstacles mount and become more plentiful as you crank up the difficulty, and balancing the visual and tactile necessity of keeping up with each song is something that will take practice to do perfectly, especially if you’re chasing ‘Feats’. Feats are tied to the trophies/achievements on PS4 and Xbox One, respectively, and earning all of them requires some true musical mastery, such as never breaking chains throughout all of the songs (even on Proud!), or collecting every single star.
Fortunately, you can also give yourself a fighting advantage by accruing raw materials to forge into collectibles with the Blacksmith Moogle, who can be reached through the same menu as your team selection. When you play songs well, especially when you maintain chains and play on higher difficulties, you can accrue gems and other such materials to take to the Blacksmith Moogle, who can forge them into collectibles that help increase your attack power, defenses and other stats during songs. You can also forge new optional tracks and memory challenges, along with items that can help keep your characters healthy if you’re struggling, or grant boosts to their EXP or items after a song is completed. Every successful forgery also levels up the Blacksmith Moogle and makes his forgeries more effective to boot, so it’s always useful to spend whatever materials you have to accrue as many goodies as possible, all of which manifest as recognizable weapons, character cards and promotional art from the former Kingdom Hearts games.
Even without leaning on the Blacksmith Moogle, you can still stand a solid chance of tapping, gliding and striking your way through each song in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, but it doesn’t hurt to give yourself every available advantage, especially in the late game and unlockable extra challenges. That being said, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory doesn’t seem to believe in hindering the player’s progress if they don’t wish it to. You can breeze through the main World Tour mode in around 10-12 hours if you’re reasonably thorough, which is rather short compared to the majority of Kingdom Hearts games. Of course, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory compensates for this by being extra replayable for fans that really enjoy the gameplay and the music. It will take quite a while for even seasoned rhythm gamers to complete every challenge and nail every Feat on offer in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, and that’s before considering that the game allows you to listen to its music at your leisure from its Museum menu.
If you want to take the experience beyond the main World Tour mode of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory however, you do have options. Unfortunately, many of these options are repetitive and shallow, and don’t feel all that rewarding compared to trying to master the challenges of the World Tour mode. You can take on music tracks against CPU opponents or actual human opponents in COM Battle, for starters, which has the added dimension of ‘Tricks’ that you can use by maintaining successful chains. These can do things like shrink enemies, double up circle prompts, make circle prompts invisible, or, my personal favourite, cause defeated enemies to fly into the screen, temporarily obstructing a player’s vision. This is similar to the battle modes of the old Guitar Hero games, though while it does have its moments of cheeky fun with a friend, COM Battle’s play value diminishes rapidly before long.
You can however also battle anonymous opponents online, in case you happen to be an especially competitive rhythm gamer. Again though, this mode wears out its welcome fairly fast, especially when the online options are pretty limited. You only have pre-set text chat options available, and while you can exchange ‘Proficards’ and collect the stats of every player you challenge, on top of still getting reward cards if you lose (though you get double the rewards if you win!), there’s not much incentive to play online, unless you’re a huge aficionado of music games that’s also a die-hard Kingdom Hearts fan. The online matchmaking seems to work plenty well, and I only had to wait around thirty seconds or so to get into a session, but it’s just another slight variant on the same gameplay idea, one that feels all-around more fun and more rewarding in World Tour mode.
Bear in mind however that I was playing on PS4. As I said previously, the Nintendo Switch version of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory includes an exclusive ‘Free-for-all’ mode, wherein up to eight players can compete against each other in songs. This is admittedly a more fun concept that’s well-suited to the Switch, specifically taking advantage of the Switch’s eight-player capabilities, capabilities that aren’t offered on PlayStation or Xbox consoles. One considerable caveat though is that this Switch-exclusive multiplayer mode is restricted to local play, so in order to take advantage of it, you need a considerable amount of friends that all own their own Switch’s, and Switch copies of this game. This is a considerable barrier, but Free-for-all can still be a pretty good time if you have the resources and manpower to put a local session together, especially with the ease of undocking your Switch and playing in Handheld Mode.
Ultimately though, the gameplay in Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory doesn’t present much in the way of curveballs, basing virtually all of its challenges around the same repeating gameplay ideas. Even the ‘boss battle’ sections are rather slight twists on the same gameplay, this time simply changing things up by necessitating more holding of buttons and flicking of sticks. In the end, the gameplay behind Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory presents few noteworthy surprises, even considering the intentional surprises that you’re meant to throw at your opponent when you perform well in multiplayer clashes. The game is still fun, but before long, you’ll have seen every obstacle that it can throw at you, with higher difficulties and online challenges trying to stand out by just demanding better reflexes and longer chains. At worst, playing and replaying Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory feels significantly more repetitive than other Kingdom Hearts games, which are often much better at pulling the rug out from under players with unexpected challenges, hidden secrets and other such goodies to discover.
Even if its more modest gameplay package can feel a little unfulfilling at times though, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is still a solid rhythm game on its own merits. The gameplay will especially delight Kingdom Hearts fans as well, particularly those that are drawn to this series for its music. It’s a shame that the rewards start to lose their appeal after you’ve finished World Tour mode, leaving this latest Kingdom Hearts spin-off a bit less appealing than usual for completionists, but the journey through Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory’s musical selection will nonetheless stir the emotions of fans in all the right ways. If nothing else, it’s very satisfying to have such a great selection of Kingdom Hearts music available on demand, whether you’re just contentedly listening to it in the Museum, or trying to master its beats and flourishes in the gameplay proper.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is incredibly light on story, which feels borderline inconceivable for a Kingdom Hearts game! Even the series’ smallest spin-offs like Kingdom Hearts Re:coded had considerable degrees of storytelling to dump on players, let alone the proudly dense mainline offerings in the franchise! Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory however doesn’t present true story development until its endgame, and even then, it’s a lot smaller in scope compared to what you’d normally expect from these games. Hell, you could practically qualify this endgame material as an extended teaser trailer for the inevitable next Kingdom Hearts game, to the point where Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory even omits the series’ usual tradition of secret endings. This game might as well have had no plot at all for non-fans, but for Kingdom Hearts enthusiasts that are eager for the next big thing after Kingdom Hearts III and Re:Mind, the handful of story teases at the end of Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory makes for a nice cherry on top of a rhythm-action game that’s already pretty fun on its own merits.
Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory is geared almost exclusively toward people who already love Kingdom Hearts, and have already played most, if not all of the series’ former entries. Judging this game on its own merits is a bit trickier, since it’s so packed to burst with Kingdom Hearts fan service, but I can say that it’s a competent and enjoyable rhythm game with no shortage of outstanding music in it. It’s not all that advanced for serious music enthusiasts, even if playing songs on Proud will certainly put your timing, eyesight and reflexes to the test, but the game is fun while it lasts. Replaying and mastering its various songs can also be its own reward for Kingdom Hearts fans that really wind up digging the gameplay, even if the rewards and secondary modes lose a lot of their appeal when you spend any amount of time outside of the core World Tour mode.
Considering that Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory’s overall package is considerably smaller than most of the Kingdom Hearts games that preceded it, fans might also want to wait for this new offering to go on sale before partaking. A full $59.99 USD/$79.99 CAN price feels a little steep for what this is. If you can shave around $20 off of that sum however, the value is right for Kingdom Hearts fans that are looking for an interesting new challenge while they wait for the no doubt inevitable Kingdom Hearts IV. Non-fans have less of an incentive here, since there are certainly deeper and more rewarding rhythm games on the market, but Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory nonetheless presents both good melodies and good memories for the series faithful.
For better or worse, what you see is what you get. Simple and clean indeed!
This review is based on a PS4 copy of, “Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory”, provided by publisher, Square Enix.